What it’s like being a Wilderness Therapy Field Guide
(Picture: May 2022 Open Sky Wilderness Therapy Field Guide New Hires)
Sometimes we tell ourself we’re going to do something and then don’t 🛑. This is the opposite case for me when I told myself to try wilderness therapy field guiding.
I heard of a friend being a wilderness therapy guide and found it fascinating. I then remembered my ex-boyfriend from high school went to Open Sky Wilderness Therapy in Colorado. Many years later I find myself working there today!
Why I Applied
After spending roughly two years getting to know myself it only felt right to give back - you can only fill your cup so much. Getting to know myself involved having a safe space I call home, journaling A LOT about how I was actually doing, stretching everyday (even while watching tv), and drinking tulsi tea to calm my nervous system.
After being the assistant database administrator at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area I realized not even snowboarding + computers could save me from the fact that computer science was no longer my passion. That job was my final straw and last goodbye to the computer world.
It started to make sense why I’d choose field guiding. My next job had to have the following criteria: social (human) work, something outside and something that encompassed mind + body + spirit. I picked up snowboard instructing to test the ropes and work on my people skills in an environment that felt safe to me. Once the season ended I applied to Open Sky.
How I chose Open Sky Wilderness Therapy
I googled every wilderness therapy program in the U.S. and reviewed them all to see what they had to offer. Out of all the programs, Open Sky was the only program to truly emphasize meditation, yoga and journaling on top of regular therapy. Moreso, they also adopted the base camp model so there is always a place to come back to, compared to some places that kept their operations solely in the wild. These two factors heavily influenced my decision, so I applied, got the interview, got the job (All over the course of 2 months).
What‘s it like?
1. Structured (yet never the same) days
My day to days change often in how their structured, but the main morning jist is to wake the kids up (sometimes in song, sometimes with a drum, or a simple good morning), check their gear, breakfast, hygiene, yoga/meditation and hike. The afternoon could involve a number of activities like bow drilling to make a coal for the fire, wooden spoon carving, or a therapeutic group put on by the students given from their therapist - just to name a few. Then, there is dinner prep, group dinner, camp chores and hygiene again.
(Picture: My wooden spoon I hand carved during orientation)
A rather simple structure to follow which allows for deviations in behavior to present themselves in many different forms. For some students although the task is easy they have a hard time meeting the timer we set for them. For others, they may have constant self-defeating thoughts when trying to bust a coal during bow drilling. Although we’re not asking too much throughout the day, the student‘s life work presents itself at the fundamental level of survival and from there we can observe and question the struggles.
For the record I am not their therapist
2. We HELP therapists
I’m not a therapist. Nor am I trained to be. My job is more along the lines of are students eating enough, sleeping enough, drinking enough water and expressing themselves in a healthy way. If I notice any of these aspects are off then I will curiously approach them to help try and address it. Sometimes students are so caught up in their “dragons” there is not much a guide can do, so we offer them to try a coping skill and check back on them later to see how they’re doing.
At some point you can’t rescue everyone all the time when they’re down. People have to learn to get out of their own shit more often than not. No one can really help you but YOU. 3. You grow as a person
There‘s something magical about having to stay emotionally regulated for your job in order to perform efficiently. From personal experience I’ve found growth in forcing myself to constantly be around people and approach everyone without judgement (separating the behavior from the person).
(Picture: Receiving my Wilderness First Responder certificate)
Non-judgement approach: Separating the behavior from the person
These are two areas of my life that I currently struggle with. I’d rather isolate myself from everyone and everything as it’s easier than facing how I feel. I’d also rather take guesses as to why someone is the way they are to protect myself instead of approaching them with compassion and curiosity.
Luckily, these two habits of mine are not sustainable if I want to keep the job so I’m forced out of my comfort zone to show up as I am. And if I’m feeling vulnerable, sad, apathetic, whatever, I work in a space where sharing how you feel is accepted and appreciated to let others know where you’re at in the moment.
4. You disconnect from technology and rely on nature more
The students are not allowed to have their phones while in the program and the guides follow a similar pattern. Our phones are kept in a lock box and we can access them for 1 hour a day UNLESS we are out trekking on our expedition. That being said, roughly 4/7 days a week we do not use our phone. Personally, I like this time away from my phone as it reminds me nothing is really that important and everything I need to feel safe and comfortable are not in a hand held device. Instead, I seek out other modes of pleasure like talking to others, carving my own spoon, playing guitar, active meditation, etc….
To close, guides get paid (~$210/day) to be themselves. To be a role model of compassion, vulnerability, physical/mental/emotional well being, patience and kindness. This role modeling doesn't always happen, but I’ve learned taking accountability for your actions and letting others know where you’re at emotionally is one of the safest ways to keep your team together. No one is expecting you to be perfect, but they are expecting you to be authentic and raw. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you’re thinking about a job/career shift that involves being outdoors I highly recommend looking into wilderness therapy field guiding. The job is challenging, but just as much rewarding.