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GUIDE SPOTLIGHT: Dylan Cohen Reflects on Life in the Trenches as an Open Sky Field Guide

Dylan Cohen, BA | Senior Guide

Dylan Cohen enjoying personal time at some sand dunes in Colorado.

Lessons in Fire Busting

After working in experiential education, challenge courses, and a behavior-focused program for at-risk youth, I was hungry for something more therapeutically productive. I found out about Open Sky and was immediately drawn to its holistic treatment approach. I moved to Durango, completed guide orientation, and entered the field in my new role as an Open Sky field guide.

When I started in this role, I had a lot of uncertainty. I was afraid of not having all the answers. These worries were really apparent in my struggle with learning how to bow drill (the process of creating fire from friction, an integral skill to wilderness therapy). The bow drilling motion uses different muscles and was entirely new and unfamiliar to me. The challenge brought up a lot of feelings of failure; that if I wasn’t capable of this wilderness skill, I would not make it as a guide in the wilderness.

Chase, a former senior guide, committed himself to mentoring me in many areas, and especially in bow drilling. Every day, Chase would pull out his set and coach me. The students in the teams I worked with got in on it as well. At the end of my second shift, I was sitting with a new student who hadn’t gotten his first coal yet, either. He and I made an agreement that we weren’t going to stand up until one of us got a coal. We encouraged each other as we kneeled there and practiced. Eventually, I looked over and he had gotten his coal. In that moment, I looked down at my board and saw a tiny little glowing ember as well. We were both ecstatic, jumped up, and hugged each other, celebrating the accomplishment.

I remember this experience very clearly. It highlights a direct way I grew from support within my guide community and the relationship and rapport I could form with students. It exemplified to students that as guides, we are on the ground with them, working on the same skills. In this case, it was a wilderness skill. This translates to emotional awareness, relational, and communication skills as well. We’re there to come alongside them in their growth and show them that it’s an ongoing journey.


Rapport and Consistency

I’ve worked with adolescent boys since I started as a field guide at Open Sky. Just like with every relationship, my connection to students starts off with a lot of rapport building, no matter their struggles or diagnoses. I let them know that ultimately, I’m on their side. By no means is my role the “disciplinarian”. I’m out there to help them become better people and figure themselves out in a deeper way. I’m there to create and uphold a culture of physical and emotional safety.

Once I establish that we’re all on the same side and working toward the same goals, it is a lot easier moving forward. My communication with students is clear, concise, and consistent. Without consistency in my expectations and communication, I won’t build respect and rapport. Consistency allows for students to really excel out here because they know the expectations and can learn to rely on our support backing them up.


Open Sky field guides Zac and Dylan
Senior guides Zac Carr and Dylan Cohen.

A Night and Day Difference

I worked with a student last fall who struggled with attachment issues; it was apparent he was seeking love and belonging. At the same time, he would not respond well when I or other guides in the team held boundaries. During his first few weeks here, this created power struggles as he would test the limits in an effort to expose weak spots.

My approach with him was to step back and acknowledge this whole experience was new for him, that such committed boundary holding was likely new to him as well. In those moments, I would have him stop, pause, and name what was going on for him. I would encourage him to ask himself what needs he was trying to meet by pushing against boundaries and authority. Was he seeking power and control? Did he feel unloved? Did it seem to him like he was losing freedom? After he stopped, paused, and named these things, I would empower him to find alternative and creative ways for him to meet those needs, while also maintaining the boundaries I had put in place. He began to build an awareness about his behaviors and the impact he has on other people.

On his first day at Open Sky, this student stormed out of camp in a rage. When he graduated, the difference was night and day. He had developed a greater sense of understanding about himself and healthier ways to meet his needs. I felt hopeful and excited about what was coming up next for him in his life.

Open Sky field guide Dylan Cohen

Awestruck and Humbled

I have been guiding adolescent boys in Team Avatar since August 2018. I’ve come to realize the amount of respect and motivation that can result from building rapport and establishing a relationship with each student.

I am continually awestruck at how receptive the students really are, whether or not they show it in the moment. I felt that poignantly this past week, after some students sincerely thanked me for constructive feedback I gave them, even asking me for more in the future. These small moments never cease to inspire and humble me.

This work is really interesting because as field guides at Open Sky, we often don’t know what happens when students leave our care, aside from hearing an occasional therapist update. We rely on the hope and confidence that the work they’ve done with their therapist, the relationships they’ve built with their peers, the guidance they’ve received from us as guides, and the connection they’ve formed to the world around them will carry them on to a bright future.

Open Sky field guides Dylan and Hannah
Senior guides Dylan Cohen and Hannah Wilson on expedition.

Growth as a Guide and a Person

I have grown in confidence in my knowledge and skills and am always learning new things as a guide. I feel comfortable in the wilderness; it’s my biggest ally in this role. I’m continually working personally on intention and boundaries in my relationships, and being comfortable knowing I may not have all the answers.

I have seen myself step up as a leader in a group of pretty dominant (and sometimes, loud) teenage boys. Working with this population has been really fun and challenging and I see a lot of my old self in the boys I work with. It feels redeeming to give them love and support as a senior guide in their team.

Working closely with Jonathan Mitchell, Avatar’s team therapist, has shaped a lot of my growth as well. Jonathan has a lot of faith in guides, which allows us to flourish in our roles and help students make progress each week. I’ve learned a lot from his knowledge and experience, both as a former wilderness therapy guide and his many years as a therapist. I see the effectiveness of his sessions with students and the fruit from his interventions, which inform me in my work with students throughout the week. Jonathan is always teaching me, maybe even unintentionally at times. It’s a really enjoyable and collaborative relationship.

I’ve also learned a lot from the Open Sky field guide community. The experience and passions found in the guide team are incredibly diverse. We have experts in every facet of the program. Whether wilderness-based skills, therapeutic-based skills, yoga or meditation—you name it—we have an expert. This makes for unending learning and growth potential not only for our students but also for myself and my fellow guides.

I love the support I receive from my mentors and field managers. I value the culture here, that I can go to them and tell them how I’m struggling and how I’m doing well. They give me opportunities in different areas to challenge myself and continue to grow as a guide and person. There is room for fun and creativity in this work. I feel empowered to incorporate new interventions in the wilderness, run more tactile groups with the students, and create memorable rites of passage for them. These are moments and memories they will hold on to and turn to for the rest of their lives.

Adolescent Boys team Avatar on expedition at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy
Team Avatar enjoys the view during expedition. Dylan Cohen has guided in Team Avatar since August 2018.

Are you interested in learning more about being a Field Guide at Open Sky? Open Sky is currently accepting applications for our next two guide orientations: April 22 – May 3, 2019 and May 20 – June 1, 2019. To be considered for the April Orientation, applications must be submitted by Friday, April 12. To learn more, visit: Careers at Open Sky

March 15th, 2019

Dylan Cohen, BA | Senior Guide