In August of 2016, I returned to YMCA Camp Chief Hector located in Kananaskis, Alberta for my 9th summer as a camper there. The catch was, that year was significantly different than the many times before. Normally, I attend camp for two weeks every summer; these two weeks are filled of many activities from day hikes, archery and horseback riding to that session’s trip, which for me was usually a 5-7 canoe trip. In 2016, however, I became a Leadership camper (LD1). This meant that not only would I be at camp for a whole month, but that I would embark on some of the most gruelling challenges of my life. I can say with certainty that my summer there shaped me into the individual I have become today.
One of the highlights about Camp Chief Hector is that it is an unplugged camp. This means that from the second you get there to the minute you leave, you are prohibited electronics of any kind. Even the counsellors only get an hour a day. The logic behind this choice is to make sure that campers connect with every element that surrounds them and indulge in the imagination of childhood that has been dampened in most recent years. I believe this to be crucial to the camp experience, but I have to admit, as a 16 year-old a month away from my phone felt like an eternity to me. Still, I found myself handing my devices to my mom on the morning of camp and leaving them completely behind me for a month in the wilderness.
As I embarked on that month, I couldn’t have been more under-prepared. In 2015 I had to leave camp as I had Mononucleosis. Instead of paddling through rapids on the North Saskatchewan River, I was lying on my couch, banned from any and all physical activity. I felt like my canoeing abilities weren’t going to be up to LD1 standards, or especially up to the standards required to canoe the challenging Kootenay River. On top of that, my group was embarking on an 11 day hike through the backcountry. Overnight hikes were an activity I had never done before, and to me 11 days seemed to be an impossibility. The first few days were spent solely packing gear, dehydrating food, and making route plans, and with each day my anxiety grew stronger. On top of the stress associated with my physical capabilities, the month before camp had been a really hard time for my family and it had taken a toll on my emotional state, so much so that I felt as if I didn’t know who I was anymore. For the first few days of activities it was hard for me to connect to my fellow hikers and get out of my own head; quite honestly, I did not want to be there. My cellphone was not available to me, so I couldn’t talk to my parents or my friends. I was scared.
Before I knew it I was at the base of a mountain, about to spend the first day hiking 25km with an elevation gain of 250m. This may not seem like a lot but for a first time 5’0 hiker, carrying 11 days worth of gear on my back it was almost too much. That day was admittedly very hard for me as I tried to match my fellow camper Konrad’s pace. As the hike continued, I began to find myself. The days, although terrifying and growing in kilometres hiked, were surmountable and I was able to push through them. Crystal, one of my counsellors, made a huge effort to help me get through the internal battles I was dealing with. It is my nature to push people away and bottle up my feelings, but there was something about Crystal that made it impossible to revert to my natural ways. She was the role model I needed that summer. She was by my side constantly through the whole month, pushing me to take another step forward or just helping me to feel comfortable in my own skin again. I ended up making some lifelong connections with my fellow campers, and regardless of the strain on my body or my newly acquired sprained ankle, I went to bed every night on the lumpy ground with a smile on my face.
At the top of a mountain on the last day I felt something in me change. I had conquered almost 300 km in less than the 11 days allotted. I pushed myself to the point where I had discovered a newfound resilience, and I immersed myself in the people around me, leaning into them for support and comfort. It is easy to say that it was one specific thing that helped me rediscover myself but ultimately I believe it came down to being unplugged.
Had I been able to have access to my phone in the first 5 days, I would have relied on my friends and family back home to help me deal with my issues, and therefore would have ignored what was going on all around me. My phone was not going to help me make friends, nor was it going to help me finish the hike or canoe trip. The truth is I didn’t need my phone at all that month.
A challenge to anyone reading this: next time you are alone, stressed, or bored, put down the phone. Immerse yourself in the people around you, find a new hobby or talent, or just appreciate your surroundings. You never know how one moment unplugged could make an impact on you.