Utah’s Rugged Desert Areas Host 7 Eagle Rock Student Explorers

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For a full month last trimester, we offered a new experiential outdoor adventure-based course for sevenveteran Eagle Rock School students — a wilderness course that entailed navigating inner and outer landscapes in the pristine desert areas of Utah.

We approached this exploration by focusing on three modalities of backcountry travel — backpacking, climbing, and rafting — which ultimately offered ample opportunities for participants to learn more about themselves nature, and where the two intersect. In addition to a human-powered outdoor adventure, students engaged in a rigorous academic experiences that included creative non-fiction writing and ecological earth science.

Among our group were students Angel Resendiz, Ay’Niah Rochester, Carter Raymond, Dauntay Acosta, Jacob Israel, Sequoia Masters, and Xavier Hagood-Edmeade. Support came from our amazing instructor team, which included Jack Bynum (Adjunct Outdoor Education Instructor), Leila Ayad (our 2017/2018 Public Allies Teaching Fellow in Outdoor Education), and Amelia la Plante Horne (our current Public Allies Teaching Fellow in Outdoor Education, and Eagle Rock graduate). And as you’ll read later in this post, we connected toward the end of our trip with Nia Dawson (Student Services Program Manager).

We also had support from Song Candea, a snowboard instructor at Steamboat Resort and Eagle Rock graduate who has assisted us on our wilderness classes for several years, and myself — Outdoor Education Instructional Specialist Eliza Kate Wicks-Arshack.

And, following a week on campus to ground ourselves in the course curriculum, and packing for the trip, we headed to the desert.

Our course began with a seven-day loop in Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. Our route took us down the Twenty-Five Mile Wash, then 14 miles to the Escalante River, and up and out of Scorpion Gulch. We backpacked down massive slick rock domes, bushwhacked through forests of invasive tamarisk (a small shrub that the USGS says “favors sites that are inhospitable to native stream-side plants…”), waded down the frigid water in the Escalante River, and exited the canyon via a  grueling sand dune.

While walking the land, students engaged in learning about ecology through science lessons, personal observations, and research using nature guides. In addition, they began crafting their own personal narrative, experimenting with various writing styles, and reading exemplar essays. The first loop was trying — navigating the desert in an unmarked and untrailed terrain, carrying 50-plus-pound bags. All this while concentrating on forming group norms, dealing with conflict, and growing brains with academic content. It was hard work, but the crew finished strong, ready for the next adventure.

Following a big meal and warm showers in a local town, as well as welcome mail with words of encouragement from fellow students and staff back on campus, we ventured up to the Aquarius Plateau, which is the uppermost tier of the Grand Staircase for which the Monument was named. Along the way, we met up with Danica Loucks, the Educational Coordinator at Grand Staircase Escalante Partners.

She helped connect our group around the notion of exploring the land through four lenses: political, cultural, environmental, and ecological. Along the way we discussed how history is told and whose story is conveyed. We stopped at several heritage sites, saw remnants of an oil spill, and stopped at a viewpoint for the Blues — among the densest dinosaur fossil sites in the nation. After a full meal, we made it to Barney Top on the Aquarius Plateau where we’d spend the next three days for climb camp.

Our time on the plateau provided the opportunity for students’ growth, rest, and challenge. Rock climbing truly narrows the distance between the inner and outer selves through a real intimacy with nature and a connection with the rock.  Students challenged themselves by climbing on the volcanic tuff, facing their fears, pushing their comfort zone, and supporting their peers. They also dove deep into their personal essays on the plateau, bravely examining aspects of their lives while honing creative techniques to tell their stories. We also witnessed a transition of seasons amid falling leaves, a sudden cold spell, and the comfort of a fire that only drew our community closer.

Then, after several freezing nights, the crew was ready to drop down 5,000 feet to Mexican Hat to begin the third phase our course: the River Trip.

The night before we launched, our crew camped in Gooseneck State Park, giving us a birds-eye view of the river upon which we would be spending the next six days rafting and kayaking. For the river section, we partnered with Grand Canyon Youth, an outfit that arrived equipped with four-oar rig rafts, two inflatable kayaks (aka, duckies), as well as a crew of four instructors who guided us down the river.

On the San Juan River we floated through areas known for their geologic and human history, navigated rapids and inner challenges, and honed our understanding of earth systems and storytelling. Students braved Class II and Class III rapids, learned to row rafts and paddle duckies, and fully embraced river life.

Three weeks into the course, students were ready to take on their final challenge: planning and instructing a weeklong expedition for Nia Dawson, Eagle Rock’s amazing Student Services program manager who’d never been backpacking before.

We had several days in Bluff, Utah, to plan the final expedition, taking a short break to enjoy the Bluff Arts Festival. Students really stepped up in this final loop and were able to put all their learning to the test. They gracefully supported Nia in facing her fears and teaching all the necessary skills for living in the backcountry. The work of the instructor team over the arc of the course paid dividends in this final week. The students truly ran the show, guiding us through slot canyons, finding routes, cooking delicious meals, and taking care of each other — and us.

We celebrated the end of the course with a feast of burgers and hot dogs, and after some very welcomed hot showers, we began anticipating the transition back to wintery Estes Park. After a nine-hour drive, leaving the 80-degree desert and entering the 10-degree Rocky Mountains, we made it home to Eagle Rock and were greeted with a warm welcome from the on-campus community which we are all part of.

We had four days to wrap up our work, clean our gear, and celebrate a job well done. Students produced beautiful works of writing, demonstrated their learning of ecosystem functioning, displayed data they collected around making healthy life choices, and shared deep pride in the 30-day journey they shared in the desert.

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About the Author: Eliza Kate Wicks-Arshack is the Outdoor Education Instructional Specialist at Eagle Rock Schools and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colorado.

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