08 Aug Wild Bear Lodge announces Wounded Veterans Programme
Ground-breaking skill-sharing programme brings together military veterans with physical and mental wounds and professional nature guides in Canada’s Inland Temperate Rainforest
Wild Bear Lodge, a small niche eco-tourism operation in the remote heart of British Columbia’s Inland Temperate Rainforest, is to run a skill-sharing programme that brings together military veterans with physical and mental injuries and professional wilderness guides.
The endeavour, the first known programme of its type, will pair four British and two Canadian veterans, all of them recovering from serious physical or mental injuries, with four experienced Canadian wilderness guides.
Wild Bear Exped is a joint endeavour between Wild Bear Lodge – which specialises in grizzly and black bear-viewing – and the Invictus Games Foundation, which runs an international sporting event for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women.
The week-long programme, which will take place deep in grizzly bear country, will offer a platform for the wounded veterans to pass on skills they learned in the military – both hard skills such as outdoor survival, off-road vehicle handling and observation, as well as soft skills such as team work, building resilience and group conflict mitigation – to the guides of Wild Bear Lodge.
For their part, the Wild Bear Lodge guides will share their knowledge of animal tracking, flora and fauna identification, discussions of prey and predator behaviour, and wildlife observation.
Julius Strauss, a former long-serving war correspondent with the British Daily Telegraph who moved to the Canadian wilderness fifteen years ago suffering from PTSD, is the owner of Wild Bear Lodge.
“I’ve never believed that treating people purely as victims – even if they are that in the true and original sense of the word – is the best way forward,” Strauss said.
“I’ve been through PTSD and loss myself – though not on the scale of some of these soldiers – and I believe that supported opportunities that allow us to rebuild our lives while learning to contribute again offer a better way forward.”
“My hope is that Wild Bear Exped will help show that wounded veterans have a rich array of skills to pass on to others and much to contribute to civilian society. ”
Leading the team of veterans is Joe Humphrey, a former British Royal Marine, who was badly wounded in Helmand, southern Afghanistan, and now works as an outdoor and wilderness guide in the UK and Europe.
“Working in expeditions and conservation became a big part of filling the gap left by leaving the military,” Humphrey said. “I didn’t want to go on expeditions where I had my hand held like a tourist, because of my injury or otherwise.”
“So I furthered and built on the skills I learned in the military so I would be the one leading and guiding and I would be a valuable part of any team, not just a hanger-on. And I was helped in achieving this by a lot of people. It’s my turn to pay it forward now.”
“This is a great opportunity to combine working in remote environments, working towards a conservation objective and advocating for veterans’ mental health. There aren’t many expeditions where you get all three at once like this.”
The idea for the programme came several years ago while Strauss was reading a story about Laila Haidari, a female MP in Afghanistan, who also ran a restaurant and a clinic for drug addicts.
Haidari related how one day she took in a severely disabled youth she found begging at a rubbish dump, who could neither speak nor hear. He wasn’t an addict but was clearly in need of help and she insisted that back at the rehab centre the addicts look after and feed him and take him to the toilet.
“It’s good for them to have someone to take care of,” she said simply.
“When I read that it hit me like a hammer,” Strauss said. “It’s not about treating people in need solely as victims or requiring charity and pity. It’s also about allowing them to find a way to participate again, each according to their own abilities.”
The project was originally slated to run in the summer of 2020. But that year Strauss lost his wife and wilderness partner, Kristin, to cancer. And then Covid closed Canada to tourists and effectively shut down the business they had built up over 15 years.
Now with Canada allowing its first foreign tourists back in on Sept 7th, the project can finally go ahead.
As well as its value as a therapeutic and learning experience, Wild Bear Exped also aims to underline the importance of conserving wild places. Large tracts of the remote valley where Wild Bear Lodge is located are due to be logged in the next two years, something that both the lodge and environmental campaigners have opposed.
“Wild places are so important to us as a species,” Strauss said. “They play a vital role, not only as incubators of biodiversity and mitigators of climate change, but as sources of inspiration, places to recreate, and for their recuperative value.”
One of the guides at Wild Bear Lodge, Thomas Knowles, is a long-time environmental campaigner.
“We’re going to hike through ancient forests, tracking grizzly bears and other native species,” Knowles said. “There is more and more research showing that time spent in nature can have a positive effect on our health – on reducing stress, and promoting healing.”
Sage Raymond is a senior guide for Wild Bear Lodge who is also doing an MSc in biology which involves mapping coyote movements in northern Alberta in the winter. A certified level three tracker, she will lead the animal track and sign component of the expedition.
“I have always found wilderness therapeutic,” Raymond said. “And the more you understand about the way it works – what each little scratch on a tree, or scuffed area in the pine needles means – the more layered and meaningful the wilderness becomes. I love combining traditional tracking methods with western science to enhance our understanding.”
Last year Wild Bear Lodge was part of a breakthrough study that is using grizzly bear trail camera footage to count and identify individual bears. The study made headlines around the world. Raymond was in charge of its field data collection.
Wild Bear Lodge was also a crucial part of the effort to ban grizzly bear hunting in British Columbia, an effort that culminated in a full ban in 2017.
“Having a commercial business that allows us to put some of our income into projects that help people and help the environment is something that means a lot to all of us,” Strauss said.
The expedition is funded in part by Wild Bear Lodge, and in part by the Invictus Games. The organisers hope that it will become an annual event.
The story of Wild Bear Lodge has been documented in several newspapers and two documentaries have been made about the lodge by the British television presenter Ben Fogle. Click here to watch the latest one.
Naomi Adie, Grants & Programmes Manager, at the Invictus Games Foundation, said:
“At the Invictus Games Foundation, as part of the Invictus: Endeavour programme, we support projects which use adventurous activity to inspire recovery, and showcase the resilience of those participating. We are delighted to be helping the Wild Bear Exped bring together wounded, injured and sick participants from the UK and Canada to use lessons drawn from their service to help train guides from Wild Bear Lodge. Facilitating the ability for the participants to give back not only supports their own recovery, but will further assist the conservation efforts within the region.’’