Wilderness Therapy: Self Care

One of the many lessons learned while in wilderness therapy is self-care. We teach students, staff, and families how to take care of themselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This is unique to each individual and vitally important for our well-being.The tricky part for me has been to remind myself, as a therapist, what self-care looks like to me. I believe in the power of wilderness and how therapeutic it is naturally and how we have tapped into its potential in our programs. My own growth has developed through my time in the woods as well. And so, this summer, I packed my bag and headed to the Bob Marshall Wilderness to practice what I preach.
Early in the morning, my sister-in-law, Katie and I, headed out on a trail we’d never traveled. My boots hadn’t been worn for far too long and I worried about when a blister would emerge on my, now, soft feet. You see, as a therapist, my hiking days in the field are greatly diminished from my days as a field guide. I have spent more than a thousand nights in the backcountry, often remembering how comfortable it is for me. Now, I wondered if I packed everything I would need. Was it going to rain? When will we hit the water source? Should I keep my bear spray on the right or left of my pack? How many bears are right around here…how big…? So many questions…was I always this stressed with backpacking? Despite my reeling mind, I took off down the trail with so much enthusiasm I was quickly reminded how exciting it is to me. I felt my face get warm as I moved, rapidly sharing my excitement with Katie. We giggled on the first few hundred feet of the trail. My stomping down the trail must have drowned out my awareness as pretty soon into our trip, Katie said, ‘I think we are going down the wrong trail, it merged back there.’ Oh, right. This leveled my heavy footed, domineering plodding through the woods and we turned around onto the right trail. My thoughts slowed and I softened my pace. I looked up to the magnitude of the scenery around me. The raw rocky mountains loomed over me and I felt instantly small. Small in a wonderful way. I had no more worries about what I had or hadn’t packed. There was no need for me to be concerned with my abilities. We are on an adventure. Here we go.

Many wonderful hours went by easily. We crushed miles, chatted about the newness and wildness around us. As the sun settled behind the mountains, we settled into our tent for a first renewing sleep. The next few days, my body paced with my surroundings. I wasn’t in control of it. Quite the opposite and I loved it. I was reminded my love for feeling a part of the wilderness. I don’t consider myself a visitor anymore, nor a stranger. But my time is spent reacquainting my relationship with the life around me and learning how it demands respect. I am valuable and have great impact here, yet am small and can also be insignificant. True Belonging. We took a hiking break to jump off a cliff into a deep swimming hole of the Sun River. It required some courage from both of us and reminded us that we are full of courage. Refreshed. I reflected on the fact that my leg hairs were growing to an ‘unacceptable’ length, my face was a bit dirty, armpits stinky…and I felt free. No one cares of the state of my appearance, or how I smelled…unless Katie was secretly offended. It struck me how every young lady I work with goes through a similar revelation of freedom of how she is seen and known while living in the wilderness. We can be new, old, dirty, unkempt, loud, quiet, strong and fierce, ourselves. When I am told repeatedly by students that they have found themselves in the wilderness, I know it is true to them. I have experienced it. I know who I am when I have space and time to see myself clearly, without distractions and others’ opinions. That beauty of clarity is shared among all who know the wilderness. It is what allows us to become acquainted with the wilderness of our souls. Who we choose to be and are. I return home refreshed and willing to embrace the natural parallel of working with these young ladies in the wilderness.


Inspiration from Brooke Hampton:

“I am not delicate.

I am skinny dipping at 2am;

I am dancing naked under the full moon and playing in the mud.

I am the reverberating echoes of a curse word ricocheting off the steeply sloping mountain you thought I couldn’t climb;

I am bare skin in the deepest depths of winter; I am the song of courage, and the melody of freedom you long to sing.

I am a fearless mother.

I am a passionate lover; a devoted friend.

I am the healer, the witch, the nurturing of your wounds.

I am the heat of a wildfire, the rage of a storm.

I am strong.

Delicate things are pretty-cute, even.

But I am not delicate.

I am wild, fierce and unpredictable.

I am breathtaking.

I am beautiful.

I am sacred.”


Kendra Van Abbema, CSW, MS
Primary Girl’s Therapist





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