Five years ago, Chad Guenter wanted to do something big. Something that would get noticed.
He decided on a 375-kilometre paddleboard expedition that took him from the top of Lake Diefenbaker down the beautiful South Saskatchewan River and ended in his hometown of Saskatoon.
Equipped with only what would fit on the paddleboard, he started out on a five-day mission. Those first days on the lake included 70 km/h winds and 1.5-metre swells.
When he finally pulled into Saskatoon, there were just over a dozen people waiting to congratulate him, including his parents and younger brother.
They were, after all, who he was paddling for.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five Canadians will suffer from mental illness in their lifetime.
“Unfortunately. the stats didn't skip (my family),” Guenter said.
His brother and mother both suffer from mental illness. In 2008, Guenter was also diagnosed with depression. As he dealt with the illness, he learned he was missing the peace he found on the water. For him, staying active was a tool to fight depression.
“I recognized that the water was the place I felt most alive and happiest. I needed to somehow share it with others.”
Thanks to the success of that first expedition in 2012, Guenter started KC/PO, short for Keep Calm/Paddle On, a grassroots organization that raises funds and awareness for mental health in Canada.
“In my mind, KC/PO started a long time before that trip, I just didn't know what it was.”
Today, KC/PO runs its annual South Saskatchewan trip each August. The expeditions are now three days long and a couple of hundred kilometres shorter, but the crowds of participants, the funds and the support for the movement grow every year.
“It feels like a community that's there to support one another and open up a conversation about the stigma of mental illness,” said Jenn Givens, a paddleboard instructor who's participated in the last two trips.
“I see people go for just the paddling aspect, but I find at the end they're there for the people, the community that Chad's created.”
Using the paddleboard as a platform to speak out and connect people, Guenter also explores the relationship between physical health and mental health.
“I've always – every since I was five – played sports. I've always been the happiest when I was outside playing sports, or just playing. I think that just carried on for me. I never knew what it was doing (physiologically) but I just knew I was happiest when I was getting outside,” Guenter said.
He added that if others are looking for avenues to try something new, the first step is recognizing their comfort levels and finding someone who can facilitate whatever outdoor activity it is. Whether it's paddling or something else, the key is to find joy in it.
Raising awareness for mental health is another component of KC/PO. There are a couple of online channels geared towards community and positivity, which Guenter manages as well.
He has a few jobs that allow for the flexibility and dedication needed to keep KC/PO running. In Canmore, Guenter is a firefighter, technical rescue instructor and river guide.
Much of his time is spent helping others and setting them up for success.
“His heart is as big as him,” said Jasmin Muratagic, Guenter's friend of almost 20 years.
Muratagic currently runs a branch of KC/PO in the Cayman Islands, helping children in foster homes and kids with special needs.
“Mental health is a serious issue. We all know that,” Muratagic said. “What he's doing, it's very dear to all of us.”
But, at times, that weight can be a lot to bear. Especially when Guenter receives messages online from people who feel like they can't go on and are reaching out to him for help.
“There's a bit of a PTSD that I never bargained for.”
Guenter always lets the person know he is not a trained specialist and offers information about where they can get help.
It's a lot of effort for one person, but at the end of the day, he is motivated by the very fact that he is able to keep doing this for others.
“I think our job as humans is, if we are in the capacity to help, I think we should. I think that's something that's kind of stopped along the way – looking out for other people.”
Visit www.kcpo.ca/ to donate or volunteer.