Riding Life’s River – Wilderness Instructor in Training

 

With the turning of the tide, we hold on and ride…

Greetings from the woods! Much has happened in the last several months. I eagerly applied for, hoped for, and was offered a new job. We went through all of our belongings, tried to figure out what we really need, and packed the rest into countless boxes headed for storage and Goodwill. D and I left our respective teaching jobs and moved Up North. We took advantage of our last long summer, celebrated with family, traveled, and checked a few more National Parks off our list. We settled in to our transitory stay at the place that was my first portal to the natural world, our family cabin in Northern Wisconsin. I started a new position as a Wilderness Field Instructor at New Vision Wilderness LLC, a Wilderness Therapy Program in Northern Wisconsin. I will continue to share our experiences at the National Parks of course, but inkinthebranches is an evolving entity, a shifting reflection of life’s adventures.

 

September 17th, 2014

As I recall the last 9 days, I sit before a serene and shimmering lake. In the bay the maple trees are blushing fierce red and orange, fading into gold. On the opposite shore, pine trees stand resolutely green. A large picture window frames this view of the birthplace of my relationship with the wilderness. It’s surreal to me that D and I are living in the cottage on the lake that from the age of four on has allowed me a personal connection to nature. This is where my family would refuge from the city to admire and experience the North Woods of Wisconsin. To wake up here today and to be “home” feels incredible…      

 

* * * * *

Sept 8th, 2014

Day 1 – Wilderness Field Instructor Training 

D and I woke early to make coffee before I embarked on my new adventure. Five days of training, then my first four days in the woods. The sun beamed a pink hue across the lake, the morning fog slowly dissipating over the still surface. D called to me from the living room, instructing me to move quickly but smoothly to the picture window. A Great Blue Heron stood on the shore beside the pier. One long slender leg stood straight, the other bent at a 45-degree angle, slowly extended forward, then paused in midair. His head cocked slightly to the right, tipping his long beak down toward the water. I whispered in awe to D as we watched the svelte creature stalk the shallows. We have seen many Great Blue Heron here over the years, but mostly in the channels between lakes, never right on our shoreline. It felt like a message to me, a sendoff from loved ones gone by wishing me luck and sending me positive energy and strength as I headed into the woods. I have always felt a strong connection to birds. Their presence feels significant, even intimate at times. The summer after my grandmother passed away a docile white goose spent several days waddling this same shoreline and pecking purposefully across the yard. She wove through my family members as we watched incredulously. We all knew it was my grandmother, saying hello in a voice we knew well. Ducks and geese still roost within the cottage walls; a line of mallards and mergansers boarder the bathroom wall, while demure duck needle point and goose shaped pillows migrate through the bedrooms. This Great Blue Heron felt just as familiar, yet grander, like a celebration, welcome, or ceremony.

heron nvw

Great Blue Heron on the pier! Photo by D.R.J.

My backpack stood upright and ready in the living room, pockets stuffed and straps tightened. I swung the weight up and onto my back and headed out the door. D sent me off feeling confident and ready to start work.

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Me and my rig on my first day! Photo by D.R.J.

 

It’s about a two-hour drive to the New Vision lodge and field area from the cottage and the most beautiful commute I have ever had. (I’ll take two hours through the woods over one hour in bumper-to-bumper city traffic any day!) I also enjoy having the drive to drink my coffee and listen to music as I ease myself into the day. I found great comfort and inspiration listening to a track by Jack White that I had listened to on my way into my observation interview last April:

“…I started climbing upwards, taking one step at a time. The higher I got, the harder I climbed…”

from “Great High Mountain” – Jack White

The slow melody twisted along the road, the morning light braiding herself into the shadows of the swaying birch and pine. I made the final turn toward the NVW lodge and repeated the song one more time.

 * * * * *

Day 1 of training consisted of reading policy and procedure manuals near a small lake in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. After a long day of reading and asking questions, new trainees were on our own the evening. We had the option of camping at the training location, which was my plan. As the other trainees set off for the nearby town in search of various needs, I set up my tent and rigged up my fishing rod for a few casts in the lake. After losing my lure in the lily pads, I set myself up on the partially submerged dock and wrote in my journal…

 

5:30 pm – I feel like this experience is going to teach me a lot about myself as well as the outdoors. About quiet introspection, the gift of calm meditation, quiet observation, and being silent with the self… The last few milkweed seeds cling to the shriveled pod shell protruding from the cattails and reeds. A small green and brown spider has spread her web across the pod mouth, the expanse of her home no wider than a few inches. Getting used to not taking pictures of everything while I am out in the woods may be a challenge for me. I will just have to enjoy these moments of beauty and wonder and record them with words and memory – realize that all the time and everywhere, natural existence carries on. The sun glows the underside of the lily pads emerald and Kelly green. Each white water lily is in various stages of enveloping for the night. The warm sun feels excellent on my skin, but fall is beating down the door. The shadows seem to know as they reach far beyond their stature, like they are holding on for the last go ‘round. The golden hour of evening shines as brightly as she can while the grasses and leaves are still alive to feel the warmth…  

 

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I spent the night camped near the small lake. I listened to barred owls hoot and yelp through the night and woke to the distant yawping of hunting dogs being run for the approaching bear season.

 * * * * *

Day 2-5 – Wilderness Field Instructor Training 

For the next four days I was immersed in the particular training required to become a Wilderness Field Instructor in a Therapeutic Wilderness Program. A combination of lectures, scenarios, Powerpoints, discussions, and hands-on practice filled the hours of each day. I was almost giddy with the glow of new information. I felt like I was in school again, my brain acute, my hand flying across my page scribbling notes and questions. One aspect of this job that has excited me since I first applied for the position was the opportunity I would have to learn. The environment at NVW is one that tries to encourage staff growth, development, and education. Everyone seems open and eager to learn, seek the expertise of others, and share their own knowledge with those who want to know. Every day was a barrage of fascinating information and intriguing people.

The training ranged broadly from focusing on building of relationships, to therapeutic practices, to trauma-informed care, to psychological and scientific studies of the development of the brain and much, much more.

Each section of training directly linked back to the NVW vision, core values, and mission. Some key resources and interesting sections of training include

The Institute of HeartMath

Quick Coherence

Executive Function in Teens

Building Rapport

Tools for Resistance Intervention

Attunement

The Relational Model

The Five Love Languages

CPI Nonviolent Crisis Intervention

Hazardous Tree Identification (not the text used but a helpful link to the USDA Forest Service approach to the subject)

Trauma-Informed Care

Trauma and the Brain

(New Vision Wilderness LLC retains copyright to the organization of training methods and practices utilized within employee training. The above list does not necessarily reflect the exact text of New Vision Wilderness LLC Training Practices. The attitudes or beliefs expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of New Vision Wilderness LLC.)

 

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Training equipment and rigs lined up on the porch of the NVW Lodge

 

Lake behind the NWV Lodge.

Lake behind the NWV Lodge.

 

Two other staff in training working on bow drilling skills.

Two other staff in training working on bow drilling skills.

Training Camp

Training Camp

 

* * * * *

 

Day 5 – Wilderness Field Instructor Training/Field Transition

The final day of training, I transitioned straight into the field.   I was scheduled to work with a staff I had meet during the observation phase of my application, which I was excited about. As I drove to the trailhead though, I felt my stomach shudder and my nerves twinge.   Excited, nervous, confident, and eager, all at once, I knew I needed to take a deep breath to refocus. I called on the training I had just been through and lead myself through Quick Coherence. My body relaxed, my nerves loosened, and my mind cleared.   I felt refreshed, focused, and prepared. I arrived at the trailhead to meet the staff who would hike me in to camp. I strapped myself into my pack and followed my staff guide through the soggy Chequamegon. Several days of rain deepened each step in the soft forest ground. We snaked through slouching cedars and mossy mounds of partially decayed plant matter and roots. Hundreds of ferns reached their wide fronds up from the nutrient-rich floor. They nodded as my legs brushed the green bursts lining the trail. I could hear a river nearby, but could not see the water yet. Droplets of an earlier rain fell from the leaves above, ticking and tacking on the plants and ground below while the suction of mud to our boots kept steady time. We slogged swiftly through the dimming light of day toward camp. As we approached, I heard a fire crackling and smelled the rich copper sweetness of browed butter. A staff (one of NVW’s founders, actually) brought the group I was about to join fresh mushrooms he harvested along the trail to add to the dinner of beans and rice. The smoke from the fire billowed and hung around the camp. I set up my tent and joined the chow circle. My first day of work had begun.

Day 6 – In the Woods 

My co-staff and I had gone to bed with the expectation of frost this morning. I slept somewhat fitfully; the combination of trying to sleep lightly in case a student called out during the night, the fact that I was camped on a wide knot of roots in order to correctly position myself for the safety and observation of students, and the seemingly endless exchange between two barred owls in the darkness made for a continual in-and-out of consciousness. I could see my breath as I moved quietly in my tent, donned my layers, and prepared for the day. (If there is one thing you learn when you are working outside it is that the key to staying comfortable is learning the glory of layers!) I was pleased to unzip my tent flap to sunshine beaming down through the thick forest canopy. It was a cool and crisp morning, but there was no frost to be seen. I enjoyed coffee with my co-staff as we conferred on the day ahead and watched the morning thaw. A hiking day was before us, group movement from this riverside camp to a creek side camp about 2 miles away. The morning routine of wake up, job line up, retrieve bear bags, and breakfast took place. Each client starts the day with a new role, camp jobs that rotate through the group:

Leader of the Day (L.O.D.) – leads daily camp routine and hikes

Fire Marshall – campfire safety and fire maker

Cook – chooses and prepares all the meals

Green – carries garbage when hiking, collects any trash, throws the bear rope nightly and brings down bear bags in the morning

Clean –dishwashing pays extra attention to Leave No Trace practices

Aqua – in charge of daily water collection, reminds group to stay hydrated

Spirit Rocker – keeps up camp spirits and encourages peers

(New Vision Wilderness LLC)

L.O.D. lead the group in Quick Coherence at the bear bags and then we headed to our camp for breakfast, to break camp, and to pack up for today’s hike. As we prepared for group movement, a student who held little confidence in her ability to hike began to express her reticence at the task for the day.

A challenge of any wilderness work is the factor of the wilderness itself affecting any action or activity of the day. This can work in your favor and make for amazing experiences. This can teach lessons that can only be rendered by environment. This can also prove to be the biggest challenge of the moment at hand. The further challenge of wilderness therapy is that this all takes place in a treatment setting, or the “therapeutic milieu”. Combine this with the fact that as a Wilderness Instructor I am actually living day in day out with students for eight days at a time, in the north woods of Wisconsin. Countless issues can arise at anytime, day or night, and cannot always be anticipated. The strong working relationship and excellent communication between the wilderness staff team is key to successfully dealing with any situation. After working with my co-staff once before on my observation, we already had some understanding of one another and seemed to have established clear communication between us. Once camp was packed and swept, I took up the front staff position to begin our movement down trail.

 

Our hike moved at a choppy, rough pace as we stopped every few minutes to loud protests of “ I can’t do it! I CAAAAAN’T! I’m not strong enough!” I hiked behind the protests, meeting them encouraging words of optimist and confidence. We moved a few more steps and suddenly lurch forward as we stopped again. “It huuuurts! I can’t!!” It’s true. The packs are heavy. Hiking can hurt. Each student must carry their own hiking bag with their tents, cloths, and personal belongings. They also must divide up the group gear (tarps, stoves, cooking pots, water dromedaries) between them along with the bear bags filled with food. Staff also carries their own packs with their full rig plus group gear that cannot be carried by the students like fuel, sharps, medication and first aid, etc. Wilderness Therapy is different than other types of treatment as the physical challenges meet the emotional and mental challenges of in-depth treatment. This is part of what makes it so fantastic. Everyone must face and confront the basic challenges of living as well as healing. We make our food and water everyday. We create our own shelter. We learn how to function as individuals as well as how to contribute to a group. We learn how to survive in the wilderness, which of course, involves movement, struggle, change, weather, and yes, hiking. Hike days always have the potential to be a challenge.

 

The hike continued in this staccato manner, the voice of self-doubt gaining volume with each step. It became a test of everyone’s patience and ability to encourage. This trial of my wherewithal as a new Wilderness Instructor was only surpassed by this student’s own intent dedication against herself. I have never seen someone perjure themselves so absolutely, so vehemently, and so stubbornly. As she walked, she said that she could not walk. As she hiked, she insisted she could not hike. As she moved, she protested that she could not move. The two-mile hike took a total of four hours.

We finally made it to the banks of creek opposite the campsite we were aiming for. The bridge was washed out and the creek coursed along the banks. Could it be waded across? A cold snap still hung in the air despite the sun beaming through the opening in the trees. The water was moving swiftly. To wade across meant to be wet. It meant cold. It meant the possibility of lost gear. It meant an unnecessary safety risk. Wading across would be an absolute last resort, one that my co-staff and I were not ready to resign to. My co-staff went on ahead up stream to look for a place to cross. Though it would mean being wet, cold, and likely miserable, the students all individually came to the conclusion that they “just wanted to walk across”. Of course, we would not allow that unless it was absolutely necessary, which was unlikely. This is a perfect example one of the many responsibilities of a Wilderness Field Instructor: to keep the students safe. My co-staff’s voice crackled through my radio.

“Please repeat,” I ventured.

“Lead them along the creek, the direction I headed, but be sure to go wide – it’s all stinging nettle along the water. Have them keep their arms up when possible,” she responded.

“Copy,” I said, turning to the students. “Keep your arms up and follow me.”

I lead the way through the dense vegetation along the bank of the creek. We slogged through the muck, pushing aside the trees and vines that wove a thick barrier to our path. I brushed a spread of stinging nettled with my hand and jumped at the sting.

“Ahg! Keep your arms up. Watch your step.”

Our trailblazer responded Marco Polo style as we reached toward the sound of her voice. She waited on the opposite bank, at the end of a long, thick tree trunk. She gestured at the bridge she found and instructed the students to carefully sidle sideways across. “What if I fall in?” someone asked.

“Then you’ll get wet,” she said.

The tree was more than wide enough for each student to reach the other side safely. Now it was up to them to take a measured risk. Each student inched sideways along the tree trunk, balancing precariously against the weight of their stuffed packs, each adorned with swinging bear bags and strapped with group gear. After everyone made it safely across and I followed last. Soon we were setting camp for the night.

 

One way we as wilderness staff make sure we are also cared for out in the field is taking “breaks” when it is possible. After my co-staff took her break, I was able to remove myself to a mossy patch not far from camp to journal and reflect on the last 24 hours

 

…Last night I listened to the barred owls call back and forth in the darkness. One was so loud I swear it was perched right above my tent. The companion responded from somewhere beyond the gully adjacent camp. The owls conversed with enthusiasm. The outgoing call began as recognizably owl, the deep hoot-hoot a hollow echo of itself. The response shrieked and yelped, jungle-like in its high volume and pitch. The strange sound ascended from short howls to a vibrating, guttural squawk. The nocturnal discourse continued as I shifted between sleep and bleary wakefulness. The owls visited my dreams, perching on ledges, branches, and peaks. They watched me as I maneuvered through illogical dream logic. I marveled at their presence. Their wide eyes followed me without moving. I felt awe and respectful fear met with intense curiosity. The landscape changed and I moved with it…

 My body is radiating an earnest ache. This job will challenge me and I am happy about that. As I enjoy my break in the day I can feel moss beneath my fingers. The sun is casting shafts of light across the forest floor. The squirrels chatter and clamor in the branches as I lean against a partially decayed stump. I inhale the rusty scent of damp earth and crisp plant matter. Fall has arrived for certain…

 

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Break time – hiking boots off!

 

I headed back to camp. Dinner was couscous-macaroni and cheese with pepperoni and carrots. Students are required to include a starch, protein, and vegetable with each meal. Sometimes this can bring interesting results, but staff is always present to confirm nutritional requirements are fulfilled. Chow and evening check-in, followed by campfire chat with my co-staff. This is our chance to process the day, complete paperwork, prepare for the following day, and discuss any events. It is also nice to unwind a bit after a long day in the woods.

We discussed our plans. The next day was a stationary day. Any activity will take place in or near our creek side camp. A day, like all days, full of necessary activities. Bear rope. Breakfast. Check in. Individual field showers. Physical health checks. Time to work on assignments: Education. Therapy. Mastery. We confirmed our timing and headed to our tents…

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