Greg Lais, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization Wilderness Inquiry, has enjoyed nature in just about every place on earth, including highlights such as Iceland, Costa Rica and Africa.
But one of the most powerful outdoor memories for the 61-year-old social entrepreneur was created much closer to home — in the Brainerd Lakes area.
“My grandparents had a cabin on Big Trout Lake, and my mom and dad used to bring all seven kids up there every summer,” he said. “I remember getting up early in the morning with my grandmother and fishing off the dock. I can still picture her, wearing a plaid wool jacket, smoking Lucky Strikes and leaving a lipstick mark on the rim of her coffee mug. The water was so clear there. I’d stare into it and see sunfish and the occasional northern pike. It just transported me to a different world.”
Lais’ ability to paint such an appealing picture of a crack-of-dawn fishing excursion speaks to one of his obvious talents — the remarkable knack for convincing others to get outside and do things they might never have thought possible.
In addition to that outdoors experience at his grandparents’ cabin, he also attended summer YMCA camps at St. Croix near Hudson and Widjiwagan near Ely.
When he first camped and canoed in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), Lais said he was blown away.
Lais was always in tune with the wilderness, if not always in the most productive ways: “When I was 3 and we were up at the cabin, my mom found a butcher knife under my pillow. I told her it was to defend myself against bears. That became one of those family stories no one ever lets me forget.”
Wilderness for all
In 1978, the same year the landmark federal BWCA legislation passed — making the area a protected wilderness — Lais founded Wilderness Inquiry, a Minneapolis-based 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing the outdoors with people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.
It all started with a request from his sister, Mary, who was working for the Minnesota Council on Disability.
“She kept encouraging me to do a wilderness trip that included people with disabilities,” he said. “So, along with a friend of mine, we put together a 22-portage, 100-mile trip in the BWCA. It was a lifelong dream to share wilderness experiences with other people.”
Until that time — while the debate raged over the management rules for the BWCA — no one had really demonstrated that people with disabilities could undertake a trip like that.
“But we showed it could be done,” Lais said of the historic non-motorized adventure, which included two people in wheelchairs and two people who were deaf.
Communications consultant and Wilderness Inquiry board member Mary Hanley met Lais when she was vice president of communications at The Wilderness Society and he was in Washington, D.C., to lobby for the BWCA wilderness designation.
“Wilderness Inquiry challenged the nay-sayers and powers-that-be who argued that people with disabilities couldn’t access the wilderness,” she said. “It proved them wrong and continues to do so.”
Wilderness Inquiry today offers more than 500 annual canoe, kayak, hiking, horsepack, dogsled and raft trips around the world, designed for people of all abilities.
Last year, the organization served more than 37,000 people in five different programs — including 3,600 people with disabilities and 18,000 people of color — with an annual budget of more than $4 million with 17 full-time employees and about 100 travel staff.
Organizers with WI, as the organization is also known, seem to understand — and even welcome — the complexities that come along with traveling outdoors with special needs, including adaptive equipment, wheelchairs, CPAP machines, personal care attendants and sign language interpreters. Even participants with cognitive disabilities can take part in special Wilderness Inquiry trips.
“We take joy in opening new horizons for people,” Lais said, “no matter what their issues.”
Hard work and persistence
Trip leader and cookbook author Beth Dooley said Wilderness Inquiry is uniquely tied to Lais’ personality: “Greg is a visionary who understands how outdoor adventures create community by breaking down barriers related to ability, race and income. Because of Greg’s hard work and persistence, he’s created an organization that takes this work well beyond just him — yet is an extension of his generosity and big heart.”
Dooley recalls one moment on a trip when she and another staff member were struggling to get a participant down steep steps to the beach to go kayaking.
“Greg didn’t miss a beat, lifting the guy out of the chair, carrying him and then setting him back down in the wheelchair,” she said. “He did it so carefully, thoughtfully and humbly, without calling attention to our bumbling. He just showed us how it is done.”
Paul Labovitz, superintendent of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, appreciates the impact Lais has made over the years.
“Greg has been at it for over 40 years with no end in sight. His work has touched millions of lives,” he said. “The outdoor industry owes him, because he’s been training their new customers for going on five decades. Our world is lucky he is part of it.”
Retired WCCO-TV anchor Don Shelby met Lais 30 years ago and credits him for changing entrenched ways of thinking.
“Greg opened so many vistas to people who had believed themselves incapable,” he said. “And he not only opened up the adventurers’ eyes, but the eyes of society, which had considered many of those brave and challenged people to be incapable. But they were, indeed, capable of much, not the least of which was great courage and curiosity.”
Shelby recalled a time when Lais sent a canoe of people with disabilities, along with experienced counselors, out into a lake. Making sure everyone was wearing life vests, he went out into the lake with them and turned the canoe over on purpose.
“That’s the most fearsome situation for anyone, with or without disabilities,” Shelby said. “He took the ‘What if this happens?’ question, and made it happen. Of course, the canoers not only survived the ordeal, but gloried in their abilities.”
Ten years ago, Lais began to grow concerned about the increasing disconnect between children and the natural world. Inspired by the idea of bookmobiles, he commissioned a fleet of 24-foot Voyageur canoes to travel around the country as “floating classrooms” for local students to learn about science, history, geography and culture.
“The idea was to bring environmental literacy to urban America,” he said. “It’s part of our tradition of meeting people where they’re at — because anyone can encounter the outdoors right where they live.”
So far, the program’s traveled to 55 cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. It serves more than 30,000 youth and adults of all backgrounds and abilities each year.
Lais hopes these on-the-water experiences help young people cultivate a stewardship ethic and become inspired to pursue career opportunities in the outdoors.
“I want to make the outdoors accessible for everyone, because right now it’s very much the domain of people of privilege,” he said.
Hanley paddled with young students and their teachers on the Anacostia River when the Canoemobile went to Washington, D.C.
“They had never been in a canoe, and they certainly had never seen the Anacostia from a canoe,” she said. “It was so much fun to see the excitement on their faces during an outing they’ll never forget.”
The Canoemobile project was an example of what Lais calls a B-HAG — a big, hairy audacious goal. And it’s not the last one he hopes to achieve.
“As I get older, I’m less worried about failure and rejection,” he said. “The day of my 60th birthday, I didn’t feel any different. But I am aware there’s only so much time left in life. I think I’ve developed more of a ‘Why not?’ attitude as I’ve gotten older. I know I have a great next act left in me.”
Around the world — and close to home
Lais and his wife, Patti Thurber, have been married 32 years.
Thurber, a recently retired school teacher, who also works as a guide for Wilderness Inquiry, is a Madison, Wisconsin, native. Though she loves the outdoors, she didn’t crave a rural day-to-day existence.
“I was hoping to settle somewhere more remote, like Hugo or Stillwater,” Lais said. “But we’ve stayed put in the Nokomis neighborhood of Minneapolis, in walking distance of Lake Nokomis and Minnehaha Creek.”
They have two grown children — Rosie, 28, of St. Paul, and Martin, 26, of Minneapolis.
“Both of them love the outdoors, but they probably would not define themselves as outdoor people — at least not yet,” Lais said. “They got dragged on a million trips as kids. At the time, they said they hated it, but they did see the world.”
While Lais loves the BWCA and has come to appreciate life in the city, there’s one spot he finds especially impressive: “I love Haida Gwaii, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands. It’s an archipelago off British Columbia’s west coast, in Canada. But really, the world is full of so many beautiful places, like Northern Minnesota, Australia or East Africa.”
Lais — who graduated from the St. John’s University in 1978, followed by a marketing MBA from the U of M in 1991 — also teaches a three-credit course at the U’s School of Kinesiology on outdoor leadership, including a sea-kayak outing to the Apostle Islands.
If you want to connect more with the outdoors, Lais suggests starting where you’re comfortable. “Go to a park, walk around, meet people,” he said. “Stop worrying that you look awkward or don’t have the right clothes and just enjoy yourself.”
Of course, Wilderness Inquiry — which operates a base camp in Little Sand Bay, Wisconsin, near the Apostle Islands — offers canoe day trips all over the state, or you can visit one of Minnesota’s state parks: “Minnesota has a phenomenal state park system that’s second to none,” he said.
In other words, the outdoors is waiting — just for you.
“The natural world is here and present,” he said. “Engage in it and enjoy it on its own terms. Most of all, share the experience with others.”
Wilderness Inquiry travels to numerous destinations for overnight and day trips — ranging in cost from $45 per person for a day trip to more than $4,000 for 12-day international experiences — including:
- Apostle Islands
- Boundary Waters
- Glacier National Park
- Hawaii’s Big Island
- Mississippi River
- Olympic National Park
- St. Croix River
- Superior Hiking Trail
- Utah’s Sleeping Rainbow
- Voyageurs National Park
- Yellowstone National Park
- Belize and Tikal
- Costa Rica
- New Zealand
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.