There is clarity here—found in the crystal blue glacier water and up along the golden ridges and swaying pines separating land from sky. It also emerges from the words and playful anticipation of those who have arrived—out of uniform—to canoe the braided channels and rapids of the historic North Saskatchewan River.
For some of the veterans, the 106-kilometre journey down through the Alberta foothills to Rocky Mountain House is definitely about stepping outside the comfort zone. After all, this is wilderness. It is bear country, too, and not everyone is comfortable with that or paddling through white water that could make you swim. For others, it is not so much an endurance test as a chance to “get away” and breathe in the indiscriminate power and restorative qualities of nature with others who have walked the walk of military service.
Either way, the participants on this and every other Outward Bound Veterans (OBV) course seem to come away with a clearer sense of personal balance to help them in a world that can truly rock or sink one’s ‘boat’ whether in the military or retired from it. Many have been to that dark place—squeezed and nearly out of breath by the anxiety and dusty unpredictability that comes with military operations in war zones from Afghanistan to Bosnia to Cyprus to Korea. For those recently in retirement, there is also that seemingly impenetrable disconnect—as if a plug was suddenly yanked out of the wall, leaving a serious vacancy between their life then and now.
For some, the transition from military service to civilian life is not so bad. For others—and for a whole variety of reasons—they feel like they do not fit in anymore—that they have lost touch with the past and those they served with. Some find that their non-military friends don’t look at them the same way and that their wives or husbands are confused by their behaviour and admit to not knowing them anymore. Physically, some of these men and women say they are fine, but when asked under the right circumstances, they will tell you about being messed up inside, and how people with good intentions like to attach labels to their mess.
Former master corporal Jay Cunningham accepts the possibility that he may never get better, but the 33-year-old has found a way to move on and reconnect through the OBV program sponsored by The Royal Canadian Legion’s Alberta-Northwest Territories Command. “I came back from Afghanistan in 2006 and got sent over to the hospital because something wasn’t right,” he explains. “I wasn’t sleeping. I was very snappy with everybody, so they decided I had to go to the hospital to talk to somebody. I was diagnosed with PTSD officially in February 2007. A lot of it was that I suddenly became very reclusive—just kind of hung out in my house, went to work and just stayed inside…. The first Outward Bound trip I participated in really helped me accept that I had this thing and it really taught me how to handle it by accepting that I may never get better, but I can live with it. It also helped me stay connected with others who are serving or have served.”
Cunningham was among those who participated in the OBV’s 2010 pilot phase. Since then he has helped organize fund-raising events and volunteered to speak about the merits of the program at Legion gatherings. For him and others, it has been about being with other veterans in a safe environment surrounded by nature, facing challenges and getting to know themselves and one another. “It is really difficult when you are in a (military) culture where you are measured by your manhood all the time—on your ability to deal with different subjects and different experiences. Usually it is all about keeping it hidden and just soldiering on. But there is only so much of that you can do, and so just being with the guys—being back in that situation—worked for me.”
“This program is a chance for veterans to deal with and process things they are still carrying from their military experience—things that people in the everyday world don’t understand,” explains OB Canada Associate Director Julian Norris. “We talk about creating ‘a safe place’ but that might seem paradoxical, considering we take people on big rapids and half way up frozen waterfalls to create that safe place. People might say that doesn’t make sense. But it does because it is pretty free of judgment, and that is a space that doesn’t exist in many places in our world…. This is not therapy. It has a military flavour, but it is outside the military structure. Nobody is going to put a report in about you.”
Norris says it is also safe in the sense that participants can involve themselves however they choose. “No one is going to be made to talk about things they don’t want to talk about. People have their foot on the brake and the gas pedal, as I like to say.”
The program is only in its second year, but has involved more than a hundred participants from different parts of the country. The 16 courses to date have ranged from canoeing to ski mountaineering to mountain hiking to rock climbing. The list of past participants includes those still serving and those who are years into retirement. Outside of time, there is no cost to the participant, and what is less understood is that the program is open to any veteran, which includes currently serving CF members, regardless of overseas service or any or no complications resulting from that service. “I thought initially that this course was for those who were injured or had done a tour,” explained Corporal Laura Byrne who, during a fireside chat on the first evening of her September 2011 canoe expedition, told everybody that she feels awkward because she has not done a tour. “It was almost like I felt guilty in the beginning, felt like maybe I wasn’t worthy to be coming on a course like this,” she said on the last night of the journey. “In the beginning I came because it was interesting—I was going to do a canoe trip. It became something more.”
The trip was “something more” because all six participants, including the three instructors, shared equally in getting to know each other and meeting the challenge of navigating one of Canada’s most beautiful rivers. It was not a trip for those who like to be led by the nose, and that turned out to be just fine for Byrne and Corporal Jeannie Daly whose first-ever canoe training began on a small, windswept lake north of the old coal mining town of Nordegg. The canoeists put in on the swirling and running waters just above the Forestry Trunk Road Bridge, and before heading downriver, practiced ferrying and ducking in and out of eddy lines. Within three and a half days the group covered the entire distance, all the while making their own decisions about whether to put their “foot on the gas or the brake.” At Rocky Mountain House, the Legion branch welcomed them home with a steak lunch and a few keepsakes. What mattered most, however, were the immeasurable in-between moments of spending time together and mastering a classic river. “It was just so peaceful,” says Daly who had completed a tour in Afghanistan. “It was pretty challenging, but I think I’m even stronger because of it.”
The official launch of the program was in 2010, and Norris and others credit the Legion for its behind-the-scenes work. “They saw something here and believed in something that they thought was of service,” adds Norris. “It showed all of us this self-renewing quality that has enabled the Legion to survive and remain relevant across many decades. Without its support it would have been impossible to get this going. They wanted it done and they wanted it done right. That was an explicit part of the conversation from the start.”
Legionnaires and branches throughout the command are continuing to fund it through donations and events. In fact, the Legion’s yearly financial commitment amounts to $250,000.
The spark for the program jumped from a handful of energetic veterans, recently back from Afghanistan. They believed an outdoor program—in the mountains—would benefit veterans.
Marc D’Astous was one—so was Brent Peters. Both have a love for the outdoors and drew on their personal experiences of spending time in the mountains. In 2009, D’Astous, who had served as a reconnaissance scout in Afghanistan, was teaching skiing to military personnel in preparation for Operation Podium, the Canadian Forces commitment to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. “The government asked the CF to get some troops available to go into the back country to help with security. That led to a winter mobility ski training program in southern Alberta.”
One night, while deep in the mountains in a 10-man arctic tent, D’Astous noticed how easy it was for everyone to “shoot the breeze.” People felt comfortable sharing experiences from overseas deployments, experiences they had not talked about. “Back then I didn’t know how to spell facilitation, let alone engage a group. I was just hanging out in the tent trying to stay warm—trying to catch up with some of the guys because I had been out of the army a couple of years. There was a lot of good conversation, and this mentor of mine, Dave Stark, the operations manager at Yamnuska Mountain Adventures, noticed the same thing. He said, ‘Marc, there is some good stuff going on here.’”
D’Astous contacted the Legion in Canmore, the home branch of Alberta-N.W.T. Command President Darrel Jones. “He pulled me aside and said, ‘Marc, this Legion here can be whatever you want it to be. You become a member and you get involved. You are a veteran. It’s yours.’”
That convinced D’Astous that the Legion is definitely an organization for veterans. From there, a business proposal was drawn up. “We didn’t know at first whether we wanted to do expeditions to the highest peaks to raise awareness. We didn’t know whether we wanted to do the kind of week-long trips we are doing now. And when we found out that OB in the U.S. had been running veterans programs for years, we looked into it with the Legion.”
The planning moved forward with the realization that OB Canada had the capability and the interest to provide a veterans program in partnership with the Legion. The two organizations began meeting and launched a pilot phase funded by the Legion.
Jones remembers the day he was approached. “It was Remembrance Day. I was sitting, talking to some Afghanistan veterans. They told me they felt like they had just been thrown out into the world—that to them it felt like going from school to finding a job. The other part of it is that those in the military have always had their own talk, and while they often kid each other about being army, navy or air force, they are all ex-military together.”
The Executive Director of Alberta-N.W.T. Command, Tammy Wheeler, says the veterans originally talked about organizing a climbing expedition to Alaska. “Darrel talked to them about exploring other options—closer to home. In the meantime, we had looked into Outward Bound because of its connection to military service.”
Founded in Scotland the 1930s by celebrated educator Kurt Hahn, OB has schools in more than 30 countries. “We did more research and talked with Outward Bound Canada,” said Wheeler. “From there it snowballed.”
“What kept driving me along was that this is a program by veterans for veterans,” added D’Astous. “It is not the government saying OK we need to fix this problem. From the start it has been veterans working together with strategic partners. We felt there was a need to get it out the door and not to make it too complicated. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Prior to deployment to Bosnia in 2000, Peters recognized the value of outdoor training and experiencing the unencumbered natural world. “I realized that some of my personal training time in the outdoors was actually more valuable than the combat training the military was giving me. I thought that because when I am in the outdoors every decision I make directly impacts my day. So I am watching the weather, the conditions and the hazards around me. If I am skiing I am watching for crevasses and avalanche conditions…. In the military, when we train, we go to the field and practice, but it’s not real. When I am in the outdoors it’s very real. There wasn’t somebody shooting at me, but there was a mountain throwing things at me that could kill me.”
He says the OB/Legion partnership is perfect because both organizations are resourceful and expert in what they do. And he continues to be impressed by what participants come away with from each trip. “I see people who have never been involved in the outdoors go from knowing nothing to doing amazing things by believing in themselves and the belief that comes from the instructor cadre. They surprise themselves, their teammates and realize that what the military has given them is very valuable and that it has made them amazing individuals who can survive and excel in civilian life.”
Day 1: Make camp along Goldeye Lake, north of David Thompson Highway. Issued kit; pitch tents and share chores of chopping wood, hauling water, cooking and dishes; settle around campfire; more introductions and good conversation; listen to the words of Sigurd Olson while catching converging scents of damp moss, fresh pine and burning wood. We are corporals Laura Byrne, Jeannie Daly, Legion Magazine Editor Dan Black, river guide Jason Kuruc and instructors Scott Gullion and Megan Mulligan.
Day 2: On lake, rediscovering the pry, draw, bow and crossbow strokes; break for lunch and map out our journey by deciding on campsites and studying the map for hazards and other useful points of reference.
Day 3: Arrive Forestry Trunk Road Bridge; twist into tight-fitting farmer-john wetsuits and mercifully cover bumps and creases with bulky swim shorts, cold weather shells and lifejackets; put in just above the bridge; practise ferrying across river and into and out of eddies; confidence builds; listen to Jason, who has drawn a miniature river in the brown silt along the shore where tiny stones stand in as giant boulders and twigs represent fallen trees known as strainers and sweepers—things to avoid. Learn about rescue and self-preservation techniques, including how to float on your back with your head and feet up; set in and head down river, past grassy islands and over silt-free water through winding gap in the Brazeau Mountain Range to the foothills where we engage our first set of rapids; camp opposite impressive cliffs east of Dizzy Creek.
Days 4/5: Emerge from slumber in a mist hanging ghost-like above the narrow, rocky channel; floating through it are thoughts of explorer David Thompson and his epic travels of 200 years ago. Group is really clicking—building a fire, making breakfast and packing up—all the while remaining perfectly at ease with one another. On the water again, meeting and enjoying an impressive set of rapids between Upper and Lower Saunders and Saunders Ledge where our lead canoe seems to almost disappear. No one tips; comfort zones expand with more confidence and we seek out trickier sections to paddle, turning to face upriver and working hard against the current to balance—nearly motionless—on a surfer wave.
Day 6: Away from second camp by mid-morning; easy paddling, but nice riffles and waves; riverbank stares from deer and the soaring circles of a Red-tailed Hawk. Some would say our best day on the water. Relaxed, but focused; enjoying more surfers, crossing into and out of eddies and anticipating the larger rapids at Devil’s Elbow which we shoot over and over again. Through curling and foaming water, piling over the bow onto the bowman’s lap; two to three inches to bail, then another run. It’s an adrenalin rush, but everybody knows what they are doing. We bathe quickly in the frigid waters before setting up camp among tall pines and taller memories of the day.
Day 7: Final day; another run around Devil’s Elbow; on to more rapids, around winding bends and along towering cliffs and fir-lined banks; sheer solitude as we come together and raft toward the fast and narrow chute at Brierley’s, where we land and scout the best line through the chute. In we go; the second canoe is swamped and the third noses ever so slightly off the rock-strewn island; we dry out under the sun and gently glide into Rocky Mountain House. Total distance from Nordegg to Rocky: 106 kilometres.
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