PUBLISHED: 6:45 AM on Wednesday, July 23, 2008
A walk on the therapeutic wild side
Alaska Crossings turns to 'natural' healing for youths
WRANGELL - Mark Walker and Steve Prysunka decided to develop a wilderness therapy program in Wrangell after watching teen after teen from Petersburg and Wrangell leave the state for behavioral health treatment.

Alaska Crossings is now in its ninth year of operation. It has grown to annually serve 160 teenagers a year from across Alaska, making it the largest wilderness therapy program in the state.

Groups of nine kids ages 12 to 18 and three guides embark on 49-days of camping, hiking, paddling and climbing. The program aims to help participants develop physical and emotional strengths that will help them once they return home.

"Everything is based on the metaphor that life is a journey and you are on a journey," Prysunka said. "Kids are practicing how to steer a canoe and also how to steer their lives."

Assistant Director Stephanie Seleen, who was a guide for Alaska Crossings for five years, has seen participants come for a wide range of reasons, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, problems at home, alcohol and drug use, depression or anxiety disorders. But their initial reactions to the program are often the same.

photos courtesy of Alaska Crossings
  Alaska Crossings, located in Wrangell, uses outdoor activities such as kayaking as part of its youth behavioral health treatment.
"When they come, none of them really want to be here," Seleen said. "They don't realize how spending 49 days camping is going to help them."

Seven weeks of hiking, climbing and paddling changes things. Seleen said most of the kids see the therapeutic value by the end.

Each group of nine kids and three guides stays together for the duration of the program. Back at base, a therapist and a case manager communicate with group leaders daily and report back to parents on how their children are doing.

When the groups are not paddling or hiking, the guides lead games, team-building activities, writing in journals and group talks.

photos courtesy of Alaska Crossings
  "Everything is based on the metaphor that life is a journey and you are on a journey," said Steve Prysunka with Alaska Crossings.
Most of the participants are from outside of Southeast, so the landscape itself can be exciting.

"Some of the kids that come down from up north, they've never seen trees before," Seleen said. "Something that small can be pretty amazing."

Seleen believes much of the strength of the program lies simply in giving participants new activities and skills.

"A lot of the kids are from smaller towns and they don't really have much to do in the summer," Seleen said. "They're just bored, that's why they're getting in trouble."

It's harder to be bored while canoeing on the Stikine river or climbing mountains in the Coast Range. The programs operate year-round, which can provide additional challenges - and thrills.

"We'll be out paddling and there will be snow coming down," Seleen said. "The kids just think it's awesome."

Prysunka stresses that Alaska Crossings is not boot camp.

photos courtesy of Alaska Crossings
  The group of nine youths and three guides stay together the entire 49 days of the program.
"We don't believe the wilderness trip is something to be survived," Prysunka said. "We want these kids to come home and talk about the incredible experiences they've had.

"There is a lot of negative press about the wilderness therapy industry. We pride ourselves on being a strength-based program. We tell our kids, 'You're allowed to have fun on these trips.'"

Most Alaska Crossings participants are referred to the program by therapists, probation officers or parents, Prysunka said.

Alaska Crossings works with participants and their families to make sure they seek additional help from other organizations after the program.

"We don't have a lot of repeat clients," Prysunka said. "(But) if the families don't access other services we know the kids will fall back in the same behaviors."

Alaska Crossings is a division of Alaska Island Community Services in Wrangell. As part of a State of Alaska qualified community mental health center, most health insurance plans, including Medicaid, will pay part or all of the program cost. Prysunka said the majority of participants come through Medicaid, and that grants are available through the program itself to help with travel expenses.

The program is designed for ages 12 to 18 with behavioral health issues such as ADHD, FAS, depression or anxiety; alcohol or drug abuse; low self-esteem; recovering from sexual, emotional or physical abuse; problems with school grades, attendance or achieving at potential; or being rebellious, angry, defiant or running away.

Participants need to be physically able to hike up to ten miles a day carrying a 35 or 40-pound pack and endure a range of weather conditions. The program is not designed to handle problems such as suicidal tendencies; sociopathic personality disorders or histories of significant interpersonal violence; or likelihood of a psychotic breakdown during the expedition.

For more information visit or call (907) 874-2371 or (866) 550-2371.