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What is it about the experiences at Northwaters & Langskib (NWL) that inspire young people to write comments like these on program evaluations:

“It’s the only place in the world where I feel myself”

“I feel so at home here—like I know who I am and where I’m going”

What’s happening during a 3 ½ week program that is missing from their lives back home?

At home, young people can reinvent themselves several times in one day. The 13-year-old girl sitting at the breakfast table with her siblings is very different from the same 13-year-old girl seated with friends in the cafeteria. The 15-year-old boy visiting relatives at Thanksgiving is very different from the same 15-year-old boy in the locker room after football practice. Identity shifts occur often throughout a typical teenager’s day. From classrooms to the mall, the school bus to dance class, essay to Iphone, teenagers interact with a variety of people in a variety of settings, through an array of outlets every day. Parents, teachers, peers; home, school, subway; cell phone, laptop, zoom—the variables are limitless. But more often than not, no one individual really has time to see or interact with the “whole” child and subsequently that child rarely ends up feeling known for who they truly are or want to be.

Providing the time and experiences during adolescence for your child to be known, understood and honoured for their unique gifts is essential to their journey into adulthood.

At NWL, we have developed a series of programs to meet the specific needs of young people at different stages of maturity and development. In the context of a backcountry canoe trip, small groups of eight or ten teenagers along with their trip leaders travel through some of the most rugged and remote areas of northern Ontario and Quebec learning about the land, each other and most importantly about themselves.

Spending 20 days with a group of peers, facing the same challenges and moving towards the same ultimate goal is only a small piece of the journey. Once young people complete the initial work of learning the basic skills required for physically getting form point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ (paddling, portaging, setting up and taking down camp) they have TIME to begin the more important work of getting to know one another and being known.

Time. Now, there’s a concept. Rarely these days do young people have time to develop meaningful relationships with peers, mentors or elders in their busy, over-scheduled lives. The development and nurturing of relationships sometimes rely on brief text messages, one-hour classes or a family meal – a slow and at times unrewarding process. Having the time, support and environment to nurture, build and maintain relationships is a rarity indeed.

Similarly, teenagers seldom get the chance to work through conflict. Imagine a teenager without the ability to hang up on someone after a disagreement or slam a door when a relationship is challenged. On a canoe trip these avoidance techniques are simply not an option. Group members need to confront conflict and challenges head on in order to move forward with the journey. With the encouragement and support of both mentors and peers, individuals are given the tools they need to work through conflict, problem solve and most importantly, understand each other. They learn that part of being a member of a community is accepting the diversity within it. They learn that conflict and challenge can make both a group and an individual stronger and ultimately more successful.

The young people sharing a journey like this see each other in every light possible—exhausted after a long portage, relaxed and fulfilled watching the sunset, frustrated when things are not going their way, or full of adrenaline and giddy while jumping off a cliff into the crystal clear waters of a pristine lake. There is no option to retreat behind slammed doors or to shut down when the going gets tough.

At the end of a day on an NWL trip, groups will sit together around the fire sharing stories about the day or reflections from home. More information emerges for a ‘wholistic’ view of each member of the group. Puzzles are slowly put together—why one person has a difficult time dealing with conflict, why another uses humor to cover up their stress. These stories and insights allow each group member to be known. They are revealed for who they are and for who they want to be. And they are accepted. It is a freedom that many of them have longed to experience outside the home.

When trips return to basecamp, the results are very clear. Young people of all shapes and sizes hop out of their canoes gracefully and with confidence. Physically, they seem balanced in their bodies. Their faces beam with pride. Their smiles light up the beach. But the most rewarding part of their return is how they hold themselves within the larger community. Hearing their stories and watching them interact with peers, mentors, elders and family gives us an even greater sense of their journey and growth.

As experiential educators, we recognize that the need for each young person we work with to be known is key to the success of any program. With intentional programming that meets the developmental needs of the adolescent, Northwaters is an environment where elders, mentors and peers come together to understand the individual as a whole person. It is a place where young people are honoured for their gifts, celebrated and understood.

Simply put, one of the reasons young people write comments like “this place is magic, it’s the only place on earth where I feel totally myself” is because they have been given the opportunity to be just that—totally themselves. They do not need to reinvent themselves because who they are is totally enough.

Returning home with this empowering sense of self has a strong impact on their lives and relationships. Challenges that may have seemed impossible before, become ‘just another portage’. A conflict with a sibling or parent becomes an opportunity to understand each other and make the relationship stronger. When young people face the world with confidence and a clear understanding of who they are, anything seems possible. When the world understands that young person and they feel known within it, the possibilities are limitless.

– Jodi Browning, NWL Owner and Director