Ramblings of a Recovering Wilderness Guide

written by Kelly Bauer, a.k.a. Nova Sunrise

The temperature is hovering at zero. We huddle around a wood burning stove, a luxury granted to us since the temperatures will certainly reach well below zero tonight. A client is out using the latrine but has been gone a while. I walk over to the canvas tarp and hear in the distance:

“Nova!” “Nova!”

Shoot.

In the desert, we were given “Earth Names”, and I am Nova Sunrise. I am also the lead instructor for this group of teenage girls located over an hour drive from the nearest town.

I throw on my boots as quick as I can and put on a heavy shell. I turn my ears up (jargon for radio) and head off into the spiraling white void. Even with 200 lumens of LED light, the world around me is a swirling mystery. The blizzard combined with the light of my headlamp makes every step disorienting. I turn off my headlamp and crouch.

“Sammy!…Sammy!….MARCO!”

“polo”…..Faintly, I hear her response and I run.

In the couple minutes she has been gone her tracks were completely covered but I blaze through the foot deep snow. There she is, sitting in a drift. Tears streak her face as she looks up at me. I take her hand and we walk back to camp, making new tracks through the falling snow that is already trying to cover our footprints. That night reached well below negative twenty degrees. Hot water-filled canteens stuffed in our bags kept us warm as we slept, impervious to the howling wind around us and the next morning we awoke to a winter wonderland as far as the eye could see. The next morning we packed all our belongings and moved on.

Another day, another hike. Another hike, another campsite. This time without the canvas tent. This time with just tarps. This time we would dig a fire pit with digging sticks cut from juniper boughs and make a fire with our hands. Why? Because this is a hiking program and making fire is therapeutic. So bring on the hiking and let’s make some fire with sticks.

Preparing to filter water from a cow trough.

I worked as a wilderness therapy guide for two years in the juniper-filled high desert of Southwest Utah. Few of us guides were from the southwest but we all grew up
there. We were forced to grow up. The winters defined us. May through October, “Winter is Coming” was our mantra; November through April, we endured. We spent our days melting snow for drinking water and collecting wood to melt that snow. The summers were no better. We could not hike if the temperature was over 90 degrees and by eleven am we were usually stuck. That meant trying to wake teenage boys and girls up early enough to get in a good hike before noon (in addition to drinking a couple quarts of water, hygiene, breakfast and packing camp). Water came from cow troughs warmer than a hot bath and puddles we dug in the mud after the rain. Water was purified using bleach that made everything taste like a swimming pool. The rain was cleansing. Monsoon season guaranteed one 10 minute rainstorm a day. Secure your gear, then sit down and wait for the rain to cleanse your sweat-streaked arms.

The clients were teens and young adults from around the world. They came to us because what they were doing was not working. In therapeutic terms, they were on a developmental vacation. This was exhibited in a number of ways at home; often their behaviors were maladaptive attempts at taking control of some aspect of their lives. The wilderness works because it brings out the best and brings out the worst. There is no hiding in the wilderness. Sometimes clients ran, sometimes they fought, but they also climbed mountains, hiked marathons with full packs and accomplished things they never thought possible. They learned to believe in themselves.

Last month I went back to Utah to work a couple weeks in the woods. Holidays in the field have always been the most rewarding shifts and after a year away I needed to go back. A year working inside was starting to take its toll. I called up Snow Owl, my old staff director, and he said he had a spot for me. I would go into the field December 24th and stay until January 4th. I would spend Christmas and New Years in the Field. These are the journal entries from those weeks. I have abbreviated and changed all names of clients mentioned in this article. I want to share with you why I believe in the wilderness.

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December 24th, 2015

5:00 pm: I’ve been here a couple hours. So far so good. On the drive out I was informed I was going to be the lead instructor of the “Ares” group. This means that each client is assigned to their own separate site. They sleep with the group under a single tarp but during the day they have their own shelters and fire pits that they are supposed to maintain and eat by. This can happen as an intervention, they’ve been fighting or some other maladaptive behavior.

“Have any of them been restrained?”, I asked the field director driving me out.

Long pause, “…..all of them”

“oh….for violence or running?”

“Violence”.

Man, a year away and right back into it. But a little aggression I can handle. I am not into the idea of tracking a client all night because he decided to make a run for it on Christmas Eve. A little bit of aggression I can deal with.

But so far so good. Their camp is a mess. Their individual campsites are a mess. Tarps are ripped up barely covering their gear. If it snows or rains anytime soon, all their clothes and phasework (a book of camp and therapeutic assignments) will be ruined.  Personal gear is strewn about camp. Food bags are scattered everywhere. The thought of the pack rats combing through this camp at night gives me shivers. Pack rats are fat desert rats that scavenge when we don’t practice leave no trace. I’ve woken to a pack rat on my chest looking for the food a client brought into the shelter.

The field director brought them out fire gear. If they can make a fire, it’s theirs to keep. A constant inner battle as a guide is the fine line between enabling and inspiring. Usually I would say this is enabling but some of these kids have been here for over a hundred days and haven’t been able to make a bow drill fire. This will help them see that they are capable. A bowdrill fire uses a bow cut from a branch of a tree, a spindle cut from sage or yucca, a palm rock etched with a sharper rock and a board cut from a juniper root or large sage branch. A variety of other materials can be used depending on your location. Two of them did get fire. They were so happy. Their eyes lit up with pride. One small step forward.

10:00 pm: Back in my bag. I’ve missed my Mountain Hardwear negative thirty bag. So cozy. Client D tried to take control of the group. By yelling in the shelter and keeping everyone awake he believes he has control. He got out of his bag and started verbally threatening staff while walking towards the wood pile. I used a control hold to escort him to the ground. My costaff took him and I grabbed a mat and sweatshirt to rest his head. There were immediate tears. He de-escalated quickly as demonstrated by a calmed breath and lack of curse words. He and I then stayed up for another hour. For most of that time we sat and stared into the fire together. We talked about how it is difficult to control emotions once we feel anger and how simple things like breathing or verbal reminders from staff can help bring us back to the prefrontal cortex and logically assess the situation. I asked him how staff can help him. If he becomes escalated, we will say “don’t feed into it”.  Without an audience he is different. Just a boy that wants to be heard and has known no other way than through verbally and physically acting out.

December 25, 2015

Christmas

11:30 am: We woke up to 7 inches of snow. Our little A-frame collapsed on us in the night and we woke up with cold tarps on our faces. This morning was good. The clients are happy. They got gifts from their parents, not the things that teenagers ask for these days but gloves, hats and balaclavas to keep them warm. Base brought out sausage, hash browns, eggs and cheese and even dutch ovens to cook it all in. Everyone is in a good mood, I would even say grateful.

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A winter sleeping shelter used in February 2014. On this day wind chill dropped the temperature under 20 degrees below zero during the day.

9:00 pm: We built a circus tent. The winds began picking up and it started snowing again. A circus tent is basically a floating a-frame with tarps sewed along the sides to create a large shelter. Done correctly, they can withstand a blizzard while still being toasty inside. Additional tarps can be added to make sliding “doors” and you can even lash a stick in the “ceiling” to create a chimney for smoke accumulation. The best part about this particular shelter was that they built it using only non-verbal communication. I honestly didn’t think they’d complete it but I thought it’d be a good exercise in group dynamics to process later. They chose client D as their leader and came up with 3 pre-set hand signals to use. “thank you”, “I need help” and “rope” were designated through hand motions. Over the next hour they put up one of the most complex shelters with nothing but hand signals. There was no arguing, yelling or even physical altercations; those were replaced with high fives, clapping for recognition and patient understanding. They need to be set up for success. They need to inspire each other.

December 26, 2015

3:30 am: Just got back into my sleeping bag. 60 mph winds. So cold. Winds tearing down shelter. Fixed the lines in the snow. Emergency blanket wrapped around feet. Clients slept through it. If I had a dollar for every time I fixed a shelter in the middle of the night in a wind/rain/snow storm without the clients knowing…

10:30 am: 60-80 mph winds forecasted through the day. Clients have decided to spend their day in their sleeping bags at their sites. This is why this is the “dysfunctional” group. This is why the wilderness works. The wilderness mirrors our challenges. Our choices define us. They have chosen to ignore their problems today.

December 28, 2015

8:00 pm: Staff change today; I’ve been moved to the girls group. Gemini group. My co-staff is Bluetail Hawk and he’s been lead for a couple months now. He trained with Arctic Crane and I see a lot of her in his style. Crane and I had complementing styles as lead instructors. We used the wilderness as a mirror and followed the “guide not God” principal. As instructors we were no better than the clients. We brought out the same food, used a lot of the same clothes and didn’t bring out excess technology. The more distance between a staff and a client, the more resistance. In my opinion, a staff that’s on their phone, eating poptarts and responds to “why” with “because I’m staff” shouldn’t be staff. As staff, we don’t answer their questions, instead, we pose more questions to help them discover their own answers. We are no better. Like Crane, Bluetail observes without judgement before jumping in, he is not a friend but a guide. This will be a good shift .

The girls range from 13 to 17 which means drama. Only three girls though. They spent their day doing full body (boil water, fill a dromedary, take it into the woods and “shower”) and working on phasework. No conflict and a heck of a lot more functional than the last group.

December 30, 2015

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Petroglyphs

10:00 pm: Day hike to the slot canyons. BEAUTIFUL. Petroglyphs. We talked about the comparison of the messages that petroglyphs convey as opposed to the constant output that they have with social media.  We climbed atop the highest rocks we could find and separated the clients for meditation time. I gave them each a journal assignment to draw their own petroglyph. If they had one chance to pass on who they are, what would they draw? No hashtags, no duckfaces or filters. Around the fire after dinner they shared their sketches. Client M drew footprints growing larger and larger as she discovers herself in the sand. Client N drew a manzanita bush growing out of a rock. The bush is both dead and alive and jagged and beautiful at the same time. Client L drew a tree, she didn’t have much explanation for it. Today was a good day.

January 1, 2016                    

9:00 am: Moving camp today, Mars told me the girls group is functional until it comes to packing. So far, okay. Distracted and a lot of chatting through breakfast but nothing out of the ordinary.

11:30 am: Just finished breakfast. I get what Mars was saying. We’re never getting out of camp.

12:30 pm: They are nowhere close to being ready. Just did a half hour of yoga. That will probably be my activity for the day

3:30 pm: Ready! Holy cow. I had my costaff pick a campsite 25 yards from this site. They don’t know that’s where we’re going. The campsite is cramped and the soil is tough. The goal was to hike to the arches. This is the natural consequence to leaving camp at 3:30 and not having enough daylight to hike.

4:00 pm: We had a small group to process why we’re camping here rather than at the arches. They wasted a day of potential phasework time and day hiking by spending over seven and a half hours eating breakfast, packing their gear and burning down the firepit.

10:00 pm: Starting dinner. The expectation to start dinner is that one of the clients creates a primitive fire by bowdrill. We ended up forgoing that tonight after an hour and a half of bowing. They need to use their time more efficiently during the day. I am so cold. We’ll try this again tomorrow.

January 2, 2016

2:00 pm: Camp is packed. How the heck does it take six hours to take down camp? I’ve had clients eat breakfast and take down full camps with shelters in less than an hour. I have never had a less productive group. I could help, but that would be enabling. As guides we should be mirroring their behaviors. If they show interest and energy towards the task, we will match energy.

9:00 pm: At the new camp.  Client M found matching deer sheds on the hike and gifted me one. I am very grateful. I miss finding campsites. Once you arrive to an area to camp in, one of the instructors heads off into the trees to find the perfect spot. I have always enjoyed this and see it as an art. I learned to choose a campsite from Sunbear. He taught me to always take my time because the consequences otherwise could be significant (like the time I camped in a wash in monsoon season when I was training to be a lead instructor and spent the night awake helping a client dry his sleeping bag after a storm).

This campsite is beautiful. We are tucked into cliffs of red rocks on an island of sand surrounded by a wash of smooth pebbles. We arrived just in time for a glorious sunset that illuminated the rocks behind us and lit the valley ahead of us. There is an arch tucked into the cliffs that we can day hike to. I miss this. I miss finding beautiful campsites. I miss the silence.

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I left the field after 12 days back in the desert. On the ride out, the staff were loud and rambunctious, eager to plan climbing excursions and Vegas trips for their time off. The sound of loud music, chip bags and laughter filled the car. I sat silently in the front seat with the field director. Red rocks and sage fields filled my vision as far as my eye could see.  I already miss it.

Why do we do this? Why do staff return week after week despite the bone-chilling cold and blistering heat? Why do parents send their children to the frozen desert over the holidays? Why do past clients come back ten years later to work as staff?

RRWG_4I see the wilderness as medicine. This can be preventative, as needed, or a requirement just like any other medicine. Our day to day lives revolve around an urban lifestyle. We can easily neglect getting away for the weekend to do the laundry, clean the house or watch one more episode of that show. However, those things will always be there when we get back home. Everyone has a different reason for being outside, sometimes it’s to escape the technology, sometimes to smell the smells and listen to the sounds of nature. Sometimes we go outside to just feel the world around us.

Why do you do it?

Dedicated to: Wild Sockeye, Celestial Tigress, Black Bear, Ahilia, Tempest, Mountain, Blue Ridge Grizzly, Paragon, Lotus, Eagle Storm, Arctic Crane, Mars, Ocean, Sundown,  Yellow Badger, Spirit Panda, Kifaru, Golden Adventuring Sun Bear, Snow Owl, Sun Hawk, Otter, Puma, Dragon, Raven, Laughing Lobo, Eagle Spirit, Wildfire, Cloud Ibex, Konga, and all the other amazing guides I’ve worked with. Thank you.

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