If you ask just about anyone you know or a stranger on the street if they have a friend or relative who’s battled cancer, nearly everyone will say yes. It’s the affliction felt by just about every family as it holds no discrimination of age, gender or race. Most of the stories we hear and see through media are of young children battling for their lives or of elderly adults who have fought multiple bouts or eventually lost their final battle. Stories that are not top of mind to most people are the young adults, men and women in their 20s and 30s, who are also fighting against cancer. These people are starting careers and families when a diagnosis comes down and often react differently than older adults and young children. Recognizing this need, a group of family and friends formed True North Treks as a way for young adults to come together with their peers and treat cancer with a heavy dose of nature.
Scott and Gwen Victorson are founding members of the group and moved from Michigan to Sandpoint in 2006. Coming from the sparsely populated and well-forested Upper Peninsula, they found North Idaho to have all the things they loved about their previous home and instantly recognized the opportunities the surrounding wilderness provided for future treks.
“We love the mountains, lakes and trails here in our area, not only for their beauty and accessibility, but also because our elevation and terrain are more accommodating than other Western hiking locations to the cancer survivors we bring on trek with us,” said Gwen.
True North Treks (TNT) brings 18- to 39-year-olds with cancer on outdoor trips of various lengths to parks, lakes and national forests all over the country, including North Idaho and Western Montana. TNT’s belief is that connecting with the healing space found in nature and others the same age who have also been affected by cancer can help a young adult forge a new pathway beyond their disease, beyond their treatment and beyond all the labels, assumptions, expectations, stereotypes and fears, and create new ways to find direction.
First-responder trained guides bring groups of 10 to 14 on backpacking trips up to a week long. Groups trek into some of the most remote and scenic areas of the country to swim, paddle, hike, relax and share experiences with each other. There is also time each day set aside for meditation and gentle yoga, whether it’s at a lakeshore or around the evening campfire. A guide herself, Gwen can attest to the impact the experience has on those who participate.
“I see common threads with people reflecting on feeling stronger than they knew they were, learning how to “let go” or “let it be,” feeling less angry, feeling more equipped to deal with stressful situations in a new way. Nature is good medicine and good for healing and a desire to live life in a more mindful way,” she said.
It doesn’t matter the type of cancer these young adults are battling, all are welcome on treks as long as they are not undergoing active treatments due to the physical demands of the journey. Long treks consist of about a week’s time, and mini-treks are held over a long weekend for those who are unable to commit to a full week. This summer, trekkers are lined up for hiking Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, paddling the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota, experiencing the Green River in Utah and exploring its surrounding landscape. There is also a mini-trek coming up at the end of this month that will take both survivors and caretakers into the Selkirks for day hikes and return to a lodge each night for rest and relaxation. The Selkirks are a favorite of True North Treks for their abundance of activities and relative isolation.
Gwen is a veteran of many treks and is in the same age group of those battling cancer. “While I’m off getting married, vacationing, having babies and complaining about lack of sleep, a lot of my peer trek participants are fighting for their lives. My job really gives me perspective,” she said.
It’s the participants and their positive outlook and eagerness to participate that keeps Gwen smiling and excited for the next adventure.
“I am inspired daily by stories and relationships fostered with not only the survivors we work with but also their strong caregiver supporters who can come on some of our treks, all of the amazing folks we work with and the donors who make this all possible.”
Demand for these trips is high, and there are only a handful of openings available this summer. If you or someone you know is in this age group, battling cancer and would like to participate, you’ll find all the information you’ll need at TrueNorthTreks.org. The organization continues to expand and is testing out even shorter ‘micro-treks’ and also boasts a team of survivors who enters the grueling Spartan Beast Race each year in Eureka, Montana. A new documentary titled Plan B for Dreamland will be out shortly. This moving piece will highlight the complex realities that young adults with cancer face and the powerful roles of nature, peer connection and mindful awareness in forging a new path as a survivor.
Cancer does not just attack the young and the old but thousands of those in the middle as well. True North Treks hopes this underserved group is never forgotten because new battles with cancer begin each day.