Troubled kids find direction amongst troubled waters (from August 24 issue of the Yukon News)
With its rapids, boulders, holes and whirlpools, the Tatshenshini River demands respect.
But in exchange for reverence, it provides a adrenaline rush that leaves your face sore from smiling hours after you dry out.
That equation was front and centre last Friday as nine inflated rafts snaked their way down the Tat, which is partially framed by jagged rock walls that jut from the banks at extreme angles.
A bald eagle circles high overhead and misty white clouds hang like old-man’s-beard on tree branches over the cliffs.
Inside the rafts sit 25 or so kids with paddles in hand and faces pulled into toothy grins.
The theory is — you give troubled kids a chance to see the world differently, and you just might help change their lives.
If you’re the Whitehorse RCMP and Kwanlin Dun First Nation, putting that theory to the test means a trip down a raging river.
Though authority figures loomed everywhere, the kids in the rafts were relaxed, laughing, horsing around, cussing, splashing water on each other — and even smoking — all to a surprising acceptance from the cops and social workers among them.
And that’s the point.
“My philosophy is to build trust,” said Michelle Wolsky, a community outreach nurse at Kwanlin Dun and key organizer of this year’s rafting program for high-risk youth.
“We could run this like boot camp, but we don’t because a lot of these kids have authority issues. These kids need positive role models.”
The RCMP has offered rafting for kids from group homes and other high-risk teens through its Crew Whitewater program for the past four years.
This year, the expanded program involves high-risk youth from Kwanlin Dun.
A conversation between Wolksy and Whitehorse RCMP Const. Eyvi Smith, who helped create Crew Whitewater, led to the idea.
A few applications and proposals later saw the Kwanlin Dun Health Centre and Health Canada inject about $20,000 to fund an eight-day rafting trip for 12 KDFN kids down the Coal River in the southeast Yukon.
“It was awesome,” said 18-year-old Sean Dawson, who went on that trip. “We were all complaining that we wanted to go home, but by the last day, we were all wishing it was a few more days.”
Last Friday, those who took the Coal River trip received a small honorarium to provide guidance to other kids from Crew Whitewater, who were along for the year-end trip down the Tat.
Letting kids act like … well … kids may sound counter-productive to getting them to tread the straight and narrow, but Wolsky said the rafting program builds self-confidence, which in turn, can better their lives.
“For these kids it’s something they’re probably never going to get to do. They’re dealing with tough issues — low income, substance abuse, family issues. We take them out and we show them that there are different choices they can make.
“Some are talking about quitting smoking or getting jobs,” she said as the rafts headed to the riverbank for lunch.
“Even if they don’t follow through with it, for a minute they’ve envisioned their lives differently than what they’re living now.”
Smith grew up canoeing and then became an avid kayaker and rafter.
He worked in a group home before becoming a cop, and still works with kids through with Crew Whitewater and the RCMP’s Young Riders snowboarding program.
“It’s a chance for the kids to meet us in a different environment,” he said of the programs. “It helps promoting relations between us.”
Smith is popular with the youth, and it’s easy to see why.
As the rafts floated into the whitewater rapids he became a leader, skilfully steering his raft around the obstacles and calling out for the kids to “forward paddle!” or “backward paddle!”
And then, when the rafts bunched up together on a calm stretch of river, the 35-year-old Mountie became just another kid, splashing water or making someone laugh.
“It’s a great place for kids to just be themselves because they can relax and they can laugh,” he said afterwards.
The Tat is filled with giant exposed rocks in each of its three main rapid sections.
At every one of them, raft after raft was steered directly into the rocks, riding up on top of them and spilling giggling kids into the glacier-fed river.
Thanks to the polar wetsuits and personal floatation jackets they’re wearing, the dunking, instead of scaring them, just makes the kids hungry for more adventure.
As the day stretched on into the late afternoon, the Tat began to calm and the rafts started to congregate together. But the kids hadn’t lost their energy.
A glance backward showed a gaggle of rafts, each hot in the throes of wrestling battles amongst its crew.
Several kids were thrown into the river. And everyone — even a few stray tourists who had joined the trip through Tatshenshini Expediting — wore smiles on their faces.
“They don’t have to put on a front,” said Smith afterwards. “It’s all about having fun and forgetting about the problems they may have. Everybody needs an escape like that. It helps them to step out of things.”
Smith’s words are more than feel-good rhetoric.
Four kids, three of them from Kwanlin Dun, lined up to speak about the program. They looked shy, but only for a moment.
Without the program, they’d likely be sitting at home with nothing to do, or “wasting time downtown,” they said.
But, instead, they’ve been having fun and learning about rafting safety and other things this summer.
Doreen Scurvey, 19, said she’s happy to have participated in the adventure. “It taught me about getting along with different people that you don’t know,” she said.
Her 17-year-old sister, Lisa Scurvey, is baby-faced and shy, but nonetheless, she’s a smoker … or used to be before joining the rafting program.
“I changed my mind since joining,” she said. “I stopped spitting and smoking. It felt like I was a different person.”