In the churning whitewater, as he maneuvers around boulders and mitigates the waves that crash against the raft, Ryan Kerrigan is often overwhelmed with awe.
“It’s a privilege to be in nature, where there are no buildings and nothing’s manmade,” said the Spokane resident. “It’s just how God made it. Creation reveals his greatness, his power and his glory. It shows his grace, as well.”
Kerrigan’s deep reverence for God and nature coupled with a desire to help young people spurred him two years ago to start a nonprofit that would allow kids and teens to go rafting and spend days backpacking in the wilderness. Based in Spokane and known as Peak 7 Adventures, the goal of the organization is “to expose youth to the wonder of God’s creation.”
Since last summer, Peak 7 Adventures has taken several hundred kids and teens on rafting or five-day backpacking trips in the wilderness. While some of the young people come from area church and youth groups, many have been homeless, neglected or are recovering from drug and alcohol addictions, according to Loran Kerrigan, Ryan’s wife and a volunteer. Most were brought to Peak 7 by the Union Gospel Mission, the YMCA, Anna Ogden Hall and other non-profits that help children and families in need.
On a recent summer day, about a dozen kids from Spokane Youth for Christ gathered at the banks of the Spokane River to prepare for a trip of a lifetime. Although most live in West Central neighborhood, none of the kids had ever spent any time on the nearby river.
“Am I going to die?” asked 15-year-old Sierra Knittel, laughing but with a hint of anxiety in her voice.
“This will be fun,” Loran Kerrigan assured her as she helped the kids zip up their wetsuits.
“I’m a little nervous,” said Kayleen Smith, who’s 13. “This is a whole new adventure for me.”
The youths spent almost an hour getting ready for the 1 1/2-hour trip down the river to the take-out at Plese Flats. They got fitted for wetsuits and lifejackets, helped carry the rafts to the put-in site below the Spokane Wastewater Treatment Plant, learned the basics of paddling and whitewater rafting and took part in a safety check.
Before they launched, they prayed. “Thank you for this beautiful day,” said Trey Nichols, Peak 7’s program director, standing in waist-deep water. “Thank you for this awesome time to enjoy your creation.”
Most kids have a blast during these trips, according to organizers. For some, the rafting and backpacking trips forever change their lives.
“It gives them a sense of competence and teamwork and a belief in their ability to succeed,” said Youth for Christ’s ministry director Harry Neff, recalling the experience of some of the kids who went on a Peak 7 backpacking trip last summer. “These trips take them out of their isolation and help them realize the goodness of God in the midst of chaos and pain.”
Camping, hiking, rafting, kayaking and other outdoor adventures also take kids out of their comfort zone and force them to learn more about themselves, said Ryan Kerrigan, who’s 28. Climbing to the summit of a peak or rafting down a river instills a sense of accomplishment that some people can only get from being in nature, he said.
“We believe that by spending time in the wilderness, taking risks and seeking solitude, you will gain more than just adventure skills that will help you succeed and handle problems,” according to Peak 7’s Web site. “You will learn valuable skills and may choose to make exploring the outdoors a regular part of your life.”
Born in California, Ryan Kerrigan grew up in Ecuador and Kenya, where his parents worked as medical missionaries. The Peak 7 founder spent his childhood involved in many outdoor adventures. He also earned a degree in parks and recreation tours and management from Clemson University in South Carolina. Having worked and volunteered at youth camps, Kerrigan also discovered a passion for youth ministry and someday hoped to use his talents as a guide and recreation specialist to work with kids.
After moving to Spokane about three years ago, Kerrigan’s dream came true. A friend – Robbie Rech of Seattle, co-founder of a software company called Thriva – gave him start-up funds to establish an outdoor youth ministry.
Since then, Peak 7 Adventures has worked with dozens of youth organizations in the region. It’s one of only a few non-profits in the country that offers free rafting and backpacking trips to at-risk and underprivileged youth.
Peak 7 is also rare in the world of outdoor recreation because of its spiritual component. In addition to teaching kids about nature and how to reduce their impact on the earth, its programs include Bible study, prayer and discussions about God.
“The wilderness is a powerful place to meet God,” according to the Peak 7 website. “It exposes us to our own frailty and forces us to decide where we place our ultimate trust. Through Ascent (the backpacking trip), we look at God’s plan for creation with a wide-angle lens, seeing the entire Bible as an epic story with God as the protagonist.”
The non-profit receives financial donations from churches, religious organizations, corporations and individuals. It also has received donations of wetsuits, paddles, backpacks and other gear from stores and companies that make and sell health and outdoor products, as well as food and snacks from area restaurants. More than 70 people volunteer their time and expertise to Peak 7, including certified raft guides and kayak instructors.
“It’s amazing what a rafting trip does for these kids,” said Loran Kerrigan, who works as a recreational therapist at the Tamarack Center, an adolescent psychiatric treatment facility in Spokane. “To be introduced to the outdoors while going through treatment, they gain coping skills. … They’re nervous at first, but they come together as a group and learn to trust.”