Wilderness Travels with Type 1 Diabetes

Kenya, during the ski trip with Kroka Expeditions

Last year, we wrote about Kenya Whitehead, a 16-year old with type 1 diabetes who was raising money to go on a six month trek through the northern New England wilderness.

Kenya, now 18, is home from the trip of a lifetime. As part of a 12-person group from Kroka Expeditions, she successfully traversed 600 miles (round-trip) skiing through snowy Vermont, white-water canoeing in Canada, rowboating down to New York, and biking back to basecamp, camping most nights (occasionally in negative 15 degree weather) with minimal amenities all along the way.

Kenya was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 12. “When I was first diagnosed…I was overwhelmed and scared,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything.” Her first reaction was denial, and her numbers were all over the place.

But as she got older, she decided that she wouldn’t let diabetes control what she could or could not do. When she learned about the semester-long trips through Kroka expeditions, she decided to go for it.

“It was not an option if I could or couldn’t. I will,” she said of her thought process while preparing for her trip.

She met her 11 trip-mates in January—the youngest was 16 and the oldest was 18. They prepped and planned for a month, plotting their route, learning skills they’d need on the journey and dehydrating vegetables to be used in meals along the way. They took off on skis in early February, with all their supplies strapped to their backs.

Early in the trip, Kenya didn’t want to stop skiing when she felt herself going low. “I was like, ‘I’ll get over the low,’” she said. “And that was for the first week. Until I was like, ‘no! I need to stop when I’m low.’”

Kenya’s pack was a little different than the rest of the group’s. Because they were traveling in frigid conditions, she couldn’t carry juice boxes to treat lows. Instead she carried honey and maple syrup. Packed with these were diabetes supplies in excess—she wound up bringing more than she needed to make sure she’d be safe. She used her pump while skiing and a pen during the springtime water-based activities.

One night during the skiing portion of the trip, her pump worked its way out of the two layers of sleeping bag while she was asleep. It was so cold that she woke up to frozen insulin.

Kenya, during the canoe-portion of the trip through Kroka Expeditions

But that was the only time she had an issue with supplies. She kept her insulin vials, glucagon, and insulin pens in a homemade wool pouch hanging around her neck tucked into her sports bra next to her pump to keep them warm. “It worked so well, you’re sweating so much,” she said. One of the teachers who led the trip carried the same supplies as a back-up.

While the 12 participants were complete strangers when they started their journey, they quickly became family; they grew so close, in fact, that her friends were able to tell she was low by looking at her pupils, or that she was high if she was extra-cranky.

“We came together so well,” Kenya said. “I’m used to taking care of other people, and not myself as much.” They arrived back at Kroka basecamp in New Hampshire in June and went their separate ways, though they still keep in touch.

The trip was life-changing for Kenya, and makes her want to continue challenging herself physically. “I came back with such self-confidence,” she said. Now, as a senior she’s applying to colleges, but she would like to hike the Appalachian Trial, or climb one of the New York mountains. She’s also in the early stages of planning a kayak trip for next summer before college, and is considering using it as a fundraiser for diabetes research.

Ultimately, Kenya achieved what she originally set out to do on this journey. “I wanted to prove to myself and the world that diabetes can’t hold you back,” she said.

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