Flash Back Fridays

STRATHCONA WILDERNESS TESTS METTLE – They call it the Whale Rock 1981

No one knows why for certain, but it does resemble a huge humpback lurking just below the waterline in the lower reaches of Campbell River.

It’s a major obstacle for white-water runners, along by Rosie’s Hole and just below the BC Hydro dam and the trick turn required to pull into Stick Eddy further downstream.

A group of kayakers demonstrating a river rescue—teamwork

A group of kayakers demonstrating a river rescue—teamwork

Paddlers can play it safe with the Whale and keep well to the right, or they can play the odds and barrel through with the main current on the left and lean hard into the next turn. Not everyone makes it. But today the Whale claims no new victims; the dozen young paddlers from St. Michaels University School manage to avoid its bulk without taking a swim.

The kayakers are one of five groups from the Victoria school testing their mettle in the wilderness areas of central Vancouver Island as part of St. Michaels’ an- nual grade eleven out trip at Strathcona Park Lodge and Outdoor Education Centre. Another group is learning the basics of white-water canoeing on the Campbell, two oth- ers are touring Nootka Sound and Friendly Cove on the west coast by canoe and on foot, while a fifth troop attempts the summit of Mt. Albert Edward, the third highest peak on Vancouver Island.

It has been an eventful week for 17 year-old Danica Gleave who signed up for kayaking.

“I was so frustrated and depressed after the first day on the river,” she recalls, “I really felt it was beyond me. By the second day I had progressed to a mixture of screams, laughs and tears.”

And, as a measure of how quickly one can become an adrenalin junkie, Gleave is the organizer of a move to bring the group back to Strathcona on their own in September for further adventures.

Canoeing, kayaking, wilderness ethics, a high ropes course, orienteering, first aid, bog study and no-trace camping are all part of the fare.

Strathcona offers a taste of adventure not easily duplicated inside a classroom. “Running a river may be a high risk activity, but I feel much safer here than I do when I climb into a piece of metal and drive down a highway,” says Strathcona kayak instructor and school program coordinator Lawrie Stewart.

“No one paddles beyond their skill level, we probably overemphasize the knowledge and respect for moving water that a novice needs for this kind of activity.” Each river run is preceded by an equipment check: helmets, spray skirts, life jackets, flotation bags, grab loops for rescuing overturned boats, first aid kits and instructor’s throw lines must all be secure before students are given a first-hand opportunity to read and run the Campbell.

With safety front-and-centre, students progress rapidly, some from never having been in a kayak, to mastering the difficult Eskimo roll within six days. All the basics have been covered for those who wish to pursue the sport further, although is it still under the watchful eye of an experienced paddler.

Kayaking a clear river in the Campbell River area.

Kayaking a clear river in the Campbell River area.

A week of challenging heart-thumping activity also makes a noticeable impact on the way individuals within the group relate to one another.

“They quickly realize that to survive in these rivers means working as a team,” explains canoe instructor Dave Freeze. “When they work in pairs you see real friendships develop. The low man on the social totem pole often shines in these situations and that breaks down their initial preconceptions about one another.” Gleave and Stewart agree, noting how at the end of the week the cohesiveness of their group was evident by the number of times individual boats would be turning back to help someone out with a rescue.

“We try to carry through with the framework established at the Lodge,” says Stewart, “Nobody picks up after them here, many are out on their own for the first time. We think it’s important that a 13 year-old boy know how to do dishes and sweep a floor now and again.”

Teacher-student relationships can also transform outside the classroom when the kids learn what a neat guitar player the Math teacher is – combined with the fact he can’t paddle a canoe any better than them.

St. Michaels’ Peter Gardner has been bringing his students back to Strathcona for the past three years. While the intent of the outdoors week is to learn serious skills, Gardner acknowledges that social growth is the more important objective.

“The school has always been big in sports and academics,” he says, “But we’ve also learned the value of non-competitive activity in a wilderness setting. The academic world is not the only one.”

The Mt. Albert Edward group has returned with just enough time to catch their breath before the final evening’s wind-up dance.  The trip was not an easy one. The group ran into blowing snow two hundred feet from the summit and the leader Gareth Wood had to rely on some precise compass work to traverse the peak.

Heri Tryba accompanied the group as second leader to fulfill part of his field work experience during Strathcona’s 19-week leader apprenticeship program. A social worker by profession and a West German native, Tryba plans to utilize his outdoor skills in the field after spending part of his working years dealing with young drug offenders in Berlin.

“Positive energy is an important motivator,” says Tryba. “I think the challenge of this type of experience is that it has great potential to change people who might otherwise be considered unreachable.”

Dave Freeze enjoying some white-water kayaking

Dave Freeze enjoying some white-water kayaking