Down the River: Aspen Middle School floats the Colorado
On the third evening of Aspen Middle School’s outdoor-ed raft trip down the Colorado River, leader Tim Somerville asked his group what they missed most while paddling and camping out in the high-desert wilderness of eastern Utah. Family, hot showers, toilets, andpets were the some of the answers from the 16 seventh-graders and five adults.Not one person mentioned television, video games or iPods.In our five-day adventure following the river’s current from Cisco to the Big Bend campsite, just upstream from Moab, we left behind the hectic routines and creature comforts of home, and succumbed to the rhythm of the river. We took off our watches and tucked them deep inside our packs as we stroked forward into “river time.”Seldom were we aware that life existed at all beyond the river’s cocoon, despite the fact that Highway 128 hugged the Colorado for more than half our journey. The few times I did look over at the road, the cars and people seemed to be behind a sheet of glass, locked outside our special world.River EducationOutdoor education might be an escape from the tight time schedule of classes, but no one was playing hooky from learning. The river environment became the classroom, and the pre-trip lessons in geology, natural history and river ecology came alive as we paddled along beneath massive cliffs of Wingate and Navajo sandstone.We were on the first of the two raft trips for the 104 members of the seventh grade; the second half of the class floated the same 39 miles the following week. We were quick to appreciate the beauty and importance of the river, but there were other goals as well: working as a team to navigate the rafts safely, cooperating in the many tasks necessary to “Leave No Trace,” maintaining a healthy respect for the power of moving water through specific paddling techniques and water safety drills, and gaining new insights about ourselves and other people by being away from familiar situations and surroundings. One student summed it up at week’s end: “I miss being out on the river, where we didn’t care what we looked like, it just mattered who we were.” When asked for a definitive word on the purpose of outdoor education, the students’ answers captured it all: “challenge, explore, experience, effort, teamwork, friendship, harmony and flow.”On the RaftsNot a single aspect of rafting was omitted or sugar-coated for these capable teens. They unloaded gear, rafts and supplies at the Cisco boat ramp, and inflated the nine rafts with foot pumps. Rafts were methodically packed, secured and balanced, and with all life jackets fastened we pushed off in high spirits. Not all the water in a river moves downstream, so we learned to look for the bubble path and to recognize and avoid eddies. Boat captain Mike Tierney drilled us on right turns, left turns, all-forwards, and paddle high-fives. On the hot and sunny days, rafters popped into the river for a 62-degree, refreshing swim; the two girls from our boat floated Professor Creek Rapid in their life jackets, taking photos as they bobbed among the waves.One morning was cool and overcast, with a brisk headwind making our paddling an Olympic endeavor. One raft’s crew counted strokes (800 in a row was the new team record), another did add-on word games, and another group sang its way through the muscle torture. Frequent water and snack breaks kept spirits from flagging, and when a downstream breeze materialized around one bend, all paddle blades went up to help the raft “sail” for a while.Under the StarsWe stopped each afternoon to make camp for the evening. Communal chores were divided and rotated daily: Setting up the Eco-Safe toilet facilities, cooking, gathering firewood and heating buckets of water for the dish-cleaning station. The student chefs surprised us nightly with delicious concoctions.After dinner, we circled up to write in our journals and gather some meaning from the day. The son of former teacher and raft trip founder Bernie Posback once said, “If we don’t circle up, we’re just walking around in the woods.” We reflected on favorite aspects of the trip (the big water fight … falling asleep outside the tent under the stars … seeing UFO lights the same night the Mexican Air Force tracked seven of them), the most surprising (how slow the river was … the shapes of the land … how fast the river was), and the most challenging (rock climbing – it was really high and scary when you looked down … the hike: But it was fun, too, because we walked in the stream all the way down from the springs).Each pod of three rafts had its own experiences, since pods paddled different distances each day, and never camped near each other. Two of the four nights, we camped at the same site for a lay day of rock climbing or hiking, and to collect dissolved-oxygen data for the science projects. Rapids AheadRunning the river’s Class 1 and 2 rapids was a highlight for all, and there was a palpable tension in the air on our day to run five of the six sets ahead. The river was running at 10,000 basketballs (a velocity of 10,000 cubic feet per second) and our safety/support group, four kayakers, awaited us on the sandy shore of Onion Creek for life-jacket tightening and a drill on pickup and rescue techniques. Onion Creek Rapid was the first to buck and bounce the rafts and put ear-to-ear grins on the faces of all rafters. With a mile or so of calm water between each rapid, students had time to swap positions for maximum or minimum splashing. We charged into Ida Gulch Rapid, tucked into the curve of a low cliff and spun continuous 360s to its end, soaking each of us thoroughly. Emboldened by our success under Mike’s masterful guidance, we pulled off a more advanced maneuver on top of a wave in White’s, and were rewarded by our biggest thrill for the day’s finale.Eddying OutTeacher Amy Cord jump-started one night’s circle up with a Walt Whitman quote: “Now I see the secret of making the best persons. It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” As I saw it, we already had “the best persons” – these delightful, interesting children of our community – and now all were returning home with an expansive feeling in the lungs, heart, mind and spirit from our odyssey of self-discovery, independence, and adventure.During the last week of school, the seventh-graders hosted River Ecology Night to showcase their findings on data gathered both from a Maroon Creek control site and from the Colorado River. The teens also had some final insider information and advice to pass on:• “We got really dirty and you’ll get dreadlocks.”• “The thing I was most scared about was the groover.”• “If you think that wild turkeys are screeching, it’s probably the girls.”• “Don’t be scared of [the sound of] mountain lions ’cause it might be the boys.”• “Don’t run near the cactus.”The logistics of this outdoor ed trip were mind-boggling, but its success was a testament to the skills, experience and adaptability of the teachers and leaders. Thanks to all, including safety campers, drivers, shoppers and other parents/community volunteers. Robin Smith is an Aspen Middle School teacher who spent her teenage summers as a counselor at canoeing and sailing camps. She would love to be back on the river now, estimating basketballs per second with the best group of teens ever.
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