Paddling to Heal: 5 Lessons from Wilderness Therapy Canoe Expeditions

Teamwork

Four participants and one staff portaging a XL Tripper up the 1/4 mile tidal beach. Photo Credit: Kara Tyson

I once had a student come up to me after weeks of paddling in southeast Alaska to tell me he finally understood it, he finally got why he was there. With a big toothy grin, he said that he hadn't ever felt as accomplished as he had right then; his mind and body were thriving. We were nearing the end of a 64-day ocean canoeing and mountaineering expedition with Alaska Crossings, a youth wilderness therapy program, where I worked as a field guide for two years.

Before the expedition, this particular student had an apathetic perspective of the world. He was quite depressed, struggled with family dynamics at home, and on the program tried to get by with the bare minimum. The backcountry travel was hard for him; the first couple weeks he often refused to work for hours on end and used more expletives than I knew existed. The physical struggle became a metaphor for his life, only this time he wasn’t given the option to quit. He had to sit with the discomfort, and with the support of guides and his peers, he developed the mental capacity and physical determination to overcome it. He spoke of his experience in his graduation speech as a turning point in his life, it taught him perseverance, the value of a strong work ethic, and gave him an example of fortitude and success for him to have as a touchstone, available for him always to recall what is possible.

This student was not the only one to be transformed by a wilderness therapy program where hard work, of both the physical and mental varieties, allows youth to finish a course with a sense of accomplishment and newfound confidence. Here are five reasons why these trips are such powerful tools for healing and growth:

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Canoes lined out with the dropping tide. Photo Credit: Eliza Kate Wicks-Arshack

1. Pushing comfort-zones
Many of the youth we work with have never been camping and nearly none have been on an ocean canoeing expedition. They are in a foreign environment, in the company of unfamiliar people, and separated from the vices and crutches they relied on back home. We challenge them to be in an environment that requires them to be constantly learning, which looks different for everyone. In this novel context, youth are consistently being asked to adapt, to deal with adversity and conflict, and developing skills for their lives back home.

2. Teamwork
Simply being on a backcountry trip requires functioning as a group, but being on an ocean canoeing expedition in SE Alaska requires real teamwork. From wake-up to pillow-time the group works as a team to cook, travel, and make camp. Each group develops a routine that allows them to work like a well-oiled machine and accordingly members must learn techniques to deal with the inevitable conflict along the way.

3. Learn to have fun even when everything seems miserable
SE Alaska can be an incredibly uncomfortable place to spend extended periods at the mercy of the weather. We often tell participants, “Damp is the new dry.” Even with double Gore-Tex rain jackets and a rubber one on top, you’re bound to get wet and being wet for weeks on end can start to rub you the wrong way, literally. It’s easy to slip into a pity party of misery, however learning how to have fun despite the discomfort is key and a skill that is wildly useful and transferable to life in the frontcountry.

4. Newfound connection with the landscape
Being on expedition allows youth the fully emerge themselves in the wildness of nature. Without the comforts of civilization, youth experience weather patterns, the falling and rising of tides, the sun and moon cycles, and the presence of all other life forms. Tidal pool explorations ignite curiosity, encounters with a grizzly quickly develop humility, and youth overall develop a newfound sense of awe of the natural world.

sunstar

A participant found a Sunstar while exploring a tide pool. Photo Credit: Eliza Kate Wicks-Arshack

5. Perseverance and work ethic 
On expedition, groups must be fully self-reliant and carry on despite any road bumps along the way. Youth are expected to work hard and when they don’t, the feel the consequences first hand. For example, refusing to paddle results rolling into camp at dark or neglecting to pack your gear well results in a wet sleeping bag. These tangible experiences help youth learn the value of working well and hard and also create opportunities to persevere and overcome hardship.

Canoeing in Alaska

Eliza Wicks-Arshack paddling into the distance on a typical SE Alaska day. Photo credit: Buddy Holcombe

— For more information on Alaska Crossings, visit their website.

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