(Published in Inside AADAC, Summer 2007)

There are two routes into AADAC’s Enviros Base Camp. The one I take, as a visitor, is the bumpy continuation of a dirt track that winds its way up from the highway, through the trees, for 21 kilometres. The other, taken by the clients and their families, requires walking the last few hundred feet, passing by signs that indicate the four stages to be crossed in successful treatment here: courage, trust, commitment and wisdom. I think of adding a fifth: an empty bladder. Without this, there is no chance of surviving the bone-shaking drive.

Enviros Base Camp is in the Ghost Wilderness region of the Alberta Rockies. It is not far from Cochrane, although once you arrive, it feels like the middle of nowhere. It is the perfect setting for the adventure-based wilderness residential addictions treatment program that AADAC offers in partnership with Enviros. The program serves youth aged 12 to 17, as well as their families. Clients and their families have decided in consultation with an AADAC counsellor, through assessment and careful treatment planning, that an isolated environment best suits their treatment needs.

Rick Oliver, counselling supervisor for the camp, and Carolyn Godfrey, manager for Enviros specialized services, show me around the facility. The main building accommodates staff offices, counselling rooms, and a dining room and living room. There are two separate client residences, dormitory style-one for girls and one for boys. There is a staff residence, a small school and, of course, outhouses, which are better than what you would find in most campsites: they are heated and lighted and have no resemblance to old-style outhouses.

Enviros’s 12-week program balances individual and group counselling, individualized schooling, and outdoor activities such as hiking, canoeing and a high-ropes course, all of which focus on teaching skills and knowledge that are integral to the addictions treatment process. It is a mix that is clearly popular with the clients.
David and Karen (not their real names) are both enthusiastic about Enviros.

“It teaches you a lot of self-respect,” says Karen. “It teaches you better communication skills.”

Both clients are 15. Karen is on day three of her treatment; David is at the three-week point. He has good memories of his five-day trip on the Red Deer River, which stands out as his best experience so far.

This activity, like most others at Enviros, is an example of using experiential learning within a treatment setting, best summarized as “learning by doing.” Clients acquire skills through hands-on activities in conjunction with instructive group work.

We happened to observe an experiential activity upon our arrival. Three clients had been blindfolded and were attempting to guide each other along a rope through the trees. I later asked Kyle, a counsellor, about the goal of this activity. He explained that through this activity, the clients learn about the importance of asking for support, help and guidance. Knowing how to ask for support is critical to successful addictions treatment.

When I ask Karen and David what they hope to take away from their time at Enviros, their answers are different but similar.

Karen says, “I want to be able to have solo time… When I was doing drugs, I was scared to be alone.”

David says, “I want to make things better with my family.”
They are articulating that returning to regular life is not just about quitting alcohol and other drugs. It is about a new way of life: doing things differently, interacting with others differently-being different.

Rick and Carolyn emphasize the importance of family to this process. Enviros runs sessions called Family Matters, in which family members or other guardians become part of the counselling process. If possible, family members visit the camp during the youth’s stay, and youth also arrange short trips home. Real change in a youth’s life involves all major life areas, and improving the home environment is critical.

At lunch, we all gather around the table in the camp’s main building. There are expectations and rituals about eating together, which is important to clients, many of whom have lacked structure in their lives. Lunch starts with a few wise words read aloud from a book, followed by a moment of silence. Then, lunch is served. There is an atmosphere of mutual respect and courtesy as counsellors and young people work together during and after lunch in a common goal of ensuring all tasks and chores are done properly.

On the drive out of camp, we stop the car for a final photo opportunity. In front of the Enviros sign, an Inukshuk-a figure made of stone-greets all visitors. The Inuit use Inukshuks to give directions and guide travellers. It seems the perfect symbol for Enviros, a program that has offered many youth the direction and guidance that will help them return to their lives with renewed purpose and vitality.