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Local man turns his passion for nature into a full-time job

Ben Benson has learned to 'embrace the suck' ... to learn from trials and tribulations; 'I owe the forest my mental health,' says Sebright man

The trail from Devil’s Lake to Victoria Falls is a rugged and challenging route taking hikers through a remote, wilderness area of Ontario. It typically takes an experienced hiker four days to complete the 37-kilometre route.

Hiking this trail turned out to be a life-changing experience for Ben Benson, who completed the route in just three days as part of his outdoor wilderness training.

“The terrain was awful; I’ve never been so tired in my life. I had blisters on my feet, there were bugs, ticks ... it was so bad,” Benson recalled.

What Benson learned on that gruelling trip was a philosophy, based on a simple phrase, that has helped guide his work and life ever since.

“On that hike, my lead instructor encouraged me to ‘embrace the suck.’ He helped me understand that the pain isn’t going to last forever. At the end of the three days, when we were sitting in an air-conditioned car driving home, he said, ‘I know that sucked, but look at you now, it doesn’t last forever.’”

Benson said the experience helped him learn how to deal with hardship and understand the benefits of overcoming challenges.

It’s a philosophy that has guided Benson throughout his experience in the outdoors – as a student, teacher, wilderness educator and now farmhand.

A member of Rama First Nation, Ben Rain Meenghun (Wolf) Benson, 23, said he always had a connection with nature, but hadn’t considered turning his passion into a career.

He then found out about the Outdoor Adventure Education program at Sir Sanford Fleming College. “This is right up my alley,” he thought, but was not really sure what he was getting into.

Growing up surrounded by forests in the Sebright area, Benson had done lots of hiking, exploring and canoeing on his own, but had not experienced organized wilderness trips.

“I remember my first canoe trip in college; the first day was terrifying, having to learn everything about canoe strokes, no-trace camping, getting dunked into cold water, feeling the fear of the unknown.”

But by the last day of the trip, Benson said he felt like he was a completely different person and the world was a completely different place. “I think I fell in love with that feeling – of isolating from busy day-to-day life, helping out as part of a community, and just being - simply being.”

Since completing his studies, Benson has worked as an outdoor professional – an instructor for Outward Bound, a canoe guide and trip leader with Wild Adventures, and as an outdoor educator in camps throughout Ontario and Manitoba.

The work is exhausting and often involves being on the job 24 hours-a-day, but Benson says the benefits are worth it. Besides being outside – getting fresh air and exercise – he is able to share what he has learned about nature and wilderness survival with others.

“I owe the forest my mental health. Walking in the forest, having nothing but my thoughts, has helped me sort out my priorities, heal, and let go of anger," he explained.

“I think I’ve been able to change other people’s perspectives too, especially if they are starting out a trip with a negative attitude or feeling withdrawn. I’ve been in their situations. I know what would make me upset and what would make me feel wanted. That helps me deliver the right amount of guidance – when to step in and when to step back.”

Benson says it’s very rewarding to see transitions in his trip participants. “I know these students go home and have a little bit of a changed mindset, they go from just wanting to play video games to asking if they can help with the dishes.”

This summer, because of the cancellation of outdoor trips due to COVID-19, Benson is doing something completely different. He’s working as a farmhand at Quaker Oaks, a farm near his home in Sebright.

“I feel like my career path has completely shifted,” said Benson. “I’ve been a teacher all my life (beginning as a mountain bike instructor at the age of 13) and now I’m a farmer!”

He is discovering how farm work is both similar and very different to his work as an outdoor wilderness educator.

“At the farm I am still outside, getting exercise, breathing fresh air and putting my feet on the earth, which is huge. But I am not dealing with the stress of taking care of people. With outdoor teaching and guiding, I often have to deal with conflict. This is a very low-stress environment, I just follow directions, work hard and get the job done.”

Benson has discovered that his “embrace the suck” philosophy applies to farm work too.

“I am tall and I spend a lot of the day crouched down – my back hurts, but it’s not going to be forever; I’ve got a hay bale on my shoulder – it hurts; manure – it smells, but it’s not going to be forever. I just remember to embrace the suck – I’ll learn from it, get a little better, and it will all get a little easier.”

This year’s pandemic has also upset another of Benson’s passions – dancing at pow wows. He says he will especially miss the Rama pow wow.

“The best drummers of Ontario and Quebec come together in Rama to jam out their best songs. The sound, when you feel it in your heart, it just picks up, you don’t even have to try to dance; it just does it for you.”

Known for his power and grace as a dancer, Benson says dancing is a chance to celebrate and connect with his culture.

“I dance because it feels good. I don’t try to move to the music, I let the music move me.”

Benson recently created a unique program for youth that combines his experience as a wilderness guide with his knowledge of First Nations cultural traditions in a presentation featuring his powerful dancing.

“I was surprised at the response; I got some really good feedback from the students, so maybe it’s something that I’ll pursue.”

Benson is pensive about his future and realizes there are many opportunities, from outdoor education to farming and beyond. With his “embrace the suck” philosophy acting as his guide, he’ll undoubtedly face whatever comes next with energy and optimism.