Girl in Camouflage

Boys Rites of Passage, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Wilderness school aims to guide teens into adulthood, and connect them with the earth

Santa Cruz Sentinel - Rites of Passage
By ROBIN MUSITELLI, Sentinel Staff Writer

SANTA CRUZ -- Alone for 24 hours.

No food. No water. No sleeping bag, flashlight or books.

Alone with a code of honor he had written to guide his life.

That didn't fluster Gui Famalaro, then just 14. He worried about staying awake, until a cougar sauntered by.

"That kept me awake for sure," he said.

At Mount Shasta, Famalaro was engaged in a rite of passage, an ancient tribal tradition finding its way into modern life thanks to the Headwaters Outdoor School of Santa Cruz.

The courses offer a re-enactment of ancient coming-of-age rituals, marrying two timeless and universal struggles: survival in the wilderness and survival of adolescence.

"The purpose is to move from boyhood to manhood in a conscious way, to become a man of honor," said Tim Corcoran, the man behind Headwaters.

"We honor (the participants) as they find their own medicine, unique gifts and purpose for being on Earth, and we also prepare them to expect change and more responsibility."

In Vogue

Wilderness therapy is a trendy approach to dealing with teen delinquency, with more than 1,000 programs nationwide, according to the Wilderness Therapy Organization, a nonprofit group offering information to parents.

About 40 licensed therapy programs exist for youth with psychological, emotional and substance-abuse problems. Outdoor skills schools, offering adventure, challenges and adversity to develop leadership and confidence, are the fastest growing.

With 44 schools, Outward Bound, founded in 1961, is the granddaddy followed by the National Outdoor Leadership School based in Wyoming.

In 1991, Corcoran fashioned a wilderness experience.

"It's not like boot camp," said Famalaro, now 16 and a Headwaters apprentice. "It straightens you out, but not in a direct way. It's more like the Earth connection does it."

Jerry McMullen, a youth counselor in Santa Cruz County, refers high-risk youth to the Headwaters.

"They discover, first of all, the natural world," McMullen said of the students he sends to the program. "Many of these kids haven't had an opportunity to spend time in nature and see the power and beauty and magic. It gives them this incredible awakening to a world they haven't experienced."

A world of guidance, teamwork and cooperation.

"They discover inner strengths they didn't know they had," McMullen said. "That's something I've seen that can really, really change a life."

One of the teen program graduates, told McMullen the program helped him manage his anger and kept him out of fighting situations because "He didn't have to prove himself."

Teepees, sweat lodges

The rites-of-passage course takes place on 32 acres at Mount Shasta next to U.S. Forest Service land.

Here, in eight bark teepees and two round houses made of cedar, boys will spend six days on a journey to find their inner strength.

The days start at dawn with a tracking hike.

During the week, the barefoot boys camouflage themselves in mud, using the paint to express who they are.

At night, they huddle around a fire and hold council, using a talking stick to reach consensus.

They learn to hug trees and climb them. With sticks, grass and bark they build a shelter.

They experience three sweat-lodge ceremonies.

And they climb a mountain together. Everyone must reach the peak or be subject to consequences Corcoran devises.

And in respect of nature, they are not allowed to kill, not even insects.

"It sounds great," Santa Cruz psychologist Helen Resneck said of the program's therapeutic value. "I think it empowers (participants) and gets them to go inside, and it separates them from our society so they can figure out what's of value for them."

Developing a philosophy

The man behind the program describes himself as mostly bear sprinkled with a bit of Irish. He's a big, burly, bearded guy, whose eyes fill with tears as he describes joy in "bringing people home again to the Earth."

Corcoran grew into the Headwaters school philosophy.

"I was always outdoors," he says. "When I went into the woods, I always felt at home, like I belonged there."

His uncle in Colorado taught him to hunt, fish, track and build shelters. His grandfather in Montana taught him about animals and introduced him to sweats on the Flat Head Indian reservation.

A Swedish naturalist took him backpacking in 35 states in four months.

When he was 12, Corcoran climbed Mount Shasta and wrote a code of honor for his life. "To honor and respect nature. To give my best and to not lie ..."

When he was 17, he spent four months alone in the Canadian wilderness.

He's worked in zoos and parks training elephants and chimpanzees.

In 1981, he moved to Santa Cruz and bought a chimney sweep business, giving him a rooftop view of the world.

Corcoran shares his life experiences with his students. The Headwaters Outdoor School offers 17 courses for people of all ages.

The course descriptions read like an advanced Boy Scout survival manual: vision quests, flint knapping, tracking, fire making, snowshoeing, bow making, cordage making and hunting for edible plants.

Growing up

Corcoran's wife, Jean Sage, leads the girls through the rites-of-passage course.

Kenna Gallagher, 18, completed the rites and many other Headwaters courses.

It's incredible," said her mother, Renie Gallagher. "She's matured in such a good strong way. She's learned to meditate and overcome fears. She knows herself and has self-assurance. In any situation, she knows she can come to a calm place inside herself."

The rites of passage course for girls hasn't hit the same strong stride as the course for boys.

"Boys have this incredible warrior energy at that age. if they're not guided, they're going to go crazy," Corcoran said. "The rites let them know it's a sacred thing to become an adult. It also lets them make a clean cut, have a way to say goodbye to childhood, which can be painful."

The culmination of the rites course is the 24-hour vision quest. The cold, the wind and the sounds of night are nature's tools to open them to vulnerability, Corcoran says.

"I saw some weird stuff, nothing profound," Famalaro said. "I saw like a tree with deer heads in it looking around. I have no idea what they mean, even now."

Noah Gould said he watched the sun, a herd of deer and the clouds.

"They were changing shapes, becoming different animals. Then they came together and became a big lizard, a dragon," Gould said. "Lizard was the animal I had chosen from the animal medicine cards at the beginning of this journey."

Jack Neenan remembers as he sat on a "powerful rock and listened to the river. I would talk to myself and tell the Great Spirit the story of my life, adding as much detail as I could."

Edward Murray, a senior at Santa Cruz High School, attended a vision quest five years ago.

"The main thing I took away was a respect for the Earth and seeing how we can work together."

He tries to live by the code of honor he wrote:

* Be respectful to all things.
* Give your best.
* Keep your word.
* Have fun.
* Don't steal.
* Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
* Help when help is needed.
* Be yourself.
* Be respectful to women.
* Don't be judgmental, which is different than judging.
* Be thankful for what you have.
* Complete tasks that you start.
* Respect your elders.
* Master your ego.
* Open your heart.

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