Just below the Old Mill subway station in Toronto’s west end, the teenage participants of Wild Outside gather around an instructor to learn about different methods of paddling.
For some, the two-hour canoe trip around the Humber Marshes will be their first time out on the water, while others are experienced paddlers happy to practise backward strokes and tow other vessels or delve into the thick reeds in search of creatures.
For all, it’s a free opportunity to get out into nature. Around 200 youth in the Toronto area have taken advantage of the cross-country program run by the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF), some of them regularly, since it launched in late 2019. (Wild Outside was training staff when COVID-19 hit and has been hosting in-person events for about a year now.)
“It’s just a way to get youth involved in making a change and creating a greater good and also inspiring others to do the same and to build a community,” said Elizabeth Todorobic, who joined this first event soon after learning about Wild Outside via CWF’s magazine.
The 16-year-old wants to study environmental science at university and figured “this will really give me a glimpse into the environment and what I’ll be learning about,” she said.
Josh Ruiz, who found a dead mussel in the shallow water on the canoe trip, says he knows he wants to pursue wildlife biology and that Wild Outside helped inspire that decision.
“I wanted to expand my knowledge of nature, go to places, meet some new people who are of a similar mindset,” said the 18-year-old, who is already planning to come back as an adult volunteer.
The federally funded conservation program runs weekly events for youth aged 15 to 18 focused on outdoor adventure like canoe trips, service projects such as shoreline cleanups, invasive species removal and tree planting, and an educational component featuring a speaker series.
More than two dozen teenagers paddle down the Humber River — some in a canoe for the first time — as Monica Chander and Jacob Parliament from the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Wild Outside program help them develop their appreciation of nature.
For Natalia Martin, Wild Outside has meant mushroom foraging and identification, snowshoeing, kayaking, treetop trekking, conversations with Indigenous Elders and lots of hikes.
Seeking to encourage youth leadership, a committee of interested participants can also suggest activities to lead, such as the tree identification hike in Rouge Valley that Martin took on.
“I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested,” she said of Wild Outside.
Monica Chander, one of three staff for the Toronto group, says the program helps young people focus on something bigger than themselves.
“That can be really grounding and healing and help with mental health and finding a purpose in life,” said Chander, who, soon after setting off from under the Bloor Street West bridge, had to guide a pair of paddlers unable to stop turning in circles.
The program often hosts multiple sessions of popular events, such as berry picking and learning to camp, to try to meet the demand, Chander said, and needs to maintain waitlists to join the program and for some events.
For plant enthusiast Mila Popov, it’s peaceful and calming to interact with nature. The 18-year-old also says she could imagine herself leading trips in the future.
“It’s getting us connecting back to the environment,” she said. “A lot of people are getting disconnected from that and not really interacting with nature; I guess they don’t really have a good understanding of how it works.”
Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer