Family Therapy in Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare: Current Practices and Future Possibilities

Contemporary Family TherapyPublished in the Journal of Contemporary Family Therapy, an article about the role of family therapy in wilderness therapy.  Troy really enjoyed writing with Dr. Widmer on this project.  It shows the forward thinking and role that Legacy shows in helping shape the conversation about treatment in experiential treatment settings.


This paper highlights the role of the family in the treatment of youth who attend Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH) programs. It discusses the history of OBH, provides a critical overview of the research on the impact of OBH programs on family functioning, and discusses the importance of increased intentional integration of family therapy into OBH settings. To show this integration, this study presents a case study that highlights the role of the family, as well as the home family therapist throughout the phase of OBH treatment. Areas for future research are provided as well as suggestions for the increased utilization of adventure activities with families.


Outdoor behavioral healthcare Wilderness therapy Adventure therapy Family therapy

The Healing Wilderness: The Legacy Outdoor Adventures Course Area

Fishing Drug and Alcohol RehabLegacy’s course area is comprised of over 2500 square miles of public land administered by the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration.  The lower elevation desert country to the east of Capitol Reef National Park is warmer and dryer than the higher, more mountainous areas in the western part of our course area.

We use the San Rafael and Henry Mountain desert areas more in the winter due to the warmer temperatures and less snow.  It is a great area for canyoneering, hiking, exploring, and observing wild horses and desert bighorn sheep.

We spend most of the summer months in the mountains.  Fishlake, Thousand Lake, and Boulder mountains have over 75 square miles of area at elevations over 11,000 feet.  There are hundreds of small lakes and vast expanses of forest.  Boulder and Thousand Lake are plateaus with rolling hills, patches of timber, and meadows resembling arctic tundra.  Wildlife includes mule deer, elk, and antelope as well as coyotes, bobcats, and even a few bear and mountain lion.  The mountains are great for hiking, fishing, and climbing peaks.

Native Americans have lived in this area for nearly 10,000 years.  Archeological studies have found human artifacts intermingled with the bones of wooly mammoths and extinct camels and horses in desert caves in the area.  There are many locations where we can observe ancient rock art in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs.  It is not unusual to find artifacts when hiking.  Arrowheads, scrapers, pottery shards, and grindstones are reminders that others were here first and had found a way to live in harmony with this amazing land.  When early settlers first arrived in the area in the 1860’s, Native Americans were still practicing a nomadic lifestyle as they had for millennia.

There is power and healing to be found in the wilderness.  A young man seeking refuge from the ravages of substance abuse or addiction can find peace.  Coupled with comprehensive therapy from a master’s level clinician, the wilderness affords space to slow down and re-connect with what really matters in life.  We facilitate weekly adventures such as canyoneering, summiting mountain peaks, fishing, and wildlife viewing.  These fun and engaging activities offer a great deal of support for people trying to make change in their lives.

Mountain Biking for RecoverySeveral of us who work here at Legacy grew up in this area.  These mountains, deserts and canyons shaped us as we matured from the boys that we were then, to men that we are now.  To be able to facilitate a condensed version of that journey for the young men who come to Legacy to work with us is deeply meaningful.  Whether standing on a mountaintop or exiting a challenging canyon that tested us to the core, we find ourselves surrounded by great things that make us feel small and at the same time, small things that make us feel great. We can all benefit from an experience like that.






Legacy Spoon Ceremony

Welcoming struggling teens to wilderness therapyIn 2001 I worked as a wilderness guide in a wilderness recovery program in Utah. There I saw my first hand-carved wooden spoon. It was a beautiful piece of woodwork being used by a fellow guide named Becky. She had been given the spoon as a gift from another guide where she had previously worked. I was an experienced cabinet maker, and had seen and done some nice wood working, but I had never seen a hand carved wooden spoon before. It was made of aromatic red cedar, was elegant, smooth, and oiled to a dark red finish. It was love at first sight.

I began experimenting with my own spoon making abilities, and soon found that my years as a professional cabinet maker were helpful in becoming an expert spoon carver. I quickly found that instead of burning out the bowl of the spoon with hot coals, I could use a gouge from my wood carving set. That instead of smoothing the wood with a stone, I could use a small square of sandpaper, and in place of oiling the wood with peanut butter from the camp supply, a small amount of vegetable oil gave a nice, no mess finish.

I experimented with Red Cedar, which is a nice wood for carving, then moved to dry fallen branches of Quaking Aspen. Utah Juniper was pretty but more challenging.  Then I took a leap to Sage, which is more challenging still, but the amazing color and grain of the wood made the effort worthwhile.

The clients I guided liked the spoons. I taught them how to make their own. Without years of experience and training as professional wood workers, the clients’ spoons were often more utilitarian than elegant. Finding my spoons admired, I began giving them away as gifts to the graduating clients. I would write some personalized encouraging message on the handle, and give them the spoon as they departed the wilderness.

At Legacy, I met Derek, our field director, and saw a new angle on gifting spoons. Derek made a spoon for our first client, with the instruction, “I made this one for you, now you make a spoon for the next guy who comes in.”

And so began the tradition of clients who have already received a spoon themselves make spoons to give new clients upon their arrival in the group. But it didn’t stop there.  Derek then introduced the spoon ceremony. When the team of clients is aware of the imminent arrival of a newcomer, a spoon is carved, usually by one of the senior members of the team. Then within a day of the new arrival, a group is held, always in a circle. The new spoon is displayed, and then passed around the circle, while each team member holds the spoon in turn and tells of his own spoon ceremony and relates the fears he experienced, the concerns he had when he was new in the program, how he might have felt lost, or afraid he would not fit in, or might not be accepted.  He also speaks of the good wishes he has for the new guy, and symbolically puts those into the spoon. The spoon is passed to the next team member, who does the same, and so it progresses around the circle to the newest member of the team who receives his spoon with all the good wishes and welcome messages of his team mates.

The spoon is then used for eating meals, and also as a pattern for making his own spoons, with his own style and flair. It’s a beautiful tradition, and one that I am glad we have at Legacy.

Making a Bow Drill Fire – Video

Here is staff Curtis making a bow drill fire.



Canyon Adventure

Crack CanyonEach week the clients and staff are given a position for the week.  We have Expedition leader, Equipment Coordinator, Lead cook, Navigator, Safety Officer, Expedition Photographer, Assistant Cook, and expedition Assistant.    These change from week to week.

At the beginning of our week we sat down with the team and determined we wanted to do Temple Mountain, and some canyon.  We planned the route with the Navigators help looking at the Maps and reading descriptions of hikes.  We planned meals with the cooks.  Talked to the safety officer to go through any issues we may run into, and what our roads mean with the expedition leader.

We found many challenges this week, including the weather and fatigue. We did Ding and Dang Canyon quicker than we expected and worked together well in helping each other over large cracks working on bridging and stemming.  We got a late start to Crack and Chute canyon due to slick conditions, fatigue and lake of time.  The group together made the c all to head back down crack canyon instead of doing the entire loop through chute.  The last canyon we did was Little While Horse, it was our only sunny day, which made for a lot of running water.  We ended at a great sport next to a running stream, that was great for meditation.

Two peak experiences stand out for us this week, week one beginning in dang canyon , we stemmed over 20ft crevasses a few of the clients were a little anxious around it, but with the help of teammates   we were able to make it down very safely. The second is a fire clinic put on by Client (JA). The client learning has some serious difficulty learning how to build a fire, after 3 hours no one had even bust a coal. So client (JA) had to make the fire that night.  The next morning, Client (JJ) woke early and busted a coal into flame, that night client (RW) busted a coal into flame, both over coming and doing what they didn’t think they could.

We dealt with a lot of weather this week, a few days of snow and one night of rain. We came together as a team to get proper shelter up, to stay dry and warm, making sure we were using the proper layering with our clothes, working at a team to get fire in a time of need.   The team became each other allies working together to ultimately accomplish more.

Crack Canyon

Petroglyph Hunting

San Rafael Swell Head of Sinbad PictographsTo prepare for our adventures we examined a map illustrating the topography of the Head of Sinbad where are team would set out to find 12,000 year old petroglyphs. We assigned jobs and set goals to accomplish while we were out.

This week we formed a new team so our primary challenge was to form a good bond with each other, so that we could accomplish the tasks at hand as cohesively as possible. Another challenge we would overcome was dealing with the cold weather by creating fire using primitive bow-drill sets that each team member would make by hand.

After establishing camp, getting our gear and lunch packed, we set out on a hike to find the petroglyphs painted on the side of a tall mesa. We hiked through snow from camp covering a few miles until we reached the base of the mesa, we then walked along the edge of the mesa until we found the petroglyphs drawn on the wall at a site thought to be a ceremonial site used by our ancestors about 12,000 years ago.

In our reflection of what we say we tried to imagine what it might have been like to live back in that space and time, following the herds of animals that roamed the area.  It was a powerful experience for all of us to think about.  It is hard to comprehend how much time has passed since those drawings were made and to hypothesize what they might have meant.

San Rafael Swell Dutchman's Arch Black Dragon

Depths and Heights

SummitFor Team One, we would leave into the field with less definition of what defined us, whereas Team Two had given themselves mustaches.  They were team mustache!  But who were we?  Even when the mustaches were chanting down at us from the top of Steele Butte and across South Creek we didn’t know the answer.  Whoever we were, we were not the guys to try to identify ourselves just because another group had.

We went out on Friday and walked over rugged terrain to an old Freemont cliff dwelling.  For such a new group the hike was a real challenge and the men looked quite worn out for the most part upon our arrival, and many for this reason quite disinterested in the actual dwelling with its evidence of long ago days and perhaps simpler way of being.

On Saturday we climbed Steele Butte, most of us.  There were a couple of gentlemen who were perhaps, a little too afraid of heights for this one.  There are rare occasions when all or part of the group does not complete an event.  I find that if we process it well afterward, there will be as much, if not more to take from the experience.  This proved to be the case.  There was such a tender outpouring of courage and ferocious support of one another around the fire that we discovered who we are as a group, the Sensitive Spartans.  Let all Mustaches beware.
For the final day of the adventure we awoke to a world brightened by the white snow.  It was that first day when the weather changes and nothing works right or easy for anyone.  We were undaunted and combined with the Mustaches to climb Mt. Ellen with her 11,522 ft. peak, most of which was veiled in cloud and receiving extreme winds and more snow.  This time we all managed to arrive at the top together in the first “snow ascent” of Ellen.

Many of us had carried rocks to the top symbolizing resentments each wanted to release.  We trudged through whiteout conditions to the summit.  We gathered in a large circle laying down our stones in turn and naming them aloud.  By coincidence or act of God, depending on your world view, at the very instant when the last stone was placed down, the sky cleared above us and we were bathed, albeit briefly, in a warm golden light.

I felt the group engulfed in a new confidence, seasoned now by cold and peril, heights and depths, insights and reflections.  We were bound by an intoxicating respect for each other, genuine expression, and adventure.

Charlie Hopper, Senior Field Guide

Old women wash and the sacred spiral

Preparing the deer hideThis week’s adventure took the team to the San Rafael Reef.  Old women wash was the perfect base camp for a week of canyons and traditional skills instruction.  With the slickrock canyons and pinyon and juniper filled mesas, the team was excited and anticipating a great week.

The adventure started with the Field staff letting the group know that the week would consist of day hikes into some of the most beautiful and remote canyons in the course area, as well as, the tanning and sewing of medicine pouches.  The pre-trip planning was met with both excitement and nervousness and Mark and Brandon laid out what would be required to finish a tanning process of a mule deer hide.  But wait a moment I’m getting ahead of myself here……

Before the week began a donation was made by Yellow Ledges Buckskin of a Mule Deer rawhide.  A deer that was harvested by a local hunter, and the skin was given as a gift to Yellow Ledges Buckskin and then in turn donated to Legacy Outdoor Adventures.  As the field staff retold this story to the clients, a theme of community, and connection started to be portrayed.  The life of the animal was recounted as well as the sacred circle of life that we are all part of.   The guides weaved a spiritual tapestry of how a person can connect with their human roots by learning an ancient skill that at one time, all people knew that of making and producing their own clothing, clothing that would last a life time.  As the tale grew the clients could feel humility in the face of death of an animal, the reverence for life, and the connection to the earth that primitive skills bring.  We weren’t just learning a skill we were reconnecting to something that is the birthright of all humans.  Emotional thoughts and feeling were expressed by students and clients alike, as what the rest of the week would look like was discussed.

The first few days of the week consisted of re-soaking the scraped hide, and a day hike up a beautiful canyon called Little Wild Horse and a connecting canyon called Bell.  This loop is one of the best in the course area, and a late afternoon snow storm did little to dampen the spirit of those who saw it.  As the week progressed so did the spiritual connection and the exploration of the beauty of the San Rafael Reef.  We did hikes up Iron Wash, Old Woman Wash, and Ernie Canyon.  Each unique and beautiful in their own right.

The Buckskin was softened by hand, and smoked to finish, both in the ancient ways of the indigenous cultures from here on the Colorado Plateau.  Each person made a medicine pouch from the tanned buckskin.  Decorated with the perfect amount of bone and horn beads,(also donated by Yellow Ledges Buckskin)The bags each took on the personality of the makers.  The medicine pouch, a small bag that is worn around the neck is a seemingly simple idea, but the metaphor and spiritual touchstone is much bigger.  Each student found something from the natural area to put in the bag to remind them of the week they spend in the sacred spiral, honoring the life of an animal, and their own, and the place where the two intersected.

As a field guide for the  last 9 years of my life, I have been waiting for the opportunity to do a week where we not only could use and make medicine bags, but produce the leather ourselves.  I have a great deal of gratitude for the people at Legacy for the freedom, trust, and foresight to allow this week to happen as it did.  I am both humbled and inspired by the work that happens here.

Written by Mark McKillip

Adventure Therapy Video: Rappelling Down Pete’s Dragon” Canyon

What an amazing day of canyoneering at Pete’s Dragon in Wayne County Utah.

Becoming Men on Boulder Mountain

We started out our week’s adventure at Pine Creek, it was windy and cold, everyone seemed excited at their first chance to fish.  Attempts at using the sun shower that morning brought a shivering clean team.  Our plan was to drive toward the top of boulder and fish in Miller Lake. We were expecting a beautiful tranquil lake with the pine trees surrounding it, but when we arrived at our destination we were in the midst of a snow storm.  It was a struggle to make fire and set up camp in the cold, but with our great team of men, it didn’t take us long to accomplish the task.  We talked about the fishing we were going to do the next day; our mouths were watering for the taste of the fresh fish cooked in butter, with lemon pepper.  We woke the next morning to a very cold a frosty air.


As we looked at Miller Lake with fishing in our heads, we noticed that the lake had a layer of unbreakable ice from shore to shore.   We were a little (okay a lot) disappointed, the metaphor was powerful for coming up against setbacks in recovery. After we received more cold weather gear (over bags, liners, and insulated coats) we decided to stay at this location one more night.


Friday we moved to another frozen lake to our disappointment, but had some fun practicing our casting, knot tying.  We had a great group on Honorable Manhood by the fire that evening.  Saturday spirits remained high as we continued our journey to Lost Lake.  The hike was a challenge of the type proven very useful in wilderness therapy.  With sore legs and a renewed team unity, we came over the hill to see the majestic lake WITHOUT ice!!!!!  Fishing began immediately, with some success.  With a group that evening on mentors and the positive influences that can be gained. The theme for the week was solidified.


Monday was the hike down the mountain for the end of the week, meeting for staff exchange and therapist visits.  One major accomplishment for the week was renewed motivation for following through on the best plan for continuing recovery for each team member. Also overcoming the cold and disappointment early in the week, to a warm and pleasant end on the week.   Oh and a good supply of brook trout offered us a delicious dinner.


Kyle B-Field Guide