Just north of Cullowhee, at the curvy, gravel terminus of Cane Creek Road, sits the building containing the world’s largest wilderness medicine classroom. 

Landmark Learning, a nationally accredited school offering a variety of courses in wilderness medicine, started using the building in May, though there’s still heavy equipment in view as fine-tuning continues. The 8,000-square-foot building contains a 2,400-square-foot classroom, a commercial kitchen, and a student lounge. Up an even steeper hill than the one that leads to the main building is a pair of dorm-style cabins and a terraced camping area, which together can accommodate 36 people.

Scotty Bowman always knew he wanted to work outdoors, but he couldn’t figure out how to live his dream and also make a livable salary — so he instead paved a career in restaurants, including stints as a chef. At least, this is what Bowman did until hitting his 40s, that momentous time when folks often realize that it’s either now or never to indulge their passions.

Bowman, in taking the risk to build a new career focused on the outdoors, has become part of a unique movement that might just help the Southeast get more Wilderness Areas to enjoy. Bowman has been busy this summer building and fixing trails in remote backcountry settings with Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, a new program of The Wilderness Society that works directly with the forest service to provide support for Wilderness Areas and Wilderness Study Areas.

In Wilderness Areas, you can’t use chainsaws or power tools for trail work, which makes building trails in the backcountry miles from the closest road tough work. The SAWS group is deploying volunteers into Wilderness Areas who are willing to do the heavylifting of trail work using only hand tools, such as crosscut saws, in those remote territories where firing up power tools would violate wilderness regulations.

The labor from SAWS crews not only blazes new trails and keeps existing ones maintained, they could also be key in the effort to get more areas in the national forests designated as wilderness.

Designating new wilderness areas can be controversial given the stricter rules that apply, limiting everything from motorized recreation to hunting to logging to road building.

But even hiking clubs can be against new wilderness designation if it means their volunteer efforts to maintain trails in those areas will become more difficult, explained Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian program director for the Wilderness Society’s, based out of the regional field office in Sylva.

Hiking clubs are the front line when it comes to trail maintenance. But, Martin pointed out, they are generally made up of older, retired folks, with small core groups who also work on trail maintenance. And with limited time and energy, these good Samaritans often understandably balk at the wilderness rule of not being allowed mechanized tools such as chainsaws.

Enter younger, eager men and women such as Bowman, who are simply enchanted with being able to use crosscut saws and other primitive tools. A volunteer stint with SAWS has led to a summer job for Bowman as head of a SAWS volunteer trail crew. He hopes to repeat the experience next summer.

The trail crews are trained in using the necessary primitive tools, and learn trail building and trail maintenance techniques.

Bowman is in college, and anticipates perhaps mingling the contacts made through SAWS into a more permanent outside-oriented job, such as with the U.S. Forest Service.

“I always wanted to be outside, to be a part of doing something for the trails and for the public,” the 42-year-old said. “And I’ve picked up some really cool skills doing this.”

And the wilderness areas are picking up a lot of extra maintenance help these days, said Bill Hodge, director of SAWS.

“The idea is not to replace the hiking clubs, it’s to supplement their work,” Hodge said.

In the Southern Appalachian region encompassing North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina, there are 22 federally designated Wilderness Areas and another 14 Wilderness Study Areas, which fall under the same set of no-mechanized-tools restrictions. Wilderness Study Areas requires congressional approval to move into actual permanently protected Wilderness Areas.

Crews, such as the one led by Bowman, go into the backcountry for five-day stretches at a time to work on the trails. There have also been shorter, weekend-long programs. SAWS is also active through its Wilderness Rangers program, which has placed SAWS “rangers” on the Cherokee National Forest in east Tennessee and on the Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia through November.

The initiative is part of a wilderness challenge funding grant, a 10-year effort to bring all of the U.S. Forest Service’s wilderness units up to a certain standard by 2014. North Carolina’s Wilderness Areas were at a higher level this year, but since the areas are reassessed each year, it could be that a SAWS ranger will be used in this state next year, Hodge said.

The SAWS rangers are, along with other duties, helping map where camping sites are being set up in the wilderness areas, Hodge said. Plus, they often serve as the only “official” many visitors will see in these remote regions, helping to guide hikers and provide help as necessary.

SAWS also will hold its second Wilderness Skills College in partnership with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy with two weeks worth of trail techniques and crew-leadership training. This past spring the conference was at the Ocoee Ranger District Work Center in Ocoee, Tenn.

Next spring, the hope is to hold the workshops here in North Carolina, Hodge said.

Southwestern Community College has started a new degree program whose graduates will likely become the leaders in the growing field of wilderness therapy.

The course work was designed in collaboration with area wilderness therapy providers such as Woodson Wilderness Challenge, Second Nature Blue Ridge, Phoenix Outdoors and others.

“We have a lot of interns in the field working with different organizations through our Outdoor Leadership program,” said Paul Wolf, the director of SCC’s Outdoor Leadership program. “And the message we kept hearing from these groups was that their biggest challenge was to get qualified staff and be able to keep them.”

Wolf is excited and enthused about the program, which began this fall semester and requires 18 semester-hour credits.

It’s been a two-year journey from brainstorming sessions to opening the doors to Wilderness Therapy students this fall. The journey began with meetings with Deb Klavohn, dean of health sciences at SCC. Then SCC had to get permission from the North Carolina Board of Community Colleges.

“We were granted permission last summer,” Wolf said.

 

A shift in direction

Wolf said wilderness therapy has had a major shift in direction since its early boot camp mindset.

Tragedies such as the ones at the Challenger Foundation in 1990 — where two teenagers died during separate wilderness survival trips — and the death of Aaron Bacon in 1994 while enrolled in a North Star Expeditions program made the industry slow down and take a second look. While “natural consequences” — i.e. if you don’t make a dry shelter and it rains, you get wet — are still a primary tenant of wilderness therapy, the industry has moved to an “empowerment model” rather than a punishment model.

He said that most of today’s wilderness therapy programs employ professional therapists or psychologists with graduate degrees. However, these therapists don’t march every step with participants, so the need for highly skilled field instructors is paramount to the success of the program and the safety of the participants.

 

SCC’s Wilderness Therapy program

A wilderness therapy field instructor wears many hats. That person is the trail boss to get from point A to point B. The field instructor has to have primitive living skills to ensure the group is prepared for whatever type of trail or weather conditions it encounters. Excellent orienteering and map-reading skills are mandatory. Plus, the field instructor is the first responder in any medical emergency and, for the majority of the trip, camp counselor.

Wolf has designed a diverse yet focused program to guarantee that SCC Wilderness Therapy graduates have what it takes to be competent field instructors and valued wilderness therapy employees. Courses in the program include Intro to Wilderness Therapy, Wilderness Therapeutic Models, Methods of Experiential Education, Primitive Living Skills as well as Land-Based and Water-Based Activities. The two courses offered this fall are Intro to Wilderness Therapy and Primitive Living Skills. Wolf said there were nine students in each class.

Wolf, who teaches most of the classes, has a bachelor’s degree with a double major in psychology and environmental studies from Mankato State University in Minnesota and a master’s in educational administration from Western Carolina University. He has years of experience in outdoor leadership and education including seven years with the Voyager Outward Bound School in the Boundary Waters wilderness in northern Minnesota. He was also coordinator of the Action Learning Programs at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Wolf also uses adjunct professors such as Jonathan Bryant, director of NOC’s wilderness medicine department, and Stephan Hart, who is a NOC instructor specializing in wild foods and medicinal plants.

 

A good fit

Wolf said the Wilderness Therapy program was a great fit and addition to SCC’s Outdoor learning Program.

“I would recommend an Outdoor Leadership degree for someone just out of high school,” Wolf said. “But the Wilderness Therapy certificate is a great add-on for someone who already has a degree or experience in outdoor learning.”

And it’s a great fit in the overall mission of community colleges. “This is something that is career-ready and specific. It was designed to meet industry needs and there are employers out there waiting,” Wolf said.

 

 

What is wilderness therapy?

Wilderness therapy — sometimes referred to as outdoor education or adventure-based therapy — are outdoor programs intended to be therapeutic in nature. They may simply self-identify as therapeutic or may offer more traditional psychotherapy in a wilderness environment.

Landmark Learning based in Jackson County offers 80 courses a year providing wilderness medical training to 2,000 people across all sectors of the outdoor and medical industry.

Many of the courses are held at their campus in Cullowhee and around Western North Carolina, but they also regularly offer training at sites around the Southeast.

Justin Padgett and his wife, Maurie, launched the wilderness instruction company in the late 1990s as a side venture while they were both in grad school.

“When we stared Landmark, she thought it was a hobby,” Padgett said.

Now they have a sprawling outdoor campus, five full-time employees and a contract pool of 35 instructors.

“We even made an agreement when we started that we were only going to grow to where we had 10 people outside of us. We now have 40 people including us,” Padgett said. “We never wanted to pay insurance to anybody or get real like that, but we’re doing that.”

It takes one entire staff person just to be in charge of gear. They make sure all the equipment is clean and functioning before heading out into the field, and that the right gear gets to the right place at the right time for each course. The program coordinator does everything from scheduling venues for the courses to purchasing plane tickets for the instructors.

Landmark prides itself on the expertise of its instructors.

“Folks teaching wilderness medicine with us are active in the rescue community. They work for fire departments, they work for EMS, or they work in hospital settings. Some of our staff are surgical assistants,” Padgett said. “Our instructors are professionals and dedicated to doing this. This is their living.”

Padgett is a senior paramedic and ambulance driver for WestCare hospital in addition to his work with Landmark.

Landmark is affiliated with NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School. It is the largest NOLS affiliate nationally and the only affiliate in the Eastern U.S. Those who graduate from Landmark have certification bearing the name of NOLS Wilderness Medical Institute.

Landmark has a host of other affiliations and credentials as well.

• N.C. Office of Emergency Medical Services for EMT courses.

• American Canoe Association for swift water rescue and courses for whitewater instructors.

• American Heart Association for First Aid and CPR courses.

• Starfish Aquatics Institute for Lifeguard and Wilderness Lifeguard courses.

• American Mountain Guides Association for Climbing Instructor courses.

www.landmarklearning.org or 828.293.5384.

What can you do with a foam pad, rain pants, sleeping bag and an old T-shirt?

A whole lot apparently, according to students who have been through wilderness medical training with Landmark Learning.

Broken leg? No problem. Dislocated shoulder? Gotcha covered. If you get hurt in the backcountry, just keep your fingers crossed one of these guys will find you.

“We teach a lot of improvisation,” said Rob Barham, one of Landmark’s regular instructors.

During a recent course, Barham walked students through the finer points of fashioning a full-leg cast on the fly to stabilize a torn ACL.

“This is mimicking a commercial knee splint with materials you would typically have in your backpack,” said Barham, 34, who lives in Jackson County.

Landmark, based in Cullowhee, offers dozens of outdoor rescue and wilderness medical training courses every year. The most advanced course is a Wilderness EMT, a four-week course that equips students to do everything from drive an ambulance in an urban setting to treat major medical emergencies far from civilization.

A recent wilderness EMT course conducted by Landmark attracted people from across the country and from all walks of the outdoor industry: camp counselors, outfitters, park rangers, you name it.

“We have a lot of injuries in the backcountry, and rangers are the first person to come up on them,” said Kathleen Fleet, 23, a park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns who came for the training.

Two students claiming the longest distance traveled dropped in from Antarctica. They are usually stationed on a ship funded by the National Science Foundation, which hosts rotating research teams every few months off the Antarctic coast. Medical training in such remote surrounds seemed like a wise undertaking.

The course also attracted college students studying to be doctors and nurses — including some already in the profession.

Robin Pope, a physician’s assistant with Sylva Orthopedic Associates, obviously had the basic medical knowledge of the EMT training under his belt already. So he joined the class for only the final week, when instruction shifts to the wilderness module.

Pope is the scout master of his son’s troop and wanted to adjust his thinking to treating emergencies on camping trips versus a clinical setting.

“When a patient comes into the office, it’s a controlled setting, the light is good, the temperature isn’t freezing,” Pope said.

But outdoors, it’s an entirely different ballgame with factors out of your control.

“What do you do with six or seven other kids sitting around looking at you going ‘What are you going to do about this?’” Pope said. “It’s just kind of a different way of thinking.”

Sometimes treating injuries in the backcountry requires a heavy dose of psychology, said Justin Padgett, the owner of Landmark who often leads courses.

“If someone has had a fractured femur in the backcountry, what do they need? Your ensolite pad and fleece, or a surgeon? They need a surgeon, so your ensolite and fleece has to look really good,” Padgett told students as he walked them through yet another leg brace exercise.

After Padgett surrounded the leg of a willing volunteer with stout sticks and a rolled up sleeping pad, snugged in with anything fleece he could get his hands on, he began compressing it with torn strips of T-shirt to create a rigid unmovable mass.

“Be super intentional with your padding. Epically intentional if you will,” Padgett said. “Some people call it anal retentive. That’s not what this is. I call it ‘specificness.’”

Following the demo, students broke into teams of three to try their own hand at stabilizing each other’s legs.

“Once you have a winner, take it apart and build another winner,” Padgett said as he moved around the room critiquing the splints.

The students by now were used to serving as each other’s patients, whether it was building arm slings or manhandling each other into stretchers. The repeated hands-on practice would allow students to let their instincts and training kick in when faced with a real emergency in the field.

The climax of the course was a series of mock rescue exercises staged in the woods the final two days. Volunteer patients were decked out with fake blood and given scripts to follow during the rescue scenario.

The rescuers realized the most difficult part of treating wilderness emergencies can be the diagnosis. Extracting information from a half-passed out screaming patient on the verge of panic isn’t easy. A rock climber that falls from a cliff could be paralyzed, or merely have a dislocated shoulder, requiring a litany of field tests.

“When you ask them if they can move, there is a difference between I can’t and I won’t. Sometimes you have to be commanding and tell them ‘I need you to move on the count of three. One, two, three, go,’” Padgett said. “We need to know do they have neurological damage or do they have pain?”

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