(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 last of a 10-part series of blogs Rachel wrote about her experiences.)
The Kroka Expedition canoes glide onto Lake Champlain, dwarfed by an expanse of water whose far side is nearly invisible. Our canoes, which carried us safely for many miles, seem suddenly inadequate and frail in the vast open water. We trade them for five-person rowboats made by the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, beautifully crafted by one of their high school programs.
I am the captain of the Resilience, an apt name considering all it has taken to get me to this point. Good weather follows us along the lake, where I rise each morning as early as I can, watching the sun transform the waters from the deep blue-black of night to fiery red and orange to a cool, sweet blue. Long days of open water melt into one another in a sweet haze of sun and endless rowing. About halfway through the leg, we find harbor at Barn Rock, a camp perched high on a ridge that overlooks one of the narrowest parts of the lake.
Barn Rock is where we are to go out on our solos with only our sleeping bag and water bottle. We set off into the woods leaving behind food so that in emptiness we may fill our minds, leaving behind friends so that in silence we may find truth, leaving behind comfort so that in hardship we may find peace.
One by one, we step off the path and settle into the 10 feet that becomes home for the next 36 hours. I make my way down to the side of the water, sheltered in a little bay. Settling my sleeping bag into a small gap in the rocks, I take my journal down to the waterside, writing and relaxing in the warm sunlight. Checking my blood sugar hourly, I write everything down on a page of my journal, going back to the trail a few times to leave the notes so that my teachers can see them.
Because this is a fasting solo, I decide not to bring sugar tabs; instead, I set progressively lower temporary basal rates until, 24 hours in, I turn off all insulin delivery. I rely on the graphs that my PDM provided, watching for any sharp declines that would force me to break my fast.
But I stay in control, hovering around 90 for the majority of the second day and into the next morning. I could fast, despite my diabetes. No, not despite it. I can fast and be diabetic. I can row four six hours a day and be diabetic. I can survive in the frigid winter snows and be diabetic. Being diabetic does not keep me from doing anything, and having the time and space to search within myself by fasting emphasized what I have known all along; diabetes does not, and will never, define me.
We break our fast with a feast prepared by our teachers and accompanied by a sudden outpouring of stories and laughter. We’re happy to be together again after so long in solitude. Along with our new knowledge, we have a newfound appreciation for each other.
From rowing to biking, we move slowly back into civilization. Though biking is another weakness of mine, I am learning to love the crunch of tires over dirt roads, the smooth hum of rubber on concrete. Traveling from farm to farm, I keep my PDM in that same Pelican case that has accompanied me since we left Sky Meadow, though now it is more useful for its shock-absorbing capabilities, tied down with a mass of bungee cords to my bike rack.
I tailor my basal rates to each day of biking, using temp basals to account for sections that I know will be all uphill or, conversely, all glorious downhill. I find that, as I have adjusted to this way of travel, so have my blood sugars, and I am seldom out of my target range.
One last hill and we turn into Kroka. Six hundred miles and four months later, we are home. Our expedition is over, but a mad scramble of a week fat basecamp follows, with all of us working on independent projects. I’m clearing and mapping and blazing trails in Kroka’s woods to help others follow the paths that I did.
As the end of semester approaches, my semester mates and I cling together despite the increasing chaos as we try to pull together academics and crafts and all the other unfinished odds and ends. Our final night of semester is spent in the yurt where we first began. We have grown both as individuals and as a community. I could not have completed this semester without the knowledge that these 12 people supported me fully. Every time that I had to leave, every time that my blood sugars dove and soared and made me want to scream, I knew that they would hold me. They reminded me to test my blood sugar, mimicked my beeping Pod so I wouldn’t ignore it, and carried my Pods. They are what made the semester possible, more than any strength that I can claim.
Semester and we have scattered. The list of things I have learned from winter semester is endless. I can start a fire in the snow using a single match and a mountain of birch bark. I can sharpen an axe or a knife by hand. I can carry a canoe on my shoulders for miles, then paddle a network of rocks and branches that strive to overturn me. I can ski the length of Vermont.
But most importantly, I can find my own way through life. Semester has created a sort of internal compass to guides me through all that life can throw at me. As I step out into the world, it’s with confidence that I can navigate my future of blood sugars and mountaintops, Pods and paths. I don’t yet know where my feet will take me, but it’s sure to be an incredible journey.