The Indigenous youth who completed a 12-day canoe trip along the Ingraham trail this week headed back to their communities a little fitter and tanned than before.
They also went home with a new set of wilderness skills, life lessons and a renewed sense of self-worth they will hold onto for years.
RELATED REPORTING: Ingraham Trail canoe trip brings together Inuit, Dehcho Indigenous youth
Twenty-four young people aged 14-17 and seven adult guides with Jackpine Paddle finished the trip at the Cameron River on July 27.
They stopped off in Yellowknife on July 29 before heading back to their homes in the Dehcho region and Nunavut, although five boys from Cambridge Bay flew home a day earlier.
The group paddled and portaged 60 km through Tibbitt Lake, Ross Lake, Upper and Lower Pensive Lakes and down the Cameron River.
For most of the teenagers, portaging was the hardest part of the adventure, and for Donald Oksokitok, from Kugaaruk, it was also the most enjoyable.
“(It was fun) working very hard and helping,” he said in the Yellowknife airport, an hour before his flight back to Nunavut. “There’s a lot of heavy loads to carry. Some portages are kind of long. We ran white-water rapids. That was fun too because of the speed and the danger!”
Oksokitok hadn’t paddled a canoe before in Nunavut and was glad he learned how during the trip.
Portaging is also a significant takeaway for Jovon Sanertanut, though he said the best thing about the trip was socializing.
“Making everyone else happy and making them laugh. It was great,” he said. “First they come as strangers, now they come as friends and then family.”
The Nunavut youth were recruited for the trip by the Ayalik Fund, and the Dehcho participants were brought in through the NWT Youth Corps – under the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs – and the Liidlii Kue First Nation in Fort Simpson.
Ethan Norwegian, from Fort Simpson, said his strongest memory of the trip is the canoeing and making new friends.
“Friendships became deeper. I learned how to write the Inuktitut syllabics a little bit (from the Inuit teens),” he said.
Ethan said he already knew a few of the Nunavut boys from a cadet camp in Whitehorse.
Portaging and braving the hot sun and occasional rainy day were challenges for Naaka Duntra, from Fort Liard.
But the young woman appreciated the experiences in nature as well.
“I loved the view of everything, the sunset and sunrise, sunny days without any buildings,” she said.
Among the values she absorbed through the trip, offering support to others was one of the most important.
“We have to take care of our friends. We have to be there when they feel homesick. That happened to some kids. From time to time I felt homesick but I got over it. Some of my friends tried to get me mad. I would be like, ‘There’s no point in getting mad. We’re on a trip for two weeks. The people you’re with you have to treat them like family.’”
Jackpine Paddle owner Dan Wong concurred with the youth that the difficulties of portaging played a prominent part in the trip.
“There were the normal canoe trip challenges such as wind, hot sun, bugs, minor injuries, white water as well as a lot of, and I emphasize a lot of portaging along wet rocks, through swamps and thick brush,” he said after driving the Dehcho youth back to Fort Simpson.
Portaging also proved to be an activity where one of the main goals of the trip – mutual support – was realized.
“As a team, we got the job done. When (some) people fell short, others came in to support them,” said Wong. “Literally like physically supporting them by holding up a canoe or carrying the heaviest bag but also emotionally supporting them by being a good listener or letting someone know we care about them.”
Wong emphasized the scale and significance of the trip the teenagers successfully undertook. It is one of the most remote canoe routes down the Ingraham Trail and would normally test the skills and resiliency of adults, let alone youth.
“It gave them a real sense of accomplishment for having overcome these challenges that are very tough but it shows that they’re also very tough,” he said. “But I think they learned that people care about them and we care about them.”
Of the many new challenges the group experienced on the trails and on the water, there were other things they had to leave behind for two weeks. No cellular service or access to mobile data removed the distractions of Instagram and TikTok. They could reconnect with themselves and focus on their new friends and the natural world, said Wong.
The pull of unhealthy habits was weakened when the teens’ cigarette supplies ran out after a few days.
“Many of them were using cigarettes or chew tobacco or drugs and alcohol on a regular basis. This was an opportunity where they had no access to those,” Wong said. “They began steps to manage that. I think a lot of them are at the age where the addiction isn’t very deep yet. It’s an opportunity for them to get off cigarettes after this break. Many of them expressed interest in doing that. They were proud that they felt healthier.
“And their sugar was reduced. I think many of them were also addicted to sugar and normally consumed a lot more than we gave them. We gave them some brownies and we baked a cake in a dutch oven and I think many of them were excited about learning how to bake outdoors.”
The trip was the first time Wong led an adventure of two different Indigenous groups. And despite the geographic and cultural differences between the Inuit and Dehcho youth, Wong is grateful that he witnesses those new connections.
“They got along exceptionally well. We played traditional hand games against each other. There was lots of competition between the two groups, like who could get on the water fastest in the morning,” he recalled. “But they made strong friendships that I think will endure. It was very organic and at times random. They connected in many different ways. It was a wonderful thing to see.”