We’re off the river!

Everything was wonderful. Much to say, but not just yet. First to Moab for laundry, shower, and rest.

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We’re off!

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Seeing things differently

Life at Shadowcliff continued at a steady pace over the last few days. After a 7:30  breakfast we muster for a morning activity at 8:45, followed by lunch, then an afternoon activity. While the days seem packed there are always moments of rest to sink back into one of the comfy chairs in Shadowcliff Lodge or to play a heated game of poker.

On Tuesday we conducted water testing with the Grand County Water Information Network. Yesterday we returned to Grand Lake to meet with Geoff Elliot, an environmental scientist with Grand Environmental Services. Geoff helped us take samples of invertebrate life in the lake to help determine the status of the lake water. The presence of certain invertebrates, like caddis flies, might suggest something about the clarity, temperature and turbidity. The absence of such species or the presence of others might indicate that something is out of balance. While the boys certainly enjoyed the process of sweeping the water and turning over rocks, they would probably admit that the highlights of the experience were putting on waders and putting all the insects into one observation tray for a “Grand County Lake Insect Fight Club.”

After lunch we headed off for a hike to Adams Falls and the East Inlet trail. The East Inlet Trail climbs the rock ledge through which Adams Falls passes, then levels out into a sublime marshy meadow framed by Shadow Mountain to the south and Ptarmigan Mountain to the north. Ahead to the east, far from our reach, stood Mount Craig. On a rocky outcrop overlooking the East Inlet valley we got out our journals and continued to sharpen our observation skills.

Sketching in the field helps us see things in a certain way. In a series of sketches, we draw an object as it is and as it seems to us. In the example above, the memory drawing is the journaler’s attempt to accurately depict a dandelion. In a five-second gesture sketch, one is hopeless to draw with fidelity, so what emerges is either a sloppy cartoon of the dandelion, or perhaps a drawing that evokes the essence of a dandelion. Regardless of the product, the exercise is to see with intention.

A second sketching technique we practiced in this spot was a “soundscape.” Drawing a circle in our journals, we drew ourselves as a dot, perhaps a little human figure, in the middle of the circle. For five minutes we drew every sound we heard–a bird calling or flapping its wings, a twig breaking, the river rushing, wind blowing, the sound of restless boots over gravel, etc. Pictured above, Walker closed his eyes, looked to the sky and let his pencil drift across the page to make the sounds he heard.

We drew these sounds as if they were small symbols on a map legend, perhaps we labeled them by identifying the thing that made the sound, perhaps we wrote out the sound itself onomatopoeically. However we chose to illustrate we sought to see the landscape using only our sense of sound.

So many things to see in Rocky Mountain National Park. And so many ways to “see” them.


Today, Thursday we said farewell to Shadowcliff and Grand Lake and made the long drive to Green River, UT. Rather than hop on I-70 and turn our senses off we decided to follow the Colorado River along some mixed roads of dirt, gravel, and pavement. It added a bit of time to the trek, but it also added incredible vistas of Gore Canyon, the Gore Range, and the Flat Tops Wilderness.

This route also led us to a serendipitous exchange with a friendly rancher. We pulled off to the side of Trough Road to take a look at some meanders in an unknown tributary to the Colorado. While doing a whiteboard lesson about cut banks, fill banks, and river meanders, the owner of the property drove up and invited us to feed her cows, which some of us did…tentatively.

After a bit of discussion about what we were doing poking around in a carved out meander, this nice lady named Martha Carlton invited us up this stretch of what we now know to be called Sheephorn Creek to take a look at her irrigation ditches. After a short jaunt along her property Martha taught us about how irrigation gates work, and for the first time this season, she opened up the irrigation gate to begin the process of flushing out the ditches. While she invited us to stay to clean out the irrigation ditches, we politely demurred.

That brings us to Green River, UT. Tomorrow is our launch day. We meet our guides from Canyonlands Field Institute tomorrow morning and push off for six days of paddling. In a rare moment of tyranny, we insisted that each of the boys call home to speak with their parents before we depart.

We will be back in touch in six days, with much to recount and many pics to share. Thanks for following our journey.

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Video: Water Testing with GCWIN

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Across the Divide

We’ve had an exceptionally busy past couple of days in and around Rocky Mountain National Park and the Colorado River’s headwaters. We got our feet wet on Day Two, figuratively and literally, by exploring an out-of-the-way area called Endovalley on the eastern side of the park. Finding our intended trail washed out (all of the creeks and rivers are at peak runoff stage) we instead went on an off-trail circuit through the woods, including absorbing rock scrambles and interesting stream crossings, before spreading out and settling down by the Fall River for an introductory round of solo quiet time and journaling. In all my years of leading outdoor trips, I’m still surprised by students’ enthusiastic reactions to this practice; we simply don’t get enough opportunities to be stationary and unplugged.

We learn that the bark of Ponderosa Pine trees has an amazing and powerful vanilla smell.

Even a short hike off-trail can yield more adventure than miles of well-trodden path.

Andrew absorbed in his journal.

From there we met up with our guide and host and teacher for the next couple of days, Bob Mann, former director of Shadowcliff and mountain man extraordinaire before heading up and over spectacular Trail Ridge Road.

Lesson on glacial geology high above Horseshoe Park.

Epic snowball fight near the summit. At this elevation I could make and throw about five snowballs before putting my hands on my knees and gasping for breath.

Bob talks to us about watersheds at Milner Pass.

We were a worn-out bunch by the time we arrived at Shadowcliff!

Day Three was no less full. After a classroom session to learn about systems and sustainability, we went out on the water with Kayli Foulk, Executive Director of the Grand County Water Information Network, to investigate how transmountain water diversion projects have impacted Grand Lake on the western edge of the park.

Pontoon boat ride out onto Grand Lake to gather water clarity data.

In the afternoon we hiked along the Upper Colorado, swollen with snowmelt but nonetheless surprisingly small, in the Kawuneeche Valley near the headwaters, finishing in high spirits despite the arrival of a cold, steady rain.

Traversing a snowbank in the Kawuneeche Valley.

Thankfully, by the time we finished dinner back at Shadowcliff, the weather had cleared somewhat. After a wonderful and somewhat mind-blowing presentation by Taylor Quist of the Fiske Planetarium in Boulder about the life cycles of stars, we got a chance to look at Jupiter and all four Galilean moons and our own Moon through her telescope.

We have definitely had a jam-packed couple of days, more than this tired writer can find the energy to adequately voice. A big tip-of-the-hat to Bob Mann and the staff at Shadowcliff for having put together such a slate of programming and guest instructors!

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Who owns water?

Day 1 comes to a close in Estes Park, CO, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Tomorrow we explore the park and meet the Shadowcliff staff with whom we will work for the next three days. But today we began to tackle the issue central to our course–who owns water in the West?


After touching down in Denver, grabbing some provisions, and setting some norms for our time together, we traveled to Gross Reservoir, a body of water central to the controversy of water rights. Denver is a city of close to three million that sits in the rain shadow of the Front Range on the western edge of semi-arid high plains. Yet it is as green as any city back east. Denver’s landscaped yards, golf courses, fields, and parks are fed, in part, by the Gross Reservoir. And although the reservoir draws water from the watershed that flows into it, a great deal of Gross Reservoir’s water comes via diversion tunnels that transport water across the Continental Divide…from the west slope of the Front Range to the east slope. From the watershed of the Colorado River to that of the Mississippi.

And so, in times of drought, like the one Denver has experienced for the last 16 years, who has senior rights on the water from the Colorado River…the citizens of Denver or the inhabitants of the watershed itself?

While at Gross Reservoir we played a thrilling game called “Rights of Prior Appropriation,” which is a lot more fun when you have the snow-capped Indian Peaks Wilderness as your backdrop. In this game students learned of the competing interests (towns, farmers and wildlife), and what rights each have relative to the other.  For example, protected species of fish enjoy certain privileges that others do not. This has very real effects when it comes down to deciding how to allocate water in times of drought. The boys, acting as pawns in this gravity-fed game of chess, move as if on a conveyor belt as they pass through towns, farms and wildlife habitats, dumping water, at time reclaiming some of the water they had previously lost. The result is the oft-repeated axiom from your introductory Economics classes…”there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” In places like the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, water use really is a zero sum game.

To further develop the day’s lesson, we will spend the next two weeks speaking with and learning from people whose lives depend on and are enriched by the finite resource that is the Colorado River watershed. These are real people (and fish) with real concerns engaged in a rapidly deteriorating battle for the ownership and stewardship of water. 

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What do you see?

In addition to our introduction on water rights, we laid the groundwork for our observational journaling. We asked the boys to engage in simple observation (“I notice…”), inquiry (“I wonder…”) and connection (“This reminds me…”). Whether applied to a cottonwood leaf (which we did) or a streambed (which we will do), the discipline of distinguishing observation from assumption or analysis cannot be overstated. We invoked Emerson who said, “To a dull mind all of nature is leaden. To the illumined mind the whole world burns and sparkles with light.”

Here’s to chasing the light.

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See you soon!

We look forward to seeing you on Sunday. When I’m a few days away from a trip that I’m really excited about I engage in what some may call “nervous packing.” On the one hand it’s a practical pre-trip ritual. On the other hand it’s my id’s way of saying “What’s the hold-up? Let’s get this show on the road.”

And with that I would like to share these teaser pics and a few packing tips.

Round 1: “Ok, I have everything I need.”

Go “by the book” and pack only what’s on the list. Set off to the side “nice to have items.” Don’t include them in the first round of packing. 

Round 2: “Ok, I think I know where everything is.”

Figure how how you’re going to get to things once they’re in your bag. If you just throw everything in, it’ll take you forever to find a pair of socks or your toothbrush. Packing cubes help, but use packing cubes strategically. Aim for the “one zipper” rule: Pack in such a way that you’re reasonably confident you can find something by opening only ONE zipper. 

Something else to think about is the reason WHY you’re reaching into your bag. When you get dressed in the morning, you don’t want to open one cube to get shorts, another for a shirt, and another for underwear. So, pack whole outfits in one cube…one zipper rule. Other tips: frequently accessed items (toothbrush, book, charger, etc.) should either be in your backpack or packed in a cube toward the top of your duffel.

Round 3: “Ok, it all fits, with lots of room to spare.”   

Truthfully, it’s wise to stop here. High-five yourself and relax until Sunday. Or you could look over at that “nice to have items” pile and ask yourself if you really want to lug those objects around the desert. Your choice.


I hope that you’ve found everything you need in preparation for our departure on Sunday. If you have some packing tips you’d like to share, post a comment to this post. Scan your bookshelves at home, pick out a book or two, cue up your playlists, and have fun with your last-minute trip preparation. Please reach out to your trip leaders if you have any questions.

We look forward to seeing you all at 6am on Sunday, June 4th!

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