Now Or Never

Why these eight newcomers went backcountry camping for the first time

Eight refugee women took on a 10-kilometre hike through Alberta to a remote alpine cabin in British Columbia. It was the first time most of them have seen the mountains, or spent a night in the woods.

An adventure to the Rockies in search of friendship, belonging and a quintessential Canadian experience

Sidra Alsaleh, 14, led the way through the trees on the Elk Pass trail. (Emily Rendell-Watson/CBC)

Snowshoeing along hand in hand, a group of women headed toward a wooden arch marking the Alberta-British Columbia border en route to a remote alpine cabin.

"It's so hard! We just walk ten minutes but we have three hours, I think," said 22-year-old Faten Alsaleh, from Syria. 

This was the first time most of them had seen the mountains, let alone gone camping or hiking. Despite having only met a few times for practice hikes in Edmonton's river valley, the women were excited to spend time together in the backcountry.

They took turns helping each other up any time someone sank through the snow, giggles and shrieks floating through the trees. 

"Come on guys, you can do it," yelled Alsaleh to the women hiking behind her. 

The April trip was organized in partnership by the Edmonton branch of the Alpine Club of Canada, and Catholic Social Services, who provide support to refugees and immigrants.

The eight women and five trip leaders from the Alpine Club of Canada and Catholic Social Services in front of the Elk Lakes Cabin. (Emily Rendell-Watson/CBC )

The organizations planned a women-only trip to introduce recently resettled refugees to the Rocky Mountains. Eight women from Syria, Myanmar and Congo signed up, including three sets of sisters.

"In a lot of cultures, the men take most of the attention and the women are more in the background," said Isolde Schmid, who works in intercultural education at CSS. 

"It's good for the women to see their own strength."

The group spent one night at the Elk Lakes Cabin in B.C.'s Elk Lakes Provincial Park, learning about wildlife, how to start a fire, chop wood and dispose of grey water. There was no power — and no cell service — or running water at the hut. Instead the women relied on propane lights and melted snow, then boiling it for water.

Mareille Ngabo, 19, Congo 

Mareille Ngabo had always wanted to go camping and hiking, but she didn't imagine her first time would be in the snow. (Emily Rendell-Watson/CBC )

Mareille Ngabo always dreamed of visiting the mountains to go camping. She spent most of her life fleeing civil wars — from her home country of Congo to Burundi and then Uganda.

"I was travelling, avoiding the war, trying to find refuge," she said.

Ngabo was particularly happy it was a women-only trip, explaining part of the reason she signed up was because women are strong and they inspire her. 

"They don't give up no matter what, even if they get tired they still support each other and they go on," Ngabo said.

"It's not only about going to the mountains but how we can support each other," she said.

All my life I've been thinking, 'I wish God helps me and I find a home'.- Mareille Ngabo

At night, the women sat together around the fire, looking at the stars. Ngabo said the stars give her hope, and make her feel at home.

"All my life I've been thinking, 'I wish God helps me to find a home where I can even get a citizenship and I'm a human.'"

Doha Othman, 18, Syria 

Sisters Doha and Hiba Othman high-fived each other in celebration of reaching the Elk Lakes Cabin. (Emily Rendell-Watson/CBC )

At the trailhead, Doha and Hiba Othman put chocolate bars, chips, mascara and a few tubes of lipstick in their packs before strapping on their snowshoes. The two sisters from Syria wanted to look glam in the mountains.

At first Doha was nervous about the trip because she'd never gone hiking or snowshoeing before and the 10.2 km trail to the cabin seemed daunting. 

"I didn't want to come because I can't walk … my heart's hurting me when I walk," Doha said.

Despite her hesitation, she didn't want to give up the chance to go camping with Hiba.

"I wanted to do it with my sister Hiba … because she's my life. When she's with me, I don't feel scared, only happy," she said.

When the group returned to the trailhead, Doha played Arabic music and got everyone dancing to celebrate finishing the trip.

"I feel so happy because I made it, but I'm not going to do it again," Doha said. But, she said she'll definitely hang out with the group of women in the future.

Ciang Uap, 30, Myanmar

Ciang Uap (left) helped Aimee Mugisha put on lipstick before they began snowshoeing. (Emily Rendell-Watson/CBC )

Ciang Uap was hoping to make new friends on the trip.

"I'm so excited because we came from different countries so I think we can share our culture," she said.

Uap came to Canada with her parents in 2018 from Chin State, Myanmar. Uap said she never thought she'd sign up for a hiking trip like this because she never imagined coming to Canada.

"We came as refugees. I never thought my life would be this situation," she said. "No one wants to be refugees in their life because (it) means you've been through many difficulties."

Uap also hoped to learn about Canadian culture and nature in the backcountry.

"I'm scared of this, but I want to try, whether I make it or not."

By the time they reached the parking lot on the second day, Uap said she was already looking forward to the next time the group of women could hike together.

The women held hands as they hiked to give each other strength and energy, said Ciang Uap. (Emily Rendell-Watson/CBC )