Tips to help you connect your family to nature!
Cottonwood Elementary fifth graders embark on a 3 day rafting trip on the Gunnison River with Colorado Canyons Association. Transported by rafts and duckies students got a close up interaction with the river and learned of its history. (Photo credit: Doug Goodwin)
On a brisk, but sunny day in late September my 5th graders circled up next to the Gunnison River. This was to be day one of three days over which all three of the 5th grade classes from Cottonwood Elementary School would go rafting on the Gunnison River to learn about river ecology, navigation, Native Americans, and hopefully, a bit about themselves.
One of our guides from the Colorado Canyons Association led them on one of many team building activities for the day. “As you go around, say out loud your name and what kind of animal you feel like today.” The kids came up with great names for themselves. I said I felt like a border collie because of my teacher role of keeping everyone together. I would quickly find out though, we were in good hands with our guides for the day.
After a thorough river safety talk the kids split up into boat groups, loaded up and hit the river. The day’s float would be on a beautiful class 1-2 stretch starting at the Pleasure Park and going 6 miles downstream. In addition to the 3 16’ rafts, we also had 3 inflatable two person kayaks known as duckies. Including myself, I was fortunate to have a couple brave parents to help rotate kids through the duckies and learn about how to pilot the smaller boats.
As with most river trips, all the stresses of planning and preparation melted away once we were on the river. The miles slowly drifted by. Along the craggy cliffs kids kept an eye out for wildlife. Their keen observation paid off as they spotted several bald eagles either in flight or nesting within the crags.
At a giant cottonwood tree, the kids listened intently as a former high school teacher turned river guide told them a Native American story about the stars, and the trees and the spirits. From there we headed downstream to Eagle Rock Shelter-one of the oldest Native American sites in North America. Nearly 13,000 years ago this area was frequented by ancient people. The students learned about the Utes and other Native Americans who occupied the site. Looking carefully, students spotted dozens of both pictographs and petroglyphs among the contours of the rock.
From there we headed back down the trail to the awaiting rafts, lunch, and more river time. The kids were in great spirts. Prior to loading up, they frolicked in the water like otters and laughed, and lived the river life. In all too short of a time, we were at the takeout. Under the direction of our guides, the kids helped organize their life jackets, got their packs out of the dry bags said thanks and loaded up on the big bus.
I want to thank a variety of people who helped make this trip possible for our 5th graders. First off, the Colorado Canyons Association, who worked with us on pricing and scheduling-not to mention their professional, informative staff. Also, the students and parents helped. For several weeks leading up to the trip 5th graders worked hard in the mornings before school selling pickles to help raise money. Friends of Youth and Nature contributed a sizable amount to help get our kids on this trip. The Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and Forever Our Rivers also helped us. In addition to this, the Montrose Rotary Club pitched in. Last, but not least, the Cottonwood Elementary School PAC gave us the final financial push to make this trip possible.
The importance for students to experience trips like this cannot be understated. Many students-including myself as a youth, thrive in outdoor settings. They realized that learning happens all around us. Students gain confidence from outdoor experiences and this confidence can transfer to other learning avenues.
As a former river guide and outdoor education instructor, it was incredible to get our students on the river and give them an opportunity to experience something many of them had no idea existed.
I know with our students that seeds of curiosity were planted and that their learning will continue to grow-both in the classroom and outside.
Students enjoyed their float on the river (photo credit: Doug Goodwin)
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