A Visit to Wilderness Treatment Center – Part 1

Wilderness Treatment Center (WTC) began helping young men recover from drug and alcohol addiction in 1983 and just celebrated their 31st anniversary last August. I had the opportunity to take a visit to North West Montana in early October and interview WTC Clinical Director, Patrick Hawkins. It is evident to see and hear the passion Pat has for his calling helping young men achieve sobriety, and understand his affinity for the wilderness as an effective teacher.

Located on a 4000 acre working cattle ranch, the air is clean, the Rocky Mountains, stellar and the wildlife abundant. Young men might arrive with no wilderness experience but they are leaving with something even more than that, life experience. In Part One of our interview, Pat shares what he believes to be an exceptional program and what sets WTC apart from other wilderness programs.


What do you believe is the effectiveness of wilderness treatment as compared to a hospital or residential treatment approach?


Patrick Hawkins, WTC Clinical Director

Wilderness Treatment Center provides an opportunity for young people to experience something they’ve never experienced before, something that’s uncomfortable, new. Most profoundly it provides them with the ability to experience a sense of purpose and a right of passage. Certainly that’s what we look at when our guys experience the wilderness aspect of our program.

As our founder said, “You can’t cheat the trail.” What that means is that the trail doesn’t care who you are or what you are, the trail is the same for everyone. You have to face what the trail gives; it’s very much like life. With drug addicts especially, they’ve seldom had to actually experience facing life. It also provides them with an opportunity to experience the natural consequences of their actions, in a very profound way and in a very immediate way. Sometimes in the world the natural consequences of their actions don’t happen right away or it takes some time, or their families and other people around them prevent them from experiencing the natural consequences of their actions.

For example, if they don’t take care of their stuff, their stuff gets wet and now they have to deal with their wet things. If they lose an article of gear, then they don’t have that article of gear. If they don’t have the skills, then they experience the effects of that immediately. There’s no one else they can blame and so it also forces them to begin taking responsibility.

There are a whole lot of programmatic aspects of what takes place in the wilderness that can’t necessarily be replicated in the real world.


How does wilderness work for the young addict who has never spent any time outdoors?


You just described the majority of our clients. Especially being in Montana we have a lot of guys who come here and have never experienced snow before. Wilderness is powerful for anyone, whether they are young men from Montana or from Southern California or from Georgia. It’s not necessarily any more profound for somebody who hasn’t experienced the wilderness. Sometimes it’s awe-inspiring and sometimes it’s scary, it’s anxiety provoking, it’s exciting. But for all of them, whether they’ve been in the wilderness or not, it’s new, because no matter what – it’s just as foreign to them as the real world sober is!


What makes WTC unique as compared to traditional wilderness programs where the young person is in the wilderness the entire time?


While the first part of that question catches my eye in the use of the term “traditional wilderness.” The second part of the question of course differentiates it a little bit and I say that kind of tongue-in-cheek but also very seriously. Programs that were developed out of the “Utah Model” (for lack of a better term – that take place in the wilderness the entire time) are often presented to me as “traditional wilderness.” It’s really hard to make that distinction when you talk about a program (WTC) that been in its current existence for 31 years, and when you consider what our founder was doing, even prior to that. So the term “traditional” stands out for me. It’s not that one is traditional and one isn’t.

What makes us unique is that we have the first part of our program on the campus where they get a great deal of education, a great deal of focus and they get the premise of sobriety. Another thing that makes us unique from other wilderness programs is that we only treat young people afflicted with the disease of addiction, so the homogeneous nature of our program makes us unique overall. The initial stay that takes place on the campus allows them to get a lot of focus from a lot of therapists. It’s essentially similar to a conventional 28-day treatment stay, which you can find in a freestanding program or in a hospital-based program. That’s the whole premise of it, it’s that 28 day – 30 day model of treatment, but when the conventional program is discharging their clients, we’re discharging ours into the wilderness.


Wilderness Treatment Center, Marion, MT

Wilderness Treatment Center, Marion, MT

Our young men go in the field with the therapist who’s known them for the first four weeks of their treatment stay and is able to watch them universally regress in some degree, back into their old skills of coping. After the first 28 days, they’re on that treatment pink cloud and they think they have this thing licked. They’re feeling really good, then they’re out the field and they find that they don’t. When that happens it allows them to crash in a stable, relatively risk-free environment with someone who can illuminate that for them, hold that up and say, “Look how you thought you were really doing well, and look how easy it is to slide back into your old ways of coping, back into old behaviors.” What that does is it helps them connect to and experience the chronic nature of addiction in a profound way. They become much more amenable to doing what they need to do when they’re done with Wilderness Treatment Center.

We also have a clinician in the field with them for the entire trip. The clinician is going through everything with them, is modeling appropriate behaviors, able to address issues as they arise, process experiences right after they happen and to give a lot more strength to the events that take place in the wilderness. There’s a rapport that’s been built up and it doesn’t need to be re-created or rehashed every week as new staff come in. This allows for a lot of continuity throughout the course of their trip. It’s designed to primarily treat addiction and the bio-psychosocial aspect of the disease, and especially the spiritual aspect of the disease. It’s designed to address their behaviors, not in a behavioral modification way, but to ultimately remember that addiction is a primary illness in and of itself, and to get them to begin treating that. I think that’s the difference.

They’re able to come back to campus and experience that sense of accomplishment as they are greeted by their peers, almost as conquering heroes returning from battle. These trips are designed much like hero’s journey idea from Joseph Campbell and the idea of a rite of passage; they go for three weeks with the group and become part of the community and then they do their introspective, three-day solo journey where they write their 4th step. It allows them to move into that next stage of life, not just the next stage of recovery, but into manhood.

What is the effectiveness of incorporating both wilderness and on site treatment?


Connecting to the chronic nature of addiction. The 2 milieu’s together really accomplishes that.

Stay tuned next week for Part Two of the Wilderness Treatment Interview with Patrick Hawkins where he discusses the family after treatment and what he hopes for every young man completing WTC.


  • Ryan Lytle
    Posted at 10:11h, 28 October Reply

    Many of my fondest memories of early sobriety were made during my time at WTC. The experience and lessons I learned there gave me the understanding of my disease and the courage to make a change in my life. Pat helped me to take a look at myself and the pain I was inflicting on those around me. Only then, could I start to make a conscious change. Looking back, their approach to using the outdoors as a catalyst to recovery was one of the best things that anyone could have done for me. It was during my 21 day wilderness trip that I found what it meant to be clear headed and to trust god. As a result of my solid early foundation at WTC and the direction they gave me, I was able to move to Los Angeles into New Life House. I’m pleased to say today, that I have 15 months of sobriety and couldn’t be happier. Thanks Patrick, WTC, and New Life House for my life today.

  • Noah C.
    Posted at 11:13h, 28 October Reply

    I spent 60 days in Wilderness Treatment Center and I had a really cool experience. I gained a lot while I was out there. I spent three days alone in the wilderness and while I was out there I had a spiritual experience. I had lied a lot about my story though out my life and all of a sudden while I was sitting alone I felt very compelled to get honest. When I got back from solo I experienced my first time getting honest in a very long time. Wilderness Treatment Center really set me up to be sober and transition into the sober living I am in now. Thank you Wilderness Treatment Center.

  • Luke S.
    Posted at 11:15h, 28 October Reply

    I was from Montana before I went to the WTC and I really never expected to get as much as I did out of it. I have to say that it would be easy to white knuckle a shorter program or a program that would not involve an actual 21 day backpacking trip into the wilderness. Accomplishing that feat was unlike anything that I have had to do before that, and finding the perseverance within myself to keep on trekking on the trail really showed me a lot about myself, that I could overcome any hardship that came my way without drugs. Going from the everyday frenzy of the drug world to the quiet serene of the wilderness was a shock and really forced me to rethink my life and put things in perspective. That new perspective really set me up for the next stage of my recovery.

  • Ryan C.
    Posted at 11:19h, 28 October Reply

    I originally went to wilderness treatment center to get the court system off of my back. I had no intention on staying sober in the long run. But when I got into some of the work and built relationships with the guys there I saw that this way of life is better. I got to see how bad my life really was, and with drugs and alcohol taken out of the picture I am still the same person. I needed to do some work on myself. At wilderness treatment center I got to tap into my emotions. It was the first time in years where I actually felt emotion other than anger and rage. I went through a lot of emotional phases in the first few months of my sobriety, one day I would be really happy then I would get a thought and I would get sad or angry and I was just all over the place to say the least. But when I got to work an honest fourth and fifth step I got a lot of clarity and a lot of weight lifted off my shoulders. I am in a way better place now. I love wilderness treatment center and I love new life house.

  • Jacob A.
    Posted at 11:58h, 28 October Reply

    Wilderness Treatment Center was a great starting point for my sobriety. My plan was to go to treatment and let my legal and relationship issues blow over so I could go back to what I was doing and play my cards smarter. I went to treatment with pressure from the state prosecutor and the judge, as well as my probation officer and family. While I was in WTC I had my first taste of real life. I really needed the two months of separation from drugs and alcohol to start to take a real look at what my life really consisted of. I had been very depressed and out of control prior to entering treatment and this condition did not change too much while I was there, but I was exposed to a new way of looking at things and I got the chance to face my reality for what it was at the time. The trip is what really set my recovery up for me and through it I was able to have a new perspective on what I had ahead of me. If I had gone anywhere else I do not believe I would be sober right now. Sobriety is hard but Wilderness Treatment Center gave me my first glimpse of what sobriety is able to be and I am grateful for the aftercare opportunity that was afforded to me.

  • Matt M
    Posted at 12:16h, 28 October Reply

    My time at WTC was nothing short of an entire life changing experience. I can’t even begin to describe how much I was able to learn about myself and the way that I was living in active addiction. I went through WTC from the beginning of December 2013 to the end of January 2014 and was placed in New Life House in Los Angeles after graduating, which I have been in since and I am proud to say that I have 11 months of sobriety. The biggest thing that I learned while in WTC was how to take accountability for my actions. I have learned that only through taking accountability can I begin to learn from my old behaviors and change them. If I had to do it again, I would, the program was exactly what I needed in order for me to make the fundamental changes in my life that I needed in order to learn how to live with honesty and integrity. I want to thank Pat so much for all that I was guided through in WTC and I would recommend it to anyone that is going through the same struggles that so many of us young addicts and alcoholics are experiencing. New Life House has been a great transition for me to integrate back in to society and I am so grateful for the opportunity to have such an excellent support system throughout my entire recovery process. WTC and New Life House have saved my life.

  • Joe S.
    Posted at 12:22h, 28 October Reply

    When I went into Wilderness Treatment Center I was just going to get the courts off of my back. I knew that my life wasn’t going well but I just thought with the courts off of my back, It would be fine. The courts were the problem not me. But after some help from Shane, Rob and the other awesome counselors I saw that was not the case. Even if I did get the courts off of my back, it would most likely be temporary. It also helped me to see where else I had problems and that was just about in every area of my life, like relationships with family, friends and girlfriends. They helped me to rebuild relationships with my family, which now are continuing to grow at five months sober. We did things like the bucket task, which involved me carrying about a 100 pound bucket, which taught me to ask for help when I needed it. I do not think I would have been able to make it this far without the work I put in there and my counselor Rob Brecky who helped me through it. Lastly, the three-week backpacking trip. This was one of the best experiences of my life. It helped me to see a lot about myself and showed me that I can have a great time in sobriety. I thank Wilderness Treatment Center for my sobriety and my life.

  • Jack B.
    Posted at 15:30h, 28 October Reply

    This past July when I arrived at Wilderness Treatment Center I was entering my third inpatient program of the year. I had never taken my alcoholism seriously and thought I could manage it on my own. I was convinced all I had to do was stop drinking, but as it says in the big book I learned that it was just the tip of the iceberg. I learned a lot about myself and the program of alcoholics anonymous for the first 30 days and before I knew it we were off to the wilderness. I had been dreading the trip the whole time. I enjoyed spending time outdoors but it was great to shower afterwards and sleep in a bed.
    While out in the Bob Marshall we had only one change of clothes for the 21 days out there, wearing them while hiking 8 miles a day uphill with a 60 pound backpack on. I never thought I could finish the trip but I kept pushing. Physically it was the hardest experience of my entire life. I had to live in the trip on day at a time, one step at a time. This is how I have to work the AA program just get through the day sober. This is what was the biggest change I had on the trip, having the willingness to change my life. I became willing to believe in a power greater than myself and I became willing to do the work that is necessary for me to live sober physically and spiritually.
    When I was on trip I heard I would go live in Dallas or Los Angeles for sober living. I was resistant to move to the other side of the country, I tried to convince Mark to let me go to sober living in Minnesota. One day in group my counselor Mark asked me why I didn’t want to go to sober living at the homes he had chosen. After some hesitation I told him that I was scared to be so far away from home. He was able calm me down by reminding me that sober living wouldn’t last for the rest of my life. That in the long run of my life it would be a short time and I could still go home after 3 months if I desired. I learned about how selfish my addiction let me become. Rob showed me despite the fact my family is the most important thing in my life they were the ones who I had hurt the most with my drinking. It was a true spiritual experience sleeping under the stars, to look up at night after a big book and see all the stars in the sky made me believe that there is something out there. It was a once in a lifetime experience.

  • Nick E.
    Posted at 15:31h, 28 October Reply

    I came to Wilderness Treatment Center not knowing whether or not I wanted to stop using drugs and alcohol, but I knew I couldn’t continue living the way I was. I have always loved the outdoors so I was open to the idea of a program like Wilderness Treatment Center. It was there that I got to feel a strong sense of brotherhood and support. I knew from that point I could not take on sobriety by myself. I was able to experience a lot of things that most people don’t get to and I was able to go through unique struggles that helped me get my foundation in AA. I now have almost a year sober and I feel like the time I spent at WTC played an important part in my sobriety.
    Pat was not hesitant to tell me the truth about myself; it was shocking, I had always tried my best to hide the person I really was so I didn’t have to feel uncomfortable. It was easy to see that what he was saying was coming from a place of care. My experience at WTC was the first stepping stone in my sobriety.

  • M. M.
    Posted at 15:34h, 28 October Reply

    We sent our son to the Wilderness Treatment Center at the recommendation of one of his former treatment counselors. He had been a patient at another well-respected treatment program, had progressed to placement in a sober house with out-patient counselling and group work, and had relapsed. We were terrified for his life and desperate to help him.
    WTC gave him help that we could not give him. He learned more about his addiction and how it affected him in every way. From his conversations with us when he was at Wilderness, we could hear that he was gaining more insight about himself, his disease of addiction, and its consequences on his behavior and with relationships. He spoke about learning more about the twelve steps, about a higher power, and of using these “tools” in his recovery. His wilderness trip was a remarkable practicum for everything that he was learning during his residential treatment, and it truly was a rite of passage, by his own description. Having this experience as part of his treatment was a big difference from the other treatment programs he had been in.
    Wilderness recommended that after completing their program our son continue his recovery with a 12 Step sober living residence placement. (They also strongly encouraged us to attend Alanon for our own continued understanding of the effects of addiction on ourselves and for our own recovery.)
    New Life House was one of the resources Wilderness provided to us for our son. They described New Life as being consistent with their own philosophy of recovery, focus of going to meetings and using the 12 Steps, and commitment to service. We are so grateful for their recommendation. Our son is back in his life and in ours; we see so much growth, recovery and love in him. We are so proud of him and so thankful for the help we have received.

  • Marcus Mikowski
    Posted at 16:42h, 28 October Reply

    I went to WTC October 25th of 2012, ever since then my life has been completely different. They taught me a new way to live. I recently celebrated two years sober and I couldn’t have done it without the help of the wilderness staff. Especially Pat, Rob, and WilderBen. Thank you to everyone there and for all that you guys do.

  • Kimberly Lewis
    Posted at 17:51h, 28 October Reply

    My son, Mike, will soon be celebrating seven years sobriety. This is due to the strong men and women who run Wilderness Trwatment Center. Their dedication and commitment to our young men is exceptional. The life skills and coping every day with addiction provides a lifetime of sobriety to those young men. Thank you Wilderness Treatment Center from the bottom of my heart.

  • Wilderness Treatment Center Part 2
    Posted at 11:37h, 07 November Reply

    […] A Visit to Wilderness Treatment Center – Part 1 – October 27, 2014 […]

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