Wilderness Education Gone Brutally Wrong

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1995

Wilderness Education Gone Brutally Wrong
By Larry Burke

The idea that nature forges sound character is one of man's oldest convictions. It was this basic belief that gave rise to, among other things, the philosophy of John Muir, this magazine, and Outward Bound, the wilderness education program that was conceived in Wales during World War II as a way to mold stronger, more self-reliant citizens. The success of Outward Bound and similar programs has recently spawned more severe permutations on the theme: so-called wilderness-therapy or tough-love camps for wayward youths, now a multimillion dollar industry in this country.

Few of these programs have more ruthlessly spartan reputations than Utah-based North Star Expeditions, in whose care a 16-year-old Arizona boy named Aaron Bacon was placed in March of last year. A month later Bacon was dead, and eight North Star employees were subsequently charged with felony child abuse in a controversial case that has opened the lid on the wilderness-therapy industry.

With the trial slated for this coming winter, we dispatched contributing editor Jon Krakauer to dig deeper into the Bacon case--and to probe the merits and methods of wilderness therapy. Bacon's tragic story, Krakauer learned, was by no means an exception; over the last five years, at least four other young people have died in such programs. "In-your-face discipline may be an effective tool for molding soldiers," observes Krakauer in his wrenching report, "Loving Them to Death," But by imprinting brutality on young psyches, these camps do considerably more harm than good."

In this month's cover story, novelist Karen Karbo traces the Athenalike emergence of Gabrielle Reece, the professional volleyball player cum supermodel who's been much in evidence these days--on television, in advertisements, in the pages of fashion magazines. What interests us most about the six-foot-three Reece is her apparent place at the forefront of a new breed of savvy, stalwart young women who are increasingly leaving their mark on American culture by serving up a decidedly stronger, more athletic ideal of femininity. Karbo's provocative profile of this refreshing icon-in-progress is titled "The Übergirl Cometh."

Elsewhere in this issue: Writer Sebastian Junger and photographer Jim Erickson travel to Bequia, a volcanic speck in the Caribbean, to meet with Athneal Ollivierre, a 70-year-old harpooner who hunts humpback whales from a sailboat. As we learn from Junger's resonant tale, Ollivierre and his crew are the last remnants of a tradition that has remained unchanged since the days of Herman Melville--a tradition now caught in the cross fire of international whaling politics. Senior editor Alex Heard ventures to Scotland to drop in on Barry Clifford, a rascally American treasure-hunter who has been scouring the Firth of Forth in an aggressively touted but rather iffy quest for a sunken jackpot, dating from the reign of Charles I, that he says is worth $400 million. And with Halloween approaching, we asked correspondent Elizabeth Royte to debunk a few of the more gothic myths surrounding that most demonized of small mammals, the bat. To this end, we find Royte wallowing in guano deep inside a Texas cave, accompanied by the world's foremost champion of bats, Merlin Tuttle

Last, if you've been reading our Letters column lately, you've noticed the debate that's been raging over our July feature "The Martyrdom of Leonard Peltier," by Scott Anderson. Our report has provoked a level of discussion we're always pleased to see. It's in that spirit that we present a rebuttal to Anderson's article by Peter Matthiessen, a longtime contributor to Outside and author of the seminal book on the Peltier case, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, parts of which were called into serious question by our article. Keep an eye out, too, for the November issue, in which we'll publish a reply from Scott Anderson.

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