A force of nature
Professor Mario Bilodeau lives life large, having climbed some of the world's tallest peaks. He also believes in the healing powers of Mother Nature, organizing expeditions for sick kids to the great outdoors
With his rugged good looks, unshaven face and a lean body clad in blue jeans, hiking boots and a faded, black-leather bomber jacket, Mario Bilodeau looks more like a rebellious rock star than a respected university professor. He's also the first to admit that his cluttered corner office on the fourth floor of the humanities building at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi is more akin to a sporting-goods warehouse than a haven for scholarly reflection. "I'm not very good with a computer either," the 51-year-old quips as he tries - unsuccessfully - to clean up a jumble of ropes, snowshoes and other outdoor gear piled on his desk, filing cabinets and bookshelves.
To be sure, appearances are deceiving when it comes to the co-founder and director of the Outdoor Pursuits and Adventure Tourism program at this fast-growing Quebec campus. A world-renowned climber who has scaled dozens of this planet's highest peaks - including Everest twice, saving the life of an altitude-sick colleague during one ascent - Dr. Bilodeau's boundless energy and passionate devotion to his work, students and causes have earned him widespread respect across this northern enclave. "Mario is a living legend here, a modern-day hero," says Mario Bélanger, an anthropologist and dean of undergraduate studies at UQAC. "What he brings to our university goes far beyond his department or even teaching."
Outside his work in the classroom, which extends into the Laurentian Mountains that can be seen from his office window, Dr. Bilodeau's ground-breaking therapeutic work with young cancer patients, in particular, has attracted attention across Canada and around the world. Surviving his own brush with cancer in the 1980s, Dr. Bilodeau is co-founder of the Chicoutimi-based non-profit organization, On the Tips of Toes. The foundation organizes week-long expeditions of teenagers with cancer and accompanying health-care professionals from across Canada to Ellesmere Island, Hudson's Bay and other remote corners of the frozen North.
"Our goal is to help these kids experience nature and to accomplish things they never dreamed possible," explains Dr. Bilodeau. "The self-confidence they gain on these trips and the friendships they make with kids like themselves gives them renewed strength to fight their disease. When they get back home, they're not just sick kids waiting for treatment. They're adventurers with amazing stories to tell."
In many ways, the foundation's work reflects as much Dr. Bilodeau's professional goal to make the great outdoors accessible to everyone as his personal philosophy that nature possesses miraculous healing powers. "I know because nature saved me," he says in his matter-of-fact, rapid-fire manner. Born into humble circumstances in a small town in the Beauce region south of Quebec City, Dr. Bilodeau grew up a sports-loving, authority-defying youngster who rode horses bareback and ran barefoot, like his boyhood hero Tarzan, through the forests that surrounded the cabin where his family lived during the summer months.
Uninterested and rebellious in high school, he dropped out briefly to work with his father as a lightning-rod installer. However, he later returned and graduated, studying social sciences in college with a dream of working with troubled youths. By the time he graduated from Université Laval with a degree in physical education - and, more importantly, a minor in outdoor pursuits - Dr. Bilodeau had found a new goal in life. "I made up my mind that I wanted to work with people in nature," he says. "I wanted to take a holistic approach: to use nature to help people develop their full potential as human beings."
Dr. Bilodeau's new mission in life led him to the United States. In addition to coaching and teaching canoeing, camping, orienteering, mountain climbing, survival and leadership skills to instructors for youth-oriented groups such as Outward Bound, he did both a master's and a PhD in adventure education. By the time he finished the latter at the University of Northern Colorado in 1987, Dr. Bilodeau had already been teaching phys-ed and outdoor tourism at UQAC for almost a decade.
Determined to put his therapeutic ideas involving nature into action, the young professor developed a novel project in which he and several students in a leadership class brought several groups of mentally and physically handicapped people and young offenders on camping trips deep into the rugged forests of the Canadian Shield. The most memorable for him was a week-long excursion with several young quadriplegics in the dead of winter in 1980. "We bundled them up in blankets and dragged them out of their tents at night to see the stars," remembers Dr. Bilodeau. "The look on their faces provided me with absolute proof about the healing power of nature. It was the most profound experience in my life."
After he had a cancerous growth successfully removed in the late 1980s - a victory he celebrated by climbing several mountains in the U.S., South America, Europe and the Himalayas (including Everest, where he again cheated death by surviving several avalanches) - Dr. Bilodeau's life took another turn in 1995 when a former student, François Guillot, put him in touch with a Montreal oncologist who wanted to bring a half-dozen kids with cancer on an outdoor excursion. The success of that trip - a wintertime camping expedition to Mont Groulx in northern Quebec - encouraged Dr. Bilodeau and Mr. Guillot to found On the Tips of Toes in 1996, the same year Dr. Bilodeau was picked to head UQAC's new bachelor's program in outdoor pursuits and adventure tourism.
Since then, the foundation and its partners, which include Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, the Montreal Children's Hospital Foundation, Via Rail, Air Creebec, Air Inuit and dozens of lawyers, bankers, oncologists and other administrative backers, have provided more than 100 cancer-stricken adolescent boys and girls with an opportunity to go on therapeutic expeditions aimed at rebuilding their confidence and self-esteem far from civilization and their daily treatment-driven environment.
"It was an awesome experience," says 20-year-old Amandine Johnson, a second-year student at the Ontario College of Art and Design and former Hodgkin's Disease sufferer who went on a foundation-run winter camping trip led by Dr. Bilodeau to Quebec's Chic-Choc Mountains in 2003. "We learned a lot about life and about ourselves. Mario was a big part of that. He's easy to talk to and he never gets stressed out about anything."
While he continues to give talks and presentations about the foundation at meetings and conferences across Canada and abroad, Dr. Bilodeau, a new father, has relegated much of the planning and participation in trips to a former student and the foundation's managing director, Annick Dufresne. Dr. Bilodeau is instead concentrating on the development of new adventure-therapy courses and other initiatives at UQAC. He is particularly proud of a one-year undergraduate certificate program designed to help the downtrodden and disadvantaged by exposing them to nature.
"It's the only one of its kind in the world," Dr. Bilodeau says of the program, which has spawned dozens of student-led adventure projects that have benefited street people, the handicapped and the elderly in the Chicoutimi region. He is also pleased by the growing popularity of another novel addition at UQAC: outdoor- and nature-therapy courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in education and other departments. "Things have come full circle," says Dr. Bilodeau. "For me, it's the result of 25 years of continued effort."
And that's not all. Dr. Bilodeau is also the co-founder and president of Intervention Nature Aventure Quebec, or INAQ, a student-run co-op that offers services to all kinds of people other than cancer victims. Through INAQ, he hopes to see - and, whenever possible, be involved with - adventure-therapy research projects and co-op initiatives aimed at every imaginable group of people in Quebec, Canada and beyond. "There's no end to the possibilities," he says, "youth in prisons, brain-trauma victims, Native youth, people with addictions - you name it. The force of nature is very powerful."
So, too, is Dr. Bilodeau's presence at UQAC. "Mario doesn't have the profile of the professor who comes to the university to give classes. And academically he produces less than maybe what other profs do," says UQAC dean Dr. Bélanger. "But he's with his students all the time and he lives intensely with them. And he's created and leads one of the rare programs that pulls students in from outside our region, including even a few from Europe. He's a fantastic person with tremendous charisma who lives life to the fullest. He's an inspiration and a model to us all."
How the foundation got its name
In 1996, Quebec adventurer Bernard Voyer had returned from the South Pole just as Dr. Bilodeau was organizing the foundation's first expedition. Mr. Voyer was giving a talk and, during question period, an eight-year-old boy asked him what you had to do to become an explorer. He answered: "When I was your age, one day, I got on the tips of my toes and realized that I could see farther. That's how I became an explorer." The foundation was named On the Tips of Toes.