Magpie River therapeutic retreat

Outdoor adventure for 15 youth living with cancer

“Forward hard!” Jean-François Bourdon, a Boreal River guide, shouted, his raft plunging toward a boulder. Close behind 2 other rafts were approaching the rapid. The paddlers dug in and the raft skirted the boulder and spun slowly in a calm pool below the rapid. There they waited for the other rafts.

“The action has barely started,” Bourdon said to the group. “Up next is ‘Snow White’ and then the ‘Can-opener’. Both are bigger than ‘Porcupine’ that you just paddled.”

If you’ve ever gone rafting that scene might not seem too special. But consider this: the group is on a 6-day rafting trip down the remote Magpie River in Quebec’s north. They are hours, if not days, from help and this is a therapeutic retreat: they’re either recent cancer survivors or still living with the disease.

Break from daily routines

The trip was special 20th anniversary for Sur la Pointe des Pieds (On the Tips of the Toes). It’s a foundation that takes young people living with cancer from across Canada on outdoor adventure trips to get them out of their daily routines.

The foundation asked Boreal River to design a custom trip. It had to be adventurous enough to push the group, but safe enough and well-paced to give the participants time to reflect, connect and just be, away from the hustle of hospitals and everyday life.

The goal of the trip, they said, would be to break out of the rhythm of our everyday lives. It’s a chance for the group to forge deep, meaningful connections with nature, themselves and each other.

9 days of whitewater and wilderness

The 9-day program included 2 days of training and 7 days of whitewater rafting and other wilderness activities on the Magpie River, such as hiking, kayaking, paddle boarding and fishing. The 15 participants in the program were accompanied and supported by the Sur la Pointe des Pieds team: a nurse, a doctor, two program leaders and a social worker, as well as a blogger and a camera crew. The Boreal River crew consisted of 6 guides.

“The trip definitely took me out of my comfort zone,” Jean-Christophe, a participant, said. “Spending over a week rafting on the Magpie, with people that I had never met before was a little bit intimidating.”

Jean-Christophe was diagnosed with cancer in December 2015.  After 8 months of chemo and radiotherapy he was declared in remission in July 2016. That’s when he decided to register for the expedition.

Despite his initial fears he grew comfortable with the routine, accustomed to the pace in the raft, expert at setting up camp rain or shine, and sleeping outdoors.

“It was definitely the boost of motivation that I needed to help get back to regular life,” he said. “It made me realize that I could, again, set myself new goals and decide where I want to go.”

Chutes Sur la Pointe des Pieds

Perhaps the most moving part of the 20th anniversary trip came at an unnamed waterfall on the fourth river day. With the help of the local river keeper society and Innu groups, it was agreed to name the falls “Chutes Sur la Pointe Des Pieds”.

“This incredible waterfall is an enormous challenge for paddlers running the Magpie,” Bourdon said during a small ceremony at the foot of the falls. “Paddlers either have to struggle through a difficult portage or try to find safe lines to run. It’s a metaphor for what you’ve gone through and shows us that we can navigate difficult obstacles.”

For Mario Bilodeau, a founder of Sur la Pointe des Pieds, it was a moment to reflect on the foundation’s history.

“We named the organization to show that we can see past cancer,” said Bioodeau. “20 years later and there are still stars in the eyes of the youth we bring on these trips. I’m certain that the right type of adventure, an adventure such as this one, can change lives.”

A chance to reflect and look forward

For Jean Christophe and the other participants, the trip was a success. It achieved the goal of giving the participants a break from their usual routines so that they could reflect on their experiences.

“The expedition was way beyond my expectations” he said. “I’ve made friends. It allowed me to grow as person, and it has woken up the man I used to be before cancer.

Learn more about creating a custom river trip for your group.

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Watch this moving video about the Tips of the Toes Foundation and the incredible work they do. The river images and many of the interviews are from their 2016 trip with us on the Magpie: