Facing life in wheelchair, man makes last stand in U.P.

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Ishpeming — Born without legs, Nate Denofre made a life from defying expectations: walking, running, playing high school football, hiking over steep mountains.

But his body is wearing out.

Nate Denofre is traveling by himself in the U.P., lugging a 70-pound canoe and a backpack nearly as tall as he is. “My whole life, I’ve heard ‘you can’t, you can’t, you can’t,’ ” he said. “I just don’t listen. If another man can do it, so can I.”

With two hip replacements, a dozen surgeries and a degenerating spine, Denofre, 34, may soon be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Before that happens, the avid outdoorsman has embarked on one last grand excursion into the Upper Peninsula woods.

For three months, he is traveling by himself, lugging a 70-pound canoe and a backpack nearly as tall as he is.

He's calling it Nate's Last Stand.

"My whole life, I've heard 'you can't, you can't, you can't,' " he said. "I just don't listen. If another man can do it, so can I."

Denofre's friends rallied around his last hurrah, raising $2,200 for his expenses.

The friends said they weren't surprised by the ambitious trip. They said Denofre knows the difference between living and being alive.

"He takes great pride in being his own man, doing things on his terms," said former classmate Erik Conradson, 34. "Success for him is being his own man."

When Denofre's mother was pregnant with him, the lining of the amniotic sac was somehow ruptured and bands of tissue wrapped around his legs, preventing them from developing.

Doctors told his parents he might never walk, but within several years, he was using prosthetics to do so.

Denofre has seldom stopped moving since. And there's no place he enjoys traveling more than the wilderness.

During his senior year at Ishpeming High School in the U.P., the self-professed hillbilly was named Super Yooper for his love of the outdoors.

His favorite movie is "Jeremiah Johnson," about a man forging a life in the Rockies in the mid-1800s.

Denofre loves going deep into the forest, lost in the solitude, away from people judging him by his handicap, he said. The mountains don't see a legless man — just someone trying to scale them.

"The woods don't judge a person for what they look like," he said. "It's pretty bad I have to go a million miles into the woods to be happy."

In the brush his biggest worry is deciding whether to hook a fish with a worm or one of his flies.

The reserved, barrel-chested Denofre doesn't give up easily.

Looking for work as a machinist, he lost several jobs to less experienced people. One boss even referred to his "little handicap."

But he persevered and eventually found steady work.

He owns a wheelchair but has never sat in it. He sometimes loads it with firewood to take to the house.

"He's been able to do everything he wanted to do," said Jamie Maki, another former classmate. "He does it in a different way, but he always found a way."

Maki, who has rheumatoid arthritis in her feet and legs, is inspired by Denofre. His refusal to be limited by his missing limbs showed she could handle her affliction.

But even Denofre has his limits.

He was finally waylaid not by his legs, but by his back.

His active lifestyle gradually wore out five spinal discs and ruptured another that presses against his sciatic nerve. His spine is like a shock absorber that no longer works, doctors told him.

In 2012, doctors wanted to replace the discs with artificial ones, but Denofre demurred.

The operation has a success rate of only 30 percent and Denofre, after a dozen surgeries on his legs and hips, had had enough of operating rooms.

"I've been trying to get away from it for 34 years," he said about his handicap. "I fought my whole life to do what everyone else does."

Denofre stands under a tarp with his dog and traveling companion, Hugo, to avoid the rain at Silver Lake in Champion Township. Born without legs, Denofre says he loves going deep into the forest, and getting lost in the solitude. “The woods don’t judge a person for what they look like,” he said.

Spinal injuries led to disability

After working most of his life, Denofre went on disability in 2013.

He had always prided himself on being self-sufficient, but 10-hour work shifts sometimes left his body frozen with pain.

Saying goodbye to work was one thing. Bidding farewell to the woods would be quite another.

Every winter, he couldn't wait for the season to end so he could escape into the woods.

His perfect day begins with the sun rising over the Huron Mountains, canoeing down a river with nothing but a rucksack, cooking rainbow trout on a campfire and falling asleep beside a gurgling stream.

"You can take the hillbilly out of the woods, but you can't take the woods out of the hillbilly," he joked.

Before retreating to the wheelchair, he wanted one last excursion into the wilderness.

He had never been to Isle Royale off the U.P. coast, so he thought about going there for a week.

But seven days wouldn't be enough. He wanted a grand finale he would remember for years. He began adding other places to his itinerary and, by the time he was finished, he had drawn up a three-month trip.

During that time, he will crisscross remote stretches of the northwestern U.P., clambering over tree-covered mountains and navigating swampy streams while hacking the vegetation with a machete.

He will fish rivers that haven't been fished in 20 years, and explore silver mines that haven't been visited in a century.

He couldn't wait to get started.

"69 days, 9 hr and 25 minutes and this begins!" he wrote on his Facebook page in February.

Nathan Denofre took this photo of a sunset on the lake and posted it on the Nate's Last Stand Facebook page on May 10th during his final trek across the U.P. -- His comment, "My evening show."

No regrets about active life

He began the trip May 3 by slipping his canoe into Silver Lake Basin 15 miles northwest of Ishpeming.

He had a rocky start with high winds slapping him against rocks during the first week.

It's also been cold, with snow falling, and Hugo, his pit bull puppy, keeps stealing his blanket.

He said he has no regrets about his active life, even if it may have hastened his physical woes.

Paraphrasing poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Denofre said he wouldn't have lived any other way.

"A candle lit at both ends shall never last a night," he said. "But a candle lit at both ends gives off a glorious light."

FDonnelly@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @francisXdonnell

How to help

Anyone wishing to help Nate with his medical bills or his plans to form a nonprofit that would teach disabled kids about the outdoors can make a contribution at gofundme.com/nateslaststand.