The smoky fire at Wolf Creek campground wasn’t just keeping Learning Disability Association of Yukon campers warm.
Ten-year-old Richard was busy burning one of his socks, and Raymond had melted a hole in his coat.
“How am I going to explain this to my mom?” he said, holding out the damaged sleeve.
“At least I have a story to tell my class,” he added.
Sitting on collapsible chairs and logs, three girls were watching as the boys squirted bug spray into the flames, making big fireballs.
A counsellor, spreading cream cheese on curry wraps, advised against this latest activity.
The group was prepping for a day paddling down the Yukon River.
“I’m not going,” said one of the boys.
“I’m not either,” said another.
Burnt socks, flaming sticks and bug spray bombs were more enticing.
But an hour later standing on the banks of the Yukon watching as a big blue raft sprang to life, the kids changed their tune.
“I want to ride in the raft.”
“I get to be in the raft.”
Evan, an 11-year-old who threw a TV at his teacher last year, opted to ride in my canoe.
As we paddled down the river, we saw something floating near the shore.
Curious, we cruised over and found a beer can.
Evan, putting it in the canoe, decided we should collect any floating garbage we found that day, to help clean up the river.
It would help to cancel out the rubber boot that later sunk when Evan filled it with water.
For Evan, it is summer camp.
He doesn’t acknowledge his learning disabilities or mention his personal teaching assistant, Gary Lachance, who’s attending camp with him.
Most of the campers don’t openly recognize their learning disabilities.
Some actually deny it.
But Marika, who painted over the LDAY symbol on her camp shirt, knows what’s up.
“I learn reading differently,” said the nine-year-old.
“And I’m having trouble with my times tables.”
Marika painted over the LDAY symbol on the T-shirt because she “likes it to be dark.”
“But I would tell people (what it said) if they asked,” she said.
It’s just that she’s tired of being taunted.
“People tease me about it and I feel left out,” she said.
And in school, while attending special classes, Marika misses entertaining activities in her home classroom.
“They were doing fun stuff like looking at maps, and I was out reading,” she said.
Marika’s older sister, Alyshia Kitchen, isn’t sure that putting students with disabilities in separate classes really helps.
“Other kids in the classroom see this and think, ‘Oh there must be something wrong with them,’ and treat them differently,” said Kitchen, one of the LDAY camp counsellors this summer.
Kitchen also grew up with a learning disability.
There are a lot of self-confidence issues, she said.
“You think you’re stupid because you can’t figure something out.”
Struggling with dyslexia — a language-based disability — didn’t stop Kitchen from taking up French at university.
“But sometimes I still feel like, ‘Wow, I’m stupid,’ and I shouldn’t because I have a learning disability,” she said.
Spending her summer running two-week camps for youth ages six to 16 with learning disabilities has been enlightening.
“These kids are brilliant, they’re teaching me so much,” said Kitchen.
And it’s given her a chance to get to know her little sister again.
“My sister is the most caring person I’ve ever met,” said Kitchen.
“She wants to be a doctor.
“And to do what I wanted it took me longer to get into classes and to build enough self-confidence — I hope she doesn’t hit those same obstacles.
“Because she’s so smart, she just doesn’t do as well in school.”
Over the last 20 years, the resources for students with learning disabilities have changed dramatically, said Lachance, munching a sandwich on a bluff overlooking the Yukon.
In Evan’s class there are 19 students and three education assistants, plus the teacher, he said.
The goal is reintegration in the classroom, said Lachance, who began working with Evan after the TV incident.
“Sometimes it’s just finding the right guy for the right child,” he said, watching Evan leap into the water fully clothed, rubber boots and all.
The group of campers paddled all the way from the Marsh Lake dam to Wolf Creek, hauling in around 7 p.m.
They’d seen eagles, beaver houses, jumped off the raft, lost gear to the river, got some sun and some confidence.
“We see a huge difference in the campers from the first day to the last day,” said LDAY camp organizer Ashley Camara.
“We find their strengths and their weaknesses and cater the camp to their success — it’s about building self-confidence.
“Kids with learning disabilities don’t generally have as much success as other kids, because of their learning style.”
But this camp is not about “Is Sally up to reading level 4?” said Camara.
Often, Camara hears kids say they don’t want to try something, because they are afraid to fail.
But once they get on the horse, try the zipline, or jump out of the raft, it’s like a different person emerges.
“One parent came up and was so amazed because their kid came home excited and happy,” said Kitchen.
“He was singing in the car, and we thought that was normal, but they hadn’t seen him like that ever.”