When Heather Tracey MSW, LICSW, social worker and targeted case management supervisor at CVT’s St. Paul Healing Center, invited survivors to participate in a Wilderness Inquiry canoe trip last fall, reactions ranged from immediate yeses to resounding nos. Most, however, fell somewhere in the middle. “Some clients were interested but decided in the end they weren’t ready,” she said. “And that’s okay.” Stepping onto a boat can trigger traumatic memories for survivors; some associate the water with their flight out of their home countries from persecution and war.
Other clients expressed hesitation but decided to try it anyway. “I was scared of water and don’t swim,” one survivor, Mona*, told CVT’s social worker and case manager Rojina McCarthy, MSW, LGSW. “Whenever I would take the train, I’d look down at the water and think about this. I wasn’t sure about the canoe trip, and I was fighting fear.” She was well aware of the Mighty Mississippi, and the task of crossing it seemed daunting. Tempted to cancel in the days leading up to the trip, Mona decided, at the last minute, to participate. “And it was wonderful,” she exclaimed. “It was wonderful!”
Wilderness Inquiry organizes nature and wildlife adventures throughout North America and the globe, endeavoring to make outdoor recreation inclusive and accessible. Most clients hadn’t canoed before, and wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do so on their own. The activity also introduced clients who hail from rural backgrounds but now live in the city to a more familiar landscape.
“Reconnection is important to us,” said Heather. “Social rehabilitation isn’t just about connecting with others and the community, but to things that may have once been an important part of clients’ lives – including nature.” And there’s tremendous therapeutic value in exploring it. Outdoor adventuring can be a relaxing and effective way to manage stress. It can help clients develop coping skills.
“I forgot everything when I started rowing,” said Mona. “The fear, the burden, it fell off my back.” She said that for the whole day, she thought about nothing else. She let all her worries go with the water, the beautiful landscapes, the blue skies. “And the people that we passed in the canoe were cheering!”
The daylong canoe trip started with a one-hour group session at CVT’s St. Paul Healing Center, which included therapists, social workers and 16 clients, predominantly women. It was a chance for survivors to discuss their hopes and fears for the day, to normalize those fears, to talk through previous experiences with water and boats, and discuss strategies for managing their thoughts and feelings. Then Wilderness Inquiry transported the group by van to Hidden Falls Park in St. Paul to begin their trip.
“One of my favorite things about paddling a Voyageur canoe with people who are new to canoeing is that it tends to put everyone on a level playing field,” said Allie Dart, outdoor leader at Wilderness Inquiry. “It takes folks out of their comfort zones and gives them opportunities to connect in new ways.” Heather Tracey noticed the genial way clients interacted as they rowed, as well as their attentiveness to one client with limited mobility. In spite of her physical limitations, the client had agreed to the trip immediately.
Heather also appreciated that the trip allowed survivors to see the city from a different perspective. Traveling alongside barges under railroad bridges exposed them to multiple aspects of the riverfront. Most importantly, being on the river gave clients a break from the worries that constantly afflict them. Focusing on paddling and learning to operate a boat in a group setting provided relief.
“Did you know what happened to me after the canoe trip?” one survivor later asked Rojina. “I had the best night’s sleep. I had never slept so well like I did after the trip. I felt very relaxed.”
At around 3pm, when the Mighty Mississippi canoe trip concluded at Harriet Island, an overwhelming sense of accomplishment swept over the group, particularly for those who had expressed initial fear. Allie Dart noted that this trip reminded her and all of the Wilderness Inquiry staff that everyone with whom they work comes to the adventure with different expectations, skills and life experiences, and that everyone experiences the river in their own way.
And while each survivor has a different reason for why the trip was powerful and healing for him or her, most would do it again. One client recently told Heather that when he rides the bus across the river now, it’s a reminder to him of that experience. He feels comforted. It takes him back. Another client said that she’d always wanted to set foot in a canoe, that this trip was a dream come true. For Mona, “it was a real retreat. I want this to happen again and again.”
*Name has been changed for security and confidentiality.
By Sabrina Crews, CVT marketing and communications specialist
This article first published as a blog by the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT). Wilderness Inquiry has partnered with CVT for many years. Their clients have been a joy to work with.