Hack Clubbers to travel across Canada by train

About 50 teenagers from all over the world, who are members of Shelburne-based Hack Club, are getting ready to embark on a train ride across Canada July 21-27.

They will be joined by environmentally conscious activists, government and business leaders and performing artists such as Steven Guilbeault, the Canadian Minister of the Environment and a former Greenpeace activist; Tobi Lütke, the founder of e-commerce company Shopify; and an Indigenous storyteller. The travelers will be serenaded as their trip begins in Vancouver by a jazz klezmer trio from New Orleans.

The annual event is sponsored by the organization for lucky teenagers selected for an experience which is a time to collaboratively work on their various coding projects with an environmental purpose, to enjoy the Canadian countryside and to be entertained.

Entertainers on the train trip include Cirque du Soleil performers, a comic waiter who will also be appearing at Burlington’s Festival of Fools this summer and a guy who does acrobatics on a 15-foot pole and juggles, said Woody Keppel of Charlotte, who is helping with booking the trip and arranging the entertainment.

“About 30,000 students are part of Hack Club,” Keppel said. Hundreds of them applied to be one of the lucky 50 who will take the trip.
A lot of the Hack Club members know each other online, Keppel said, but not so many in person. So, Hack Club puts on events called hackathons throughout the year for members from around the country and the world to meet and interact in person. Most of these are for a weekend, but the club also sponsors a major event each summer.

Photo by Christina Asquith.
Around 50 teenagers work out of Hack Club’s office in the center of Shelburne.
Photo by Christina Asquith. Around 50 teenagers work out of Hack Club’s office in the center of Shelburne.

This year it is this trip on Canada’s railroad through the boreal forest, a vast region that rings the Northern Hemisphere. One-third of the world’s boreal forest is in Canada, so the organizers are calling this summer’s hackathon event the Boreal Express.

Many of the students on the Boreal Express this summer have never left “the sidewalk,” Keppel said. So, traveling through one of the most pristine lands on earth that’s only accessible by rail will be a new experience for them. Their train will travel through the Canadian Rockies, passing through Jasper, Winnipeg and Toronto. The trip will end in Montreal.

The travelers were selected primarily for their coding skills but also for their passion for the environment.

Hack Club pays for everything, transportation to Vancouver and from Montreal, food and entertainment, Keppel said.

Hack Club was founded in 2014 by Zach Latta. At 7, Zach Latta took apart his parents’ computer and put it back together. At 12, Latta was part of a team that developed an online video game with 10,000 users.

Latta tested out of high school at 15. With his parents’ reluctant blessing, he moved alone from his parents’ Los Angeles home to San Francisco to learn more about computer coding.

Within 24 hours he had a job — with a higher salary than both of his parents’ salaries.

He cofounded Hack Club with Christina Asquith of Charlotte to teach students ages 12-18 the joys of coding and how to do the kinds of things he did with computers at their age. Latta believes that every teenager should have the opportunity to learn coding, just like joining the school band or football team.

During COVID, he was looking for somewhere that wasn’t as expensive as San Francisco for the club’s headquarters. Asquith, who had been working remotely, suggested this area. They moved the club offices to the center of Shelburne, and he moved himself to Charlotte.

As events lead for Hack Club, Deven Jadhav is in charge of the organizing of this year’s summer hackathon or the Boreal Express. He moved from India and is spending a gap year living in Burlington’s Old North End and working out of Hack Club’s Shelburne office before entering the University of North Carolina, probably to study computer science.

He was part of last summer’s hackathon which took place in Cabot with 180 club members camping out in an experience called Outernet. The term “Outernet” is a spin on the term “internet.” Because members spend a lot of time inside coding on computers, Hack Club believes it’s important to have events that gets them outside.

“We wanted to take these teenagers out in the woods to experience the life that a lot of them don’t experience. A lot of Hack Clubbers come from big cities. We really wanted to get them camping outdoors, experiencing new things and meeting new people,” Jadhav said.

The experience is transformational for most of the teenagers. For many it is the first time they’ve stepped out of the house without their parents, much less taking a flight on their own, he said. That experience gives teenagers agency.

“It’s sort of a good way to set people free to do creative things,” Jadhav said.

But besides growing more confident and creative, they expect the participants to grow as coders and push themselves to try doing technical things that they haven’t done before.

“Every summer, we try and do things that defy the lines of ‘Is this even possible?’” he said. “We want to show people that there’s a lot of beauty in doing things that are thought of as impossible.”

Because there’s no internet nor social media on the train, Jadhav thinks many of them will get a bit philosophical and begin asking themselves “why questions” like: “Why am I here? Who are these people with me? What’s my relationship with them? What’s my relationship with the world? What is the purpose of my life?”

Spending the eight days together in the close quarters of a train, examining life’s biggest questions should mean that some incredibly strong relationships are formed.

Friendships last for years after members have aged out of Hack Club. And there’s a connection that endures even for people who never met in Hack Club.

“You go to a new city and you just put in an online chat, ‘Hey, I’m in this town.’ And there’s like five people who were Hack Clubbers who just want to meet you,” Jadhav said. “They were involved in Hack Club five, six, seven years ago, but they’re still around.”