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Deep into a 125-kilometre canoe trip, shrouded by forest fire smoke so thick it made navigating the islands and channels of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest territories nearly impossible, 16-year-old Goliah Makletzoff-Cazon came to a somewhat shocking personal realization. The five other girls canoeing the North Arm Paddle, one of Northern Youth Leadership’s eight-day outdoor adventure and environmental education camps, had started to treat her differently.

“They hadn’t really had experiences with being out camping for extended periods of time,” recalls Goliah of that smoky, summer of 2014, “so when the weather craps out on them, they’re not used to putting up with it; it triggers a kind of homesickness, a feeling like, ‘I don’t want to be here.’” Having grown up hunting, trapping and canoeing around Fort Simpson, she was well versed in the sway that northern weather holds over any land activities. “I had a lot of experience with situations like that; I knew what to do. they looked up to me to keep the mood going, and to keep them going smoothly.”

Goliah (centre in the red coat) and five happy campers after successfully summiting a mountain at the Gana River Girls Leadership Camp in 2015. © Shannon Ward
Goliah (centre in the red coat) and five happy campers after successfully summiting a mountain at the Gana River Girls Leadership Camp in 2015. © Shannon Ward

Goliah was no longer a kid along for the ride, waiting for the three guides to take charge. She too was becoming a leader. And that, in a nutshell, is what Northern Youth Leadership (formerly taiga Camps) is all about. The non-profit, charitable organization that is now a tides Canada project, traces its roots back to 2003 when two determined young Yellowknifers, Shannan Schimmelmann and Kirsten Carthew, successfully completed their first marathon in Honolulu. They had to raise $6,000 toward the cause and to offset travel costs. Along the way, they learned the importance of self-confidence, good nutrition, fitness, and above all, goal setting — values they were eager to share.

“It broke my heart to hear any young person not have goals and dreams, and unable to answer the simple questions, ‘What are your strengths, what are you good at?’” remembers Schimmelmann. “I have always believed everyone is amazing at something and it’s rewarding to have them realize and know what those things are.”

The pair organized workshops for girls in the NWt ages 11 to 18, received some funding from Sport North and the territorial government, and for the next three years visited 18 communities, volunteering their time on weekends. Demand was high, parents were thrilled, but the workshops needed to be more sustainable. They moved towards a summer camp model, which allowed an immersive experience that strengthened on-the-land ties while creating positive risk-taking opportunities, such as being away from home for an extended period of time. In a region as vast as the NWT, it also offered a chance to travel and connect with other communities.

Working in tandem with the skills of community members, campers experienced rock-climbing, kayaking, overnight camping, woodworking and leadership-building activities. Today’s camps continue in the same vein.

Six campers hold up the word “Enough” from the song “I Am,” written by Miranda Currie, in honour of Northern Youth Leadership Campers. The girls carried the words to the top of a mountain and proudly displayed them; the song was part of confidence and resilience building curriculum at the camp. © Shannon Ward
Six campers hold up the word “Enough” from the song “I Am,” written by Miranda Currie, in honour of Northern Youth Leadership Campers. The girls carried the words to the top of a mountain and proudly displayed them; the song was part of confidence and resilience building curriculum at the camp. © Shannon Ward

“We want to ensure our campers are getting a product that’s rooted in the North, based on northern values and that we’re paying respect to the traditional territories we’re visiting,” says Shannon Ward, who chairs Northern Youth’s steering committee. “By working with elders on each trip we’re really incorporating the Dene values and leadership qualities.”

As in the beginning, Northern Youth Leadership still relies heavily on fundraising and in-kind donations to keep its program going, but charges a nominal (in relation to actual costs) fee of $250 per camper. Financial assistance is available to help families who can’t afford the fee, to keep the programs accessible to everyone.

Last year Northern Youth provided on-the-land experiences to 35 boys and girls through three camps: a Whati to Behchoko canoe trip for boys ages 13 to 17; a four-day environmental leadership canoe trip on the Slave River for girls ages 14 to 17; and a trip to Gana River lodge in the heart of the Mackenzie Mountains for girls ages 11 to 13.

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A male camper revels in a sunset on the Boys Leadership Canoe Trip in 2015. © NYL

At Gana River, young girls worked with elders to hone their fishing skills and make dry meat, but Ward says their main activity was building confidence around hiking. they started with shorter walks and by the end of the week, happy campers “were basically summiting a mountain.” Goliah was there too. Since that smoky, challenging canoe trip, she’d taken the initiative to certify as an instructor with Paddle Canada, and Northern Youth had approached
her to be a leader-in-training.

As fate would have it, on the last day a thick fog delayed their departure by a day. Goliah found herself once again keeping the young campers busy and inspiring them with her positive attitude — leading, by example.

For more information and to register for a Northern Youth Leadership camp, visit northernyouth.ca.

Laurie Sarkadi
Laurie Sarkadi joined the Northern Youth Leadership steering committee in October 2015.