Author’s note: Even with a viral pandemic and a downturn in the economy, it is important to plan for the future. Fort Lewis College is doing just that. If Durangoans can’t spend time outdoors right now doing what we love, at least we can share stories of student successes.At Fort Lewis College, the Four Corners is our classroom.
FLC has many outstanding attributes, including dedicated faculty, a hardworking administrative staff, an architecturally cohesive campus and amazing students. But one of our most important strengths is our location close to the Four Corners of Colorado, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and the Colorado Plateau, with more national forests, national monuments, national parks, tribal reservations and wilderness areas than anywhere else on Earth.
What a place to play! And our students do. They seek adventures both academically indoors and in the great outdoors. What a place to learn biology, geology, history and environmental studies, among other majors. We have a bachelor’s degree in adventure education, an outstanding Outdoor Pursuits program led by student leaders. Now, thanks to Shere and John Byrd, we have Seek Your Adventure Awards annually, which provide $500 to students in a competitive round of applications.
“Outdoor adventures are special. Multiday trips, especially those that include challenges – climbing or whitewater or endurance – build strong friendships, force students to solve problems and create great stories to share,” said John Byrd a business professor at University of Colorado-Denver. “Beyond this, there is growing evidence that just being in wild places is good for you.”
I could not agree more. Nature heals. We need to get away from our screens, our electronic handcuffs, and climb a few mountains; raft a few rivers; get hungry, dirty, exhausted – and exhilarated. Shere Byrd is a biology professor at FLC, and both Byrds are interested in getting students outdoors into challenging activities with minimum impact.
The mantra for outdoor travel is to “leave no trace.” The Byrds said: “People who go into wilderness need to think about how to preserve and protect these places. We need to acknowledge that we have an impact and work to reduce it, while still having adventures.”
Last year’s $500 award winners pioneered that concept with a muscle-making itinerary that included rafting and kayaking the gnarly Upper Animas River, then stopping off in the heart of the Weminuche Wilderness to ascend a few peaks.
HHHClimbers routinely hike into Chicago Basin to access the Needles, but Carly Smith, Charlie Brockway and Carl Schnitker decided to skip the hike and boat there instead, facing some of the most challenging whitewater in the western United States.
“It was truly an expedition of a lifetime,” Smith said. Their goal was simple. “Our plan was to base camp off of the river in order to access remote parts of the Weminuche that would otherwise take days to hike into.”
Remember the epic snows of 2019? Guess what the Upper Animas was like between July 28 and Aug. 3. Imagine planning an expedition and launching at Silverton’s 14th Street bridge. That’s where three FLC students began their adventure last year. Not only did they test their whitewater skills on a snowmelt-filled raging river including Class 4 Snowshed Rapid, they also climbed 13,624-foot Vestal Peak. Their plan, Schnitker said, was “to just take a week and do everything we want to do.” 4Corners Rivers Sports donated a 12-foot boat.
“With such a high-water year, even traveling on the Upper Animas in late July proved to be a daunting task with high-velocity water and many technical moves,” Smith said. Hiking to Ruby Lake, 3 miles and 2,000 feet up from the river, they endured unexpected hail, which “proved magnificent. No sign of anyone else gave us an intrinsic connection to the land,” Smith said. An evening rainbow helped, as did a morning plunge into the lake before trekking back to their Needleton camp.
“The biggest takeaway I had from this trip was that moving through beautiful areas with like-minded people doesn’t just mean pushing yourself to bag all the peaks and to accomplish large goals, it means moving on paths uniquely traveled, pushing ourselves physically, but also taking the time to sit still and enjoy where we were. To lie in the dew-rich wildflowers captivated by the beauty everywhere and to be present,” Smith said.
HHHTeam member Charles Brockway recalls the swift, freezing river, and he said it “drops as much elevation as the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon but in a tenth of the miles.” Because of the rapids and rocks, he said, “Swimming out of your boat when the river is about 2,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) out of Silverton is not an option. Being an experienced kayaker means that I can be extremely calm in otherwise dangerous situations. What this taught me, though, is that being calm and focused on the river is essential, but being complacent is straight up dangerous.”
Their waterway included 10 Mile Rapid and No Name, the biggest drop and a serious Class 5 rapid.
The team encountered backcountry waterfalls, snacked on wild thimbleberries and raspberries, and ate wild onions mixed with ramen noodles.
“If there was one lesson to take away from the Weminuche Wilderness, it is that it does not grant easy travel. Each mile off the beaten path must be fought for,” Brockway said.
They traveled Ruby drainage behind Pigeon Peak and found themselves in a tight box canyon 3 feet wide and 70 feet deep requiring intense concentration and careful footwork.
“The ensuing hours consisted of mixed steep mossy patches of dirt surrounded by granite domes. It turned out to be a fourth-class route, which was at times very exposed and stressful with overnight gear on our backs,” Brockway said. They traveled without tents, just a large fly or tarp for the changing weather.
When they ran the Upper Animas and the ancient gorge, all in wetsuits and helmets, Brockway said, “The run through the gorge was among the most intimate I’ve ever had. I could feel every sweeping movement of the current under my boat. I felt as though I knew this place better because I had spent time with its birthplace as a river.”
HHHLessons learned were not just about teamwork in the outdoors, but also about rigorous planning, achievable goals and the need for quick, coherent communication. A misinterpreted signal could have meant a freezing swim and hypothermia, but it is exactly those outdoor challenges that create personal growth, maturity and bonds of friendship lasting a lifetime. At FLC, you can learn from books and screens – and you can learn with a paddle in your hands.
“Outdoor Pursuits is extremely thankful for the support of John and Shere Byrd and their vision to create the Seek Your Adventure Award to inspire our students to get outdoors and pursue their adventure dreams. This award encompasses the spirit of Fort Lewis College and students who pursue an education in our amazing location,” said Brett Davis, Outdoor Pursuits director and assistant director of recreational services. He hopes the award “will become a signature opportunity for our adventurous students, helping them to dream big.” Award winners for 2020 will be decided this month.
“Given all that is transpiring in the world, we are still moving forward with the award,” Davis said. “We just won’t be able to host the celebration event on April 16 but will look to do something on campus in the fall. Additionally, given our task to engage students virtually over the coming months, we are hoping to do so through the Celebration of Adventure.”
The college president concurs.
“It is inspiring to see a group of our students lead and learn from each other,” President Tom Stritikus said. “It is an impressive example of experiential education and the ways FLC supports students pursuing their dreams.”
What a great idea. Out of the classroom and into the wild. Perhaps these students should take some faculty along – if we could keep up.
Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at [email protected].