A Wilderness Trek for Jacob

A Wilderness Trek for Jacob

A few weeks ago, I received a Facebook post about Dr. Jerry Wetterling’s 22nd annual Wilderness Trek to raise funds for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center. After reading it, a flurry of questions came to mind. I wanted to know more about the history of the trek, who accompanied him, and how he had come up with the idea for a mountain trek fundraiser in the first place.

I decided to email Jerry to see if he would be willing to let me interview him for an upcoming story on my blog. He graciously agreed, and, in turn, posed a question of me. “Why don’t you just come along?” he asked.

Gulp. Was not prepared for that.

Suddenly, I had a lot more questions… like, how far do you hike? How in-shape does a person need to be? Is there some kind of “Mountain Survival 101” class you offer for newbies? And, most importantly, has anyone ever been eaten by a Grizzly bear?

Good heavens. Mountain girl, I am not.

BUT, before replying with an immediate, “No thanks, not ever,” I gave it some more thought. I looked at those people in the Facebook picture a little closer and wondered, who ARE these people? What’s their story? Hmm… maybe I CAN do this.

In reality, I realized there was no way I could possibly make it on this year’s trip. But the questions lingered. So, last week, after Jerry had returned, I gave him a call to ask how it had gone.

“Best ever,” he said. “It was honestly the best I’ve felt trekking in ten years.”

What he was really saying, and what I neglected to mention until now, is that Jerry, 66, just had his second knee replacement surgery last November. He climbed a 14,197 foot peak on two titanium knees and barely broke a sweat.

And I thought to myself… huh. Well, maybe I CAN do this thing.

I started in with my questions.


Where did you come up with the idea for a wilderness trek fundraiser?

“The idea started back in the early 1990s. Alma Hansen worked for the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, and her husband, Rick, had gone on a number of winter and summer treks for the American Lung Association of Minnesota. Their trek leader, Bill Simpson, was an experienced mountaineer and agreed to meet with Rick and me to discuss the possibility of starting something similar for the Jacob Wetterling Foundation.”

“Rick, Bill, and I got together at a Perkins restaurant somewhere in the Cities and came up with the idea of an annual Wilderness Trek. Our first trek was to Montana in 1994. We had 14 participants, and that was the first and only year we ever saw a bear. It was the first evening, and after hiking in a ways, we had stopped to set up camp for the evening. We spotted a black bear while we were putting up our tents and one of the ladies in our group was so scared she never slept all night. The next morning, Bill and I took her and her sister back down to Yellowstone, where they spent the rest of the week shopping and sightseeing.”

When did you make the switch from Montana to Colorado?

“The first three years, 1994 to 1996, we were in Montana. In 1997, we switched to New Mexico, but I ended up having to back out at the last minute because my father passed away. In 1998 and 1999, we went to Colorado, then switched to Red Lodge, Montana in 2000. In 2001, we switched back to the Buena Vista area of Colorado and have returned there ever since.”

Who are the other “trekkers” who accompany you?

“This year we had four repeat-trekkers (besides myself) and three first-timers.”

  • Bill – Our trek leader and guide. He has gone every year, and plans the route, transportation, food, and supplies. He also provides camping equipment as needed. He has been on numerous treks, including international excursions to New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and much of Europe.
  • Jennifer – A third-time trekker who works with Jerry at his chiropractic office in St. Joseph. She started out as a “newbie” and has now become a seasoned, experienced mountaineer.
  • Tim – A tenth-time trekker who played soccer and hockey with Jacob. He started out going on the annual trek with his father, Gary, who was a good friend of the Wetterling family. Sadly, Gary died suddenly of a heart attack in 2013. His death hit the whole group very hard, and they are thankful that Tim continues to join them in his dad’s memory.
  • Tom – A past trekker from Hastings who has been hiking and camping with Bill for several years.
  • Duane – A first-time trekker who was “recruited” by his wife (she did the Trek in 2011). Duane is a Registered Nurse and lives in the Twin Cities.
  • Joan – A first-time trekker and a friend of Duane’s. Joan is a Nurse Practitioner and also lives in the Twin Cities.
  • Erin – A first-time trekker and daughter of Joan Jones.

Have Patty and the kids ever joined you?

“Patty didn’t go in the early years because we tried not to be away from our kids at the same time. Our daughter, Amy, went two years ago. Trevor has gone two or three times, but he usually just joins us for a few days… not for the entire trek.”

How far do you hike?

“I would have to say this year was probably our most challenging year. We were in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness Area, which is south of Salida, Colorado, near Westcliffe. Our plan was to set up our base camp near Lake Comanchee, and stop halfway the first night. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any water near the halfway point, so we ended up having to hike all the way to the lake, which took about four hours, carrying all our gear.”

“We spent the first few days backpacking, taking day hikes to the ridge and Lake Venable. On our last day, Thursday, we climbed Mount Belford, which is a 14,197 foot peak. This is always a challenge because the trail ends at 9,500 feet, then there’s a steep climb to 14,000 feet. The trek back down was always the hardest for me, and very painful because of my bad knees. But this year, I felt the best ever!”


After I hung up with Jerry, he encouraged me to contact Bill Simpson, their trek leader, to get his input on the trip. I had a few more questions for Bill.


Can you explain how the pledge process works? How much is each trekker asked to raise?

“Each participant is asked to raise a minimum of $300 for JWRC. Many get pledges or simply make a personal donation. In addition, they share all the trek costs at $150 a piece. That covers all expenses, including transportation, food, camp fees, permits, camp equipment, etc. So, all the money raised goes directly to JWRC.”

What was the most memorable moment of the trip?

“I like the challenge of getting to the summit of a 14,000 foot peak at the end of our Trek. It’s always a struggle, especially the first time, but we stress acclimatization and learning basic mountaineering skills leading up to the climb, so we have a very high success rate and everyone gets to experience that great feeling of accomplishment. But I also just love being in the mountains with such giving and generous friends. Every year we wonder if it will be our last, but we’re still going strong after 22 years!”


To answer my questions about how much money had been raised, Jerry encouraged me to contact Alison Feigh, Program Manager at JWRC. As it turns out, this gal is pretty dang extraordinary in her own right.

Alison was a classmate of Jacob’s at North Middle School in St. Cloud. On the day of his abduction, she happened to be on vacation in Australia visiting her mother’s family. When they returned to St. Joseph, the town was in full-on chaos. She was so profoundly moved by Jacob’s kidnapping that she actually went on to design her own major at St. Olaf College, focusing on missing children.

Read more about Alison’s story here:


How much was raised for the 2015 Wilderness Trek?

$3,295 has been collected so far (but with pledges, that number is closer to $7,000)

How much has been raised overall?

$152,893 through 2014

How are the funds used?

“We use the donations for our victim assistance program and our prevention education programs. We don’t charge families for our victim assistance services, as the last thing someone needs when they are in crisis is a request for payment. We also get requests from schools and youth serving organizations that need training, but do not have a budget to cover honorariums. These donations help cover those needed services.”

Can people still make a donation?

“Absolutely! Go to https://foundation.gundersenhealth.org/protectkids and use the drop down designation for the Wilderness Trek to add donations to their fund.”

Anything else you’d like to add?

“We are so thankful for the efforts of the JWRC Trekkers. We are able to do even more in prevention and response because of this group. The combination of Bill’s leadership, Jerry’s heart, and each Trekker’s sacrifice of time, talent, and energy has made such a difference in our ability to serve families. We remain grateful for their amazing support.”


One final thought. I encourage everyone reading this post to make a donation to this year’s Wilderness Trek.

What many people don’t know is that Jerry and Patty Wetterling started the Jacob Wetterling Foundation on Jacob’s 12th birthday – February 17, 1990. It was just four months after their son’s abduction, but with amazing support from their community, the Jacob Wetterling Foundation gave everyone a chance to channel their anger and sadness into something positive.

Today, the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center operates under the umbrella of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, offering a 24/7 Victim Assistance Helpline, as well as support, advocacy, and resources for individuals, families and communities around issues related to missing persons, abuse and exploitation.

For more information, or to donate, please visit:

Front: Jennifer, Tom, Erin, Joan
Back: Duane, Bill, Jerry, Tim




Read Comments