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The Healing Power of Wilderness

By Jeff Berens
 

An important part of our unique life-affirming program is the wilderness experience. On our recent December trek, the team had to brave the harsh winter conditions of the Rocky Mountains. 
 
Weeks before they venture into the wilderness, clients build up grit and stamina by living and working on our ranch. It’s the kind of life that demands hard work and problem-solving skills. It also requires integrity, honesty, and courage—core values to sustain a life free from addiction.
 
The ranch experience provides the foundation for the next step: a wilderness expedition. Led by trained wilderness recovery specialists, this outdoor experience is designed to challenge and inspire. The young men gain confidence and find out how resilient they really are, while they are exposed to the full healing power of the majestic Rocky Mountains. 
 

The route of the wilderness trek is carefully planned and clients spend quite some time preparing—especially this time of the year. A typical trek will take them over 17–25 miles in a week in mountainous—and in the winter, snowy and freezing—terrain. They need to be able to haul 40–60 pounds of equipment, not an easy task if you’re hiking in snowshoes. For a winter trek in Colorado, they need to learn how to dress in layers to stay warm and dry.

Our December trek team took along a kitchen tent and a cooking stove. In the evenings, they dug out sitting benches and after the strenuous hike in the snow, starch-rich nutrition like jerky and pasta was most welcome. The sleeping bags they brought along, kept them warm, even in the very cold climate around here. 
 
A hike like that doesn’t leave any time to get bored and succumb to drug and alcohol cravings. But there is time to grow. Like a marathon, a wilderness trek strengthens the body and gives the mind the joy of achievement. 
 
Nature Heals
 
Outdoor activity tends to muster the healing power of nature. There is a lot of evidence showing that spending time in nature causes measurable beneficial changes in the body. In one study, a Japanese researcher at Chiba University found that people who spent 40 minutes walking in a cedar forest had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, compared with spending 40 minutes walking in a lab. 
 
Our winter wilderness treks are a bit more challenging than a walk in the park, though, but the bigger the challenge, the greater the reward. Clients begin the trek at Camp Hope, an outpost of canvas tents that serves as a base camp for the expeditions into the surrounding hills and mountains. The December trek required different gear and supplies than hikes in the summer. 
 
On wilderness treks, the young men practice the art of living with the land. They learn how to climb and traverse with safety and confidence. They experience overcoming obstacles and supporting one another on the trek. Learning to lead and to give back are also significant parts of the wilderness experience. More experienced clients mentor newcomers but importantly, they also prepare for their solo trek. 
 
Although never completely out of sight of the trek supervisors, the solo trek can be a transformational path of self-discovery. At this stage, clients have acquired the skills and mentality needed to take care of themselves in the wilderness. The remarkable physical and psychological changes that began with their arrival at Three Strands are now reaching their full potential. Solitude is a state that allows people to experience their spiritual unity with the natural environment.
 
Three Strands is all about hope, grit, and healing. First, we allow our clients to hope that there is a better life beyond being addicted to drugs and alcohol. Then we develop the grit that allows them to heal. For us, grit means having the courage and resolve to stay your course in the face of challenging adversity. 

Hope. Grit.

Healing.