Treks into True North

The Lake Superior shoreline and surrounding woods are part of The WALDEN Institute in Au Train. The young adult cancer nonprofit True North Treks is expected to open the nature-based facility in 2019. (Photo courtesy of True North Treks)

AU TRAIN — The expansive four-story Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home tucked away into the cliffs of the Lake Superior shoreline in Au Train soon will have a purpose beyond being just an amazing piece of architecture.

True North Treks is a national nonprofit organization that helps people between the ages of 18 and 39 who have been affected by cancer. One way is taking groups of those young adults and caregivers from across the United States on free canoeing and backpacking trips through wilderness destinations where they can connect with nature.

True North Treks is expanding its efforts from the backcountry wilderness of western states like Montana and Wyoming to the Upper Peninsula, having already started with a pilot program that involved long-weekend “mini-treks” to explore what the U.P. has to offer.

It now will have a home base for those U.P. trips.

David Victorson, associate professor and licensed clinical psychologist with the Department of Medical Social Services at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, is founder and executive director of True North Treks.

“Nature is one of the three big connectors that we focus on,” Victorson said, with the other two connecting people with similar life experiences, and training in meditation and yoga.

He said the facility had been a personal residence that went up for sale.

Victorson called it “a perfect hand-off.”

“It’s not just being used for somebody’s vacation home,” he said.

Factors used in determining the location of a retreat-style facility in the U.P. included being located in wilderness, of course, but also located in a region not filled with many other retreat centers.

Also taken into consideration was the cost of land, cost of living and proximity to major U.S. cities with hospitals and cancer treatment centers.

The company eventually decided on the Au Train location. The support of Foglia Family Foundation of Barrington, Illinois, allowed for the acquisition of the home, which is nestled into cliffs along 123 acres of northern hardwood forest.

Since the home was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s last apprentice, Herbert Fritz Jr., it has many traditional Wright features, he said. The home also has wrap-around decks to afford guests panoramic and scenic views of the surrounding woods and Lake Superior.

If that doesn’t help someone connect with nature, perhaps nothing will.

The new retreat will be called The True North Treks Foglia Foundation WALDEN Institute, or The WALDEN Institute for short.

“Walden,” of course, is the name of the classic novel by Henry David Thoreau, which chronicles his experiences living in the woods. However, it also stands for Wakeful Awareness in Life, Discovery and Encounters in Nature.

That should be possible since The WALDEN Institute will be the home base for treks into Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, Isle Royale National Park and other regional outdoor attractions.

Guests don’t have to travel far, though, to connect with nature. Planned for the institute are hiking and cross-country ski trails, an organic agricultural farm and fruit orchard, a freestanding yoga and meditation studio, and many sleeping options on the property.

Also offered at The WALDEN Institute will be select fee-based programs to non-cancer survivor groups, which will involve mindful leadership workshops and treats for business and medical professionals as well as yoga and meditation training retreats for teachers and students.

Although Victorson noted the home was an “incredible gift,” work still needs to be completed before the institute can open.

“We have some renovations we’re trying to make,” he said, noting the facility still has to be furnished.

The goal is for the institute to be operational in 2019.

Victorson said the U.P. fits in with the True North Treks mission, and he has first-hand experience with this since he is a Yooper.

As a former resident of Escanaba, Victorson said his father used to take his brothers and him coho fishing in Shelter Bay.

Now, he can bring something back to the U.P.

In fact, the public can contribute to the cause as well.

Help for The WALDEN Institute can come in the form of donating to the Young Adult Cancer Survivorship Endowment Fund; credit card or airline points; and donations of money, gear and equipment, among other possibilities. Volunteer opportunities also will be available.

Although the trips are free, participants make the “Pay-It-Forward Pledge” in which they take part in peer-to-peer grassroots fundraising efforts before and after the treks to create a large source of sustainability support.

For details, email davidvictorson@truenorthtreks.org or visit tntwaldeninstitute. org.

For information about the company in general, visit truenorthtreks.org, where one testimonial from someone named “Gina” reads: “This experience was, without exaggeration, absolutely life changing. I hiked into the woods of Montana feeling ravaged by the physical and emotional toll of cancer, and left feeling renewed, strong, brave, proud and at peace.”