Article contributed by Senior Guide, Rebecca Slotta.
It’s Wednesday morning. My eyes snap open and a feeling of confusion passes through me. I stare at the ceiling, trying to figure out why I’m awake while the sun is still sleeping behind the horizon. I realize it’s Wednesday. My alarm is telling me to gear up because in a few hours I’ll be heading into the field for the start of another eight-day shift as a field guide at Open Sky.
Field guides are the ones that spend the most time with the students at Open Sky: hiking, doing chores together, practicing mindfulness, and teaching the skills needed to live outdoors. Who are we? What qualifies us to do this job? Why do we do it? These are the common questions we receive from parents who entrust their child to Open Sky. Working as a field guide is not a job for the faint of heart. We show up each day with the courage, passion, and excellence to support our students’ growth from the day they arrive to the day they graduate.
First and foremost, we work to create an environment that supports the physical and emotional safety of the students. In the canyon country of Southeast Utah during the fall and winter and in the high country of Colorado during the spring and summer, we get our hands dirty facilitating the nitty-gritty aspects of the program. We monitor each student to keep them warm, fed, and hydrated. Day in and day out, we model healthy communication and kind, compassionate relationships when interacting with our co-guides and students. We celebrate successes and illuminate lessons in the midst of challenges. Field guides hold healthy boundaries with students while supporting them in becoming the best versions of themselves. We’re grateful to witness and encourage both the breakthrough moments and the gradual progress that students experience in the field.
The Field Team and Clinical Team collaborate together so that each guide masters the skill set necessary to support the team’s needs and respond appropriately to situations that arise in the field. Not only are we trained in and competent with the physical and emotional skills required for living outdoors in small, intimate groups, but we are also equipped to execute the therapist’s treatment objectives for the week. Whether through creative interventions, ceremonies, mindfulness practice, or individual mentorship, we come alongside students throughout each aspect of their Open Sky process.
When a team returns to base camp after an expedition, guides provide the therapist with verbal and written updates on the students’ progress throughout the week. The therapist may also ask a guide to sit in on a session with a student, giving comprehensive context to the student’s treatment goals and progress. At the end of our shift, the team’s outgoing guides, incoming guides, students, and therapist circle up in our weekly staff exchange group, called “Milan”. During Milan, each student (and the student’s guide mentor for the past week) provides updates to the group about the student’s progress. Milan creates transparency and accountability for each student. It also makes for a smooth transition for the incoming guides by giving insight about how each student has engaged throughout the week, helping establish goals for the week ahead. The therapist and guides also discuss the upcoming week separately, sharing additional guidance on how to support the students and challenge them to grow. This depth of collaboration between field guides and therapists makes for an enriching, effective, and productive experience for all staff and students.
Open Sky’s Field Guide Recruiter casts a wide net nationally to find guides who have a variety of skills and experiences in order to fill this vital role. The field guide profile is intentionally diverse. We have guides who have worked as classroom teachers, residential counselors, Peace Corps volunteers, environmental science educators, Outward Bound or National Outdoor Leadership School instructors, or as guides at other wilderness therapy programs.
After the recruitment process, selected candidates are invited to Durango for an intense 10-day orientation and training. During this training, the Field Leadership Team simulates a student’s wilderness therapy experience so prospective guides can build empathy and gain an understanding of what it is like for a student to attend Open Sky. We complete 16 hours of AEGIS crisis and de-escalation training – skills that guides use in the field every day when working with your student. AEGIS is a supplemental training that field guides must re-certify every six months. This entire orientation and training is a continuation of the interview process. The leadership team puts great effort into assessing each candidate throughout, offering positions only to those that demonstrate excellence in their ability to meet the emotional and physical needs of the job.
Additionally, each guide is required to have the Wilderness First Responder certification prior to training. The intensive 70-hour Wilderness First Responder medical certification is the gold standard for wilderness first aid and safety in the outdoor industry – making it a pre-requisite for any potential Open Sky field guide.
According to Open Sky’s Field Director, Evan Meyer, a vast majority of our guides have college degrees, many of which are in psychology and therapy-related fields. He points out that many come from other professional backgrounds (the most common of which is teaching) and choose the work of wilderness therapy, combining their wisdom and experience with the magic that occurs in the wilderness. Regardless of background or experience, each field guide at Open Sky demonstrates high emotional intelligence and the ability to translate that into their work with young people.
Parents have the opportunity to meet field guides at their student’s graduation, which often occurs at the end of our shift. By then, our Carhartts® have traces of the mud and dust we’ve been kneeling in throughout the week and our cheeks are rosy and weather-kissed by sun and wind. Standing alongside the parents, we are grateful to see their child off to start the next chapter of their journey. When parents join us at graduation and observe the unique aspects of our job, they often look at us wide-eyed and ask, “Why do you do what you do?”
For me, the answer is simple: I was in these students’ shoes as a student at a wilderness therapy program more than a decade ago. When deciding what my next career move would be, I felt called to return to the Utah desert to support struggling adolescents and young adults in a life-changing fashion, just as I was supported during some of the most challenging times in my life.
Of course, each field guide’s answer to the question of “Why?” is unique, but the common theme is in tune with Open Sky’s humanistic approach: As humans, we have each experienced adversity in life and feel compelled to draw upon the lessons we learned, harness the power of the wilderness, and support our students through their darkest and brightest days.