Isaiah Gilson says he could feel the Amazon thicken around him.
The breeze disappeared, voices of the other hikers quieted and the lush jungle got closer to his body.
It was only day two. There was still a week left and more than 150 kilometres of jungle to traverse and Gilson’s feet were already hurting.
“Everyone had to push themselves because we were a group, working to a schedule,” says Gilson, who travelled to Brazil at the end of October.
Two hundred kilometres of Amazonian jungle in nine days – that was the schedule for the third youth expedition with Impossible2Possible, or i2P.
Gilson, a 20-year-old member of the Kluane First Nation, was one of four youth ambassadors chosen to do the trek while sending back knowledge and information from along the way to about 16,000 students around the world.
I2P is an organization with a mandate to educate, inspire and empower a generation, says founder Ray Zahab.
“The idea was to combine a sense of adventure and knowing that we can do great things with our life, with creating awareness on issues around the world,” he says.
The idea hit him as he was running 7,500 kilometres across the Sahara desert.
That adventure made him unable to ignore two main facts, he says.
First, human beings are capable of amazing things. And if he were told when he was 16 he would go from a pack-a-day smoker to an adventure-athlete, running across the Sahara, the empowerment would have been unreal, he says.
Second, he became aware of the seriousness of the water crisis in other parts of the world.
“We are trying very hard to make education interesting and fun,” he says. “It’s experiential learning. Using the newest technologies, we bring the classrooms to the expedition and the expedition into the classrooms.”
The first youth expedition was across the Akshayuk Pass on Baffin Island in Nunavut. The second was a 265-kilometre run across the Tunisian Sahara.
Every expedition has a specific education focus, as well as an “extraordinary act” attached to it.
For Gilson’s jungle trek, i2P was backed by the United Nations to focus on biodiversity. Ambassadors connected to classrooms worldwide, almost everyday.
They answered student questions and shared information, videos and pictures about odd species of plants, insects and animals – including an ant, that, when smeared on your skin, acts as a natural repellent to most pesky bugs, notes Gilson.
Most scientists say the Amazon holds over 50 per cent of the world’s species.
The “extraordinary act” for the trek was the part Gilson was most excited about.
As with all expeditions, fundraising has been happening on the sidelines. The goal is to build a school for the traditional village of Taquara in the Flora Do Tapajos along the Tapajos River where the group hiked.
Before leaving the Yukon, Gilson prepared himself to meet with the indigenous peoples of the communities they would be passing through, staying in and especially the one they would be helping to build a school for.
He gathered together pictures, some carvings for gifts and was still practising new songs to share with them on the trip down there.
Gilson is Tutchone and attended the Amiskwaciy Academy in Edmonton from the ages 14-19. The Academy incorporates a lot of the Cree culture into the curriculum and Gilson always describes himself as wearing a moccasin on one foot, a sneaker on the other.
Closing his eyes, Gilson recounts his experience with the people of Taquara.
“They are doing a song for us and we are all in a circle. And everybody is really emotional and in touch because we’re experiencing this beautiful ceremony. It’s almost at the end of the day, it’s a bit cooler so we’re not all too hot or sweaty, we’re just kind of relaxing, sitting there and really enjoying the energy of the people and the kids. The excitement and kindness and loving energy around us is a bit overwhelming… it is awesome.”
When the other members of the group noted they had never experienced anything like the indigenous people’s culture before, Gilson says he was a little bit frustrated because there are different cultures; ones very similar to these people, within Canada and the United States.
Similarities between his own culture and those he met along the Tapajos were plentiful, he says, including the sacredness of the medicine wheel and the connection and dependence on the land.
Taquara was one of the more traditional villages of all of the ones they visited, says Gilson.
Still, almost all of the communities live off of the land for all their foods and medicines and are very remote.
He told the chief and people of Taquara who he is and that he wants to help, he says.
Gilson and Zahab met in Winnipeg at an IndigenACTION event, an initiative through the Assembly of First Nations that tries to improve opportunities for aboriginal people through sport and fitness.
“He is an outstanding young man and I was immediately taken by him,” says Zahab. “He is a shining example of what all youth around the world can be.”
Every evening of the trek, they would sit around having fish and rice for dinner and the conversation would always start with an amazing story: running through the Sahara, trekking around the South Pole ….
“And then there’s me,” says Gilson, laughing.
Being a modern-day warrior is a state of mind he’s always had, and this experience has only supported it, he says.
“Coming out of the trip it gave me a stronger sense of wanting to pursue that. So what makes a warrior? They are cunning, they’re smart, they’re strong. So I really want to start doing a lot more of the things I haven’t been doing: a lot more reading, writing, getting more in shape. I want to become a writer because I want to use writing as an influential tool to show and explain things.”
The youth representative for the Yukon at the Assembly of First Nations will be slotted some time to talk to national leadership this Christmas.
Keeping some sort of connection with the community of Taquara is a goal, one he’s optimistic he’ll be able to fulfil, he says.
“There’s more youth out there that do these sorts of things … there’s always something going on with young people and people should be more aware of that. I was really fortunate to be selected by a very well-connected organization.”
Gatorade, Canada Goose and Apple are just a few of i2P’s sponsors, and partnerships with networks, like CNN, have really helped the organization achieve its corporate mandate of no school ever having to pay for the experiential learning they receive, says Zahab.
No one pays – including the ambassadors, he adds.
And the projects they promise – like the school in Taquara – is guaranteed, even if the full $20,000 isn’t reached, Zahab confirms.
Currently around $6,000 has been raised.
“I expect nothing and everything – I only expect what is given to me,” says Gilson, who didn’t know what he was getting into when he started his Brazilian adventure.
Now he looks out the window to the streets of downtown Whitehorse.
“Everyday was a learning experience,” he says, noting new surroundings make that easier – familiarity and routine keep people from seeing and learning.
There is always an opportunity to learn, he says.
“I have an open mind and an open heart to the world around me because, if I close my mind off to the world around me, then I’m closing that opportunity to learn something – be it good or bad.”
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at