Diné College, Colorado Canyons Association and the BLM work together to immerse Diné youth in nature on overnight trips on the Gunnison River. 

Kids participating in the Chuska Environmental Youth Camp celebrate their float trip through Dominguez-Escalante Canyon.

The Story

Every summer, Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) host one or two overnight rafting adventures on the Gunnison River for students from the Chuska Environmental Youth Camp, which is run by the Diné College’s Land Grant Office. The educational adventure explores one of the more stunning stretches of western rivers, the Dominguez-Escalante Canyon. 

“It’s an opportunity to travel through one of the most beautiful places in Colorado,” says Killian Rush, CCA’s Development Director. The two-day curriculum “improves the students’ understanding of river safety and their confidence in dealing with challenges,” says Rush. “It also enhances their understanding of river systems and of environmental science practices.” 

A student bravely takes on the task of crossing the current. Remember to always wear a life jacket when on or in the river and never stand up in the current.

Students learn to navigate paddle rafts and duckies, spend a night at Big Dominguez Campground, and practice river rescue and safe swimming techniques. They just have so much fun,” Rush says of the kids. Some are pretty timid when facing the challenge of swimming in moving water. (Note – The kids wear life jackets at all times when in and on the moving water, and you should too!) Seeing them work hard to overcome those fears, “is pretty remarkable,” says Rush. 

It’s easier to explain river ecology concepts on a riverbank than in a classroom.

While gaining practical skills needed to safely navigate rivers, students study and discuss environmental issues based in science, technology, engineering, and math. Instructors use hands-on methods to teach them about land and water ecosystems. Topics include the importance of healthy rivers and clean water in the southwest and the role of native versus invasive species in the ecosystem. The lessons sink in quickly.  “It’s fun to see them develop a sense of place,” says Rush of the students. “You can see that they respect these areas.” 

The classes also discuss the BLM’s science-based land management tactics and pathways to outdoor careers that protect the same places the kids are learning to love.

Students practice throwing a “throw bag” of rope to swimmers. Rope can be dangerous in the water, be sure to consult a whitewater rescue professional before attempting to use this skill.

Forging Connections and Growing Leaders

Participating students range in age from 9 to 15 and are accompanied by older scholars from Diné College, who serve as youth leaders. The resulting mentorship means a lot to the younger kids, according to Rush, building trust and creating connections between the older and younger students. It also helps the older students develop and polish their mentoring skills.

Every night the college student leaders pose a question for the group to discuss. The kids go around the circle, reflecting on their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. During the talk circle last year, a number of the kids expressed interest in land management and river stewardship careers. That was gratifying for the CCA and BLM leaders, who made that decision themselves.

“With funding through Forever Our Rivers and support from other partners, CCA gets these kids outside and helps them develop an understanding of outdoor careers,” says Rush. 

Keeping the kids moving is a great way to model a healthy lifestyle. Here they learn to navigate inflatable kayaks down the river.

Room To Grow

“I think it’s a really powerful program,” says Rush, and CCA is looking for more funders to expand it. Last year, the program accepted 43 kids, they’d like to grow to 50+ students and add an in-class session before each river trip. This will prepare participants for the safety, learning and planning aspects of the trip. 

CCA is also working to support the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute Tribes to get students outside on their ancestral lands and rivers. A number of areas within the three National Conservation Areas were ceded to the Ute Nation in 1863 by the Treaty of Conejos. They are now managed by the US federal government’s BLM. The Tribes and CCA are working to make sure that Ute youth have access to those lands. They are also developing an environmental education curriculum to complement the planned river and overland adventures. 

A Brief History 

While Diné College’s main campus is in Tsaile (Tsééhílí), Arizona, it serves the entire Navajo Nation with five branch campuses, three in Arizona and two in New Mexico. Established in 1968 it was the first college made by and for Native Americans. (There are now 33 similar tribally controlled colleges.) 

There are three National Conservation Areas (NCA) in Colorado — Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge, and McInnis Canyons. NCA’s are U.S. public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management to protect natural areas of outstanding ecological, scientific, cultural, historic, or wilderness and recreational value.