“2012 was the last time I had fun.”
These statements stick with you. We’re at the last night’s bonfire at the Gitchi Gumee Project. We’ve been hanging out, watching the sunset, looking for shooting stars, marveling at the Milky Way… We’re almost satiated with S’mores. Now, we’re making a “virtual photo album” of Gitchi Gumee 2015.
The Gitchi Gumee Project started in 2012. Down Wind Sports and the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium invited us, Chicago Adventure Therapy (CAT), to bring some young people from the city to the symposium. From the beginning Kokatat stepped in as our first sponsor. It was through their support that really helped get the GGP off the ground. Since then, Wilderness Systems, Werner Paddles, Bomber Gear, NRS, P&H Kayaks, and Current Designs Kayaks have all lent gear, clothes and expertise to the group, keeping them warm, dry and safe to learn and engage in all kinds of fun and silliness.
At the opening bonfire that first year, another young person said something that sticks with you. “I’ve never seen stars before.” “You’ve never seen stars before?”“Andrea, of course I’ve never seen stars. I’m from Chicago.”
A few hours before the current bonfire, this young woman has been honored, and a bit embarrassed, at the Symposium pasty dinner. She’s now a BCU/UKCC Level 1 Coach. When she earned the award, she was the youngest person in this country to hold it; we believe she is still, at 20 years old, the youngest American to hold this
particular coaching award. She’s here at the Gitchi Gumee 2015 closing bonfire as Chicago Adventure Therapy staff, and here at the symposium as a coach. She’s been honored by the industry – given a paddle, a sprayskirt, some paddling clothes, Werner Paddles, Seals, NRS, and a beautiful set of cam straps from Confluence (Edith’s Nelson’s Fund Raising Campaign).
The group has shared a lot over the weekend – wet exits; an epic game of cockpit basketball; jumping off the break wall into Lake superior; standing in their boats; rescues (planned and unplanned); participating in the event race as racers or water gunners; classes on bracing, boat control, rescues, rolling; trying out SUP boards; laughs – lots of laughs!; overcoming a variety of fears; amazing food… Now they’re sharing what the weekend meant – respect, fun that has long been absent in their lives, a chance to relax, the opportunity to be treated with respect and interest, to be treated without suspicion.
They contrast it with their lives in Chicago, where many of them are homeless. They talk about the chance to get away from it, to take off “the load of bricks on my shoulders.” They talk about being welcomed instead of ignored or thrown out of places when they stop in to charge their phones or to get warm. Another person at the fire, a Youth Leader with Gitchi Gumee 2015, shares the challenges of being here this year as a leader after being here two years ago as a participant; they way it changes his role, his responsibilities, his relationships. He shares with the group that two years ago, he was in a similar situation to many in this year’s group – he was homeless, trying to “get his life together.” He shares that he doesn’t have it all together now – he’s in a housing program, and he feels like it
could be yanked out from under his feet at any point, landing him back on the streets. Listening to the group talk, he’s reminded that still, with a roof and a job, he’s in a better place than he was two years ago. In those two years since he got introduced to paddling, he’s paddled with CAT in San Francisco, Grand Island, Florida, Baja. He’s learned to roll, and gotten his re-enter and roll, his hand roll and his angel roll. In April he earned his BCU Two Star award. He tells the group that he knows their struggle – and that it will get better if they “stay strong.”
This is why CAT was created. We believe, fully and completely, that paddling can change lives. Even, in some cases, that it saves lives. It’s complex, how it does that – it involves community, leadership, challenge that doesn’t come with the guarantee of success but does come with an offer to build the skills needed to meet the challenge; it involves taking risks, understanding the risks being taken, mitigating those risks; it involves learning to rely on others and learning to be relied on. CAT runs programming almost every day in Chicago during the summer. We
introduce under-served youth to paddling, rock climbing, cycling. We also take young people camping, usually at Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin. It’s usually the first time that most in the group have camped, and there’s almost always someone who has a S’more for the first time in their life. Some of our young people participate in these sports, and don’t ever have to do it again. Others want to learn everything they can about the sport. We do everything
we can to keep the sport open for those young people who want to learn more. We believe that introducing our young people to the community – and introducing the community to our young people – is key to be able to keep open continued access to the sport. So we jumped at the opportunity to bring young people to the Great Lakes Symposium. We’ve been pleased beyond our wildest dreams at the open welcome they’ve received, and the ongoing relationships they’ve been able to build with students and coaches.
The young woman who first saw stars at Gitchi Gumee 2012 is a paddlesports coach now, and headed back to her junior year at Howard University where she’s a pre-med student. The young man who first participated in Gitchi Gumee in 2013 has his BUC 2 star, a job, and is working hard on building leadership skills. So one is left to
wonder where the young woman who last had fun in 2012 will be in a couple years. Maybe she too will have earned her 2 Star. She likes to paddle fast – maybe she’ll be racing. Maybe she’ll be coaching someone reading this article.
We are forever in debt to those in the paddle sports industry who have had the foresight to provide this kind of experience to these amazing kids! We are already planning for the 2016 Gitche Gumme Project and our return to the beautiful waters of Lake Superior.