For Botanist Bill Muir, the Wilderness Is Truly 'Out of Sight' but He Can Hear and Touch It
Botanist William Muir vehemently opposes special rules that allow handicapped tourists to use outboard motors to explore Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota.
“If all areas are made accessible to the handicapped,” he insists, “then you can’t have wilderness. Should we dam the Salmon River so the handicapped and elderly can float rafts on it?”
The words may sound harsh: Coming from Muir, they are also astonishing. The 50-year-old professor at Carleton College has been blind since 1968. Yet he has made more than 100 trips—by paddle—into the pristine Boundary Waters. Being handicapped in the wilderness is “a relative thing,” says Muir, who testified twice before motorboats were okayed by Congress last October. “When it comes to climbing Mount Everest, 9,999 of every 10,000 persons are handicapped.”
Blessed with gritty self-determination and a courageous wife, Muir has canoed 2,000 miles and made, by his own meticulous count, 398 portages. Each summer he leads student expeditions through the area; in winter he and his family retreat on weekends to a primitive cabin 75 miles southwest that is often accessible only by snow-shoe and toboggan.
Though he has never seen the Boundary Waters, Muir “conjures up pictures” and uses family-made relief maps to plot his trips. Through touch and smell he can identify hundreds of plant species in the 2,500-square-mile wilderness. By embracing trees, he reckons their age. “I love to listen to the wind,” Muir says. “It sounds different in an aspen than a red pine.”
A distant relative of 19th-century naturalist John Muir, Bill majored in biology at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., where his father was a steelworker, and earned a Ph.D. in plant pathology at Wisconsin.
“I fought this blindness,” Muir says. “I went through a lot of misery in the process.” It resulted from diabetes, which he has had since he was 13. “I shed more than a few tears when I realized I would not see my children grow up or the change of the seasons.” His three daughters and one son range from 18 to 25.
Muir’s wife, Lib, whom he met at Allegheny, spends 70 hours a week taping textbooks and manuals for her husband and assisting in his lab work. “Lib and I decided she would have to work with me or I would not be able to work at all,” Muir says. (He does not know braille; it is not recommended for diabetics because they often lose their fingertip sensitivity.)
Lib also guides him on wilderness expeditions. In the bush she calls out, “Branch high on your left, rock on your right.” Muir takes two large injections of insulin daily, and he and Lib never hike without a third person—”What would happen if she broke a leg?” They once capsized in a storm but were able to right the boat.
The Muir’s home in Northfield, Minn. has no washer, dryer, dishwasher, power lawn mower or television. “These take away the last important work for children to do,” Bill says. Their weekend cabin is even more spartan, with no running water or electricity. Evenings, Lib reads aloud by kerosene lamp from Jack London books.
“I was scared of things in the beginning,” Muir admits. But if the challenge of a wilderness is greater for the handicapped, so are the rewards. “Anybody with good legs and eyes can make a canoe trip,” he explains. “But there aren’t many blind who do it. I decided that if I could manage in Boundary Waters, then I could do anything.”