Cole Flanagan says he can't stop talking about his experience in the Canadian Rockies earlier this summer — and it wasn't just about having mountain adventures.

It also included learning about issues including climate change, mental health and reconciliation.

"It was very heavy at times," said the 21-year-old from southern Ontario.

"There was a lot of emotions. There was a lot of people going through some pretty challenging life situations, and everyone came together and shared and laughed and cried."

One of the difficult moments, he said, was a visit to a former residential school in Alberta, where survivors shared their stories and talked about intergenerational trauma.

"Being there made it so much different."

Flanagan was participating in Howl, a program that gives young people between the ages of 17 and 30 an opportunity to learn from Indigenous knowledge keepers, scientists and wellness experts. It's being offered in weeklong camps to three-month semesters in the Rockies, Maritimes and Yukon.

Adam Robb, founder and co-director, said he came up with the program during the COVID-19 pandemic after being a Calgary high school teacher for 15 years.

"I was doing online teaching from home and watching youth at home, trying to connect with them and help them through a pretty isolating time," he said.

"I had been stewing on this question of what happens to youth after they leave the doors of high school for a long time. It's a big question that we don't think about in enough detail."

In Canada, he said, high school students typically go to college or university, travel or stay home and save money.

Statistics Canada said in a May 2022 report that 12.5 per cent of those who later enrolled in a post-secondary institution took a gap year.

Robb said he noticed a growing need for youth to gain some life experience before making decisions about their future.

"Never before like the last four or five years as a teacher have I had so many students come up to me worried about things like climate change, worried about big societal things … like Black Lives Matter and Truth and Reconciliation," he said. "They just feel this immense anxiety over the state of things."

Howl, he said, offers them experience in taking action and making their community a better place.

"Where is your typical non-Indigenous youth going to learn to develop relationships with Indigenous people?" said Robb. "Youth want … answers on how to move forward with this in real ways, but they don't have the opportunities."

Howl co-director Daryl Kootenay, an Indigenous leader from Stoney Nakoda First Nation, said he got involved because it aligned with work he was doing in his community.

"I myself have gone through a program much like Howl in developing countries that led me to be the leader that I am today," he said. "I have always been someone who wanted to help others do the same."

Kootenay said it's an opportunity to reach more young people, including those in Indigenous communities, by providing a safe space to learn through both traditional and Western knowledge.

"My approach is that it will work on all youth, it will support all youth."

Kootenay, also a faculty member in Indigenous leadership at the Banff Centre, said there are programs on reconciliation for adults but not many for youth.

Howl, he said, "follows some of the calls to action through education and creating awareness for young people, who need it the most."

Reconciliation and trauma are complex for Indigenous youth, added Kootenay.

"Family members are not even ready to share their experience with their own family," he said. "By creating this program where we take you to see a residential school — to hear from residential school survivors who are ready to share their story — deepens their knowledge."

Some, he said, don't think they're exposed to intergenerational trauma, but leave the program with an understanding that helps them recognize it in their own family or community.

"It would help them be in a position to make better decisions when building community and being a part of community."

Participants in the program said they've learned a lot.

"I definitely have a new appreciation of the struggles Indigenous people face and the lack of support they have from the broader community," said Flanagan.

"I didn't know that many Indigenous people before the trip, like almost zero, and to become friends with locals and staff members of Howl who are Indigenous and to hear some of their stories and what's going on in their communities was very eye-opening."

Ally Macdonald, 26, has attended Howl as a participant and part-time staff member.

"I describe it like an adult field trip," she said.

She has learned from Indigenous elders, she said, as well as experts in natural resources or conservation, and became friends with other participants.

"It was a safe enough space that we all were sharing," she said. "Some people have never had connection to their culture before and this is the closest thing that they've ever had."

Macdonald said Howl has also taught her about Indigenous culture, which she can pass on to her daughter, who is part Inuit.

"I'm not connected with her family," she said. "I don't want her to feel like she's disconnected at some point. I want her to grow up and know that I did everything I could."

She said she often encourages others to attend, noting organizers make it easy for those who are interested.

"They know that it will do good things for you and, if not right away, it will inspire you to want to do more."