In the Wilderness, Troubled Teens Get a Respite From Reality

For at-risk Alaskan students, a seven-week hiking and canoeing program offers the rare chance to experience security, a full stomach, and a positive outlook on the future.
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Meagan Campbell

When Damian was 13, he showed up for an expedition in the Alaskan wilderness wearing the only T-shirt he owned. Like many of the other teenage boys wandering into the equipment warehouse, he had no change of boxers or socks, not a single granola bar or Band-Aid, no toothpaste or bug spray or waterproof boots, and nobody at home who would worry about him.

“I couldn’t fix my childhood, but this was going to be sort of close to summer camp,” he says.   

Seven canoes would soon fill up with guides and boys suited for nearly seven weeks of paddling and hiking—through river valleys, fjords, glaciers, and extinct volcanoes. The program, Alaska Crossings, began in 2001 for at-risk Alaskan teens who have a diagnosed mental illness.

“I was medicated for everything,” says Damian. “Chronic depression, PTSD, bipolar, ADD, schizophrenia with delusional-whatever-the-fuck.”

For him, life had been warped by a mother who had locked him in a loft; for many of his group-mates, it had been thrown off course by gang violence in their urban neighborhoods or repeated rape in their villages of 80 people. Circumstances like theirs were reflected in the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey released last Friday, which found that, in 2013, Alaska had above-average rates of youth who carry weapons, have non-consensual sex before age 13, and attempt suicide. Other reports show the state to have double the average suicide death rate and one of the highest rates of child abuse and neglect in the country.

Meagan Campbell

The warehouse bustled with guides running through checklists, but Damian was dazed, as usual, by a mass of medication. As he got outfitted with a neck warmer, rain pants, and a backpack that hugged his hips, he could only stand amid the storage shelves, blinking.

Whether he showed it or not, he was probably glad to be assigned a sleeping bag and mat, having once spent years sleeping without a blanket on a linoleum floor. And he was certainly thrilled to help stuff food barrels with pepperoni sticks and jam, bagels and spaghetti. “It was all food we liked—no lentils,” he recalls. 

At sea level in early June, a break in the rain made it hot enough to sweat. As Damian helped haul a canoe to the beach, the rim of the boat kept slipping from his fingers—the first challenge of the trip. The expedition would give him confidence, and not just in his own abilities. After years of abuse hearings and trauma treatment, living with his binge-drinking father, and hearing teachers call him stupid, the next seven weeks would give him confidence in the world.

The group pushed off from the island of Wrangell, where about 1500 people live comfortably between tradition and trend; locals still hunt moose, trap crabs, and name boys after their fathers, but also now groom their shih tzus and can buy hummus at the town’s grocery store.

Damian had flown on one of two commercial flights to the airport that day, gliding over white-tipped mountains that spiked through the clouds. Those from more remote areas had arrived on charter planes or ferries, one in an uncle’s boat. All of the participants—a total of 150 males and females—would bill Medicaid for all their expenses.

The Alaskan inlet, formed by dozens of islands like Wrangell that wrap around British Colombia, is a rainforest in the summer. By the time Damian’s group could manage the J-stroke, they were paddling against the wind as though on a watery treadmill. Some demanded to be returned to shore and rammed the guides’ boats in frustration.

Meagan Campbell

Damian’s knees were chafed when they beached at their first campsite, and as they pitched their tents in mud, mosquitoes and black flies nibbled his ears.  

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Meagan Campbell is a writer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her work has been featured on CBC Radio, and in The Coast and The Charlottetown Guardian.

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