Visit by Lon Woodbury May 18, 2009
The big news while I was there was that Larry Wells was back. Larry is one of the pioneers in wilderness programming for struggling young people. He started doing this work in the 1960s and has continued his wilderness work with struggling young people ever since. He founded Wilderness Quest (WQ) in 1988 and it has been operating continuously ever since.
Four years ago he sold Wilderness Quest, planning to retire. However, the new owners ran into difficulties and there were several changes in leadership. To get the program back on track, the board this May asked Larry back as Executive Director. The plan is for him to upgrade and better focus the programming, train the staff in "Larry's Way,' and once WQ is back on track, hire a new Executive Director and move into a supportive or consultant role.
Part of my visit was to go out in the field and meet some of the students. We found one of the groups, and we gathered on a sand dune under a tree for a long open discussion. WQ has rolling admissions so the students' length of time in the program varied from one being there just a couple of days to a couple students that were on the verge of graduating.
I asked questions such as what had brought them to WQ, what had they received from the program, what part of the program they liked best and what the least. Their responses seemed candid and gave me a good perspective on how the program was working. The newest student, of course, was rather unhappy about the whole thing, which is to be expected, and he didn't contribute much. The others gave answers that showed they had gained insight into their problems. All were polite and cooperative, had good eye contact and acted like they felt "safe" in that environment (except for perhaps the newest kid), looked healthy and like the experience had been good for them and they had gotten a lot out of it. The staff was constantly alert to what all the students were doing, both when we arrived, during our talk, and as we left.
WQ is a six to eight week program with a minimum stay of 50 days. Addiction is one of the major issues they address using a unique 12-step focus they have developed. They use 12-step language partly because being familiar with that will facilitate their transition back into society. Each group consists of six to eight students with two or three staff with the students at all times. They use an expedition type model, with the students hiking five-six days a week. Thus there is the constant challenge of learning the responsibilities of setting up camp, tying a pack properly, preparing the fire and campsite along with preparing and cooking the food. All of these are good exercises in learning how to work cooperatively, a skill most of these young people badly need.
The basic focus of the staff is to facilitate the impact of the wilderness. The key to that is the staff's ability to be aware of and have empathy with what the student is going through. Thus they will be aware of when the student needs some help, encouragement or motivation and can provide the proper interaction. It goes almost without saying that sensitivity standards are high for staff in the field. WQ insists the wilderness impact is greatest when the experiences are real rather than contrived, with the staff providing a safety net for the students. Safety is a priority, with WQ keeping an EMT close by in a trailer for rapid response in case of an emergency.
Debriefing is another key aspect of what WQ emphasizes. It is where the staff must help the student mentally and emotionally process through each experience. In this process, the staff frequently uses metaphors to help the students relate their wilderness experience back to how they have been living their lives. Some professionals feel that at least half the value and learning of a wilderness experience is in the skill of the staff in helping the student debrief.
One activity unique to WQ is the night hike. Over the years WQ has developed this into a sophisticated experience with tremendous impact. Larry explains that this experience, followed immediately by a solo, is the experience most often referenced to by students as the one having the greatest impact. Students report a connection with their higher power most often during this experience. Starting about dusk, each student hikes alone over a well marked trail several miles until about dawn, each student separated by about 15 minutes. Although all students spend the whole hike alone, they are tracked and observed by staff. There are also a number of additional safety measures.
To magnify their experience after the night hike, they go immediately into a three day and two night solo. Larry reports that this is probably the most powerful 72 hour experience of their entire stay at WQ.