ALS Challenge-Once more into the wild

Just heard from Mike that he had an incredible trip. I'm so happy that his life has been an adventure. He has experienced so much beauty, so many amazing things. It is hard to know that the end of the journey will be one filled with so much pain and suffering. Hope that you take a moment to read this incredible story of courage, living life big, and friendship. This story was originally posted here.

Gardiner man with ALS embarks on what may be his final wilderness journey

By WHITNEY BERMES, Chronicle Staff Writer

Mike Yochim asked for help up from a blue chair in his living room with windows overlooking a cloud-covered Electric Peak. Using a walker, he slowly moved across the room to the staircase. The 47-year-old pushed the walker into the corner and slowly started walking down the steps, using the handrails for balance. “I’m going to be right in front of you, just in case,” said Yochim’s friend, Sean Miculka, a few steps ahead. Yochim descended gingerly past framed photos of his many outdoor adventures -- from the Grand Canyon and Tasmania to his beloved Yellowstone. Once downstairs, Miculka helped Yochim into the garage, where Yochim’s blue recumbent tricycle awaited him. The custom-built tricycle has been Yochim’s main source of exercise since being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.

Yochim pedaled the block or so down a dirt road to Miculka’s house. His friend walked next to him along the way. There, the two met up with Josh Becker and Eric Compas, who stood amid a kayak, a canoe and piles of gear that would eventually be loaded into the two boats. The day before, Becker and Compas flew in from Minnesota and Wisconsin, respectively, to prepare for a week-long adventure in Yellowstone National Park with Yochim and Miculka. The trip will likely be Yochim’s last into the wilderness.

Starting with the National Park Service in 1986, Yochim’s career included several summer and winter seasons giving bus and snow coach tours. In both Yellowstone and Yosemite, he worked in planning, including snowmobile issues in Yellowstone. Yochim earned his master’s degree at the University of Montana and received his doctorate in geography at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. His dissertation was turned into two books, “Yellowstone and the Snowmobile” and “Protecting Yellowstone: Science and the Politics of National Park Management.” Yochim’s love for the outdoors is insatiable. He routinely hiked more than 500 miles each year and has hiked all 1,200 miles of trails in Yellowstone and most of the trails in Grand Teton National Park, the Gallatin National Forest, the Shoshone National Forest and the northern half of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. “He’s done a tremendous amount of backcountry hiking,” Compas said.

The first ALS symptom Yochim detected was trouble with his speech. It was February 2013. At first, the issues were nearly undetectable by his loved ones. “Only I could tell,” Yochim said. “But by the end of that month, it was obvious.” In addition to problems speaking, Yochim’s small muscles began twitching endlessly, and he had an enhanced tendency to cry. Last September, Yochim was diagnosed with the disease. Commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms of the disease, which come in multiple forms, include muscle weakness, twitching and cramping of muscles, thick speech, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing and walking, and weakness in hands, legs, feet or ankles, among others. 

An estimated 30,000 Americans may have the disease at any given time, according to the ALS Association. Life expectancy for those diagnosed with the disease is two to five years on average. There is no cure. Since Yochim was diagnosed, the disease has slowly but steadily progressed. As recently as March, Yochim could hike 10 miles a day with 2,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. “Now I struggle to walk 5 feet unaided,” he said. He uses a walker all the time and has an electric wheelchair on order. “My speech and swallowing ability are hanging in there,” Yochim said, though people do have a hard time understanding him. “My fingers are so weak, I can’t pull the stems off of cherries or button my shirts,” he said. Yochim hired a housemaid who helps clean his two-story home in Gardiner, where he lives alone. He’s added railings and handles throughout the house to help him get around. Friends and family have stepped up to help since his diagnosis. “How blessed I am to have so many nice friends and parents who are up to the task,” Yochim said.

 However, he said this winter he might move to Missouri to be with family to get care full time. But one of the biggest adjustments? Slowing down. “I’ve had to adjust my routine and expectation that everything will take a lot longer,” Yochim said. “A lot longer.” Lunch takes an hour, as does showering and getting dressed in the morning. “Because everything takes so long, I have less and less time to relax,” Yochim said. “ALS is worse than almost any cancer,” Yochim said. “No hope, no effective treatment, only imprisonment in one’s own body. This is partly because there has not been much funding for research. “Until now,” he said. “This ice bucket thing is the biggest cause for hope that ALS sufferers have ever had.”

Last Friday, Yochim and his crew started their trip at Bridge Bay on Yellowstone Lake. From there, they took a shuttle to the tip of Promontory Point. Outfitted with one kayak and one canoe, they plan to travel southeast along the lake, stopping at campsites for two nights at a time. This Friday, the group will come out at Sedge Bay along the park’s east entrance road. Despite his physical setbacks, Yochim, as he has always done, had a heavy hand in organizing the trip. In January, the plan for August’s trip had been to be a hike. Due to Yochim’s deterioration, however, they decided this spring to change it to a horseback trip. But Yochim’s neck couldn’t handle the motion on a horse. So then it became a boat trip.

As the crew prepared for their journey Thursday, they each talked about what the adventure means to them. All agreed on one thing. It’s bittersweet. It will be the first time the four take a trip into the wilderness together, but the reality is it’s the end of an era for Yochim. “I don’t even want to say it to myself,” Compas said. “This is probably going to be the last wilderness trip I take with Mike.” “There’s a sense of urgency that this trip happen,” Becker said. “It’s huge on a lot of levels,” Miculka said. As he listened to his friends talk about the importance of the journey they were to embark on the next day, Yochim quietly cried, softly wiping away tears with a tissue.

Growing up, Yochim spent time camping in national parks with his parents and three brothers. It’s where Yochim’s passion for the wilderness, for learning about it, for protecting it, for spending time in, it began. “I wanted always to preserve and protect those attributes that I found, and still find, to be so compelling -- beauty and wilderness,” Yochim said. “And that’s in part what I hope to encounter on this trip. To soak up as much of Yellowstone’s magnificence and tranquility as I can, so that when I am confined to a wheelchair, I can close my eyes, bring that beauty and wildness to mind, and smile and relax.”

Whitney Bermes can be reached at wbermes@dailychronicle.com or 582-2648. Follow her on Twitter at @wabermes.