For Ted Spear, 1971 was about clarity.
For Carolyn Schram, 1979 was about perseverance.
For Don Cochrane, 1984 was about perspective.
For Lisa Malbranck, 1998 was about confidence.
Spear, Schram, Cochrane and Malbrank are separated by the years and now by continents, but all have one thing in common — they participated in the YMCA-YWCA’s six-week wilderness canoe trip operated from Camp Stephens, an island-based children and youth summer camp founded in 1891.
This year’s men’s and women’s six-week trips leave The Forks Saturday after a sunrise ceremony that starts at 6 a.m. It’s followed by a pancake breakfast.
The six-week send-off also marks the 50th anniversary of the wilderness canoe program at Camp Stephens. A reunion weekend will be held Aug. 29-Sept. 1.
"The significance for us is that we are celebrating our legacy and tradition of sending young people into the wilderness," added Camp Stephens director Steve Allen. "In this day and age, we believe kids need to spend time in the wilderness to get away from being bombarded by media and TV commercials."
Allen said the extended invitational six-week trip teaches young people about the value of working together, leadership and experiencing Canada’s wilderness. Since the first six-week trip in 1969, participants have paddled much of northwestern Ontario and northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, some trips ending at Hudson Bay.
"When you are tiny specks that can’t possibly be seen from that airliner passing by 10 kilometres overhead, and the nearest humans are an unknown distance away, you learn about how vast Canada is," said Cochrane, a Canadian government employee currently based in Great Britain and soon to be posted to China.
The boy’s wilderness canoe program was started 50 years ago under the efforts of several people, including Punch Jackson and Doug McEwen. Jackson is now retired as the executive director of Alberta Library Public Services and McEwen retired as city manager of North Battleford in 1999.
"Great ideas produce results that last," Jackson said. "While technology has changed the equipment, attitudes about the environment have grown stronger."
The girl’s canoe program, called the Serendipity Brigade, began in the summer of 1970, under Lynda MacIntosh, a veteran of the Y and provincial education system.
Spear was a participant in the 1971 six-week trip and was one of two people who led the trip in 1977. He founded and runs the Island Pacific School on Bowen Island, B.C. that focuses on the "development of character" of students, which includes wilderness hiking and kayak trips.
"Some of what I learned on the six-week trip has somewhat permeated into the school," he said, adding besides team building, a wilderness trip must have an element of challenge. "I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I did it as a kid."
Schram, a retired teacher who lives in Cartwright, Man., said her experiences taught her how to cope.
"We had some horrible portages," she said. "There were times we’d plunk down our tent just anywhere out of frustration. We just learned to persevere and not let this get to us. I think on trail the majority of people develop patience and intense awareness of yourself."
Malbranck, who now works at her family’s Corydon Avenue jewelry story and is married to six-week alumni Andrew Gilbart, said her experience in 1998 helped define her as a young adult. She later was a co-tripper on the 2003 six-week excursion.
"Even today, when I tell people what I did those summers, they’re amazed at that and the length of time. They think I mean days. I tell them it was six weeks. Six weeks is a long time to be out there."
Bruce Owen is an alumnus of Camp Stephens. He writes a blog on camp at campstephensalumni.blogspot.ca