Home » Illinois Paddling Council Blog » First in a series of occasional articles on Paddlesport for Special Needs: Chicago Adventure Therapy

First in a series of occasional articles on Paddlesport for Special Needs: Chicago Adventure Therapy


By Andrea Knepper

“These trips make you realize you can do more than you thought you could.”

“This trip” was a 5-day, self-supported kayak camping trip in the San Juan Islands. We had paddled in current and wind and dealt with fog. Group members on the trip were responsible (with help and back up) for navigation, cooking, setting up camp, loading boats in the morning… The crew learned to eddy hop against a current, tow each other against wind, and crank on the foot pegs for a stronger forward stroke.

And there were the soft skills – dealing with frustration (eating a lunch you don’t like when you’re tired of paddling, but you didn’t pay attention when the group was planning the menu, so now you have to suck it up and deal…), coming up against personal limits (a 3 knot current provided more challenge than most group members realized it would), overcoming fear.

And then there are the even “softer” skills, dealing with group dynamics – have you ever gone on a paddling trip with a group you didn’t choose? Maybe you’ve taken a guided trip, and there was that one group member you tried to like, and just found them annoying at every turn? OR you developed a pesky crush on another group member? Our group didn’t choose each other… It’s challenging to spend 5 days, plus 2 days of travel, with the same 6 people.

Still, if I’ve done my job well, group members will find themselves saying at the end of the trip, “These trips make you realize you can do more than you thought you could.”

In 2007, I founded Chicago Adventure Therapy (CAT), a non-profit organization that works with under-served youth using outdoor sports to build life skills. Since then, we’ve paddled, climbed, biked, and camped with over 1,500 young people. Every summer, we partner with other youth-serving organizations in Chicago, providing outdoor programming designed to build life skills for the young people in their programs. For some of these young people, it’s the first time they’ve seen Lake Michigan, the first time they’ve seen a kayak, or the first time anyone has taken the time to explain to them how a map works. Being in a novel setting doing something outside their comfort zone has an impact – as one young woman said about an 8-week climbing and paddling program in Chicago, “I have learned to be a better person at home in the streets and everywhere else I go. I recommend this program to anyone who is struggling.”

Some participants want to learn more. In August of 2013, two very talented young men announced that they wanted to learn everything they could about paddling. If I introduce young people to a sport that they love, and to which they don’t have access, then I need to keep that access open. For me, this is an ethical imperative.

So I started coaching them. They were incredibly talented – so long story short, I took them to the Golden Gate Sea Kayak Symposium on the San Francisco Bay. At that symposium, we received invitations to paddle from top coaches all over the continent. Eight months later, we were on a 5-day kayak camping trip in the San Juans, our last trip of the 2014 season. Nine months after that trip, the two young men who said they wanted to learn everything they could about paddling – two young men who were homeless when they told me that – are in a very different place. One is in Alaska in the Coast Guard. The other is the paddlesport expert at the flagship West Marine Store in Chicago.

The young people involved want to learn more. They want to lead. They want to coach. So we worked on skills in the pool over the winter, and on our most recent trip in Baja, in April of 2015, two of our young people successfully assessed their British Canoe Union Two Star, bringing the number of current and past participants with this award to three. The first to gain this award also has her UKCC Coach Level 1 award, and will be coaching at two Midwest symposia this summer.

I don’t know exactly where the organization will be in a few years’ time – we’re trying to follow our young people’s lead. But we’ll be ending the 2015 season at the Bay of Fundy Symposium, a few of our Youth Leaders are training for a trip to Wales in the next couple years, and we’ll keep working with under-served young people in Chicago, some of whom have never seen Lake Michigan. Who knows – maybe one of them will be the first CAT participant to earn their 3 Star or to teach at the Golden Gate Symposium. Or maybe in a few years’ time, they’ll help you improve your forward stroke or get that tricky self-rescue you’ve been working on…


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