“We started the program [‘Challenge 2012’] a couple of years ago in response to the Young Women’s Conference,” noted Gord McCabe, principal of Crossroads School in Devlin.
Together with Kendall Olsen, principal of Sturgeon Creek School and S.C.A.P., and Casey Slack, superintendent of education for the Rainy River District School Board, they decided a similar event also should be held so Grade 8 students and those from high school could get together to form new friendships and skills.
“We wanted to do something that would really be an experience for students,” said McCabe.
“So we decided to take two students from each high school [and two from each elementary school] at the recommendation of their principal,” he explained.
“Two students who might not necessarily get this type of opportunity.”
The highs school students then act as mentors for the younger boys.
Due to the busy schedules of high school students this year, only two mentors from Atikokan High School were able to attend. However, the usual 16 elementary school students all were on hand.
“We generally have two mentors from the high schools,” noted McCabe. “We spend one night discussing what life is like in high school, and the mentors answer more of the questions than the staff do.
“We then got in contact with the folks at Atikokan High School,” he added. “They have some staff members who are trained and certified in canoeing skills.”
So on Wednesday morning at the end of May, they took 18 students to the Junior Ranger Camp at Mink Lake in Quetico Provincial Park.
“The Ministry of Natural Resources provides us with the use of the camp, which is really generous of them,” said McCabe.
“The kids stay in bunked houses and there is a kitchen where we can do the cooking.”
With much help from AHS teachers Peter Burton, Brad Gascoigne, and Mike Krassey, the event ran smoothly for its third year.
“They [the Atikokan teachers] train the students in basic canoeing techniques,” McCabe noted. “They [the students] actually get their Level I certification from the Ontario Recreational Canoeing and Kayaking Association.
“They also get training in basic knots, so they can actually put up a shelter if they were ever lost made of ropes and tarps,” he added.
“And they get training in how to navigate using a hand-held GPS system.”
Lastly, the students get on-the-water rescue training.
“So if someone were to fall out of their canoe, they are trained on how to get them back in,” McCabe explained.
“It’s kind of cool,” he enthused. “They actually have to lift the other canoe up onto their canoe so it can be dumped free of water, and then they turn it over.”
Unfortunately, some of the last training session “had to be curtailed this year because of the lousy weather.”
The final activity on the first day involves walking to the French River Pavilion, which is right at the entrance to Quetico Park.
“It is opened up to us so the kids can see the exhibits there, and there’s a lot of aboriginal and fur-trading history there,” said McCabe.
Weather permitting, they also walk the boardwalk along the shores of the lake to learn about the history of the park.
“[Then] we come back and have huge ice-cream sundaes,” he added.
Brian Jackson from the MNR then comes in on the Thursday to give a presentation to the students on local aquatic life.
“They actually get in with the dip nets and pull some wildlife [to examine],” McCabe noted.
Again, because of the rain this year, that activity was modified and held inside rather than being more hands-on outside.
“And then Friday morning is when we actually do the challenge,” said McCabe.
Paired in their school groups, the students have to portage their canoes down to the water.
“Mr. Burton has designed a course, and there are eight different points around Mink Lake that the kids have to go to to collect a question from each one,” he explained.
“The question is based on knowledge that they have gained over the course of the past few days.
“They are all heading off to different points, and they have to retrieve all eight of these questions,” McCabe noted. “Then they have to portage their canoe around a certain course, usually around the camp a couple of times.
“Next, they have to stow their canoe properly, come back with the answers [a time penalty is assessed for wrong answers], and then they get their ropes and they have to construct a shelter.”
The shelter has to be approved before the students take it down and clean everything up.
McCabe said the winning team receives a couple of paddles that are hand-made by a craftsman in Atikokan while the rest of the students receive souvenir mini paddles.
After a tough day, Brendan Nugent and Aden Cochrane from J.W. Walker School finished first.
“This was the most difficult year for the kids because of the lousy weather,” McCabe admitted.
“[But] we didn’t receive one complaint from the kids, and they spent a lot of time outside in the rain,” he noted.
“Our feedback over the past few years has just been incredibly positive, and the kids really do enjoy it.”