How an outdoor enthusiast with physical disabilities found healing in Ontario backcountry
B.C. researcher says 'a lot of really good changes are happening' in accessibility
For years, Ben Chamberlain wasn't sure he'd return to a backcountry trail. But after living with physical disabilities for more than half his life, he now spends a few weeks each year exploring Ontario's wilderness.
With a leg brace and walking sticks, you can spot him with a canoe on his back, conquering portages and rediscovering a sense of adventure and love of the outdoors that defined his adolescence.
"There's so much healing in nature," said Chamberlain, 46, who lives in Brantford, Ont.
"In my journey, [nature has] brought me some of the most profound healings that I've had, whether it be physically, spiritual or mental."
Chamberlain isn't alone in pushing his limits to get into nature, part of what a B.C. socio-cultural anthropologist says is a shift in accessibility in the outdoors.
As Chamberlain finds peace outside, he hopes to encourage others to get into nature, whatever that looks like for them.
Accident changed his life in 'blink of an eye'
Chamberlain's journey back into nature is more than two decades in the making.
He grew up in Burlington, Ont, and from an early age, he spent as much time as he could outdoors, playing in a nearby creek or going on trips with Scouts Canada.
"Throughout most of my teen years, any time I got a chance to spend time in an organized trip or just by myself I'd be definitely out in the woods over most anything else," Chamberlain said.
He loved the outdoors so much that he wanted to make a career out of it, and planned to study forestry at Sir Sanford Fleming College. But in 1997, at age 20, his life "changed completely in the blink of an eye."
Chamberlain was walking home from a party when he was hit by car. Bones throughout his body were broken and he suffered severe blood loss.
He spent several days in a medically induced coma, and said when he woke up a few days later, it was clear the trajectory of his life had changed.
He nearly lost his left leg and said doctors told him he may never walk again.
In the end, Chamberlain's leg was saved and he was walking within a year. But to this day, every step he takes is painful.
"Looking back on it now, the functionality that I have in this leg and the trouble that it's caused me over the years … I'd have better functionality with a prosthetic," he said.
Reaching a turning point
Following his accident, Chamberlain moved to B.C. for a number of years, where he was able to enjoy short trips into nature in accessible ways, with the help of friends. But he longed for another one of his "epic trips."
"You know, one of those portages, getting into those places where you're not going to see anybody because it's really tough to get into. And yeah, it was one of those things that they said it was kind of off limits."
Back in Ontario, he found himself at a turning point a few years ago. His condition got worse and his mental health suffered as a result. He said it was during one of his low points that he decided it was time to give backcountry camping a try.
"Deciding, you know what, I'm in pain anyway — why don't we just do this, why don't we just go for this? It doesn't really matter whether I'm walking in Algonquin, or canoeing in Algonquin, sitting in a canoe chair or laying in bed. I'm in pain. So, let's just go do this."
In 2021, Chamberlain, his wife and their dogs set out in a canoe in Algonquin Park for an easy paddle-in trip.
On their first morning, they decided to hike a portage — without any gear — and made it to a lake he had camped on as a teenager — one he never thought he'd see again.
"That was really uplifting, for sure. And then, from there, it lit a fire," he said.
Since then, there's been no stopping him. Step by painful step, he has learned to lighten and balance his loads, use walking sticks as "third or fourth legs," research trails to find ones that are relatively flat and add strap-on canoe seats to support his lower back.
On the trail in a wheelchair
John Azlen of Windsor, Ont., will never forget the moment he made it to the summit 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-kilometre loop and managed to wheel himself to the top, where he was rewarded with a view of Smoke Lake.
"These are pictures that you see all the time in media and social media, and you know, [that's] why you come to these places, to do these hikes and to get these views — and to actually be able to achieve one of them myself was incredibly exhilarating and very fulfilling," Azlen said.
He doesn't do backcountry camping, but he gets out into nature as much as possible with his fiancée, tapping into people's knowledge in Facebook groups to plan trips that fit the balance of accessible, but also challenging and rewarding.
Adults with diabetes in the backcountry
Jen Hanson knows how transformative the outdoors can be. She's the executive director of Connected in Motion, a non-profit that organizes outdoor adventures for adults with Type 1 diabetes.
Hanson said people with insulin-dependent diabetes are constantly monitoring factors such as food, exercise and stress — all of which are constantly at play during backcountry camping.
"It's a lot you're having to think about and you're having to manage, and we've learned that sometimes, there are enough barriers that actually keep people from having these experiences."
Hanson said she's seen the "transformative" change of many participants.
"We see just more confidence and new doors being opened for folks, which is really exciting."
One of those people is Brad Lee, who lives in Toronto. Like Chamberlain, Lee has had a deep love of the outdoors since he was a kid growing up in Alberta. But after he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in his mid-30s, it took him 17 years to go on a solo camping trip again.
On that first trip on his own in 2018, he had a near-death experience, when he had extreme low blood sugar alone in his tent, with his food some 250 metres away, hung up in a tree in the woods.
But since then, he said, educators with Connected in Motion have given him the skills and confidence to better manage his insulin while camping.
"It gives me a sense of freedom, it gives me a sense of my life back and it's a truer expression of me, Brad Lee, and the person that I want to be," he said.
Focus on accessibility in the outdoors
Lauren Harding, an assistant professor in the outdoor recreation and tourism management program at the University of Northern British Columbia, has studied accessibility in the outdoors.
From accessible outhouses and boardwalks to groups focused on helping people access the outdoors, "a lot of really good changes are happening," said Harding.
"I think that there's more of an emphasis in the outdoor recreation community of getting people outside who may not — in more, I guess, traditional outdoor recreation spaces — have felt welcome," Harding said.
Just to get out there, get into nature, find what's accessible.— Ben Chamberlain
Harding said that focus on accessibility will be even more important as outdoor enthusiasts age.
"You may not be able to hike 30 kilometres any more, but being able to be in these spaces and places that connect us to the territories that we live on is important for mental and physical health."
'So much healing'
Chamberlain can't overstate how much getting back out into nature has helped him in all of those ways, improving his mental health and outlook on life.
Next up, he wants to introduce his granddaughter to backcountry camping. He's also in the process of planning his 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.
"Get out there, find what works for you. But number one thing is just to get out there, get into nature, find what's accessible.... There's so much healing in the backcountry."