Such great heights
    Illustration by Alexis Sanchez.

    When camping out in bear country, prepare to abide by the rules of bear hygiene unless you want to look into the eyes of a massive, hungry grizzly bear.

    This means more than just brushing your teeth and rinsing your face. Bear hygiene involves making damn sure there is no trace of food, human waste, perfume or even toothpaste anywhere near your sleeping area, because bears have an impeccable sense of smell. It involves shouting through the trees and across the lakes as you hike during the day so that the bears know that you’re there. These guys don’t like to be surprised.

    At the end of the day, a group of campers can do everything possible to stave off the bears, but the uncertainty remains. David Victorson, assistant professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, finds these bears to be an appropriate allegory for cancer.

    True North Treks, the Evanston-based nonprofit organization Victorson started in 2008, takes a group of young adult cancer survivors on camping trips into wild, unadulterated nature. These patients, although recovering and practicing habits to stave off cancer, never know what the future could bring. 

    Victorson started True North Treks with the idea that it would be a way to support young adult cancer survivors during their transition from diagnosis and treatment into survivorship. As a health psychologist personally interested in forms of healing beyond traditional western medicine, Victorson affirms the power of meditation and yoga as well as the transformative nature of being outdoors, partially because he had his own cleansing experience on one of his many camping trips growing up in the upper peninsula of Michigan.

    “My dad and I had a pretty big clash of ideas at that time,” Victorson says. “He took me on a fishing trip to this island in Lake Superior called Isle Royale, a beautiful, pristine wilderness area.” Victorson says that after that trip, things with his dad just seemed to get better. “I always grew up with this appreciation of nature and the fact that nature calmed me. It made me feel restored and full and aware and really brought me back to my senses, both literally and figuratively.”

    Victorson wants a restorative experience for these cancer survivors, ranging from age 18 to 39, who may be feeling lost in transition after their battle with the disease. Applicants are diagnosed with a range of cancers, from thyroid to breast cancer to leukemia, but all go through a very toxic, difficult time and may find it challenging to readjust to daily life. “It was challenging for this group to get back into the normal things they were doing, whether it be college or careers or relationships or fertility,” Victorson says.

    Weinberg junior Hannah Pancoe recently joined the fundraising team for True North Treks in memory of a loved one who went through a similar experience to the young men and women who go on the treks. Unlike these participants, Pancoe’s sister lost the battle to cancer about a decade ago at the age of 20.

    “It was a really difficult thing to have the person that I looked up to the most taken away when I was about to enter my teenage years,” Pancoe says. “[The cancer survivors] are sort of at an age range that doesn’t get that much attention, and that hit home for me.”  

    So far, the organization has been on one trek in northern Montana and Idaho. The participants took part in a variety of activities including hiking and meditation. 

    “The hardest thing to do on this trek is to try to sit and just be where we are,” Victorson says. “Meditation is hard because we’re programmed to be thinking about the past or the future.”

    If meditation was the most challenging aspect of the trip, eating well was probably the easiest. Each participant brought some food and spices with them on the trip so that when mealtime came around, everyone would share ingredients and form cooking groups to prepare collective meals.

    “For me, camping can suck unless you’re well-fed, you sleep well and you’re dry. And we really pay attention to those things,” Victorson says, conjuring the images of the Thai and Indian dishes they made for dinner and the fragrant cinnamon bun breakfast they shared. “We tried to make the food really tasty, so no one complained about the food. If anything, that was the highlight, how good food can be out in the backcountry.”

    It’s difficult to know exactly what the survivors take from the experience, but Victorson says that hopefully “the seeds of meditation will flower along the way.” When the participants go to routine doctor’s visits, instead of being overcome by anxiety, they can “be present with whatever’s happening in that moment and [...] try their best not to judge it as being bad or good,” a mental state fostered by meditation. 

    True North Treks has three treks coming up in 2012 for which they are currently recruiting volunteers and participants. Their most recent trek never took off because some participants had to drop out last minute, but Victorson is ready to push forward and teach a new group of young cancer survivors to take on the bear.


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