While the Covid pandemic is keeping many of us apart, it’s bringing some vulnerable youth from distant places together to discover the land.
Two groups of 12 young people aged 14-17 from communities in the Dehcho region of NWT and from Nunavut left for a 12-day canoe trip down the Ingraham Trail on Thursday.
They, along with seven adult guides, launched from Tibbitt Lake in the afternoon and will paddle a 60-km route through Ross Lake, Upper and Lower Pensive Lake and down the Cameron River, said Dan Wong, owner of Jackpine Paddle and one of the organizers of the trip.
Of the many outdoor adventures the professional canoeist has undertaken, this one is the first of its kind for him.
“This is the first time I’ve done a trip that brings together two different groups of Indigenous youth. This will be the longest and biggest youth project we’ve ever done,” he said. “It’ll be the first time canoeing for many of these youth and the longest, most remote trips they’ve ever been on. They’re no strangers to being on the land and going out into the bush but this is a different kind of travel than what they’re used to.”
The young paddlers will receive canoe safety training and there will be a focus on lake and white-water skills.
Jackpine is leading the trip but it has taken months to organize and it involved several groups.
The NWT Youth Corps – under the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs and the Liidlii Kue First Nation in Fort Simpson – recruited the Dehcho youth.
“There’s nothing better to do and I thought canoeing would be a good experience,” said Ethan Norwegian, 14, from Fort Simpson.
“My mom saw a Facebook post about it. I asked her to sign me up. I’m pretty excited. It’s canoeing and I haven’t been out on the water for two years.”
Ethan is looking forward to meeting other kids his own age, and said he already got reacquainted with a few of the participants from Nunavut whom he met in the past at cadet camp in Whitehorse.
The Nunavut side of the expedition was put together by the Ayalik Fund, founded in 2015 by longtime Northerners David and Laurie Pelly. The privately-funded group helps organize outdoor adventure trips for young Inuit.
About 20 years ago, the pair adopted an Inuit boy named Eric Ayalik Okalitana, who enjoyed numerous outdoor adventures during his life before he tragically died when he was 19 due to sudden cardiac arrhythmia, according to the Fund’s website.
“Eric faced challenges growing up, but his maturity, self-esteem and confidence were enhanced greatly by the sort of youth programs Ayalik Fund grantees will experience.”
The Nunavut participants in the trip were chosen by community coordinators who recruit youth who could benefit most from an outdoor adventure.
“Kids who would probably not have access to such experiences given social and economic circumstances and very often kids who might not think they would be picked,” said David. “We’re sort of aiming for that middle tier, which is the larger portion of the population who are less likely to put themselves forward but who certainly stand to benefit.”
Joshua Kaosoni, 15, from Cambridge Bay, is glad to be doing the trip with other Indigenous youth and hopes to make new friends.
“I feel excited because it’s my first time doing a canoe trip. I’ve canoed in Nunavut before but not in NWT,” he said.
Andrew Anavilok, 17, also from Cambridge Bay, has more experience with canoeing and has done several trips in Ontario.
“I’m excited and I’d like to meet new friends,” he said, adding that if he was back in Cambridge Bay he would pass the time by staying at home and fixing his bikes.
Based on David’s experiences with Ayalik, he said the main benefit to youth participants is the self-confidence they gain from outdoor trips.
“We’ve had kids who dropped out of school and then went back to school. We’ve had kids who were skating on thin ice, you could say, and after two or three weeks of a backpacking or canoe trip it changed their value system.
“Often there’s not enough for them to do (in their communities). This gives them something to do and it makes them feel good about themselves because they realize what they’re able to do. They can become comfortable in a new environment and meet the physical challenges of the trip and meet new people.”
David estimates the total cost to send the dozen Inuit youth on the Ingraham Trail trip came to about $40,000. The Ayalik Fund relies on private donors and doesn’t use any government funding.
On Thursday morning, when the group gathered at Fred Henne Territorial Park to pack their gear and learn canoe handling skills, the Inuit and Dehcho kids shyly stuck to their respective groups. But they didn’t hesitate to get involved in the physical preparations, which is in line with the purpose of the trip.
No supply drops will be left or delivered to the adventurers. They will carry all of their food and supplies with them.
“We’ll get the kids involved in all the camp work including portaging. We’ll see how that goes,” said Wong.
In groups of twos and threes they carried canoes down to the beach at Long Lake and then practised tossing ‘throw bags’ that contained lifeline ropes, used in case someone falls into the water.
“I wanted to do something this summer since the Covid pandemic hit. This was the only trip I could find,” said Naaka Duntra, 17, from Fort Liard. “I want to learn more about canoeing and paddling. I want to see if I can make it on the water.”