Thursday, 29 August 2013

Crossing the Divide One Teen at a Time: Taking Disadvantaged Youth to the Backcountry

It's not often in this world that we're given one of those transformational moments that we know will change us. My last one came as I was standing on Molar Pass in the Canadian Rockies, one of my favorite areas of any mountains anywhere, with six teenage males who had all been convicted of violent crimes. Two were silently sitting and looking down the valley we'd just hiked up. The other four were running across the pass, scrambling up and down rock bands and boulders.

For me, the moment confirmed the career transition I'm making, from marketing to part-time (hopefully full-time at some point) executive director of Crossing the Divide Experience. The combinations of sheer joy, pride and awe on the youths' faces told me that yes, getting these kids out into the mountains was important. It was also far more rewarding than I'd expected it to be.

A small non-profit, Crossing the Divide takes disadvantaged youth from a variety of backgrounds camping. Depending on the youth and their level of fitness, this can mean anything from car camping and day hikes to actual backcountry backpacking. I'd met this group at Lake Louise the night before, and we'd spent the night at the Lake Louise campground. Part of an open custody program where they live in a small group home instead of a larger institution, all six were...excited to be out of the house. Excited to be camping. Excited to be "normal" again, if only for a few days. When I got up to go to the bathroom around 2 a.m., they were still talking in and between their three-person tents.

By the time we reached Molar Pass around 5 p.m., they'd been up since 7 a.m., carried full backpacks 6 km to the Mo5 Mosquito Creek backcountry campsite, set up camp, and then hiked the last 4 km to the pass. And they were still so excited they were running.

What struck me the most was not the youths' excitement, though. It was how they responded to the mountains and nature like any other kid. If anything, their response was stronger. The longer we were in the backcountry, the more they seemed to let the multiple layers of their guard down. The more they seemed like any other kids.

Don't get me wrong, these teenagers all inflicted various kinds and amounts of physical and emotional pain on their victims, and they need to be held accountable for that. In candid moments they acknowledged that they shouldn't get a "Get Out of Jail Free" card because they're kids. But beneath the bravado, the poor decision making that got them where they are and that could keep them there, their current inability to live within society's norms...they have the same untapped potential as teens that haven't committed violent or any other crimes. And they have the same right to realize that potential.

If anything, going to the mountains should be mandatory for these kids. Documented benefits of spending time in nature include lower rates of recidivism, lower rates of addiction issues, lower rates of mental health issues, lower rates of aggression, higher academic outcomes...That, and taking six teens and two of their agency workers to the mountains for four days is far cheaper than locking them up, and can only benefit them and society in the long run.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Lessons from Nature: 2 Ants 1 Hornet

Usually I tell my boys that we can learn a lot from nature and animals. Like patience and perseverance from a glacier. Discipline and hard work from a beaver. Teamwork from ants...not so much.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Portraits of My Ever-Changing Outdoor Family

Karst Springs.

What is a family?

As I've written about previously, I'm in the process of a divorce. This has forced me to look at myself in brutally honest ways I wouldn't have otherwise--and I consider myself a reasonably self-aware kind of guy. Who am I without my wife of 20 years? Who am I without the label "husband"? Was I the husband I thought I was? I'm still a father and I'll always be a father, but am I a good father? Have I failed my kids by not being able to hold their family together? Is it my fault their family is broken?

Deep down, I believed I'd failed my sons because their family was broken, even though I knew it takes two to make a marriage work or not. In many ways, throughout our four-and-a-half years of separation, my wife and our sons and I had functioned as a family even though I lived in a different house. For the last year, we went to movies together, went dog sledding and heli-snowshoeing and skiing together, even went on a family vacation to Disneyland and the Jean-Michel Cousteau Family Camp on Catalina Island last summer. Instead of making the kids shuffle their lives between our two houses, I "had" them every second weekend. Weekdays, I'd go to "their" house in the morning to get them out of bed, make them breakfast, and get them off to school one week. The next week, I'd go after work, make them supper, help them with homework, put them to bed and then go home. Usually my wife would be there and we'd work together.

Initially, I thought nothing would change when we decided to get divorced. It wasn't until a few weeks later that reality hit me, and I realized everything had changed. It had to. Shortly after we got home from Catalina Island last summer, I knew that we could never reconcile and be happy, healthy individuals even though we got along so well on so many levels. But I couldn't voice it, and I was stuck in a limbo where I felt like I kind of had my family back even as I knew the feeling wasn't real. Still, I thought I was prepared emotionally when we decided to divorce, and I would have been...if nothing had changed. When I realized how deeply and completely I'd been in denial about the changes that had to happen, I began to grieve what I perceived as my losses. One of biggest was the loss of my family, my boys' family. Even the illusion of it that I'd been clinging to was gone.

So I changed the start of the Big Grey Rocks description from "We're an outdoor family" to "I'm an outdoor dad. My sons are outdoor kids." This despite the fact that their mom had rarely come hiking with us. Hiking was a bond shared between a dad and two sons, and the divorce wouldn't affect our family life on the trail.

Then last Sunday we went hiking with a single mom and her two sons. When we reached the end of the trail, she said, "I'll take a family portrait." Mack, Michael and I posed, the picture was taken, and I didn't think about it again.

Later that night I got an email from the mom. Before the hike, she'd seen that I'd deleted "We're an outdoor family" from this blog. When she'd offered to take a "family portrait," she'd chosen her words carefully. Then she proceeded to respectfully challenge my thinking on what constituted a family. It was a wake up call I desperately needed. I knew I was a good dad. I knew I was a better me than I had been in years. What I didn't know was that I had an opportunity to build even stronger bonds with my two boys--family bonds--if only I could see it.

I see it now. My family isn't gone. It's changed just like everything changes. Nothing is permanent. The Rocky Mountains in which I find my peace, and that I bring my boys to for their benefit and mine, aren't permanent. They're in a constant state of growth and erosion, and for some reason I find comfort in that.

I'm starting to find comfort in the fact that we're a family of three now, my two sons and me, and we have before us the opportunity to change and grow as a family. Thank you for helping me see, S.

C-Level Cirque
Skyline Luge at the Winsport Olympic Park
Upper Kananaskis Lake
Corri-Robb Trail
Fullerton Loop
Tubing at Lake Louise
Kula Kai Caverns, Hawaii
Pocaterra Cirque
Pocaterra Cirque
Ptarmigan Cirque
Boulder Field on Little Lougheed

Monday, 19 August 2013

Hiking with Kids in Kananaskis: Watridge Lake, Karst Springs & Wild Strawberry Fields Forever

There's nothing like eating a wild strawberry that you just picked on the side of a mountain trail to ground you. And yesterday I needed some grounding.

The trail to Watridge Lake and Karst Springs in Kananaskis isn't what I'd typically pick for a kids hike. An old logging road for the first TK kilometers to the lake, it lacks the rocks, stream hopping and other things I look for to add some adventure and fun for the kids. Only from the lake to the springs does it turn into a "real" trail, with half-log boardwalks across a boggy area and water falls so beautiful that even kids think they're cool. But three weeks before I'd scrambled up Mt. Shark, the approach to which is the trail to Watridge Lake and Karst Springs. I'd never seen so many wild
strawberries in one place. They lined the sides of the old logging road for almost its entire length. And the tiny strawberries packed the most intense strawberry flavor I'd ever tasted.

Click here for more kids hikes in Banff, Kananaskis, Kootenay and other areas of the Canadian Rockies. 

I expected the 3.7 km hike to the lake to take about an hour. It took almost twice that long. A few minutes after leaving the Mt. Shark parking lot I pointed out one of the wild strawberry bushes beside the trail, and the kids were engrossed. So we
shuffled along in a half crouch on the edge of path, eating the tiny red bursts of flavor as we went. Besides being a grounding experience, it was also a great bonding experience for Mack, Michael and myself. We shared strawberries that we picked, compared the flavor of one with that of another, and truly connected.

It was after 1 p.m. when we finally stopped for lunch beside Watridge Lake. Maybe they were full from the strawberries or maybe they'd found the experience grounding and energizing like I had, but Mack, Michael and the
two other kids in the group barely ate anything before they were off. From the lake, a narrow boardwalk made of a single line of logs that have been cut in half leads over a small boggy area for a couple hundred meters. At the end of the boardwalk, you find yourself in the cool shade of the forest, with the roaring of the falls somewhere ahead of you. In a couple minutes we'd reached the falls. Ten minutes after that, we were at Karst Springs, where the water literally appears from nowhere out of the side of the mountain.

Barely10 minutes later we were off again and headed back to the cars. Mack said the strawberries had made it his favorite hike yet. For me, the strawberries were definitely tasty, but more importantly they brought all three of us closer together at a time when we really needed it.

Oh yeah, the grizzly that walked across the road in front of us on the drive home was pretty cool too. And thanks to Shulamit for the "Wild Strawberry Fields Forever" line!

Distance: 7.4 km return to the lake, 9 km return to the springs
Time on the trail: 4-5 hours
Height gain: 60 m to the lake, 150 m to the springs
Driving Directions: From Canmore, take Spray Trail south to Mt. Engadine Lodge. Turn right on Mt. Shark road, continue past the lodge, keeping right at all intersections, until you reach the Mt. Shark parking lot. The trailhead is behind the information board near the parking lot entrance.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Luging with Kids: The Skyline Luge at Calgary's Winsport Olympic Park

Okay, so it's not hiking or some other "outdoor" activity, but the Skyline Luge at Calgary's Winsport Olympic Park is too much fun not to write about. And as a writer, I have to give credit where it's due. The tagline "Once is Never Enough" is absolutely true.

Calling the Skyline Luge a "luge" is a bit of a stretch, though. Starting at the top of the ski hill, you race a speedy little gravity-powered go-kart type of thing down a 1.8 km concrete path that winds down to the base of the chairlift, losing 120 m of elevation in the process. And fun it is. You're low to the ground, the curves are tight and passing has all the thrills I imagine a driver in F1 experiences. Best of all, it's something the whole family can do together. Kids 6 years who are 110 cm tall or over can ride by themselves. Younger and smaller kids have to ride with an adult.

Michael is 8 and Mack is 13, so we were all able to drive our own luges. In total we did three runs and, not surprisingly, the boys beat me every time but once. I guess my inner child isn't much of a speed demon.

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