True North Treks: How it All Got Started...
by David Victorson, Ph.D.
Hello and welcome to True North Treks! We're absolutely thrilled that you're learning more about what we do, and if you're a young adult cancer survivor or caregiver, we hope you'll seriously consider applying to one of our free programs. We get asked a lot how all of this got started, so we wanted to share our "origin story" with you below.
While I'm the founder of record of this 501 (c)3 nonprofit organization, TNT has been a group effort with many "founders" and supporters, such as my wife Gretchen, my younger brother Scott and his wife Gwen, and my older brother Mike and his wife Karin to name a few. Although we incorporated TNT in 2009, the seeds of this organization were planted as far back as the 1970's and 80's in a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where my brothers and I grew up with nature at our doorstep. Having the Great Lakes and an abundance of rivers, brooks and forestland just minutes from our home, we spent much of our childhoods fishing, cross-country skiing, berry picking, camping, animal tracking, gardening, hiking and even hunting.
These experiences profoundly imprinted us with great respect, appreciation and curiosity for the natural world and it's raw, asymmetric, wild beauty. Being in the outdoors became not only a way of spending recreational time, but also a way of coping with some of life's difficult times. We grew up hearing our sweet Grandma Delilah recite a poem she wrote after the tragic death of her 1st son Dale, who was only 21 when he died in a car accident. She'd say that after his death she was so despondent she couldn't eat, sleep or speak for a long time. My Grandpa took her out into the woods where she recalled sitting on a tree stump and began to notice everything coming into place. There she wrote a poem entitled Forest Cathedral, which I want to
share with you here:
Oh how I love to walk out in the woods
In it's calm and still beauty I have long understood
As I look at the wonders our creator has made
All the hustle and bustle of this world seems to fade
Down in the meadow you hear the call of a lark
While high on the hill some deer feed on bark
There's winter green berries and wild onion shoots
An abundance of flowers and trailing green roots
Now if you go in the forest with the world you're off key
And you're quiet and still and you sit and you see
Here you know of God's love and you know by his grace
Of all worldly issues you're able to face
Tied to these formative experiences in nature, my brother Scott and his wife Gwen are what I consider "outdoor black belts", both having done different semester-long courses with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and having their Wilderness First Responder credentials so they can prevent and/or handle any emergency in the backcountry. They're also both experts in "leave no trace" outdoor ethics principles. Prior to TNT, they'd spent years guiding numerous trips with groups of young adults in backcountry wilderness destinations in Montana, California, and Idaho, and Scott is particularly skilled at primitive skills education, with an expertise at starting fires with a bow drill, building Native American sweat lodges, and identifying any species of wild animal by their tracks or droppings. Gwen has her Master's Degree in Recreation, and Scott is a high school teacher at a Wilderness School for at-risk youth in Northwest Idaho. It goes without saying that their input and perspective into what an innovative outdoor program could look like for TNT has been critical.
While getting our Ph.D.'s in Counseling Psychology at the University of Miami in the early 2000's, my wife Gretchen and I both did clinical work with people diagnosed with cancer and our Postdoctoral Fellowships focused on Psychosocial Oncology. During these experiences we both had several personally impacting encounters with young adults diagnosed with cancer and the numerous hurdles, obstacles, and stressors they and their families faced. Being young adults ourselves at the time, these encounters were incredibly humbling and eye opening as we knew how challenging life could be during this emerging adulthood period without cancer being in the picture. We began thinking about and discussing ways in which nature and the outdoors could somehow support this specific population and offer new ways to navigate the confusing and scary maze that cancer creates.
Related to our health psychology focus, it was at this same time that we began to immerse ourselves in different trainings, retreats, readings and classes to begin a formal practice of mindfulness meditation. We knew from research that mindfulness has been increasingly shown to help people learn how to sit with stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and challenge, especially as it relates to living with cancer and other chronic illnesses. While mindfulness is a simple concept to talk about academically, it is only until one commits to a regular, formal practice that it becomes clear how challenging it can be to pay attention in this very special way, and also how positively life changing it can be. As our practice grew, we quickly understood how mindfulness training could be very beneficial for young adults with cancer to connect with themselves again, and how all of these things could be purposefully brought together and exponentially potentiated through the restorative,
holding environment of nature. Somewhere within all of this TNT was born.
In 2009 True North Treks incorporated as an Evanston, Illinois-based national nonprofit organization that supports teens and young adults with cancer through Skills Training, Advocacy, Research, and Support (or with a little guidance from the STARS as we like to say). Unlike grid north or magnetic north, True North is marked in the skies by the position of the North star. For centuries it has been used for celestial navigation by seafarers and explorers to help them determine their whereabouts and cross featureless oceans without having to rely on random chance. At TNT, we're all about helping adolescents and young adults with cancer find direction through making important connections that can change their lives in positive ways during and after cancer treatment and throughout the multiple transitions and re-entries into their new normal of survivorship.
Together we share a common belief that connecting with the healing space found in nature, connecting with others the same age who have also been affected by cancer, and connecting with oneself through mindful awareness practices can help a young adult forge a new pathway beyond their dis-ease, beyond their treatment, and beyond all the labels, assumptions, expectations, stereotypes and fears, and create new ways to find direction.