Image credit: Kate Thompson

Spring 2011

A Classroom with a View

By Michael Engelhard
Spring 2011: A Classroom with a View

As students paddle through the raging rapids and placid pools of the Colorado River, they learn about the challenges facing the Grand Canyon, and a whole lot more.

Stepping waist-deep into the “warmer” shallows of the Colorado River near the Grand Canyon’s Cathedral Wash, Parker P. gasps. Together with trip leader and river guide Sarah B., he pushes a seine net on poles through backwaters muddied by the Paria River’s sediment, which has colored the entire stream below Lees Ferry milk coffee-brown. The first sweep of this preferred habitat for juvenile fish yields one polka-dotted rainbow trout fingerling and two native speckled dace.

Introduced into the frigid, bottle-green waters below Glen Canyon Dam for the pleasure of sport fishermen, trout have become a threat to fish native to the Colorado River—humpback chubs, flannelmouth suckers, and bluehead suckers; they compete for food and prey on the young of these now rare or endangered species. The impact of trout has multiplied since they expanded their range downstream, but the reservoir’s clear, 47˚ F water also curbs the natives’ numbers and range. The Colorado pike minnow, razorback sucker, bonytail chub, and roundtail chub do look as eccentric as their names suggest but are no longer found in the Grand Canyon.

Together with nine other teenagers, Parker embarked on a weeklong “ed-venture” with Grand Canyon Youth (GCY), a nonprofit using one of the world’s biggest classrooms. The Flagstaff-based program promotes stewardship for public lands and learning through participation in all aspects of a trip. Five guides, a student coordinator, and a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientist act as mentors and instructors on this one.

To get a grip on the science and routines of a river trip, the youths are assigned to groups with daily rotating tasks: cook crew, dishes crew, toilet (or “groover”) crew, and science crew. Every evening, offshore from the camp beaches, the science crew sets baited and non-baited fish traps—treble-hoop nets with different mesh sizes. One type of bait, the artificial “stinky cheese” for catfish, soon gains notoriety among the students.

The different setups serve to determine the most effective method for removing non-native fish. Past attempts by the Park Service to weed out unwanted species have largely failed. After running a warm-up rapid at Badger Creek, the students are busy preparing lunch under leaden clouds that roil in typical monsoon season style. A rain shower later brings relief from three-digit temperatures. Drifting downstream in the rafts, the guides get acquainted with the students, whose interests and personalities quickly emerge. Their reasons for signing up are as diverse as their backgrounds. Matthew K., tall, blond, and politically astute, once stood on the South Rim during a geology school project and decided he had to hike to the river or float it some day. Joshua W., part Hopi and the son of a former Grand Canyon outfitter, has wanted to visit some of the canyon’s powerful places since age 14. “Aly” H., a South Korean fireplug, joined because a judge suggested she’d better stay out of trouble, but also because she likes going on private river trips.


Last year, NPCA’s Center for Park Research conducted a comprehensive report assessing some of the natural resource challenges facing the Grand Canyon, including many of the issues raised in this article. That report details threats to clean air, river flows, and archaeological sites and outlines challenges related to preserving natural sounds, mining on adjacent lands, relationships with American Indians, and the impacts of climate change.

Since the report’s release, NPCA has sued the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce haze across the canyon caused by pollution from nearby power plants, and our staff has spoken out at public meetings advocating for flows from Glen Canyon Dam that protect endangered species and other park values. Very soon—perhaps by the time this magazine is published—government proposals and environmental impact statements are expected on two issues: an overdue plan to regulate overflights of small planes and helicopters to reduce noise, and a comprehensive look at uranium mining on public lands adjacent to the park.

Want to help? Sign up to receive our electronic alerts, and we’ll let you know when key decisions are on the table, so you can point our nation’s leaders in the right direction.

Many students get hooked on the river life and keep coming back for more, validating GCY’s mission: to inspire curiosity about a landscape and its natural communities. Program director Emma Wharton sees students as fires to be kindled rather than vessels to be filled. “A lot of the youths tend to think in terms of black and white,” she says. “We’re trying to get them to realize that science is complex and by learning to do it in place, see how it relates to the management of public lands.” Assisting the USGS and National Park Service (NPS) with their research introduces these students to methods used in aquatic biology and stream ecology while showing them how different land-management agencies operate.

Long before they launched at Lees Ferry, these teenagers performed community service, two hours for each day to be spent on the river. (They also raised money to pay for part of their trip’s cost, and parents and GCY matched their amounts.) They volunteered in Flagstaff’s soup kitchen, at orphanages in Peru, or with the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, building rainwater catchment basins. Sara H., a GCY alumna with a nose stud and thumb rings, repaired houses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. “GCY definitely got me started on the idea of service,” she says. On this trip, she takes turns at the oars and ends up rowing Grapevine, a bouncy 8 on the Grand Canyon’s 1 to 10 scale of whitewater. A pre-med student interested in working for Doctors Without Borders, Sara seeks to reconcile social and environmental activism. She is so smitten with GCY that she considers working summers at the warehouse or, one of her dreams, even rowing the raft that carries group gear.

Students like Sara, Parker, and Parker’s twin brother Cody—who could be surfing his home beaches near Malibu instead of spending much of his summer on a working-and-learning vacation—seem like another endangered species. Their appetite for natural science and outdoors activities cannot be taken for granted. Visits to U.S. national parks steadily increased from the 1930s until 1987. Since then, visitation to these parks has been declining by a little more than 1 percent each year, possibly as the result of a more sedentary lifestyle. Youngsters in particular seem to suffer from “nature deficit disorder,” a term coined by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. Louv links the absence of nature in children’s lives largely to our obsession with television, video games, the Internet, and iPods. He sees rising rates of obesity, attention disorders, and depression as consequences of this break between the young and nature. Many worry that declining use of our national parks might eventually lead to a society that is less concerned with conservation. The preeminent threat to places like the Grand Canyon—even more serious than extinctions—is that future generations could lose touch with them or will consider them mere testing grounds for outdoor gear.

Since 1996, Glen Canyon Dam has released three controlled floods to improve fish habitat by mimicking pre-dam conditions. Floods inundate the river’s dry side channels and depressions, forming backwaters in which juvenile chubs and other native fish hatch, eat, and grow. The water is slightly warmer in these natural hatcheries, and the young fish are protected from strong currents, and that is indeed where the students catch most young specimens with the seine net.

Experimental releases from the sediment-trapping dam also replenish eroding beaches—habitat for numerous plant and animal species and the location of archaeological sites in the river corridor. Ideally, such releases are timed to coincide with the rains that flood tributaries like the Paria, whose sediment discharge they deposit throughout the main canyon. To help fine-tune the dam’s flow regimen, Adopt a Beach—an ongoing service project organized by the Park Service—enlists GCY and commercial outfits to monitor assigned beaches, documenting changes through an ongoing photography project. By replicating photos taken after the last artificial flood in 2008, the students who scramble across baking boulders quickly understand that North Canyon’s shoreline qualifies as a success: Compared with the 2008 shots, sediment has settled nicely between many rocks, and the sandy apron at the high waterline has grown. We snap a group photo on the restored beach and shove off, but only after many voices joined in a playful shout of GCY’s slogan: “Yay, Science!”

Not everything is “serious science,” however; our itinerary leaves ample time for play and contemplation, both of which help to create a relaxed learning environment. As an antidote to the stifling heat, our mob douses two baby-blue motorized pontoon boats—behemoths compared with our rafts—only to find that our bailing buckets are no match for the long-range squirt guns of their passengers.

At Redwall Cavern, a game of Ultimate Frisbee leaves the mud-daubed youths panting and a dust cloud hovering in the air. While we take in the view from the cavern’s back, a moment of silence settles over the group. We stand still and listen to a riffle murmuring in the sunlight outside.

There is a physical dimension to learning, very much like play, which is typically ignored in indoor educational settings—but not on this trip. Laboring to the top of the Redwall limestone at Eminence Break, Matthew pauses on the trail. “Phew! I’ve got even more respect now for the ancient Puebloans.” The fault line at Eminence Break marks a cross-canyon route to the North Rim by way of the Anasazi footbridge, whose remains we saw from the river, wedged into a chimney up high. Some students peel and sample tunas, the wine-dark fruits of the prickly pear that were an ingredient in the ancients’ diet. On calm water stretches, they row rafts. One will take over the boatman’s seat when his guide is washed out in a rollercoaster rapid. A few will swim rapids, voluntarily and involuntarily, learning when to breathe in (in a wave trough) and when not to (on a wave’s crest).

Creature comforts and inconvenience are equally part of this educational package. At President Harding camp, students bathe in the eddy, and Sara takes scissors to Matt D.’s mop head—a strangely domestic scene. Just after dinner, we notice a haze near the South Rim. Then a storm gust whips spray from the water, headed straight for our beach. When it hits, a gigantic dust devil ravages camp. Students escape the pelting in the bow of the raft I’ve been captaining, where they tell stories of their worst injuries until the wind dies down and a gibbous moon paints Tatahatso Point ghostly white.

With the daily setting and retrieving of nets and the smell of stinky cheese bait wafting through camp, our conversations inevitably return to the subject of fish, specifically the humpback chub—the one endangered species remaining in the Colorado River. We learn from Parker’s student presentation that the chub rarely thrives outside the Grand Canyon anymore; only six populations remain in the wild. The largest of these, numbering fewer than 10,000 individuals, now lives and spawns near the mouth of the Little Colorado.

Government scientists routinely catch and tag chubs to assess their habits and numbers. Beginning in 2009, they helicoptered young humpback chubs to Shinumo Creek 45 miles downstream, to establish another viable population and thereby hedge bets against the species’ extinction through any localized, catastrophic event.

Not too surprisingly, when the science crew pulls the fish traps at a camp below the confluence, three humpback chubs squirm in the nets. Passing them through a hoop scanner, the students realize that two of the fish already carry radio-frequency tags like those often implanted in family pets. Handling the fish like china figurines, they measure the length of their bodies and their forked tails, which indicate age—but the untagged specimen refuses to be measured. In a spastic reflex, it leaps off the measuring board, flopping toward the river’s edge in an effort to escape. A student grasps it and gently washes the sand from its gills and opalescent skin. After the students have finished recording the capture data, Sarah injects a chip the size of a rice grain into cartilage of the fish’s belly with a sterilized syringe. The students then place their captives back in the river, where they resume their aquatic wanderings.

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In the steady flow of days that constitutes river time, the students have reached the end of their journey. Tomorrow, before sunrise, they will climb out of Pipe Creek, following the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim. Another group of students and their coordinator will hike in for eight days in the lower Grand Canyon.

As dusk enfolds Cremation Camp, the gang circles up around a sacred datura plant to watch one of its moonflowers unfurl for the nocturnal affair with the sphinx moth, its pollinator. Tanned and a bit disheveled, the students review their time in the canyon: “Until now, I’ve never had an interest in geology,” says Hayden. Matthew enjoyed getting to know people from different backgrounds: “You don’t have to have electronics to have fun,” says Matt D., who lost his ground tarp in the squall at President Harding, broke a fishing pole, and generally taxed the guides’ patience with his short attention span. Parker is surprised how pristine the inner canyon felt, despite thousands of visitors per year. Asked what they will miss most, one of them decides it’s the sound of the river. Asked how this trip might affect their future, another thinks he’ll be more mindful, “trying to live with the Earth instead of against it.” Some GCY alumni veer more concretely into new directions. Motivated by their Grand Canyon experience, former students have begun to study geology, fisheries biology, and environmental policy. Rennie W. wants to become a stream ecologist like her dad. After traveling with disabled passengers on two GCY River Buddies trips, Paul P. has decided to go into engineering so he can develop outdoor equipment for people with special needs.

Regardless of the path they choose, and regardless of whether or not they will speak out in defense of wild places, none of these river runners will forget the days spent among red cliffs and thundering rapids, in the company of strangers, some of whom became friends.

About the author

This article appeared in the Spring 2011 issue

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