(Note: Rachel Hemond, an 18-year-old from Acton, Mass., with Type 1 diabetes, spent five months in the Vermont wilderness, managing her blood sugar using the Omnipod System and with the support from a network of doctors, family, and friends. This is the ninth of a 10-part series of blogs Rachel wrote about her experiences.)
The Sky Meadow Retreat Center at the end of the Kroka Expedition’s winter trail is heaven to us; beds and showers and warmth after a winter spent in the cold. We de-issue everything from winter trail, leaving behind skis and poles then joyously taking off the ever-cramping ski boots for the final time. The snow is slowly beginning to melt, but we aren’t ready to leave winter behind. Instead, we chase it up to northern Quebec, driving 14 hours up to the Cree cultural village of Oujé Bougamou.
In Cree, Oujé Bougoumou means “the place where people gather.” Appearing suddenly out of the vast tracts of spruce and jack pine, the community embodies its name. We are welcomed warmly, staying briefly in the town before traveling out into the bush with two elders who have agreed to share their lives with us.
Though we don’t change camp, we are always learning by watching our guides as they move about the camp scraping a moose hide or the gutting the fish we catch. On our first day, a few of us pluck and prepare six ptarmigan, a small white bird native to the area. We eat moose, goose, fish and beavers – even their tails – and stretch and dry the beavers’ pelts. Fishing is a central part of our life. We set nets under the ice catching pike, whitefish, and sucker fish.
Luckily for me, all meats are fairly similar in terms of carb-counting, but managing my diabetes in a culture different from mine is challenging. Beaver soup isn’t listed in the PDM’s food library.
Our life is relaxed, full of crafting and exploration by snow shoe. I spend a portion of my time running through my blood sugars and programs, making a few minor adjustments and allowing myself some degree of satisfaction that everything seems to be working. After 10 days, we say goodbye to Oujé and drive down through Quebec. Where, for the first time on expedition, I get very, very sick.
Almost everyone else in the group had been sick up in our bush camp. Through luck and some pretty stellar isolation tactics, a few other students and I escaped what we affectionately called the plague. Somewhat smugly, we occupied the back of the van on the drive to Quebec City. Then, one of us started throwing up and a sense of doom settled upon us like a shroud.
It hits me just as we enter a museum. I will spare you the details, but I was quickly reminded of how important it is to keep an eye on my blood sugars when I’m vomiting and feverishly burning carbs from my body. I set a lower temp basal, making sure I won’t have to force down glucose tabs when my stomach can’t even handle a few sips of water. Luckily for me, it is only a 24-hour bug so I am never all that concerned about ketones. I recover enough that the next day I don’t have to drive back to Sky Meadow with my head in a garbage bag.
Our return marks a transition symbolized by muddy roads and crocus blossoms; spring is coming to Vermont. With it come new jobs. I trade in my sewing machine for my pencil; I am the new storyteller (aka blogger) and take charge of logistics for our spring expedition.
In the midst of a whirlwind of preparation, we see our families and friends for the first time since early February. Well, I’ve seen mine more recently of course, when I went to visit my endocrinologist, but having them up at Sky Meadow with us enlivens our community and reminds us of the incredible support network that allows us to continue on our journey.
Too soon, we bid our families goodbye and plunge into the next phase of our trip. And I mean plunge in the literal sense; every day at Sky Meadow we jump into the nearby pond, which still has a few chunks of ice floating in it. The frigid water instantly and dramatically increases heart rate and breathing. It quickly becomes difficult to swim as muscles numb. We must learn to overcome the discomfort since our next leg is whitewater paddling. Some of the water is at least class-three rapids, so flipping is inevitable.
We had some trepidation as we arrived at our put-in near the head of the Lamoille River. A quick review of paddling techniques and we’re in the boats for a full day. My canoe flips within seconds of leaving the shore, dumping me unceremoniously into the ice melt. I swim the canoe to shore and my partner and I bail her out.
Fortunately, I assumed that I would be going for a swim and had taken precautions. My PDM and sugar tabs were in a water-proof Pelican case tied securely to the canoe. When we flipped her back over, everything was still there.
The day was very long and very cold. But it was exhilarating running a rapid too fast to think as rocks appear and disappear in the white spray. Everything is snapping into place just in time to guide your paddle as you bounce and roll down the white water. The split second between safety and flipping, the way that breath catches when dropping into a hole of recirculating water – these are the moments that I live for and the reason that, even though I am mildly hypothermic after a few more dunkings, I have a wide grin on my face. The water has energy that was missing in the long, frozen winter.
As we continue down the river, I am struck by the freedom of the spring. We are no longer immobile under layers of clothing, separated from our world by a mass of wool and down. We feel the sun on our faces, our world becomes the almost garish green of new growth. Our delight at the first green grass we see is surpassed only by the emergence of the first leaves, no bigger than a fingernail when we see them first, dew-covered and delicate. Free from worries of highs and lows, I float down the river with good blood sugars and good friends for company.
(Next: Lake Champlain, end of the journey, and reflections.)