Opening the Wild


One family’s work to increase access to the Wilderness

The summer after he graduated high school in June, 2001, Sean Leary was preparing to guide a four-week canoe expedition into a remote area of central Manitoba, about eight hours north of the Canadian border. From packing food to building skills with the high-school participants, there was a lot of preparation leading up to the trip. What’s more, Sean was also working for a local painting company. After getting an early start on the day, prepping with his crew, and painting houses, Sean got in his truck to drive home.

Tim Leary in a wheelchair. Wife, two kids and a dog stand next to him in front of a fall forest area.

It was around midnight. It had been a long day that had followed on a procession of long days. In the rhythm of passing lights on the dark highway, Sean drifted off to sleep. His truck veered into the ditch and flipped, throwing him from the vehicle.

When he came to, he was lying near the burning truck. A passing trucker would pull him a safe distance from the fire until a helicopter arrived to airlift him to the hospital. The accident resulted in a broken vertebra and spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed in his lower extremities and bound to a wheelchair.

Growing up, Sean spent summers at camp on the Gunflint Trail. He knew the lakes and streams well. Always eager to explore more, he canoed north into Canada, through remote parts of the boreal forest. He felt immersed in the land and at home in a canoe. Facing a long recovery after the accident, it seemed like this was all over.

While guiding the canoe trip that summer was off, over the years Sean would discover other ways to have adventures. From traveling through Europe and the United States, lake & ocean kayaking, snorkeling & scuba diving, and handcycling, Sean has not let his injury hold him back.

But none of these adventures has compared to his family’s latest endeavor to make the area surrounding the Boundary Waters more accessible to those with disabilities and open it to people at all stages in their lives.

Months after the accident, Sean began college. For the first part of his freshman year, Sean was in what he called a turtle shell, a complete upper body brace to keep him stable and prevent him from exacerbating his injury. “A lot of people struggle, I struggled. With the complications from surgery and things that came up during my recovery, there were times I didn’t think I would make it,” says Sean. “I was lucky to go right into college after the injury; that gave me a goal to work toward. I become much more motivated. It could have gone much differently. The accident made me realize there’s a small window for us all. It’s even smaller for people with disabilities.”

“People with disabilities haven’t had equal access to recreational opportunities in the wilderness of the Superior National Forest and BWCA. We want to do our part to change that.”

Sean Leary

He met his wife Jill when she was a canoe guide, and they married in 2010. The two settled in Minneapolis where Sean works as an environmental consultant and Jill as a Spanish teacher. They have two daughters, Annika and Britta, and as a family, lead an active life full of outdoor adventures. “Sean is good at being in uncomfortable situations, but it takes work to be in places not designed for wheelchairs or that lack an adaptive setup,” says Jill. “We kind of just figured it out as we went. Camping is still camping, but now I do it in a wheelchair,” says Sean.

Things really changed when, after the pandemic, the family was coming home from a vacation in Yellowstone and by chance, Sean met Joe Stone, who was then with Teton Adaptive Sports. Stone, who was paralyzed after a speed flying accident, turned Sean’s attention to the incredible things groups and organizations were doing when it comes to getting people with disabilities on adventures.

At the same time, Jill and Sean realized that it had been a while since they were up near the Boundary Waters. When the Leary family went on vacation to Ely, it reconfirmed for them that they there was an absolute wilderness treasure just a few hours north of their home in Minneapolis. They also realized that there were challenges with respect to accessibility. “People talk about how nature is so restorative, but if you have a physical disability and can’t get out to access it, you can’t really enjoy those benefits,” says Jill.

Jill Leary with her arm around Sean in an array of camp chairs.

With so much need for more accessible spaces at the edge of the wilderness, Sean and Jill started exploring the idea of building a fully accessible, fully Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant resort. Somewhere people in wheelchairs or with other physical limitations could go to paddle, fish, relax and take in the splendor of the Northwoods.

The idea they landed on was to build a small resort, North of North Resort, that would incorporate universal design principles so people at any stage of their lives, from the elderly to families with infants and strollers, could easily get around. To make this dream a reality, they started looking for property with a realtor and found an undeveloped, relatively flat parcel of land on Birch Lake. The parcel included a peninsula that would allow for the construction of a boardwalk to give guests access to a secluded, wooded area with 1,100 feet of shoreline surrounded by the Superior National Forest.

The property was undeveloped, and there was an incredible amount of work before them. But as word about their project spread throughout the Ely area, it became apparent that there was a real desire in the community for a resort that would better accommodate people in wheelchairs, people with physical disabilities, people from all walks of life.

Since beginning the project, the Learys have fallen in love with Ely. Every time they are in town, it seems like they are stopped by people who give them contact information or want to introduce them to someone who could help support their project.

In building North of North, it was important for them to invest in the community. They were able to hire local contractors, a local resort manager, and source local materials. In turn, the community has become invested in the project.

There has been financial support through their prime lender, Sunrise Bank, as well as regional foundations such as the Northland Foundation, Lake Country Power, and the Entrepreneur Fund. Then there are the incalculable acts of kindness and assistance from people around town, without which the project would be impossible. “Our local plumbing contractor donated their shop space for us to work in, and R&R Transfer was supportive by allowing us to store our trailer on their property before we had space at the resort. Many in Ely seem to recognize that the area needs better accommodations for people with disabilities and are excited by our project” says Sean.

One of the cabins near a snowy woods, nearing completion.

Even with community support, it’s been a challenge for two working parents to oversee, manage, and build a resort. Sorting through the various permits, from the conditional use permit to gaining approval for the installation of the boardwalk for ADA access, to the added oversight needed to go beyond minimum ADA standards, required their full energy and passion.

Both Jill and Sean agree that the fact that their daughters are a little older and can be fairly independent, and that they like to camp, helps a lot. Especially considering that camping on the property, at their “northern office,” now takes up most of their vacation days. “It becomes more real each time we go up there. When we first went up, the trees and brush were so thick that it was hard to picture any kind of building. Each time we went up we did a little more work, like cutting trails, roughing in a road, and now the units are almost complete,” says Jill.

The resort, which will have three cabins that can each host a maximum of eight people at any given time, is scheduled to open this summer, they hope by mid-June.

Along with fully accessible cabins, all trails will be graded and designed for wheelchairs. The showcase of the property will be the 400-foot-long boardwalk to the peninsula, where local contractors say there is some of the best fishing on Birch Lake. The resort will also have a fully ADA compliant kayak launch dock so guests with diverse abilities can easily get into boats and onto the water. “If you can’t get on the water and into a kayak, you will never know the freedom of being on water. We’re trying to remove barriers and create an inclusive outdoor recreation environment at the edge of the BWCA. From putting in an ADA kayak launch to working with guides who can teach people to paddle, fish, or enjoy the magic of a dogsled excursion through the BWCA.” Jill says.

Aerial view of the North of North resort on Birch Lake.

To help ensure that economics are not a barrier for people with disabilities to enjoy the wilderness, the Learys also founded a nonprofit, Adaptive Wilderness Within Reach (AWWR — pronounced like the sound of a wolf howl) that provides people with disabilities the financial means to get out and enjoy adaptive recreation. Through the nonprofit, they are working with local guides and businesses such as Piragis and Wintergreen to provide instructional and guided opportunities for participants. AWWR was recently awarded a $16,000 grant towards an ADA kayak launch from Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB). The organization is actively fundraising for adaptive equipment and programming and seeking participants.

“People with disabilities haven’t had equal access to recreational opportunities in the wilderness of the Superior National Forest and BWCA,” says Sean. “We want to do our part to change that. We want this to be a place for people from all walks of life, all abilities to come together and feel the healing power of outdoor recreation in a wilderness setting.”

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Hennessy racing in a snowy tree-filled scene in the boundary waters in a sled behind a team of dogs during the brief hours of winter sunlight.
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