As I waved goodbye to my parents at the Whitehorse airport, I had no idea that within a little more than a year, I would be robbed in New Zealand, hospitalized in Thailand, and survive a tsunami in Hawaii, a volcanic eruption in Iceland and a massive earthquake in New Zealand.
At the end of summer, 2009, I strapped a swollen Asolo pack onto my back – complete with the standard maple leaf – and walked out the door of my comfortable Yukon home.
An uneasy feeling gripped my stomach as I departed. This year was going to be a blank page, free for me to paint. That thought was initially frightening, yet I also realized how liberating a position I was in. I was about to begin a “gap year”.
Since birth, life had been planned out; starting in preschool, climbing the educational ladder and finishing with enough life skills to be ejected into the real world.
All through high school, I had been a straight-A student who lived to learn. I was the kid who would come home after biology class and spend an hour boring my brother with my most recent lesson on the digestive system.
I had just finished my first year of university. The year had been great socially, and I had succeeded academically, but I did not feel stimulated, passionate or challenged.
I found my brain hungry to learn from something other than a textbook.
It was time to turn away from the books and pursue a new type of study that would engage all five senses. My goal for the year was to determine a cause to which I wanted to devote my career path – through active observation and participation.
It was the best decision of my life.
Throughout the year, I deliberately threw myself into situations I knew would be different from any past experiences. The journey began in New Zealand, where I drifted throughout the sections of my Lonely Planet guide.
A visit to that dyad-island country during high school had left me with fond memories of its friendly people, epic mountains, tranquil, un-crowded beaches and my first bungee jump that now lured me back.
Reality hit when the plane landed in Christchurch. Geographically, I was almost as far from home as possible, with no scheduled plan in place: no lectures to attend at a certain hour, no papers due, no boss to report to.
I was a free bird, with no strings attached. I savoured this reality for a few days, realizing that it was probably one of the only times in my life I would be able to feel it.
Reuniting with Kiwi friends was a blast. I meandered through Christchurch’s lively downtown core (since reduced to a pile of rubble by the recent earthquake), ate my favourite Kiwi foods, including the famous Lemon & Paeroa soft drink, and revisited my favourite nooks of the city.
At the end of my first week, some friends and I took an afternoon hike up the city’s Port Hills and into the surrounding bays. We returned hours later, tired and in need of showers.
I didn’t think twice when I saw my friend’s car window had been smashed. Someone must have broken it accidentally, right? Wrong.
I had naively left my travel bag with all my ID and money on the backseat. It was gone.
Feeling extremely violated and in disbelief, I yielded to a heavy amount of sobbing and cursing in the parking lot.
Replacing my ID and debit/credit cards was a mission and a half. Thankfully, my folks helped from the Whitehorse end, and my New Zealand friends encouraged me to carry on with my trip.
Dramatic as it seemed at the time, the robbery would turn out to be nothing compared to other things I would experience later.
Before I began my gap year, I had decided that volunteering was a good way both to advance my learning and to save money on food and accommodation.
My first volunteer stint was planting native trees on New Zealand’s west cost, alongside travellers from Germany and Japan. Digging through moist soil amid the scent of flourishing ferns and fresh ocean air was incredibly refreshing.
Learning about native Kiwi fauna and flora gave me a sense of connection to the land, and volunteering allowed me to feel I was giving something back to this beautiful country I was privileged to be in.
Later, I arranged to volunteer as a YMCA outdoor camp leader alongside colourful spirits from England, New Zealand, Germany, South Africa, the United States and Canada.
Keeping up with 10-year-olds coasteering and playing Capture the Flag was exhausting, but my time spent there was worth the dark under-eye circles.
Collaborating with other group leaders and kids from around the globe in a natural environment, sharing new knowledge and skills, and often laughing to the point of stomach-ache was a gratifying experience.
Between supervising mass dishwashing, overseeing campers of cootie-fearing age at a disco dance, and inspecting an odd scrape or bruise, I was able to improve my competence as a leader.
I left with a tear in my eye knowing this adventure had come to an end, yet eager for the next stage of my trip.
Longing to explore new ground, I spent much of my time outdoors, including hiking the awe-inspiring Tongariro Alpine Crossing and mountain-biking in the lush Whakarewarewa Forest.
Local friends even helped me work up the nerve to strap on a headlight and cave through a waist-deep creek tunneled by limestone in Arthur’s Pass of the South Island.
Backpacking through many other natural havens in Lord of the Rings country, I felt like Frodo with his hobbit comrades as we tramped through tussocked valleys and luminous, sparkling waterfalls.
The time spent among the elements made me realize how much I value wild, natural places.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it would also have a remarkable influence on my eventual choice of a study path.