On July 27, 2022, eight young adult cancer survivors and one caregiver traveled to Duluth, Minnesota, with True North Treks (TNT). Duluth would be the meeting point before setting off for the Apostle Islands — a stunning, 22-island archipelago in Lake Superior, known for red sandstone sea caves, sandy beaches, picturesque lighthouses and historic shipwrecks.
TNT is a nonprofit that aims to empower young adults and caregivers affected by cancer. Their programs are designed to help young adults “find direction through connection” after the very disconnecting cancer experience. Along with immersive wilderness excursions, TNT offers retreat-style experiences and mindfulness meditation and yoga training.
The real mission of each island-bound traveler was to find empowerment through connection with nature, their peers, and themselves, but the initial challenge was to pitch tents, paddle miles in kayaks, maneuver waves, battle bugs, journey caves, confront black bears, and practice meditation. Daily discussions focused around themes like “accept/acknowledge,” “self-compassion,” and “let it be/let it go.”
From Duluth, the trek started with a sunny three-mile paddle to Oak Island, followed by a hike up a steep incline to the first campsite. Wetsuits and personal flotation devices were hung on rope lines; bug spray engulfed the campsite; stir fry with veggies, chicken and tofu was prepared; meditation was practiced around the campfire; stars sparkled in the night sky above; and tired warriors snuggled into sleeping bags in shared tents.
The next morning, the adventure continued to the islands of Raspberry, York, and Sand. Raspberry Island was black bear territory. Having never seen a black bear outside of a zoo, the challenge for all was walking around yelling “bear” and singing in large groups. The thimbleberries enjoyed in handfuls were a tasty highlight.
York was filled with sunshine for lunchtime and journaling to reflect on the theme or mantra each trekker hoped to take home with them. Before reaching the sandy beach campsite of Sand Island, paddling the sea caves was no easy feat. But the beautiful site was worth it.
After a buggy but pleasant night on Sand Island, the morning was quiet, as trekkers enjoyed a silent walk on a flower-filled path to a lighthouse. Later, still in silence, gear was gathered and packed. Then it was time to head out on the choppy water, with storm clouds rolling in. After some quiet time on the water, the kayaks gathered as a pod. Keeping silent was serene and allowed for senses to be heightened.
The kayaking and camping may have ended on Lake Superior, but the participants’ connection to each other was solidified as soon as phone numbers were swapped and messages started flowing on the trek back home.
I have been given the opportunity to experience multiple adventures with TNT. My husband and I attended a survivor and caregiver backpacking trek in the Upper Peninsula of Wisconsin. I also traveled Colorado’s Green River with survivors and explored the Red Rocks.
TNT believes that connecting with the healing space found in nature can help young adults and caregivers re-magnetize their compasses and forge new pathways beyond their disease. They also believe in the healing to be found in connecting with others who have hiked a similar path, and connecting with oneself through mindful awareness practices. I am grateful to have found a healing connection with nature and with those who have shared similar experiences, while finding strength through meditation. My hope by sharing my experience is that more survivors and caregivers can take advantage of these opportunities — because, as many of us know, cancer is not an easy trek.