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HOBART — "I'm a little nervous. How about you?" Jimmy Davis, 33, asked me as we walked along the wobbly metal dock on Lake George, about to get into a 24-foot canoe.

"I'm a little nervous," I said. "I don't want to be the one to fall in the water with my clothes on."

I had at least been in a canoe before, granted not since Michael Jordan was still playing basketball. But even though Davis and I were born just a month apart, this would be the first canoeing experience of his life.

Davis, who has cognitive disabilities and lives in a group home in Chicago, got the opportunity Thursday through a collaboration of the Dunes Learning Center, Toad & Co. and Wilderness Inquiry. That last organization, based in Minneapolis, is dedicated to giving everyone, of any age and ability, the chance to experience nature.

"Nature is the great equalizer," said Jeff Kemnitz, outreach director for Wilderness Inquiry. "It doesn't know of class or status."

Davis was joined Thursday by 21 fellow members of Search Inc., a Chicago social service agency for adults with disabilities. The event was sponsored by the National Park Foundation and Toad & Co., a clothing manufacturer that employs Search Inc. clients in its warehouse and distribution center.

As we got out on the water, on what was a crisp yet serene day in Northwest Indiana, Davis and I started chatting about the first-place White Sox, calming both our nerves.

No outdoorsman myself, I coached Davis on how to paddle whenever he asked. Once he got the hang of it, he said, "It's like making a milkshake." When he mentioned that his arm started to hurt, I told him to take a break, that the rest of us could pick up the slack.

"This is not bad," he said, the skies mostly clear, barn swallows flying down to catch insects off the top of the water.

We arrived to the other end of the lake a few minutes later, and it was time to turn around. My side had to paddle backward, Davis' side forward. "We got this," he said, as the canoe did a 180.

After we went underneath a bridge, a guy in a passing canoe pointed out that there were turtles over by the shore. We took a left turn through a cluster of lily pads to check it out. Sure enough, there they were, a dozen or so turtles, of different sizes and color patterns, sunbathing on a log.

"Be quiet. Shh, don't say nothing," Davis said, his pointer finger to his lip.

We floated quietly, the silence only interrupted by a passing ambulance, which didn't seem to bother the turtles. As we glided along the river bank, we saw the shell-backed reptiles on a number of branches emerging from the lake.

Almost to the dock, Davis took his paddle out of the water and looked around. The sun beat down on us gently, a hawk called overhead, fishermen stood occupied along the shore.

"This feel fun right here," he said.

It did.


Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.