words :: Laura Raimondi // photos :: Ryan Carter.
Last summer I joined a group of Canadian Armed Forces for a hike up the Cascade Trail at Blue Mountain Resort. This was no ordinary hike. It was a special one meant to raise awareness for the Soldier On program, which supports military personnel past and present in overcoming and adapting to physical and mental health injury and illness. Blue donated the group a full Resort experience including accommodation and attraction access.
Soldier On: Recovery from Depression and Trauma
“The purpose of Soldier On is to promote recovery using outdoor sports and activities,” Sgt. James (Jamie) MacIntyre, the Ontario representative for Soldier On, explained as we made our way through the Village towards the trailhead. “The program is available to serving and retired members who experienced an illness or a visible or non-visible injury while in service.” The program encourages military members to build an active lifestyle, gain new skills and connect with others experiencing similar circumstances. Founded in 2007, the publicly funded program has supported more than 5,000 members to date.
“Depression and trauma can cause you to retract from the world but the Soldier On program provides a venue for you to get outside and put yourself back out there.”
The day commenced with a pre-hike stretch outside of South Base Lodge. Tessa, the dog, headed up our group. Like us, she was happy to be outside in the fresh air. My first hiking partner was Francesca Colussi who served in the military for 20 years before retiring in 2005. Participating in several Soldier On events inspired her to take up new outdoor sports. She discovered a passion for road cycling and has participated in various races over the years. “The program provides a means for people to get out of their houses, and out of their heads,” she said. “Depression and trauma can cause you to retract from the world but the Soldier On program provides a venue for you to get outside and put yourself back out there.”
“Part of the Human Experience”
We reached a clearing which allowed us to catch the views and our breath. We took a moment to look out across Georgian Bay, sipped from water bottles and discussed solutions to the avian invasion of Nottawasaga Island. As we continued our hike I met Yousef Shaath and asked him about his experience on the Timber Challenge High Ropes the previous day. I shared my thoughts on my own ropes adventures. “Sometimes it’s not that you are tired but what you believe you can or cannot do,” he counselled. I paused for a moment to consider this and figured it might be time for another round of high ropes. Our conversation then turned to life in the military. “It has its challenges but I have been on many adventures and experienced a good life. It is all part of the human experience.”
The human experience can include so much joy and happiness. But it can also include loss and trauma. “Outdoor activities within a community of people helps to ease feelings of isolation and loneliness, feelings which often contribute to poor mental health,” explains Laura Martin, Registered Psychotherapist with the Georgian Bay Family Health Team. “It gives people a sense of connection, belonging and accomplishment, and the opportunity to be a bit playful.”
Outdoor activity can play a role in managing and healing from the experience of illness and injury as it provides us a space to process and reflect. “There are so many physical and mental health benefits to physical exercise, especially when you take it outside. The release of endorphins can provide a lot of relief from physical and psychological pain,” Martin adds. “Outdoor activities also bring people together through a common experience, rather than a focus on the trauma.” This is exactly what Soldier On provides: a community of people on a similar path to healing.
Finding the Present Moment
We reached the top of Blue and I took a seat under the Southern Comfort chair with Elisabeth Duggan. I learned that she worked as a chaplain in the military. Her work required her to be present for others and provide a safe and open space for people to speak freely. Soldier On provided the opportunity to get outside and stay active. “Mental health issues can pull you back but being surrounded by nature can pull you out,” she added as we made our way towards the gondola for our ride down.
Immersing ourselves in the natural world has extensive benefits on our all-around health and well-being. Activities such as hiking, biking or paddling allow us to move outside of ourselves, giving us space. Within that space lies an understanding and processing of life experiences. These activities put you into the present moment, placing you at the point where emotions, thoughts and attitudes of the past—and the worry about what’s still to come—converge. Some call this state mindfulness or flow. Whatever you call it, we all undoubtedly feel calmer, more attuned and aware of ourselves after spending time in this state.
As we walk towards the gondola one hiker lights a cigarette and tells me how much he enjoyed the hike. The juxtaposition makes me laugh. He laughs too. The lighthearted banter resumes and then someone nervously asks exactly how high the gondola is off the ground. The thing is, we all have our vices, flaws and fears. Some of us are just more open, accepting and forgiving to ourselves and others for what we are. —ML