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photo of the Desolation Canyon
The crew traverses Desolation Canyon on the Green River.

 

Wisdom in the wilderness by Cathy Cashio
Out of the classroom and into the field, a group of UNT students left the campus and headed for unfamiliar territory.

In the pre-dawn hours, 22 students and professors from the Institute of Applied Sciences and the biology and environmental philosophy programs set off for an environmental excursion down a Utah river.

Their journey grew out of a need for field experience to complement classroom instruction. The 11-day trip, conducted last summer, was preceded by a three-week course on water issues in the West. The students’ mission was to discover the truth about those issues — firsthand.

Demand and supply

“By participating in this field trip, students from a variety of disciplines became aware of competition for water and what that means for the future,” says Tom LaPoint, director of the Institute of Applied Sciences and the course project leader.

Environmental researchers say that water scarcity may be the most underappreciated global environmental challenge of our time. In the United States, groundwater is being pumped faster than it is being replenished, and rivers such as the Colorado and Rio Grande no longer reach the sea year round. Over the next quarter century, the number of people in countries unable to meet their domestic, industrial and agricultural water needs is expected to increase substantially.

Field trip faculty wanted to expose students to issues of water scarcity and competition in a wilderness setting. Participants also learned about the impact of water, and the lack of it, on vegetation and wildlife.


Photo of Gold's Hole in Utah
Gold’s Hole in Utah meanders around canyon walls.

Traveling the distance

The UNT caravan drove for two days, through Amarillo and Raton Pass in New Mexico, before reaching Colorado. The crew camped in southwestern Colorado about 40 miles east of Grand Junction and 7,000 feet above sea level.

As they drove into Utah, the days were warm, while the nights were 20 degrees colder.

“In the middle of June, in the high desert, we didn’t expect it to be that cold,” says environmental philosophy student Thad Haas. “Then a cold front surprised us. Not everyone was prepared. Those who brought tents shared their shelter with those who had none.”

Haas says they “put in” their boats at Sand Wash, Utah, on the Green River — five hours and 90 miles north of their destination, the town of Green River, Utah.

LaPoint’s boat carried most of the cargo, while four other boats primarily held passengers. The crew headed south on the river, paddling through the rocky terrain of Desolation and Gray canyons.

A captain commanded each boat. Every passenger learned his or her role. Some leaders were in charge of cooking and rafting, while others collected data on water quality, insects and hydrology.

photo of the students
  The group poses in front of the petroglyphs of ancient cliff dwellers.


Relating to the river

Not only were students learning their roles, but they were also learning about their environment.

“Riding the rapids of this river, you get the feeling the desert is alive — wildlife, insects and now people inhabit it,” says Haas. “I began to relate to the river and to understand, in seeking sources of drinkable water, that this beautiful place required much of me.”

Environmental science student Tami Barry agrees.

“The sights were incredible,” she says. “As we moved down the river — soaked — I gained a greater appreciation of waterways.”

Barry explains their river journey in terms of a Riparian ecosystem — plants and trees growing near water. She noted that salt cedar trees lining the Green River virtually eliminated any native species. These trees demand much more water than native plants and their shade inhibits the growth of sun-loving native cacti and other indigenous plants.

“I learned a lot about vegetation — where things will and will not grow because of elevation and rainfall,” she says. “I also learned what I could do when faced with a scarcity of drinking water.”

Photo of a kayak in Steer Ridge rapids
A kayak approaches Steer Ridge rapids.


 

 

 

Water, water everywhere . . .

“They call it Green River for a reason,” says Haas. “Because of the silt, the water was like green pea soup and not fit to drink.”

As they rowed down the river, the crew members filtered and shared drinking water until they reached the next clean feeder stream. After filters became clogged with bacteria and solids, iodine was used to purify water. Gatorade was added for taste.

A gallon of water a day was required to quench the thirst of active students. As rafters sought new sources of drinking water, tension among them increased.

“When I didn’t have enough water, I became grumpy, got a headache and grew very tired,” says Haas. “That’s when one of my crewmates, Lynde Dodd, offered to share her water with the rest of us.”

“When you’re in the middle of the wilderness, you realize these people are your life source,” says Haas. “I looked to my captain for guidance and my crewmates for support.”

“I learned a greater appreciation for nature,” says Barry. “I want to give others the chance to experience what I did — that’s why it’s so important to conserve nature and water.”

The crew members finally reached their destination — a little soaked, a little wiser. They not only learned about nature and surviving the scarcity of water, but they also learned about themselves and their teammates.

At the end of the trip, LaPoint was satisfied with the results.

“We discovered our own limits as human beings,” he says. “What we needed to exist on led to an immediate appreciation of the water needs of our own group.

“By exposing the students to this field trip, we’ve armed them with tools of awareness and conservation.”

 

 
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