From the seat of his bike, Cst. Craig Nelson stared at the steep, winding ascent out of Drumheller, Alta. Behind him, 12 teenagers on bikes groaned at the prospect of pedaling up the mountainous hill.
"I'm with these kids and we're looking up at this challenge together thinking, how are we going to do this?" says Nelson, a RCMP officer at the Drumheller detachment. "When we biked up that north hill I thought, if we can do that, we can do anything."
Climbing that first hill marked the beginning of a 12-day bike trip organized by Nelson, the Duke of Edinburgh Award Program and Two Wheel View, a local charity that uses bikes to teach young people about leadership and wellness.
Last August, Nelson helped lead a group of 12 high school-aged youth from Drumheller to Banff, Alta. — a 320-kilometer ride, including detours for day trips.
"It's a way for us to engage with our youth," says Nelson, who's been a police officer for 13 years. "We're always looking for ways to be positive role models so we're less likely to deal with these young people in the future."
With the help of three facilitators from Two Wheel View, the kids organized and led their own trip. They were responsible for buying and cooking their own meals, setting up campsites and navigating from stop to stop.
"The bike is a tool we use to engage kids and get them excited," says Laura Istead from Two Wheel View in Calgary. "It shows alternative transportation, builds confidence and gives kids the freedom to explore their community."
To date, Nelson has helped lead four bike trips, and is planning for a fifth for this summer before he transfers out of Drumheller to become a school resource officer. He says his favourite part has been seeing each young person evolve over the course of the trip.
"I learned how to be confident and how to be a leader," says 15-year-old Tracy Gitau from Calgary. She went on the bike trip with Nelson last summer. "Before the trip I was always afraid to speak and it was hard to make friends. This taught me how to be myself."
Tracy says Nelson encouraged her to take initiative throughout the trip and eventually gave her the confidence to lead the group for a day.
"It's not just about pedaling a bike," says Nelson. "It's about building these kids up: building their confidence, building their leadership skills and connecting with them."