Posts Tagged ‘climbing’
February 20, 2013
I have had the great good fortune, because of the hard work and dedication of our staff and board members, to get to spend a month paddling on the West Coast. Before I tell you about it, I hope you’ll humor me and go first to the scene of a climbing program a couple years ago.
Here’s the scene:
A tall, lanky young man is about two to three body-lengths up the wall. He climbed there quickly and elegantly. Now, though, he’s stopped. He curls into himself and begins to shake. He starts to look down, and we can see that he’s crying. A chorus of shouts, coming from every last person on the floor of the climbing wall, demands “DON’T LOOK DOWN!”
He makes himself as small as he can – squeezing his arms to his chest, squeezing his legs together, squeezing his eyes tightly closed. Multiple shouts erupt now. “Don’t look down!” “You can do it!” “Put your right foot on the blue hold!”
He’s stuck there a while longer. Then he wrenches his head upwards, (we assume he opens his eyes), and this time, he climbs to the top of the wall.
* * * * *
Fast forward a few years to San Francisco Bay, just last month.
We’ve “gone out the Gate,” as they say – which means we’re on the ocean side of the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m in the water next to my boat. After watching three other students, I clip my tow line to the deck line at the bow of my boat and swim toward the cliff, my boat following on tow. There’s a ledge above the water, and another one below it that gets covered and uncovered with the swell. I watch the water go up and down; and eventually head in to the cliff, put my hands on the cliff wall above me, grasping it ever so lightly because of the mussels attached to it. I put my feet on the lower ledge. As the swell comes over the ledge, it lifts me gently to a standing position, my hands on the cliff wall at chest level now instead of over my head. I step up to the next ledge, and then one ledge higher. When the next swell comes, I discover I’ve successfully landed on a cliff face two feet above the swells.
I spend some time watching as the water rises and falls below me. Eventually I jump back into the water, swim my boat out from the cliff, and get back in. I have to get one of my fellow students to un-clip my tow line because I’ve left it clipped to the bow of my boat where I can’t reach it!
Steve, one of the coaches, moves us along to the next challenges. We paddle as close as we can to powerful dumping waves (a dumping wave releases all of its power at once, straight down in a powerful wall of water; these aren’t the gorgeous spilling waves that release their energy gradually over both time and distance, somewhat forgiving if you happen to get yourself in the impact zone…). We paddle as close to the cliffs as we can, in and around rocks, look for the perfect timing for runs in slots between rocks when the swell will carry us through, over rocks that will be exposed 30 seconds later when the swell has passed.
This Midwest girl falls behind, unable to quickly read the interaction of Pacific swell and rock. Steve and the other coach Jen have a short conversation while I watch a few swells come through the next slot before I run it. Jen paddles back to me to tell me that the rest of the group is going to go on and we’ll spend the time I need to watch the swell at each feature – to find me crying after successfully running the slot. I’m having an amazing time; in a month’s time the Pacific has changed my soul with its swell, its salt and its wildness. But it’s just too much information, too much stimulus that I have to respond to, too much new experience to process in too short a time. I’m exhausted and overwhelmed, and poor Jen finds herself confronted with a student who’s tearful for most of the rest of the afternoon.
Like the young man on the wall, I’m at my limit. Like the group of other young people on the floor of the climbing wall, Jen gets me past my limit and beyond. When we launch from a nasty dumping beach after lunch, several people get caught by the sucking of the waves racing back to the sea into the wall of water of the next wave. I time it right and use a good strategy; when I’m past the break Steve remarks, as I drop from my back deck to the seat of my boat, that I had a better launch than he did.
* * * * *
Fast forward another two weeks, and I’m back in Chicago listening to my priest and fellow paddler Bonnie Perry talk about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Rabbi Heschel tells us that people must experience wonder, they must have mountain top experiences, in order to develop the passion and stamina to work for social justice. I look at my hands, with their already-fading but still distinct drysuit tan lines – the bottom of my hands pale where the sleeves of my waterproof clothing covered them for a month of paddling, the rest of them tanned brown and cracked. It’s a visceral, kinesthetic reminder of the mountain top experience I just had. And mountain top it was. I paddled with migrating gray whales in San Diego where I watched one just yards from my boat repeatedly lift its massive head out of the water and dive deep; in Baja California where one swam right under my boat, so close I could see the barnacles on its back; and in San Francisco, where one came right in under the Golden Gate Bridge, playing in the same ebb current we were playing in. I paddled in Mexico through little slots between rocks, across overfalls that you have to time to ride with the swell or get stuck on the rocks that create the feature, among huge sea stacks with giant Pacific swell. I saw gorgeous, long period waves breaking at Point Loma at the entrance of San Diego Bay; and waves jacking up to huge heights out of nowhere against the ebb current, breaking in slow motion all the way across the shipping channel under the Golden Gate Bridge. I paddled at night in San Diego Bay with the city lights as the backdrop, successfully finding the spots Jen had set us to find – including the dock at the restaurant where dinner and a beer were waiting. I saw beauty in some of its wildest, most inspiring forms; and at its most serene. And I landed on a cliff wall.
* * * * *
I am reminded of that young man who stopped on the wall, came down multiple times, kept getting back on the wall, cried and shook and squeezed himself up as small as he could get – and then climbed to the top of the wall. I’m reminded of other young people in our programming who have mountain top experiences; who do what they thought was impossible. The young man who describes seeing the whole of Chicago from the top of the outdoor climbing wall; the young woman who describes watching the “water just open out in front” of her kayak.
The mountaintop takes courage. To get there, you have to risk not being good enough. You have to risk falling or failing, or just falling behind. You have to risk fear. You have to risk depending on someone else for help.
When you get there, it delivers joy. It holds a mirror to your finest, bravest, most joyful self; and demands that you live into it.
The best part of my job is watching when this happens for our young people. As one young woman said, “I have learned to be a better person at home in the streets and everywhere else I go.” Rabbi Heschel is right. The mountaintop demands our best self; our best work. Just as for that young woman, my own mountaintop demands that I be “a better person at home in the streets and everywhere else I go.” It demands that I continue to work to make this city safer for our kids; that I work to make sure they have access to the resources they need regardless of their race, their socioeconomic status, their sexual orientation, their national origin or any of the other factors that make life so unfair and treacherous for them. That I keep bringing Chicago youth to their own mountains and periodically remind them not to look down until they’ve reached the top.
The mountaintop demands that I, like it, see these young peoples’ best, bravest and most joyful selves; and that I help hold the mirror so that they and the world can see the same.
I have no idea what the mountaintop will demand of each of them.
I do know that whatever the demand, it will make this City and this world – its streets, its homes and everywhere else – a better city and a better world. These young peoples’ best, bravest and most joyful selves are a force to be reckoned with. They will show us what this world can be.
Steve Maynard is a Level 5 British Canoe Union Coach and the head paddling instructor at SUNY’s Expeditionary Studies program in Plattsburgh, NY.
John Carmody is also a Level 5 British Canoe Union Coach and the owner of Sea Cliff Kayakers in Boothbay, Maine. John was the primary coach for the 5 Star training in San Francisco where this post comes from. On the day of the vignette I share, I was with the half of the group working with Steve and Jen, so John doesn’t make an appearance in the story. If you’re a paddler and you have an opportunity to work with John – YOU SHOULD TAKE IT!
Jen Kleck was the first North American to become a Level 5 British Canoe Union Coach. (I was in great company in San Francisco!) She is the owner of Aqua Adventures in San Diego and the coordinator of the Baja Kayak festival in Baja California. You should go to Baja Kayak Festival, the first ever Baja Rock Garden Symposium, if you have the opportunity – April 11-14, 2013; and April 10 – 13, 2014.
Bonnie Perry is the rector (senior pastor) of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Chicago – and the 4th woman in this country to earn her BCU 5 Star Award.
Over the next 2 weeks, you get to meet Chicago Adventure Therapy’s interns! They’ve been with us for almost a month now, and have already made their mark on our organization. We are so thankful for their work and dedication, and thought you’d like to witness their awesomeness for yourself!
First up: Alyssa!
Name: Alyssa Yokota-Lewis
Previous/Current Occupation: EVERYTHING. Specifically, Climbing Instructor, REI Customer Outfitter (my name for it), Nanny, Tutor, Former Lead Educational Outreach Coordinator
Childhood Ambition: Librarian or Circus Performer
3 Words that best describe me: Passionate, Perceptive, Open
Proudest Moment(s): The moments I realize I have learned how to share.
Why CAT?: Because I believe in the therapeutic power of guided kinesthetic challenge. And because that belief and a passion to help youth find their own inner strengths is wholeheartedly felt throughout this organization.
What have you learned so far in your internship?: That we learn from each other as much as or more than from any independent pursuit of knowledge and experience. And that by acknowledging and celebrating the unique qualities of each individual (leaders and youth included) we can grow stronger as a group. No group exists without its individual parts.
What has surprised you about CAT/AT?: Given the incredible consideration, room, and access to nature it gives for an individual to grow by their own definition, I am surprised that there are not more Adventure Therapy organizations like CAT in areas where so many youth struggle to fit into their rigid and distracting urban environments.
This week I want to tell you about “Rico,” a young man in the same gang prevention group as Humberto.
- He’s got a great sense of humor, that’s frequently slightly mocking of us, the CAT staff.
- He’s really smart.
- He’s not afraid to call us out when we say something or act in a way that’s not quite right. Which is not to say that our staff is inappropriate – but when we work every day with people who live in a world pretty different from us, we sometimes say things that are offesnsive when we have no intention of doing that. I think it takes a lot of courage and poise for a young person to call out an adult in a position of authority, and to do it appropriately and with humor.
- He’s willing to try almost anything; even when it makes him nervous.
- He’s got remarkable people skills.
- He’s a natural and graceful leader – I have much that I can learn from him.
- I love his enthusiasm for the technical pieces of sea kayaking – “Rico” and I are kindred spirits when it comes to paddling.
- how he helped one of the mentors with his program on our camping trip: She was terrified of heights, to the point of tears and hyperventilation. “Rico” went back down the trail, sat with her, talked with her, and then walked back up the trail slowly right in front of her so she could watch his feet, and make it up the trail.
- how he used his own experience to encourage his peers: On the first paddling program, he challenged me about whether the life jacket would work. When I told him it would float him, he eventually told me “I don’t believe you.” He was the first to capsize that day, and flailed around a lot in the water – until he realized he was standing… The next week I asked him to help a new paddler with his life jacket. “Rico” said “You have to make it tight. Otherwise if you fall in, it’s gonna float up here (indicating his forhead) and it’s not gonna help you. And you have to stay still. If you move around it’s gonna get in your way. You have to be still and it will work.”
- how he worked hard to get his roll: He was scared to put his face in the water; but ended the summer so close to a roll that all the help he needed was a slight push on the boat with one finger. (If you don’t know what a roll is – it’s when you sit in a kayak, turn it upside down, and then bring it right side up again while you’re in it. It’s not in fact difficult to do, but it can be very difficult to learn.)
- how he calls it as he sees it: I was a little bit surprised when he told me that at the beginning of the summer I “talked like a rich person” but that now I talked “more normal.” I was surprised again when I called out one of his peers for mocking us, thinking we weren’t getting it, during a serious discussion. “Rico” grinned and said “you’re starting to understand us.”
The whole group did a great job with these goals, and Michael and Jeremy were no exception. I especially appreciated their willingness to help that first afternoon. I had never kayaked before, and was learning some basic skills- paddle strokes, maneuvering, wet exits, and my favorite: the cowboy self-rescue. All 5 youth had experience paddling, so each helped me learn what I needed to know out on the water.
I especially remember Michael and Jeremy helping me learn the cowboy reentry. If you aren’t familiar, this self rescue has the paddler re-enter their boat by ‘swimming’ up onto the deck, scooting around until she’s straddling it, and then pulling herself forward until she can sit herself back into the cockpit. Not only did I need help learning the steps- which the brothers patiently led me through- I also needed help finding the motivation to jump into the chilly water. They were pretty convincing, and pretty funny, as they tried to come up with reasons for me to jump in. Alas, I took the cold plunge and didn’t regret it!
The rest of the weekend was challenging, fun, and pretty impressive. On the first night, we weathered a nasty storm, which blew over 2 tents, a pop- up, and had us all outside at 3am, reconfiguring sleeping arrangements. Our youth were pros, though, and dutifully helped come up with a plan to get everyone dry, warm, and back to sleep.
When we wrapped up the weekend of kayaking and climbing over pancakes and bacon on Sunday morning, we asked each of the youth what they would take away from this experience, with an emphasis on what they learned about leadership. Michael and Jeremy both chimed in with thoughts about always having a Plan B, having the skills to adapt to a new situation, and being able to help a group reach its goals.
As a clinician, I would say all 5 of these youth already had the skills they needed to make the trip a success. I think, though, what the trip really did for each, especially for the two young men, was give them a new experience in an emotionally safe environment, where they could practice those skills around a group that completely understood and believed in their ability to step up. They weren’t out there to prove to Andrea and me that they could be strong leaders, they were out there to prove it to themselves. And once they did, they were ready to go back home, with some pretty great stories to share, and fit those skills into their every day existence.
— Grace Sutherland, MSW
*names have been changed for confidentiality purposes
We’ve had a busy summer. We have more, but it’s drawing to a close. As we get just a bit less busy, I find myself contemplating the summer. The range of emotions I’ve felt working with our youth has been as wide as the Grand Canyon. The program that brought me to tears the most frequently was the gang prevention program we work with in Little Village.
Yes – I admit it – the guys brought me to tears, and more than once.
I cried when I got the email from our contact there saying he needed to cancel a program because they were holding a funeral for one of the youth that day. The young man was shot and killed.
I cried when one of the guys showed up with bruises all over his face because he’d been “beat out.” He’d made a decision to leave the gang – which meant that he had to show up for a scheduled appointment to be beat up by the people who’d been his closest friends for years. I cried because I was so proud of him. I cried because no kid – no person – should have to be beat up by their closest friends in order to live a life that isn’t bound by violence. I cried because I can’t imagine having the strength to change the course of my life like that, in opposition to my peers, when I was 16 years old. I cried because when it came down to it, I didn’t know what to make of it, or, really, just how to feel. I cried that we live in such a world. I cried that our youth live in such a world. I cried for the hope of changing the world for these guys.
I cried when we went camping with this group, too – when they started talking about beauty at the end of the trip. I was stunned when someone said that our evening paddle on the trip was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. I cried because I often forget the beauty at Devil’s Lake – I’ve been incredibly lucky to go to many places I consider more beautiful. So it brought me up short to realize the lack of beauty in these guys’ lives. And it made me cry because of the impact that beauty can have on a person. These are tough guys – their peer who was killed earlier in the summer was much like them. They’re all familiar with violence. But there was such softness in their faces when, just for a moment, they talked about beauty.
I almost cry, if it weren’t for the absurdity, when I think about how scared these guys are of the activities we do – especially the climbing and kayaking. But that they’re not scared to pack a gun. That they have a hard time trusting the safety of a belay system or a life jacket; but they don’t understand that much of the activity in their daily lives is more dangerous. You can imagine we talked a lot about safety and risk management with them.
I laughed so hard I cried – and nearly peed my pants! – when we did a Harbor cleanup with them. At the very end, one of the land-based crews spotted money floating all over the water, and sitting on the bottom as well! So – probably not my best moment – but with their suggestion, prompting, laughter and disbelief – I dove for the money. Yes, I dove for singles with the serial numbers cut out. I came up with fistfuls of money, to their disbelief not that I would dive for money, but that I would get into that water. And, despite their disbelief, to directions about where next to dive! The intensity of their directions was hilarious! We called the police, made a report, and turned over the money – because it was the right thing to do, and bills with serial numbers cut out are a little sketchy, to say the least! (I was impressed with how they handled themselves around the cops, too.) The spontaneity, shared laughter, engagement and absurdity that we all shared was one of the greatest moments of my summer. A summer that started with us not knowing if these guys would ever open up to us in the least; or if we’d be able to forge the slightest connection with them.
Thank you for making so much possible!
Thanks you for changing lives.
My thanks, too, to our many partners, especially The Northwest Passage, Lincoln Park and Lakeview Athletic Clubs, Bike Chicago, and Alliance for the Great Lakes
Andrea Knepper, LCSW
Founder and Director