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.


  1. This is FANTASTIC, I work with youth at my church, most of my youth are from really hard urban environments. We started a wilderness program with them and the only time we have meaningful break through is when we are outdoors, hiking, camping or backpacking. Great work Ken!

    1. Thanks Melissa. I've read a bit about your youth group on; you're doing great work! My next goal is to develop a winter program with snowshoeing day trips and maybe backcountry skiing/snow boarding. The program coordinator for Bridges is an amazing guys and he's interested in being my guinea pig...I mean pilot partner for a four or five day winter camping program that would be hut based and culminate in the kids sleeping outside in a tent the last night. Or maybe we can fly them down to San Francisco. It'd definitely be warmer!

    2. We never have snow down in the immediate SF Bay Area, great for having an outdoor program (mostly hiking, camping, backpacking) with youth all year round, since most of them have very little outdoor experience.

      More than welcome to visit my area! That would be great to start a winter snowshoeing program, I want to learn that myself before taking youth out! We use a great non-profit for gear. Check them out, they are local but just to throw some ideas out.

    3. Winter is my favorite season, but for the program I'm going to have to find a way to get proper winter clothing for the youth we work with. Snowshoeing is a great way to get out in the winter--zero learning curve.

      I've checked out BAWT, and got the idea for a gear library from it. In a lot of ways, the U.S. is so far ahead of us in realizing the value of getting all kids, regardless of economic standing, out into the woods. In Canada we leave stuff like that up to the government, and it can't afford to do that kind of stuff anymore.


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