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MARION (AP) — The faint scent of pine wafted through the air on a warm breeze, and the resounding crash of a waterfall roared nearby.

Down a steep trail to the waterfall, a group of about 15 hikers trudged along, their backpacks loaded with bags of fish. The hikers, from the Wilderness Treatment Center in Marion, were helping the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks plant fish in the stream near Hidden Lake.

And by helping others in a wilderness setting, the young men are learning to help themselves break the stranglehold of drugs and alcohol.

After the group released their fish into the creek, they trudged back up the trail and paused at the waterfall to take in the scenic vista. For these young men from the treatment center, the astounding scenery was a fresh change of pace.

Most of them had been brought to the wilderness by their parents or the court systems to sort out their problems with drugs and alcohol. The 60-day program uses the sights, sounds and smells of Montana forests to help the sometimes willing, but often rebellious, participants find an alternative to drug use.

Here, in the forests of northwest Montana, these desperate people begin to realize they are not one lost soul, one island in a sea of despair. Through wilderness immersion and camping, they begin to realize that they have to rely on each other to survive.

It seems to work.

The treatment center takes only young men, ages 14-24, and leads them down the path to rehabilitation through group therapy, wilderness immersion and studying the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The men are brought into the wilderness during the third step of AA — which helps addicts to rely on the spiritual side of themselves.

When they’re sitting in a classroom with other addicts, “That spiritual side is hard to understand,” says John Brekke, the treatment center’s founder. “But in the woods it comes through more subtle and more effective.”

Clint, 18, came to the Wilderness Treatment Center when his parents saw his drug problem developing. They offered him the chance to go to Montana to sort out his feelings — and kick his drug habit, which he said ranged from marijuana to cocaine.

Like many people admitted to the Wilderness Treatment Center, Clint comes from an upper middle-class family. The two-month program costs $15,900, so clients tend to come from middle- or upper-income families. Also, nearly 75 percent of them come from traditional, nondivorced families, Brekke says.

Clint paused near the waterfall to describe how he wound up at the treatment center. He admitted that his problem was drugs. “I used anything I could get my hands on,” he said. He has slowly come to allow the outdoors to sink into his soul.

“I dig it,” he said. “I think it’s a pretty good program. It gives kids an opportunity to learn about themselves and the outdoors. There are a lot of kids here from the city and they don’t have the chance to do things like this.

“It shows you how great life is without drugs. You learn how to live.”

Counselor Doug Richardson has worked at the treatment center for six years and he’s seen how the program turns troubled young men around.

“It’s a process,” he says.

There’s a common thread among most cases that come through treatment. When they reach the center they generally are defiant, not wanting to be there. Far removed from the temptations of society, the drug-addled teens struggle to abandon their addictions. There are cravings, dreams of “using,” and “war storying” with other campers about “the good old days,” Richardson said. “You can pretty much watch all of them go through those phases.”

Soon, they get into that silent rhythm that beats in the woods, and they come to see that, “This is for me. This is something I need to do,” Richardson said.

Brekke, a former counselor at the Swan River Youth Camp, started the center in 1983 and runs it with his wife, Nancy. The lodge, outbuildings and cabins sit on the banks of the Little Bitterroot River amid a wide green pasture, and it’s a calm and peaceful place for clients to find meaning in their lives.

The Wilderness Treatment Center runs outdoor trips every day of the year except Christmas and is the largest outfitter in Montana, according to Brekke. Last year the treatment center had 210 patients from 37 states and four foreign countries.

When they go into the woods, they perform trail work for two of the three weeks.

“We’re giving back to the wilderness,” Brekke says.

This is not a survival school, but a clinic in a wilderness setting. The campers also practice low-impact camping. Brekke notes that the center’s safety record shows no serious accidents or deaths in the 18 years it’s been in operation.

As founder, Brekke will be the first to say the treatment program works. But he also backs up that claim with independent survey data from A&A Research of Kalispell, which follows the patients for two years after they complete the program. According to Brekke, about 60 percent of the patients are sober within two years of leaving the program.

“That’s very good,” Brekke says. “It works.” He says success means not using drugs or alcohol.

With such a high rate of success, Brekke says the program is now the top treatment facility in the nation, largely because of the wilderness experience. “Very few inpatient treatment centers deal with that,” Brekke says. “But self-esteem is such an important issue with drug addicts.”

Brekke knows firsthand how time in the outdoors can help a person. “I’ve gotten a lot out of the wilderness, personally. It’s a spiritual experience and a self-esteem builder. These kids learn how to stay sober in the first 30 days, and the second 30 days they learn that they can.

“After a 21-day wilderness trip they feel they can accomplish anything.”

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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