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Lessons from the Backcountry

By December 7, 2017Fresh Air Blog

Words & Photos by Paul Vugteveen

Coincidentally, two of my brothers and myself began our annual backpacking trip on day one of National Diabetes Awareness Month. Due to scheduling conflicts, we decided to set out on November 1, a few weeks later than we initially intended.

The fact that this adventure began in this way didn’t strike me as significant until we were already on the road, in part because I had been distracted by a drawn-out, two-month-long customer care debacle with my pump company. I was also bracing myself for spending a significant five days with family. Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is the constant undercurrent that moves beneath all of my experiences, and it’s not exactly that I had forgotten about it so much as I was determined to thrive despite its intrusion into my life.

We were heading north to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (aka “the Porkies”) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, so we opted to set up base at a cabin and to take on ambitious day hikes over the course of the trip.

Lesson 1: Anything is possible with T1D 

If I’ve learned anything from my backcountry experiences with Connected in Motion (CIM), it is that it is indeed possible to thrive with T1D in the wilderness. For some of us – not just those of us with T1D – being outdoors is a necessary component of living our lives as fully as possible. The act of being in the wild connects us to the visceral nature of our own existence; being acutely aware of my individual vitality as someone with T1D adds weight to an already heavy reality.

After my Type 1 diagnosis in 2011, a lot of things were in question. First was how to keep my body alive and functioning. Once it became clear that I was capable of accomplishing that, my attention turned to whether I was able to continue the life-giving excursions that I had discovered in the wild. A simple “canoeing with type 1 diabetes” Google search brought me directly to CIM and changed how I live with T1D forever.

Holding the truth that I am indeed capable of thriving, I was able to engage with everything that happened throughout my trip with openness. Bringing the experiences of CIM with me set the stage for the successes and failures that took place and provided the framework for the remaining lessons that carried me through.

Lesson 2: No challenge is permanent, and no change in plans is too painful.

When we arrived at the Porkies, we were greeted with 18 inches of freshly fallen snow. The DNR officer at check-in informed us that the cabin we had reserved was ground zero for the heaviest snowfall and the road to the cabin had been closed. Since we happened to be the only guests staying in the park that night, we were able to move our reservation  to Lake of the Clouds Cabin, only one mile from the popular overlook and with minimal snow accumulation.

On our first full day, we began from our cabin a demanding 12-mile (19.3km) hike on North Mirror Lake Trail to Mirror Lake, then hopping on Correction Line Trail to Big Carp River Trail and back to the Lake of the Clouds Overlook. The first barrier that we encountered was the incredible amount of snowmelt that was present, pooling on the trail.

As the we rose in elevation, if the water wasn’t flooding the trail, it was flowing along it. Where there wasn’t water, the snow was deep and covering the increasingly steep grade, masking the trail and covering the blazes. At times, we were only able to traverse about one mile of trail per hour.

About one mile into the day, my CGM indicated a weak signal and gave me a sensor error alert shortly thereafter. I hoped that I would be able to reconnect it to my pump and tried to no avail. A failed sensor is never a big setback for me, as the inaccuracy and too-late low predictions are often more of a hinderance to managing T1D than they are of benefit. So I proceeded in high spirits.

We arrived at Mirror Lake for an early afternoon lunch and we were wet and cold. My boots, which were supposed to be waterproof, had been soaked through. Over lunch of rehydrated hummus, veggies, breakfast leftovers, and pita, we calculated that at our current pace, we would be lucky to arrive back earlier than 7pm if things went well. Thus, we faced the greatest challenge of the day: admitting defeat and turning back the way that we came.

As someone with T1D, I am used to facing challenges. Drawing on my experiences with CIM, I was able to recognize that no challenge is permanent and that no change in plans is too painful to endure. Life with T1D is brimming with unexpected setbacks, twists and turns, and cancelled plans. Witnessing and recognizing this in others with T1D while in the wilderness has allowed me to engage these disruptions with a fluidity that I would not have otherwise had.

 Lesson three: I am not alone, even when I am alone 

On our third full day, we set out on Escarpment Trail which was boasted to be one of the most scenic and challenging short hikes in Michigan. At approximately 4 miles (6.4km) long, our goal was to hike the majority of the trail and turn back just as the trail led downward past the final peak to the far trailhead.

We set out in the morning and, as we progressed up and down the mountains, it became clear that the snow, ice, and wind were going to make the hike more difficult than we had imagined. Time and time again, the stunning views of the Lake of the Clouds, the Big Carp River Valley, and Lake Superior made it worth every step.

As expected, T1D was also there to flip the experience upside down. As we steadily made our way back the way that we came, I felt the familiar twinge of hypoglycemia. Deep loneliness suddenly filled me and, as I began to steadily eat my trail mix, the same old questions arose within me: “should I stop the hike or just keep eating, pressing onward? How low am I and how low will I go? Will this trail mix bring me up quickly enough? Will my activity bring me down faster than the carbs will bring me up? What if I’m not okay? What if I lose my footing? What if I’m not thinking clearly?”

I decided to stop and test: 40 mg/dL (2.2 mmol/L). I quickly ate four dex tabs on top of the trail mix that I had already eaten and washed it down with some water. In this moment, it became glaringly obvious that my brothers had absolutely no idea what I was going through. They couldn’t know what it felt like to suffer from low blood glucose, nor know what it’s like to call attention to oneself in this moment.

It is at these points that thoughts of my many supporters comes back in a flash. First, there is my loving partner Lindsey. I see, hear, and feel her presence lifting me up and suddenly I’m two years back, training for the North Country Trail Relay: Lindsey is biking beside me, rooting for me, carrying my water and dex tabs.

Then I’m in Algonquin Provincial Park, again with Lindsey, but also with other fellow CIMers. I’m climbing Devil’s Staircase in the rain with a Canoe and packs on my shoulders and every person who has ever been with me on a CIM Adventure has suddenly been transplanted into the cold and lonely Porkies, and I’m quickly able to move on.

This happened, as it always does, in a matter of seconds. I signaled to my brothers that I was ready to continue, blood glucose 40 mg/dL and (presumably) rising.

I always enter into wilderness experiences wondering what it is that I’m going to learn about myself and about managing diabetes. The truth is that through experiences like this one, I come out a renewed individual with a fresh perspective on the management of my disease and of my place in the world. I’ve made it through and I know a little bit more about myself, about what I can endure, and I am ready to engage fully with my existence as a more complete human being.

About Paul Vugteveen

Paul Vugteveen is an Independent Vegan Chef living in Kalamazoo, Michigan with his partner (and Type 3/5.5er), Lindsey. In his professional work, he focuses on sustaining his community with delicious and satisfying barrier-free food. His attention is currently focused on the intersections of food justice, environmental justice, and social justice. In his spare time, he spends as much time outdoors as possible, eats delicious food, and writes. He is currently active volunteering his time with Connected in Motion and JDRF.