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Wilderness therapy for young people

Those of us who paddle, most likely share some collective memory that comes from the physical process of paddling. Just try closing your eyes and remember the feeling of the blade cutting through water, the sounds of the wake of water as we paddle faster, the peace of water that is still, the lines of our craft cutting through it, and the ripples that come round the side. Remember the effort and push of muscles when we paddle into wind, the swing of the canoe, the rotation of the blade to steer, the weight of hauling our craft onto the shore, the stretching of legs and body after some hours in one position? This memory is all experiential and our minds hold onto it.
By Jo Roberts

We can recall it all at will, and frankly, anywhere… in the traffic, at our desks, lying in bed. That is one of the joys and real benefits of outdoor adventure.

The Wilderness Foundation

The mind body connections that we have, enable our bodies to repeat the physical reaction, even when we simply just think of things. Interesting research has been done on cortisol levels dropping just by thinking of a peaceful place that we love and have experienced.

The Wilderness Foundation work with really troubled, complex youth. The youth that really need one to one time and effort to help them steer new courses, reset life’s compass when it has been knocked out of kilter.

Working in wild places does a magical piece of work in helping them do this. Nature and the outdoors is the real deal, our facilitation, guiding, nudging, reminding and nurturing is the midwife type work, bringing it into reality.

Much of this work takes place on the water and several long, sometimes very tough, expeditions have taken place by canoe or kayak. One has to respect water and work with its flow – and therein lies its value. We venture to the wildest places, semi wild places and what feels like real ocean wilderness.


For example, we have canoed a chunk of The River Spey (tough because it was wet and everyone capsized and we had a lot of wet and smelly clothes in tow) , The River Chelmer (easy but lots of tantrums as people learned to paddle together for the first time), Loch Awe from top to toe (tough but more magnificent). We have kayaked around Ulva in the Inner Hebrides (very tough with the weather), the north coast of Menorca (very tough but beautiful) and Mersea in Essex (personally very tough as my first experience of not managing to pull my spray deck off when I was upside down in the water, and I had lost my paddle so forget a novice eskimo roll ). The rest of the time we have walked and sailed but the ‘close to the water’ based journeys offer challenge like no other.

Each journey has its particular story, its special challenge and its magical outcomes (even if sometimes it feels like survival!). However, the power of being close to water, its tides and pulls and pushes, its winds and gales, its dangers and delights is where the work happens. For most of us our experiences are visceral and hold challenge and adrenalin, or peace and tranquility, or a bit of both.

For our young people, these experiences hold all this, as well as massive personal change. They don’t just remember the things that most of us do, they remember how they managed to find ways to cope, how after having a melt down, they got themselves together and carried on. How we laughed and splashed and had simple fun with no drugs or alcohol. They remember that they did something utterly different to their everyday life, that they got on with people they normally could not connect with, that they shared laughter and tears and all of it was ok – because it is ok to show emotion and be human.


River Spey
The metaphors of paddling as lessons of life, come thick and fast. For example on the River Spey, you can really only go forwards and not back. The current takes you to the sea, and that you cannot see the end or round the next corner. Mental and physical energy focusing on the future, the next bend, navigating the rapids safely, working together with your partner to steer, avoid the obstacles, manage the craft, find a rhythm that works, find the easy water, duck under the branches. The only way to get through the days, is to keep paddling, getting better at it, taking the knocks when they come, and getting back in the boat and starting again.

The sea kayaking in Menorca was incredible for all of us. Crystal blue waters, blazing sun, white beaches, and every day a new beach, new vista, new place to sleep. But it was never just plain sailing as you can imagine. Rough seas and huge swells when you could not see the rest of the group, waves crashing hard on the cliffs next to us, and guides just shouting against the wind to ‘keep paddling, do not stop’….and your young and vulnerable paddle partner just deciding to give up…unsure how to take on the pressure of the situation, unsure how to step into the crisis with strength. So the cajoling, persuading and motivating is taking place whilst you paddle for two, muscles burning and a heightened state of survival arousal rushing through your veins. Of course we were safe…but then we had a lot of debriefing to do, to understand reactions, to explore other ways of being, to actually learn what we are truly capable of, and what to do when you are not.


At night, around the fire in our wild camp, clothes drying on sticks, and warm supper in bellies, we work around these thoughts. We look together at the lessons of the day. How they can use their new skills, strengths, confidence to help them when they return to the vast, often murky waters of everyday life back home.

Coming back to memory, we follow up on our young people up to three years after their programmes, to investigate how durable the changes they have made, can last. We learn that the wilderness experiences are the ones that endure the test of time, with the reflections of our shared journeys, and laughter about the hard times being hard wired into life long experience and memory. We know it works because of this research. We discover that the effect is not only physical, but emotional and behavioural. The power of water has lapped at their feet, floated them into the future, and given them the power to know how best to navigate the rocky rapids of life and cope with the unknown eddies that lie ahead of them.

To learn more about our wilderness therapy canoe or kayak journeys see or email
Jo is CEO of the Foundation and a passionate advocate of the power of nature to create transformational change in people.

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

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