When Kevin and Lorie Johnson welcomed Kirk Williams into their home in 1999, they promised him a full life under their roof.
The Johnsons have made good on that promise.
They’ve have taken Williams — a U.S. Navy veteran who uses a wheelchair because of multiple sclerosis — to Twins games, the Minnesota Zoo, the Dakota Jazz Club, even on two Caribbean cruises.
But their favorite annual ritual has been time spent with Williams on a small patch of paradise called Wilderness Discovery Retreat. The 6.8-acre Canadian resort is located on Lake Shebandowan, west of Thunder Bay, Ontario, about an eight-hour drive from their home.
For 30 years, the fully accessible retreat has offered people with physical challenges a host of summer sweetnesses that many of us take for granted: dock access, pontoon boats, fire pits, the opportunity to be awakened by loons or the soothing sound of water lapping onto a pristine shore.
But after the 2015 summer season, Wilderness Discovery shut down. Handicapped Action Group Inc. (HAGI), a nonprofit agency that leases the land on which the retreat runs, said it could no longer afford the estimated $150,000 to $200,000 annual cost to keep it open.
So Johnson made another promise to his friend: He’d find a way to get it back in business.
“This facility has been one of the few places in all of North America that provides recreational equality to our disabled loved ones,” Johnson said. “Why would you not fight to keep it open?”
And fight he has. A year ago, Johnson delivered a change.org petition with more than 29,000 signatures to Canadian political leaders, urging them to designate this publicly owned land as permanently protected for use by citizens with disabilities.
He started a gofundme crowdfunding page to hire an attorney. He created a Facebook campaign, titled Save Wilderness Discovery for the Disabled. He’s written editorials to Canadian newspapers and reached out to HAGI board members.
While the fate of the land remains unclear, his effort is gaining ground. Earlier this week, HAGI’s executive director, David Shannon, voiced optimism that a plan is being developed to reopen the retreat as soon as June of 2017.
Johnson remains skeptical of “flowery language” and vague promises as the treasured retreat falls into disrepair. “We’ve tried to not make this a political issue,” he said, “because this is a human issue. This is about honoring the needs and integrity of people with physical disabilities.”
Johnson’s aggressive refusal to retreat on behalf of his buddy has been an important reminder that opportunities to spend time in nature — be it in the organized structure of a summer camp or in a free-flowing cabin setting like Wilderness Discovery — are far too few.
“Opportunities are rare for those who use wheelchairs or have mobility issues,” said Greg Lais, executive director of Twin Cities-based Wilderness Inquiry, whose myriad outdoor adventures include opportunities for people with disabilities.
“At a place like this,” Lais said of the Canadian retreat, “you can be among your friends and people who are like you, and not stand out. Being with people like you is a human thing.”
Ed Stracke, president and CEO of True Friends, agrees. True Friends runs four Minnesota camps for children and adults with special needs, offering them “wonderful outdoor experiences,” Stracke said.
“There is something therapeutic about being outdoors, enjoying the sunshine, the lakes, the trees. I know it’s real. If you remove the barriers to those kinds of activities, you give people an opportunity to do something they’ve never been able to do.”
The Johnsons have been removing barriers for Williams since about 1989.
That’s when Lorie, a licensed practical nurse, visited Williams at his home in Dayton to offer nursing care. After a decade, the Department of Veterans Affairs determined that Williams could no longer live on his own.
In 1999, Williams moved into the Johnsons’ home in Carver County, then moved again with them to Madison Lake in 2002, into a home they quickly customized with a wheelchair-accessible lower-level floor. They are compensated for his care. “He’s pretty much family now,” Kevin Johnson said of Williams, who joined the Navy in 1972, before returning to the University of Minnesota to study art.
“I’ve learned a lot from him,” Johnson added. “Don’t take anything for granted. Be curious. He’s always asking questions. I’ve become much more patriotic, too, going with him to the VA Hospital, and visiting other veterans.”
About eight years ago, Williams got a new accessible van and the trio discussed where he might like to take it.
“Kirk said he’d never been to this part of Canada,” Johnson said of the Ontario area. They first headed up to Wilderness Discovery about five years ago, stopping in Duluth to pick up Williams’ sister, then enjoying eight-day stretches in cabins that featured hospital beds, patient lifts, lowered countertops, roll-in showers, accessible toilets and rubber mats leading from a sandy beach into the water.
“It was wonderful,” Williams said.
Let’s hope the wonder continues.
HAGI’s Shannon said Monday that a collaboration among his agency, Thunder Bay-area service clubs and private donors is working to create a new nonprofit organization to operate Wilderness Discovery, “always with the vision of serving individuals with disabilities and terminal illnesses, as well as youth and people who are socially disenfranchised.”
That can only happen, though, if Infrastructure Ontario, which owns the land, offers up a long-term lease at a favorable rate, Shannon added.
Bob Hookham, Fort William Rotary Club president-elect, confirmed that his is one of several service organizations eager to step up to raise funds for a potential reopening. There’s talk, too, of increasing the number of months the retreat is open, and expanding its reach to also become a training or wellness center.
“It’s got so much potential,” Hookham said. “It’s a shame to see it go.”
Nobody agrees with that more than Johnson does.
“We’re fighting, but there’s a limit to what you can do on this side of the border,” Johnson said. “If I lived in Thunder Bay, they’d be really sick of me.”