North Star Expeditions' motto - "Adapt, Improvise, Overcome" - seemed an ironic challenge this week as the wilderness program again squirmed under state scrutiny, this time with its license suspended and three teens pulled from the desert-survival project.
The Escalante-based North Star has struggled for months to overcome fallout from the March 31 death of an Arizona teen participating in its desert encampments. Although an autopsy revealed 16-year-old Aaron Bacon died from peritonitis and a perforated ulcer - considered natural causes - entries in the boy's journal and those of other participants prompted a local and state investigation into the program's living conditions.North Star Expeditions is one of a handful of operations located primarily in southern Utah that preaches wilderness survival as rehabilitation for troubled youths. North Star officials were unavailable for comment Friday morning and had not returned Deseret News calls by press time.
In a spring journal entry, Bacon recounted how he'd eaten a lizard and scorpion as his only sustenance for the day, according to records examined by the Department of Human Services.
"That's why it was really disturbing . . . to understand that is all the nourishment he'd received that day," said Mike Dale, department spokesman. "They were teaching them to live off the land," often requiring the teenage participants to survive on pine needle teas, prickly cactus and other indigenous edibles. Such tenets are controversial but have earned limited success when properly administered.
Other kids talked of food, water and provisions bartered for good behavior, according to Dale. One group told investigators how members were forced to run through a sandy gully pushing a handcart filled with 1,000 pounds of rocks.
"This information came from more than one source," Dale said. "They look bad - they've lost weight, they're tired and hungry." Two boys examined by investigators had lost a combined 31 pounds in 12 days, he said.
On Thursday, a multiagency group converged in Garfield County to examine North Star's operating conditions and determine if it had violated state licensing guidelines for such wilderness programs. The team consisted of five representatives from the attorney general's office, led by Rob Parrish, chief of the Division of Children's Justice; a medical team of two doctors, a psychologist and nurse from the child abuse unit of Primary Children's Medical Center; and officials from the Department of Human Services' Division of Family Services and Division of Licensing.
The group examined the kids at a Cannonville clinic, with the intent to investigate North Star's records and check the kids for any negative effects of their stay in the program, Parrish said. The effort was separate from the criminal investigation of Bacon's death.
Sally Bacon, whose son died in the program, said she welcomes the state's attention to North Star.
"The state of Utah gets kudos from me," said Bacon in a telephone interview from her Arizona home. "As a parent who was seeking help for my child, I'm just devastated."
Bacon died after completing Phase One of the program, a camp on Hole-in-the-Rock Road in which they learned basic survival skills needed for the remainder of their stay in the desert.
Concerns regarding the opportunity for possible malnourish- ment, questionable sleeping arrangements - kids were sometimes forced to sleep in the desert without shelter - and proper adult supervision, prompted the state to suspend North Star Expeditions' license. The organization has 10 days to respond to the state's concerns and 30 days to remedy any violations. In the interim, North Star will continue to operate.
Aside from three girls taken into protective custody, the rest of the group returned to the wilderness Friday.
Bacon's journals, and those of other students participating in the wilderness program at the time of his death, were turned over to the Garfield County Sheriff's Department in March for its investigation of any criminal wrongdoing. Those records were not available to the state when Division of Licensing previously ruled the program had not violated state guidelines.