Risk-taking in the Canadian Wilderness

By Michael Pollock

What first came to mind when I was invited to the “Canadian wilderness” to  help lead a Wilderness Camp for adult  third culture kids this past July was the book  Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.  

In that story an adolescent boy is flying in a small  prop plane to visit his father in Canada when the  pilot has a heart attack and crash lands in a lake  in a remote forest. The plane sinks, making rescue  even more difficult, and the boy must survive  using his wits and a hatchet, his parting gift from  his mom. Cold, hunger, mosquitos, porcupines, a  moose, (did I mention MOSQUITOS?), and other  challenges make for a palpable, harrowing tale. 

All spring I relished these thoughts: an adventure  of “humans against the elements” with a group  of young adult TCKs and ATCK co-leaders who  “got it.” Overcoming challenges together is a  great way to bond quickly, and with other ATCKs,  I knew those bonds could form quickly in the  right setting. Having grown up in the mountains  of Vermont and in the highlands of Kenya, hiking,  camping, paddling, and climbing in wild places is  revitalizing to me. 

We were headed into all the key elements of  adventure: horseback riding, rock climbing,  kayaking, and hiking in the mountains where  elk, moose, and grizzly bears roamed, living in  tents that had just been resurrected after a literal  crushing storm. In between, we would split wood  and help with cooking, and immerse ourselves  in outdoor life—axe throwing and bonfires,  outhouses (let’s be real) and camp cooking, fast changing weather, and the sweetest air you could  imagine. For me, that kind of life isn’t about a  contest so much as it is about finding harmony  with elements that can give wonderful gifts and  can also kill you. Risk in its essence.  

Even getting there was challenging: two flights  to arrive in Calgary, an overnight in the home  of a friend of a friend, then a five-hour drive up  into the Blue Brona Wilderness. On July 1st, as  we approached the last fifty kilometers, entering  gorgeous valleys and increasingly dramatic  geology, our trip leader, Ben (an ATCK himself)  said, “Go ahead and text or call your family; in a  few kilometers the only cell coverage will be at  the top of one of these mountains.” After leaving  a message for my wife and texting my kids the connection was gone. And then it began to  snow—in July. Really.  

The soon-arriving ATCKs had similar stories:  mud, rough roads, a broken bumper and  headlight, and several other multi-hour delays  that resolved themselves finally with everyone  fed and warm around a fire, under cover of a  high canvass roof. Ben had beautifully crafted  our opening so that we established a sense  of welcome, care, safety, and an invitation to  transparency and vulnerability.  

After a deeply chilling night, despite the small  wood stoves in the ten-person tents, the day  began with “cowboy coffee”—hot, strong, and  black. Breakfast around the fire, music, sharing  stories, affirming the story-sharers, a short encouragement, and then solitude-protected,  intentional time to be alone with our thoughts,  our senses, and our spirit. We encouraged  each person to remember and to connect with  themselves and also to that which is much  bigger than ourselves: nature and the eternal  Mind and Spirit.

After lunch (prepared by angelic volunteers who  coordinated meals all week!), some campers split  wood, some hiked a waterfall, and others took  to horseback—learning to curry, saddle, and ride  a diverse stable of mounts. My first day was on  a sassy, black Morgan mix and she was strong,  sure-footed, and fearless, even when the lead  horse shied from grizzly bear scat on the trail. I  felt sure that if there were a need, she and I could  outrun a grizzly. Fortunately (or disappointingly?),  attempting such a feat was not necessary. 

Our days fell into a rhythm of solitude, community,  and challenges to overcome, on the banks of a  frigid mountain stream under skies that went  from sunny to cloudy to rain and back in quick  succession and were slathered in stars at night.  

As third culture people often do, we quickly  established rapport, told each other stories,  shared talents in art (charcoal drawings), music  (guitars, cajon, and voices), wilderness skills, and  pure courage (two women immersed themselves  first in the iciest stream this side of the Arctic… and liked it).  

It was at this point, still early in the week, that  real personal RISK raised its dreadful, wonderful head—and it wasn’t about the grizzlies, or the  rock climbing, or the fog that enveloped our hike  as we approached some cliffs. Not only were “life  stories” being shared, but we began to talk to  each other—on hikes, around the fire, currying  horses—about our lives, our hurts and traumas,  our joys, sorrows, and agonies, our beliefs, and  our lived experience.  

Our sharing, still peppered with laughter, took  deep and bumpy paths around abuse, gender  and sexual attraction, confusion over local and  global politics, questions of faith or the lack  thereof. One on one, in small groups, or all  together, we listened to each other pour out,  through tears, tales that included crushing  loneliness, anxiety, depression, and harmful  coping strategies. Marvelously, in the next  breath, there were also stories of rescue,  redemption, belonging, healthy coping and  healing. Somewhere between were the ongoing  narratives of doubt and delight, fear and  courage, searching for answers, and sometimes getting glimpses of what could be insight. We  acknowledged the struggle that is life and the  particular struggles encountered by people  like us who grow up mobile and cross-cultural.  Together, we confessed our limits and mistakes,  and celebrated our gifts and victories.

In the end, the big risk was not so much facing  the Canadian wilderness; the risk was in trusting  each other with our stories; opening up some  windows in our souls to allow others to really see  us, to share empathy and curiosity and care. From  my perspective, there were powerful rewards.  We left with new friendships—people who could  show up at our door knowing they would be  welcomed, fed, sheltered, and celebrated. There  was new freedom, a sense that one could be  known and loved, regardless of the scars one  carries. And there was relief in knowing that not  one of us is alone in this crazy wilderness of life,  even when we feel, metaphorically, like we are  on the back of a horse we just met, in the middle  of a rain-swollen river, surrounded by potential  friends, getting our feet wet.  

It was absolutely glorious; I can’t wait for next  summer. 

Michael Pollock, an adult TCK with Kenya, US, South  Africa, and England a part of his developmental years,  has also been an educator in the US and China. He  leads Daraja, meaning “bridge” in Swahili, as a coach,  advocate, and consultant for global TCK care. Michael  is an author of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among  Worlds (third edition). A dad of three amazing TCKs, he  believes third culture people are uniquely and powerfully  poised to impact the world for good.

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