May 4, 2005, 15:43

By: John Brekke, Director
Wilderness Treatment Center
Marion, Montana

With the survey that Woodbury Reports Inc., sent out on the therapists in the woods and the recent article by Educational Consultant Larry Stednitz, on the same subject, I realized that we know very little about the history of therapeutic wilderness programs, specifically those that deal with chemical dependency. After a discussion with Lon, I agreed to put down on paper my knowledge of our history which is limited to my personal experience.

In l977, under a Federal grant, I was asked to initiate a drug and alcohol program at the Swan River Youth Forest Camp, a minimum-security institution for males l4-25 years old. Nestled between two wilderness areas, Mission Mountain Wilderness to the west and the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the east, Swan River was located in the Swan Valley in Montana. This population was incarcerated, uneducated, had no job skills, no family support and afflicted with the disease of addiction.

If the program was to be successful with this population, I felt it would take an extraordinary effort. In l978, another staff member and I attended a l0-day Outward Bound Program on the Green River. This group of people were brought together to develop a therapeutic curriculum for wilderness programs. My emphasis was specific to chemical dependency in a correctional facility. This trip confirmed my belief that a true wilderness experience, one that takes us beyond the trailhead into the wild country with no roads or phones, precipitates the greatest change.

It was in l979 when the term adventure based counseling was first used in print (Lee Gillis, PhD Feb 2005).

One of the most common themes in chemically dependent (CD) adolescents/ young adults, then and now, is the issue of self-esteem. Most CD adolescents/ young adults had no success in life to fall back on, once they were in recovery. Since we already knew that the Minnesota Model of treatment was recognized as the most successful model for recovery, I focused on implementing Outward Bound's self-esteem success with the success of the Minnesota Model of treatment. So in reality I combined two proven programs and implemented them at the Swan River Youth Forest Camp. As a certified chemical dependency counselor, I had approximately 20 wilderness trips between l978-l983 with the residents at the camp. This program was showing a very good recovery rate and was featured under "Hoods in the Woods" articles in numerous publications. When my grant was terminated the State of Montana picked up the expense of the program, but as State government can, they soon started to limit the length of trips, which I felt would eventually hurt the effectiveness of the program. I started looking to develop my own program in early 1981. It concerned me that I could not find any program in the country that was utilizing therapists in the field treating chemical dependency.

From my time at the correctional facility, I knew this philosophy was effective and actively sought investors for a program. I was a therapist, not a businessman. I did not care if it was for profit or non-profit. I just wanted to offer this program to Montana kids prior to them being incarcerated.

On August 20, l983, Wilderness Treatment Center opened its doors. We were licensed for l2 beds and patients started arriving on the first day. I was invited to participate in a curriculum building wilderness trip with Paul Petzoldt legendary mountaineer, environmentalist and founder of National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in l984. This trip was a two week climb of the Grand Teton with l6 participants. We were identified as the top l6 outdoor experiential leaders in the country. Paul was now the founder and head of Wilderness Education Association (WEA). The majority were professors from different colleges, who were developing curriculum and degrees in Outdoor Education for their universities.

We had been open one year when Hurricane Island Outward Bound contracted with Beech Hill Hospital in New Hampshire to provide an Outward Bound experience with the Minnesota Model of Recovery. This program ran for approximately five years before closing in the late 80's. Also during this time, Spirit Lake Treatment Center used the Wilderness Treatment Center (WTC) treatment model. Spirit Lake Treatment Center was an all girls facility in Spirit Lake, ID that stayed open approximately three years. In addition, Circle S in Leavenworth, WA utilized the WTC model for a number of years prior to closing in about l990.

From l984 until present, we have utilized the curriculum of WEA as an integral part of our l6-2l day wilderness expedition. I believe our history at WTC has been well documented. We were selected for the book "l00 Best Treatment Centers in the Country," featured in NBC Nightly News, written up in National Geographic and featured on the national TV documentary "Over the Influence" by the producers of "Scared Straight."

In the last 2l years, 98 percent of all wilderness trips had licensed addiction counselors on the entire l6-2l day expedition. Our counselors participate in four-to-five wilderness expeditions a year, with the other instructors being professional wilderness instructors.

Hopefully this will help shed light on a small part of our history in the wilderness therapy arena.

Today "wilderness" and "therapy" or "therapist" covers a broad brush of situations. As the field of wilderness therapy develops, I believe we still need to clarify what is meant by "wilderness" and what are the qualifications required for someone doing therapy in the field.

[Editors Note: Although Hurricane Island Outward Bound discontinued working with at-risk teens in the late 1980s, they recently returned to the at-risk network, serving youth ages 14-17 and 18-21.]

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