For years, Ben Chamberlain was unsure about returning to the backcountry. But after living with physical disabilities for more than half of his life, he now spends a few weeks a year exploring the Ontario wilderness.
With a knee pad and poles, you can see him with a canoe on his back, conquering portages and rediscovering the sense of adventure and love of the outdoors that defined his adolescence.
“There is so much healing in nature,” said Chamberlain, 46, who lives in Brantford, Ont.
“On my journey, [nature has] “It brought me some of the deepest healing I’ve ever had, whether physical, spiritual or mental.”
Chamberlain isn’t the only one pushing his limits to get into nature, part of what a British Columbia sociocultural anthropologist says is a shift in the accessibility of the outdoors.
As Chamberlain finds peace outside, she hopes to encourage others to get out into nature, no matter what that looks like to them.
An accident changed his life in the blink of an eye
Chamberlain’s journey back to nature has been more than two decades in the making.
He grew up in Burlington, Ontario, and from a young age spent as much time as he could outdoors, playing in a nearby creek or traveling with Scouts Canada.
“For most of my teenage years, whenever I had the opportunity to spend time on an organized trip or alone, I was definitely in the woods above anything else,” Chamberlain said.
He loved the outdoors so much that he wanted to make it a career and planned to study forestry at Sir Sanford Fleming College. But in 1997, at age 20, his life “completely changed in the blink of an eye.”
Chamberlain was walking home from a party when he was hit by a car. Bones were broken all over his body and he suffered severe blood loss.
He spent several days in a medically induced coma and said that when he woke up a few days later, it was clear that the trajectory of his life had changed.
He nearly lost his left leg and said doctors told him he might never walk again.
In the end, Chamberlain’s leg was saved and within a year he was walking. But to this day, every step he takes is painful.
“Looking back now at the functionality I have in this leg and the problems it has caused me over the years… I would have better functionality with a prosthesis,” he said.
Reaching a turning point
After his accident, Chamberlain moved to British Columbia for several years, where he was able to affordably enjoy short trips into nature, with the help of friends. But he longed for another one of his “epic journeys.”
“You know, one of those transports, going into those places where you’re not going to see anyone because it’s so hard to get in. And yeah, it was one of those things that they said was off limits.”
Returning to Ontario a few years ago, he found himself at a turning point. His condition worsened and his mental health suffered as a result. He said it was during one of his lowest moments that she decided it was time to try backcountry camping.
“Deciding, you know what? It hurts me anyway: why don’t we do this, why don’t we do this? It doesn’t really matter if I’m hiking Algonquin or canoeing.” Algonquin, sitting in a canoe chair or lying in bed. It hurts me. “So, let’s do this.”
In 2021, Chamberlain, his wife, and their dogs set out in a canoe in Algonquin Park for an easy paddling trip.
On their first morning, they decided to do a portage (without any equipment) and arrived at a lake he had camped at as a teenager, one he never thought he would see again.
“That was really encouraging, for sure. And then from there, it lit a fire,” he said.
Since then, nothing has been able to stop him. Step by step, he has learned to lighten and balance his loads, use poles as a “third or fourth leg,” research trails to find some that are relatively flat, and add canoe seats with straps to support his lower back.
On the way in a wheelchair
John Azlen of Windsor, Ontario, will never forget the moment he reached the top of the Hardwood Lookout Trail in Algonquin Park in 2019.
Azlen, 40, has been a double amputee since he was six months old and has used a wheelchair full-time for the past decade. He trained in the gym for weeks to prepare for a one-kilometer loop and made it to the top, where he was rewarded with a view of Smoke Lake.
“These are images that you see all the time in the media and social networks, and you know, [that’s] why you come to these places, to do these hikes and get these views, and to be able to reach one of them myself was incredibly exhilarating and very satisfying,” Azlen said.
He doesn’t camp in the backcountry, but he gets out into nature as much as possible with his fiancée, tapping into the knowledge of people in Facebook groups to plan trips that strike a balance between accessible, but also challenging and rewarding. .
Adults with diabetes in the countryside
Jen Hanson knows how transformative the outdoors can be. She is the executive director of Connected in Motion, a nonprofit organization that organizes outdoor adventures for adults with type 1 diabetes.
Hanson said people with insulin-dependent diabetes constantly monitor factors such as diet, exercise and stress, all of which are constantly at play during backcountry camping.
“There are a lot of things to think about and manage, and we’ve learned that sometimes there are enough barriers that prevent people from having these experiences.”
Hanson said he has seen the “transformative” change in many participants.
“We’re seeing more confidence and new doors opening for people, which is really exciting.”
One of those people is Brad Lee, who lives in Toronto. Like Chamberlain, Lee has had a deep love for the outdoors since he was a child in Alberta. But after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was around 30, it took him 17 years to go on a solo camping trip again.
On that first solo trip in 2018, he had a near-death experience, when he had extremely low blood sugar alone in his tent, with his food about 250 meters away, hanging from a tree in the forest. .
But since then, he said, Connected in Motion educators have given him the skills and confidence to better manage his insulin while camping.
“It gives me a sense of freedom, it gives me meaning back in my life and it’s a truer expression of me and Brad Lee and the person I want to be,” she said.
Focus on outdoor accessibility
Lauren Harding, an assistant professor in the outdoor recreation and tourism management program at the University of Northern British Columbia, has studied outdoor accessibility.
From latrines and accessible boardwalks to groups focused on helping people access the outdoors, “there are a lot of really good changes happening,” Harding said.
“I think there’s more emphasis in the outdoor recreation community on getting people out who may not have felt welcome (in more, I guess, traditional outdoor recreation spaces),” Harding said.
Just getting out, getting into nature, finding whatever is accessible.-Ben Chamberlain
Harding said focusing on accessibility will be even more important as outdoor enthusiasts age.
“You may not be able to walk 30 kilometers anymore, but being able to be in these spaces and places that connect us with the territories in which we live is important for physical and mental health.”
‘So much healing’
Chamberlain can’t overstate how much getting back to nature has helped him in all those ways, improving his mental health and outlook on life.
Next, she wants to introduce her granddaughter to camping in the countryside. She is also in the process of planning her first solo trip.
He said it’s not about being the fastest or the strongest, but about pushing yourself and taking a moment to breathe deeply and appreciate your surroundings.
“Go out and find what works for you. But the first thing is to get out, get into nature, find what’s accessible… There’s so much healing in the countryside.”