Written by Will Snowden
(Will recently spent 5 months of his gap year in Canada with Soul Edge – an adventure based leadership training course – to find out more about Soul Edge visit http://souledge.ca/index.php?vision)
I woke up at 7:30 on January 7th 2015. Everything was packed and ready to be loaded into the car before driving to the airport. The journey to the airport was uneventful, yet excitement was building as I started to anticipate what would happen over the next 5 months 4000 miles away. We arrived at the airport at about 9:30, checked in my suitcase and parted with my parents at customs; the last time I would see them for 5 months.
I met the team in the departure lounge with the help of one of the guys, Joel, who had come to meet me as I was the last to arrive. Meeting everyone was really strange as we had talked over Facebook since the previous summer, and had Skyped a couple of times, but now we were all seeing each other in the flesh, looking as much like the ‘Gap-year kids’ as you’d expect. From left to right they are Beth, Caleb, Pille, Rachel, Joel, Hannah, Me and Tom. After an exhausting plane journey (I watched 3 films, read a book and chatted with the guys – don’t worry, I’ve learned a bit more restraint now) we were in Canada! And then we were stuck in immigration for 2 hours… but then we met up with the leaders of the course, Mac, Lauren, Seb, Josh and his wife Kiri, who all seemed as excited as we were. we had a brief dinner and then realized we had another 6 hours of travelling (by SUV this time) to get to the house. We FINALLY reached our new home around 6:00 am the following morning (UK time – midnight in Canada).
The house is one of the oldest buildings in the town of Herbert, an old ranching and farming town founded in 1912 and has a population of 800 people. The surrounding area is miles upon miles of flat prairie land, perfect for arable farming and on the south side of the town is the freight train railway, which rattles the town at various points in the day when multi-kilometer long graffitied freight trains traverse the continent. The house itself was decorated with all sorts of exciting trinkets such as handmade knives, a 60lb handmade wooden bow, a wooden club and a belt of shotgun ammunition, all of which gave an indication of what we could expect from the course. Naturally with six guys in the house, these were thoroughly ‘tested’ very quickly.
The first day was orientation and a trip to the ranch where we had some icebreaker (metaphorical and literal) games, such as snow wrestling, snowball fighting and being towed behind a quadbike on a sled. I was challenged to a wrestle by Lauren and after a surprising amount of resistance, I managed to push her out of the ring we had marked out in the snow. The following day was the river-breaks hike, where the ground is marked by fissures and valleys all leading to a huge frozen lake. We were given more of an indication of the sort of course this was when we were actively encouraged to jump off the 40′ cliffs and slide down the valley edges to reach our route at the bottom. This was a chance for the leaders to see how their new team would respond to challenge such as teamwork and helping others if they were struggling all the while dealing with -15’C and 40′ inclines and declines. Also the leaders would chat to us about our relationship with God and get a gauge on what was going on in our lives.
After these first few days, we settled into our new routine; wake up at 7:30, then two hours to get up, have breakfast, read the daily Bible reading and do whatever we needed to do in that time. At 9:30 we would have worship and a session with Josh, who would normally talk to us about more personal and internal issues such as knowing our identity in Christ, the spiritual disciplines, healing of the heart and similar facets of a Christian walk in this vein. These were lessons that I found have grown me most in my walk with God as they were teaching us to look internally and ask what God wants to change in us as well as learning the truth from the Bible and how to apply it to our lives.
After session at around 11:00 we would run a three kilometer circuit around the perimeter of the town; yes, even in -20’C Saskatchewan winter. When we arrived back at the house we would have a workout in the basement ‘gym’ (most of the equipment is just old farm equipment welded together. Also, a couple of homemade swords, air rifles, rifles and shotguns have their home here) I much preferred this to the runs as I was much more at home lifting weights than running. Straight after the workout would be lunch – anything from pasta & mince to Ichiban (Canada’s answer to Ramen noodles) and any other carb and protein heavy food that was easy to make on mass. At 2:00 we would have a session by Kiri, which was usually more theological and historical than Josh’s sessions and were so useful to get a better understanding of God’s love in the Old Testament and the Biblical narrative as a whole. As good as these sessions were, they could go on for a long time due to Kiri’s admirable (yet exhausting) enthusiasm and over-preparedness. I think the record for one of these sessions was three hours!
Once this had ended we would go to the ranch (owned by leader Josh’s parents) for ‘play time’ which involved more quad sledding, archery, knife and axe throwing, snowball fights or doing work on the most ramshackle treehouse I’ve ever seen (see pic). Usually a couple of us would help out by feeding the cows. the afternoon would be topped off by Josh’s mother Polly cooking something amazing like cookies or cinnibuns. We would go to the ranch Mondays, Wednesdays/Thursdays (for guys and girls respectively) and Fridays or Saturdays (depending on which day we would have Adventure Day). The Wed/Thurs -days were when Polly would teach us to ride – something that I really enjoyed and picked up right away, yet the horses were pretty stubborn in the cold and always veered back towards their barn. The remaining Soul Edgers on these days would clean the house and prank the absentees. A couple of weeks in, we guys arrived home to see all our clothes had been tied together and draped over the driveway like bunting, but with water poured over the knots which froze in the -15′ cold. I was not happy, but I guess it was a good opportunity to exercise patience. Another prank a few months later involved hiding our mattresses at the church, all of our stuff hidden in trash bags around the house and our knives and tools being hidden at the ranch. Don’t worry though, we responded by moving all their beds into the next room and wearing their bedsheets as togas.
The evenings were usually pretty relaxed and we could go to bed whenever we liked, provided we got up on time the following morning (or face the wrath of a cup of cold water to the sleep deprived face). Some nights we did some activities like a youth cell held at the house or help out with the kids club at church. Sometimes we would have a quiz night and the losing team would have the worst forfeits such as an underwear run to the intersection in the snow, or drink a smoothie made from fruit, mustard and washing up liquid.
The physical challenges were some of the most satisfying. I wasn’t much of a runner so on the first run I had to stop five times to catch my breath. Once I finished the run for the first few days I would collapse into the snow drift on the driveway and try and cool my legs down. They would ache for the whole day! However within a few weeks I could comfortably run the whole circuit with ease – one Sunday afternoon, I decided to run the whole route twice and managed it at a decent pace without stopping which was a huge achievement for me. At the end of our three months in Herbert we ran 12km to the ranch as a final challenge before our mission trip. Thankfully the weather was beautiful and everybody made it.
Our first week trip out was to Kananaskis country, which is a region in the Rocky Mountain foothills. The week was predominantly a hiking week; we had a one day hike along the ridge near the campsite, after that, a 2 day hike a bit further into the mountains and finally a morning sunrise hike. The single day hike on the first day was a lot of hard work and I was pretty run down so I didn’t appreciate it as much as I would have liked, but it was an still awesome experience as the view was incredible and we all got to try our new gear some of us had picked up at the Mountain Equipment Co-op. We had to wear snow shows as we climbed this incredibly steep mountain face and traversed the ridge. The ridge was pretty rocky so I took the snowshoes off and stubbornly refused to put them back on again when the snow deepened to about waist height again – possibly why I was so tired later on. On the way back, we ended up on a poor route. It was a precarious boulder field on about a 30′ gradient so any slip could be dangerous.
However, this is a great testimony of God’s protection: there was one craggy cliff we had to traverse around, which was a terrible, terrible idea as the light was dimming and we were all fairly tired. We had to climb around this narrow pass on it and then on the other side descend about 10 feet onto the steep, rocky mountain face. Lauren, one of the leaders descended in front of me and had little trouble getting onto the ground and was firmly holding onto secure looking handhold. She eventually managed to get down and I took the same approach, yet almost immediately the very same rock sheared off and I fell, landed on my pack on the slope and rolled about another 10 feet down the mountain until I smacked my head on the edge of a rock. However, there was no injury at all – I bounced into sitting position, wiggled my toes and fingers and everything seemed to be working so I tentatively called back up, ‘Guys… I think I’m OK..’. Tom, Seb and Lauren, the three people who saw the fall were all panicking that they would need to call an air ambulance, but thankfully, God was protecting us and I suffered no damage at all. The only after effect was an adrenaline high which kept me buzzed and actively aiding some of the others on the treacherous route.
The next two days was the longer hike which was a little easier, as it followed a more ‘horizontal’ trail and we spent the night sleeping on pine branches under the stars on the snow, with a blazing fire beside us. We levelled the snow, built a firewall, by tying a tarpaulin to the trees surrounding our camp and we spent most of the evening chopping firewood to last the night. It was a fun trial for our new machetes and knives. The following day, we left our packs at the camp and climbed halfway up the mountain ahead of us in a colossal blizzard. All the way up the mountain I was looking at the snow channel we were on, hoping to slide down it on the way down. My teammates were more of one mind, just wanting the blizzard to subside a little. I guess this was a role reversal of the first hike, which as I said, I did not enjoy as much as I would normally have. Anyway, after a quick photoshoot halfway up, we started to descend so I took off my snowshoes and started bounding down the mountain side, trying to get a decent slide. Unfortunately, I didn’t slide very far as the snow was too loose, but when I reached the bottom, the team had decided to name me the ‘Ox’ for my ‘willingness to throw myself at anything, with no regard to my wellbeing’. The name kinda stuck. The final day in K country was pretty warm at 5’C so we just had a fun day of wide games and challenged on the campsite.
Our second adventure trip was in Banff, world renowned for its ski resorts and scenic areas. We went snowboarding twice at Sunshine Village and all improved drastically… whilst experiencing some painful and hilarious wipeouts. Also, we did some ice climbing, which is extremely difficult; I was surprised how different it was to regular climbing and struggled with it quite a bit. The first time I did it there was one occasion where everything but my left axe slipped. I was roped on so it was safe, but the rope was fairly slack so I was hanging from just one hand halfway up the ice face, which was terrifying. I did not reach the top the first time as the ice was brittle and kept breaking off, and my goggles steamed up so I could see nothing. I tried again later and succeeded as I was more prepared. It was potentially the most technical challenge I have done in a long time, but accomplishing it was immensely rewarding. That evening we went to the hot springs in Banff to relax which was a real treat after a week of getting bruised, battered and broken. The water is heated naturally but the air was still below freezing so everybody’s hair froze, despite the warmth of the pool. The other major activity we did on our Banff was climbing Haling’s Peak which is beside the town of Canmore. It was a fairly straight forward hike and the view from the top was incredible. The ridge was sheer on the other side so you could lean out and look directly down to the valley floor. The descent was particularly fun as the trails were covered in compact snow, so we could slide the majority of the way down the mountain.
As well as having adventure trips out, we had a trip to the Convergence church in the city of Lethbridge. This was an incredibly edifying trip as the church itself really seems to have a grasp on how God can use them in their community and they have some solid doctrine. The ‘convergence’ label stems from the equal focus on evangelical, historical and spiritual areas of the Church, of which only one of the three are usually focused on in churches. On this trip I gained a much greater appreciation for historical and sacramental elements of Christianity, such as communion (which was done in a CofE, historical style) and the importance of liturgical reading. The best thing about the church is that they do not implement doctrine or teachings without being 100% committed to discovering the true meaning exegetically, particularly with traditional elements; for example, they would not follow a liturgical Eucharist if they did not have a legitimate understanding of the texts they read from. This may sound obvious, but they have found that a lot of churches seem to read out the same texts, weekly, without taking it to heart. The trip was also where we received our briefing for our mission for Pelican Narrows, which built the excitement for the second part of the course.
After a few weeks back in Hebert, we left for Pelican Narrows. The weather was predicted to be snowy further north, yet instead we had sheet ice form on the roads. About 50 miles from Pelican, the SUV with me and my teammates Hannah, Joel, Caleb, Rachel and Seb came off the road and rolled onto the roof. Thankfully, by what we believe was God’s protection, nobody was injured. Also, as if our physical training from the prior 3 months was put into practice, everybody immediately sprang into action, and accommodated those who were shaken up by the crash. Joel, Caleb, Seb and I got to work helping the other out the vehicle, checking everyone was OK and sorting out essentials we could divide between the other cars and what we could leave behind in the upturned SUV until the morning. Later on in the mission, Hannah had a call from her sister saying that on the morning of the crash, she had a strong impulse to fast for that day, so it seems pretty well certain that God was really protecting us on that journey. We finished the journey worshipping, cramped in the back of one of the other cars.
Once we arrived at our cabin, we went to bed fairly quickly as it was about 11:30. The cabin was basically one room about 20’X30′ and had partitions to divide the bedroom, girl’s changing room/storage and a gas shower room from the main living area. The bedroom consisted of a huge bunk bed with space for four mattresses on each level, boys on the bottom bunk and girls on the top. The cabin is just across a small bay from the main town of Pelican, which meant we did have a bit of a retreat when we weren’t doing mission, which was a real blessing as it broke it up a little and meant the mission did not overwhelm us. Later in the first week we erected a wall tent with a wood burning stove in it for Seb and Mac, two of the team leaders. They only lasted one night and decided to spend the rest of the mission sleeping on cushions in the cabin, as once the stove burnt out, the canvas (which was rather old and holey) did not retain any heat. However, it was much more spacious than the cabin so a little later on, Hannah, Caleb and I slept in there for the majority of the trip. On the first couple of days in Pelican we dug an ice hole in the lake for our water, explored around the lake and our cabin and had an orientation of the town proper. It differs from most Canadian grid layouts with cheap housing scattered anywhere and all the roads are dirt tracks. A basic description on the town is a cross between rural African villages and inner city ghettos. All the buildings are effectively semi-permanent trailers, all of which have a trifecta of graffiti, boarded up windows and trash discarded on the yard. This contrasts drastically with the Ford F-150s, quadbikes and skidoos that most of the population seems to have. There is technically no financial poverty there as they receive grants from the government effectively as compensation for the history of colonial expansionists that exploited the Indian tribes in the past. However, this has created a sense of entitlement among them which leads to the Natives not looking after their things and ‘just buying a new one’ if things break, feeling the white government owes them for a heritage of exploitation. Also, as they government grants, few of them work and most drop out of school, so gangs, drink and drugs are a very real problem there.
As they are effectively given free money, the Natives have an unhealthy perception of it; they are not lacking financially, yet here is still poverty there, both spiritually and economically, as they buy stuff they want, not what they need, hence the expensive vehicle and poor domiciles. Our mission there was primarily to connect with the ‘fringe’ of the Church – people who had an interest in God, or were asking the right questions, yet weren’t fully committed to God or not living as fruitfully as God intended. There was time scheduled to hang out with these people throughout the week and effectively disciple them, or probe what sort of things they are struggling with and bring Jesus into the situation. I had two guys I regularly met up with called Kirk and Tyrone who both had awesome, but very different journeys. We also had other responsibilities such as running the youth centre, helping out at the church and preparing for two conferences we held for the town (a women’s conference and a youth conference. For the women’s conference the guys took on a stewarding role, which was still a really great time of service). The conferences were a really good opportunity to share and teach all the things we had learnt through the training phase, be it from the sessions or from what God had directly done in our lives, or the revelations and testimonies we had had. After my talk at the youth conference, my friend Tyrone stayed behind and wanted me to go over the key points and asked a lot of good questions as he really wanted to grasp hold of God’s way of life and really make a change in his life, which was a far cry from when I met him. Also, there were a lot of amazing testimonies from the women’s conference, of which I cannot justifiably recount as I was behind the scenes, serving, yet God really moved powerfully according to what the girls experienced and from what I saw briefly.
Some nights were illuminated by the Aurora Borealis, better known as the Northern Lights, and the seemed to improve everytime we saw them. The best we saw were noticeably and swiftly spiraling or undulating across the sky in bright columns of green and purple. They became such a common occurrence that sometimes, if they were not as bright or impressive, we would not bother watching. This may sound unappreciative, but I assure you, they are some of the most incredible things I’ve seen, yet they became such a regular fixture that we did not feel the need to see them if they were not as bright.
As the natives generally sleep well into the late morning, our mornings usually consisted of worship, prayer or logging. For logging, we would head off to an old burnt out forest and whilst the leaders chainsawed the dead trees, we would haul logs back up to the trucks. Most of these were for Joel, one of the twins who started the course in 2006, but who now lives in Pelican as a permanent mission. He sometimes had other jobs for us such as de-hairing a moose hide or clearing trash from the roads and taking it to the dump (a prime spot for seeing wolves and bears!). Sometimes, Joel had a treat for us such as bringing a snowmobile to the cabin for us to ride. Also, in our free time or Mondays off (there was some degree of free time due to it being a long term course, however it was not a holiday!) we found other things to do, such as building a stone kiln and a teepee smokehouse around it (it did not work that well, but was a fun build). Also, the lake offered some fine ice fishing opportunities. Once thawed we also swam in it and built a raft which we could paddle to the near islands. A few times we had some of our native friends around and either played a wide game or more commonly shared a bonfire and worship with them, and nearing the end of our time there, Tyrone paddled his canoe over to our cabin and let a few of us explore the lakes on it. He had been spending more and more time with us at the cabin in the last week or so as he really wanted to learn more about God and enjoyed our company. Whilst he and Seb were having some meaningful conversation, I and two others paddled out about a mile around an island with an eagles nest in one of its trees. The water was incredibly still, to the point that voices carried all the way to the boat and I could discern who was speaking inside our cabin from the island. The sunset that night was also astounding as the sun illuminated the dust and accentuated the deep reds and yellows.
This set the team up well for the post mission canoe trip. After our mission ended, we drove four hours to Missinippi to set out on our 106km adventure down the Churchill River (really a series of lakes connected by narrows, some with currents and some without. The trip took five days and we would set up camp on the shore or an island each night. We had all our gear in about eight waterproof barrels. Each day consisted, as you might expect, with lots of paddling, but no day was the same: the landscape changed drastically from narrow channels, to open lakes where some shorelines were beyond the horizon, portages, rapids, beaches, hills and some abandoned buildings. The second day we arrived at a portage (a portage is where a canoeist can ascend or descend rapids too dangerous to boat down by carrying their boat and gear along a trail beside the river) which, unbeknownst to us, had a boardwalk and a railway cart, Indiana Jones style. This made transporting our load much easier and riding on top was incredibly fun, especially when the cart went runaway, and we were brought to an abrupt halt by a fallen tree at the end of the track. The main other portage we encountered was not nearly so fun. If you are ever struck with the desire to carry a canoe on your shoulders for an entire kilometer, just don’t. This is what we had to do to descend Nistowiak Falls, an awesome waterfall that was on our route. Tom and I carried a canoe each to the other side and then had to run back and carry any other gear, with areas being knee deep bog water and others being precariously stony trails. However, we had lunch atop the falls which was an amazing experience – for one thing it was nearly 30’C and on the other side of the falls was still a massive sheet of packed ice clinging to the rock. Another night we camped on a beach in a bay with smaller islands on it. I took a canoe and paddled out to an island, lit a fire and enjoyed God’s creation and presence. The next morning we check out an old uranium mine nearby. The shaft had been obstructed but we explored the building there.
On the final night of the trip, we were camping on the shore of a lake which seemed to be the hub of many other lakes through narrow channels. There was a peninsular to the west of our camp behind which the sun was setting, so I took a time of solitude by paddling around the head. on this lake was where I saw the most incredible sunset I’ve ever had the privilege to see – I would happily put it above the Northern Lights, to put into perspective its awesomeness. This, I genuinely feel was a God gift, as I felt had really spiritually dry in the final week of mission, and had already been receiving revelations and a sense of God’s presence throughout the trip, and this seemed to be the cake-topper, so to speak. Naturally, it led to a brief time of private worship on my little boat, and then I returned to the camp. On my return, I found Caleb and Tom about to start playing on a canoe, so I joined them and we messed around with games such as holding hands whilst standing on the gunwale and leaning out, counterbalancing each other. These generally resulted in us getting very wet. Of course, we sank the canoe and had to drag it back to the camp and then warm up by the fire.
After the trip, our final week of Soul Edge began: debrief week. This week was basically a proper rest from all the physical exertion and lack of running water from the previous two months. Also, we had sessions basically telling us what to expect when we returned home, or how we can apply all that we had learnt in our own environments. We had a ‘graduation day’ where we all smartened up as best we could and had an official end to the course, complete with certificates and photos. The final two days were spent at the Unger’s house, a family with close links to the Erb family and who live about an hour from Calgary on the edge of the Rocky Mountains. The house is full of taxidermied animals and skins which decorate the walls. Here we were fed well, and got a final chance for some clay pigeon shooting from the driveway.
The following day we travelled into Calgary and spent some time in a hunting and fishing store called Bass pro, which is decorated with about 550 taxidermied animals around the building. Some of us picked up some camping equipment from here for our post-Soul Edge holiday in Vancouver Island. We then got in the SUVs for the last time as we made our way to the airport in Calgary where Josh prayed over us and we all said our goodbyes to the leaders and boarded our plane to Vancouver Island.
Soul Edge had officially finished but we still had one last adventure as a whole team. We arrived in Comox Valley in the evening and got a taxi ride to where we were staying – Camp Selah, which is a Christian campsite for any kind of Church retreat or activity. The owners knew Josh and Kiri through church connections so that was how we found out about the site. we spent 10 days there and met some awesome people at the church and the owners, Will and Heather had us had for dinner a couple of times and were really generous in providing us with some supplies and even offering to shuttle us to a few of the local landmarks such as Miracle Beach and Mount Washington, where I had a quick swim in one of the mountain lakes. At the church we met a guy who invited us to the lake where we did some cliff jumping and tubing. The site itself also had some awesome features around such as a river leading to a bridge we could jump off and a huge rope swing. We often ended the day with some worship.
After an amazing 10 days, we set out to our respective destinations: I was leaving Canada the following day but the rest of the team was staying for another few days in a town called Tofino. Will and Heather gave us a ride to the bus station and, in another example of God’s provision, Will quietly gave me some money to help me on my journey as I had about $19 left. I hadn’t told him that I needed it yet he felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to give, which was a huge blessing (and something that had been nagging at me for a few days). The rest of the team transferred to another bus and we all said goodbye. It was time to come home.