On the Tip of the Toes from Mike McKay on Vimeo.

Cancer Therapy on the Magpie River

Young adult cancer survivors regain control on a gem of Quebecois whitewater

FILM BY MIKE MCKAY
STORY AND PHOTOS BY GUILLAUME ROY

Fifteen young adults who survived cancer had a life-changing adventure last summer on Quebec’s Magpie River, thanks to On the Tip of the Toes Foundation. Dumped by helicopter 60-plus miles from civilization, participants spend a week in the wilderness where they learned to live in the bush, swim in the rapids and paddle rafts and kayaks. All of this with one goal in mind: Get these young adults out of their comfort zones and help them take back control of their lives.

On the horizon, paddlers notice a rupture in the landscape. Drizzles splash on the rocks and the loud noise suggests a big obstacle ahead. "Forward hard," yells our guide, Yan Goyette. We need to build up speed to go down the 10-foot-high waterfall ahead of us.

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"Hold on," Goyette shouts as we reach the slide. Adrenaline spikes as we crash into the enormous wave that ends the rapid. Everyone screams with joy, looking back to the next raft entering the cascade.

"I can't believe we just went down a waterfall", shouts Tanya James, filled with emotions. Like the 14 other cancer survival participants taking part of the Tip of the toe Foundation expedition, Tanya is achieving things she never thought she could do.

Simply realizing a weeklong rafting expedition on the Magpie River, dubbed one of National Geographic’s top 10 whitewater rafting rivers of the world, and only seen by about a hundred paddlers per year, is already a big achievement. And this is especially true when most participants have little or no camping or rafting experience.

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With the helicopter ride, whitewater swimming, kayaking, rafting, paddleboarding, fishing, or simply living in the bush for a week, this trip was all about firsts. A great way to take them out of their comfort zone and help them build a new confidence, notes Mario Bilodeau, the Foundation's cofounder, who is also a cancer survivor.

If the adventure was scary for some, living with a group of strangers, without smartphones or WiFi, was the scariest of all for many. "By taking away all of their electronics, we want to break the rhythm. This gives them the opportunity to live differently and to build true relationships," explains Catherine Provost, one of the Foundation's project managers. Isolated in the great boreal forest, they learned to develop a connection with nature and to live in the present moment, while meeting people who went through the same hardships they did.

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"Cancer steals away a part of their lives, says Bilodeau. During the expeditions, we allow them to have fun, to dream, to be crazy, to jump into the water and to meet friends that really understand them. Nature and adventure allow them feel strong again and they go back home with a lot of confidence and a positive attitude."

For Marc-André Dufour, a Saguenay participant, the therapeutic adventure worked as planned. "I was scared I would not be able to follow the group, says the 20-year-old who had not yet finished his treatment when he went down the Magpie. After the first day rafting, I realized I was still able to do stuff and it gave me a lot of confidence. I don't want to be a spectator anymore. I want to participate and start doing the things I love again."

"If I was able to fight cancer and go down the Magpie River, I can do what I want in life," adds Valerie Bouchard, a Quebec City participant.

With the consent of the local indigenous community, the 15 adventurers also left their mark on the river history, naming a waterfall
With the consent of the local indigenous community, the 15 adventurers also left their mark on the river history, naming a waterfall "Chute Sur la Pointe des Pieds" (Tip of the Toe waterfall). "This great waterfall is a big challenge for paddlers going down the Magpie River, because we need to do a big portage or take hard decisions to find the right lines,” says Jean-François Bourdon, one of the guides on the expedition. “It is a good image to show your courage and prove that we can go through big challenges in life."

— Read a recent first-hand account of a young cancer survivor discovering the therapeutic benefits of whitewater on North Carolina’s Nantahala River.

See more of McKay’s recent film work in the release of ‘Jondachi.’