Thursday, June 11, 2009

Back From the Wild

I recently returned from my first 8 day shift (and hiatus from blogging) as a field guide with a local wilderness therapy organization here in Utah. For those unfamiliar, the wilderness therapy industry is made up of organizations -- private, non-profit, and corporate branches -- which treat clients with behaviorial and substance-abuse issues by removing them from civilization and plopping them in the desert or woods or mountains for several weeks of backpacking and therapeutic work. Field guides (like me) in these programs backpack with a group of 2-10 clients (both teens and adults) for a period of 8 days at a time in the wilderness with 6 days off between shifts. If you're a guide like me, you do it all in homemade tire sandals (see picture). The particular program that I now work for specializes in addictions of all kinds, incorporating a 12-Step model (i.e. Alcoholics Anonymous) as the centerpiece of their approach.

In addition to this, primitive living skills are utilized and encouraged as important metaphors. A fire-by-friction bow-drill, for example, provides clients with an opportunity to interact with their surroundings in a practical and creative way to make fire for cooking, warmth, and comfort. When a client has met such a challenge, the accomplishment can be a significant confidence-builder, supporting the difficult recovery from addiction as the client says, "Hey! I just made fire with sticks! Maybe I do have the ability to stop using drugs." Other skills include general backpacking know-how (tarps, sleeping gear, cooking, etc.), caring for pack llamas (yes, each group has a few of these disgustingly lovable creatures), and wayfinding in the wilderness.

Of course, as someone who has a keen eye for nutrition and how it relates to health, I observed the foods being eaten by both the field guides and clients in the program. To my surprise, the foods weren't all that bad. Aside from the typical wheat products (and the potentially problematic gluten therein), I was pleased to see that each client was given a pound of cheese every four days, tuna, fresh meat once a week, and mostly starchy carbohydrates (the sole exceptions being dried fruit, sweetened granola, and "gookinaid" -- a powdered, sugary, electrolyte drink). The group foods included a pound of butter. Questionable foods that one might lump under the "good-not-great" category included: peanut butter with hydrogenated palm oil, spam, and "instant" refried beans.

While this wilderness therapy program isn't tailored to incorporate nutritional therapy, they do so without knowing it by providing the clients with a low-fructose diet. This in and of itself can go a long way towards restoring health, in my opinion. With such a diet, as well as the daily physical activity of backpacking and camping, I found the clients to be quite stable, even those coming off of hard drugs like heroin.

That's not to say that things couldn't be better. I'm a big believer in the power of nutritional therapy and would love to see some use of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Particularly for a population like addicts and alcoholics who are in a physically depleted and/or unbalanced state, it would be great refuel their bodies and alter their addictive brain chemistry with the help of supplements. As for food, it would be ideal if clients had access to pemmican (which I personally made and brought out for myself), more fresh meat, and perhaps some fresh raw milk, cheese, cream and butter -- all preferably from grass-fed animals. Supplying digestible, low-toxin foods (such as white rice) and eliminating many of the canned meats and commonly allergenic foods (such as wheat) might help immensely as well. A wilderness therapy program that incorporates these things could be far more successful in terms of graduating clients' continuing sobriety. With such results, the program might be more financially stable as it attracts publicity and recommendations due to its higher success rates.

One such program -- the only one in existence that I know of -- is Open Sky Wilderness Therapy based in Durango, Colorado. These folks have a constant flow of clients. Why? A big reason is their use of all organic and grass-fed foods -- something that people look for nowadays with all the media attention and rising popularity of such products. (*cough* Michael Pollan *cough*) To me, this attention to quality nutrition is the wave of the future in wilderness therapy, and I am hearing more and more talk about it. However, from what I gather from others who have worked with Open Sky, my only criticism is their minimal use of animal products (little to no meat and a lot of rice or quinoa or beans in group stews with little added butter or coconut oil is common -- check out their food menu) and their belief in unprocessed "whole foods," which means nutrient-robbing toxins bound up in whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans aren't eliminated during cooking. Phytates for breakfast, anyone?

1 comment:

Jake of Flagstaff said...

you should send this to the wildernace rehab place. great stuff look foward to hearing from you again. Scarsaty is an illusion.