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News & Views - May, 2001 Issue #81

Wilderness Quest Celebrates 30 Years
Monticello, Utah

By Anngela Ritter

On May 16, 2001, Larry J. Wells, owner and director of Wilderness Quest, will celebrate 30 years of service conducting outdoor survival treatment programs and counseling individuals. Larry has always had the dream and determination to help others recognize their potential and succeed in life. Growing up in the outdoors, he knew the wilderness would provide a deep insight into the individual’s character, strengths, weaknesses and self-identity. How would he have known at that time he was paving the way for a large industry of wilderness programs helping individuals and their families? He would be known as the “Grandfather” of outdoor programs, his knowledge, standards and reputation, a sought after package. How could I have known that my father would not only be my hero, but would also be the hero of thousands of others? 

At the recent IECA conference in Seattle, I reflected that eleven or twelve years ago there were only three outdoor programs: Wilderness Quest, Wilderness Treatment Center and Turn-about Ranch. Now the numbers are staggering. Larry’s dream has become a reality, helping individuals not only in his program, but also in many other outdoor treatment programs. His own life experience has made Wilderness Quest the leading outdoor treatment program in 12 Steps, Family and Recovery. 

I would like to salute my father for teaching me honesty, determination and never giving up on your dreams, even when the odds are against you. As a little girl I do not remember bright lights, hustle and bustle, vehicle noises, or fast foods. I do remember: looking up at the bright stars and listening to the coyotes howl, birds singing melodies, chipmunks busy eating, watching the bears rummaging through the garbage dumps, Dad bringing home a hurt animal or some amazing piece of history that he knew us kids would like, hiking to the top of lookouts, waiting for lightning storms and watching for fires to report. I knew at a very young age there was something very special about my dad. He had such a respect for the outdoors, the gift of intuition, insight and a genuine love for those in need. He has never been a man to promote himself or seek great recognition. His incentive has been to help the injured owl with a broken wing fly again across the horizon, or to help the heroin addict experience life drug free, able to watch a sunset from a high peak, noticing for the first time, as the colors penetrate every pore of his body. 

In 1961 the idea of an outdoor treatment program was born. In 1970, it became a reality and a corporation was formed, and approved by the state of Idaho on March 5, 1971. His first group left on May 16, 1971. Through this organization, Expedition Outreach Inc., my dad conducted programs for juvenile and adult correction agencies throughout the Western states. In 1973 he designed and conducted the Wilderness Phase for VisionQuest, now known for their wagon trains. In 1982 he designed and managed the wilderness program for the School of Urban and Wilderness Survival, the first wilderness treatment program to market to the general public. In 1984 he developed the long term 60-day “Specialty Treatment Program” in the outdoors. Then, in 1988 he advanced from Expedition Outreach to Wilderness Conquest. Inc, in his efforts to help families and individuals find sobriety through a strong 12-step therapeutic wilderness setting. The following anecdotes written by my father give his impressions: 


Trials and tribulations of starting wilderness programs in 1971 – 
The beginnings... 
By Larry J. Wells, LSAC, CAC, 
Program Director, Wilderness Quest 

In 1971 a program required selling a court, mental health or school agency on the concept of wilderness therapy. The common response was - a camping program, why should that cost money, the Boy Scouts do it for nothing. How can camping out be therapy and stop drug use? Where is the punishment and by the way who are you and what are your mental health/treatment credentials? 

That is generally how a first meeting went when I was trying to solicit a contract. If I stirred some interest, or one agency staff was an outdoor person and saw a chance to get paid to be outdoors, I would be asked by the agency to design a program that would both meet their agency’s objectives and could be done by this “type” of client. 

Next I would locate a wilderness area that was near the agency in what ever state I was in, get the necessary permits, and contact the local ranchers and local Sheriff, both of which seldom jumped with joy that I was bringing long haired hippie dope fiends into their area. 

I always contracted a big dinner at the end of the program in town with a restaurant or church group. One time, as I stopped at the dinner place, I was met by the local police chief and Sheriff and told to have those long hairs out of town and out of the county by dark. We had planned to camp in the county and deliver the clients back to their agency seven hours away, the next day. We drove through the night and called agency and parents at 1:00am to deliver clients. 

The agency always wanted to send their own staff as trail staff, because it saved them money. No matter who you are, the first time on the trail you have the experience of a client. Personal issues come up and then the agency staff had to try and be staff and process as clients at the same time. I ended up being the only trail staff member with additional clients helping, some of which were harder than any of the referred clients. 

The first three years I tried to create a group population mix of 40% “hoods in the woods” clients and 60% “straight” clients or folks that had no drug/alcohol or criminal problems, which I felt was effective. As a result, my staff, one female, one male and myself, would do the “knife and fork” circuit recruiting donations for our non-profit and “straight clients” who wanted to have a wilderness primitive living experience. 

We would spend the time between trips speaking at every Kiwanis, Elks, Civitans, and whatever other club we could, along with local TV, radio and newspapers. 

We did not have support staff or radios then. The acceptable standard was a vehicle, fire lookout tower or U.S. Forest Service Station within six hours hiking distance, calculated at 2.5 miles per hour. If we had a problem, a staff hiked to the predesignated contact and located help. 

Food re-supplies were by air cargo drop to prevent contact with roads. The first trip I ran I lost half my group to runaways in the first three days. By the time the summer was over I was down to 129 pounds from chasing runaway clients. 

My first group of “hoods in the woods” clients were from the criminal justice system. I went to the reform schools, prisons, adult probation and parole, juvenile probation and parole systems and told them to give me their hardest case, with the worst self-esteem. I believed then wilderness could cure anything through increasing their self-esteem. Wrong! 

The clients that were locked up were told they could trade thirty days lock up for a thirty day “berry picking trip” outside. They arrived, we started the trail at night with only our coat and a steel knife, going for three days living off the land before we received food and a blanket. The clients decided thirty days in jail was a piece of cake compared to the “berry picking trip”, and they ran. 

One group hot-wired my support truck leaving me to walk 40 miles to town. Since they didn’t know how to hot-wire, they burned up the starter. Another group went the wrong way - into the wilderness instead of out; another twenty mile hike for my staff and I to keep them safe. 

The client application was a one page document, the staff application was one half page, insurance was rated at $8.00 per person per trip and land permits were $25.00 per 100 man-days. I charged $300 for a 30-day trip and I was paid $400 per 30-day trip. We lived off the land ten out of the 30 days and averaged 300 to 400 miles per trip hiking. The industry has come a long way in thirty years! 

Thoughts from Bert C Truxal. 
“My son Stewart is now 18 and sober since his experience at Wilderness Quest. My family and I have discovered not only the 12 steps, but also the great effect of nature and the outdoors. Larry is doing important work.”

Thoughts from Kath: 
“Wilderness Quest…changed our son’s life. His self-esteem soared and he found a “higher Power” in the beauty of the wilderness. This is a tough program that is able to integrate caring and love for the clients/students. I thank Larry Wells…our family will always be grateful.”

Thoughts from Stew: 
“The first day I met Larry Wells I remember being very scared of this interesting man. He had sticks and weird paintings all over his office, animal skins, and to top it off, a bunch of handmade knives!…It wasn’t until an extremely cold Christmas morning that I realized what kind of man Larry Wells truly was…. I wasn’t too pleased to be spending Christmas in the middle of nowhere. Then I saw a scary man coming down a trail carrying a big pot. That’s when I realized that Santa was actually Larry Wells. He had traveled a long distance to celebrate Christmas with us, bringing us pork chops and stockings. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better Christmas…Larry Wells is a hero…To give your heart to anything for 30 years takes a strong commitment and passion, but to give your life and your soul to something for so long takes a genuine Love that Larry Wells carries and shares so well. I admire him, his beautiful wife Karen, his family, and Wilderness Quest for all that they have given to my family and myself. It’s hard for me to put into words, but the least I can say is “Happy Anniversary, Larry!” and thanks.”

Rebecca Anderson, Salmon Idaho: 
“In June of 1972, I worked for Larry Wells. We took 21 students on a 30-day wilderness survival trip. Most were dropouts and would get credit towards graduation. 

We began in the middle of the night, miles from nowhere, with only the clothes we were wearing, telling them their personal belongings would be waiting at the base camp, a short hike away. Of course they didn’t know it was at least a three days’ hike; after all no one gets stranded in the wilderness, all prepared. The shock of the experience is very real. After hiking for two more days without food, we were a short distance from the base camp, but first we had to cross the river. Unfortunately, that summer the Salmon River was at record highs and the place we had planned to cross was too treacherous. 

Now we were cold tired and hungry and REALLY stranded!   We sent a guide back the same way we came, set up a very crude camp, and began to really “survive,” waiting for help to arrive. It turned out the main road had washed out in several places and we had no way of reaching the base camp. The students were great; most of them pulled together, picking berries, stinging nettles and digging roots. Then one of the guys came running, having found pods on some bushes. They were great, about the size of a grape and green in color, but they tasted more like a cucumber.  At the time we really thought we were in “hog heaven”. Those little pods saved our lives...er .. at least “took the edge off”.   No one knew what they were...but we ate them anyway. 

The next day a plane flew over, dropping 3 parachutes with supplies. I never forgot about those pods.   For years I looked in books, asking everyone what they were.  Finally someone told me that in the 80’s they “discovered” a plant in Salmon National Forest that was a new species.  A Botanist agreed, saying it was the only known place in Idaho where it was found. It is now on the endangered species list. Gee....we had no idea that we were eating an endangered plant, we thought it was manna from God.  And I still do! Thanks, Larry Well, for using the wilderness to help people rediscover the real values in life; you’ve helped a lot of lives.”

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