Hotchkiss students raft lower Gunnison

Ninth graders from Hotchkiss High School get ready to float down the Lower Gunnison on duckies and rafts. Outdoor experiences have been found to be crucial for a student's emotional and physical health and wellbeing during the pandemic. 

By Lisa Young

Staff writer

Over 300 students in the Delta County School District attended a full-day river trip on the Gunnison River this past September.

The Nature Connection (TNC) expanded its successful GOCO-funded high school outdoor program this fall thanks to a $9,000 Community Grant for the Environment from the Western Colorado Community Foundation.

Students rafted from Pleasure Park to the BLM Orchard Site guided by educators from the Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) including an interpretive hike at the Eagle Rock Shelter within the BLM Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.

In the past, select students from each high school could attend a day trip or overnight river trip with The Nature Connection as part of the Youth Outdoor Network clubs. This year TNC staff and high school teachers worked together to increase the number of kids exposed to the incredible river running right through their backyards.

“So many students in Delta County have never experienced the thrill of pushing off in a raft and seeing the lush cottonwood groves and canyon walls of the Lower Gunnison. Our goal is to make sure no student grows up in Delta County without experiencing the opportunities right in our own backyard,” said Ben Graves, former Delta High School science teacher and TNC Director of Strategic Programs.

Each river trip was guided by the Colorado Canyons Association and included educators and representatives from the BLM Uncompahgre Field Office. CCA’s River Program Director Dawn Cooper shared the importance of providing outdoor opportunities during the pandemic.

“With COVID restrictions limiting so many things for our young people, it is even more important that students get to make meaningful memories and hands-on science and career connections outdoors,” Cooper said.

The goal of the grant from the Western Colorado Community Foundation was to provide outdoor experiences that focus on promoting socio-emotional wellbeing. Recent psychological research has shown that access to outdoor experiences like this not only connect children with rich environmental educational experiences and local history, but also promotes positive relationships with peers, reduced stress and aggression.

Graves noted that “outdoor play at home and school, including the structured experiences offered by The Nature Connection are even more important during this pandemic to help our children cope and stay healthy.”

“The river trip was a very fun experience, we learned a lot about the native life around the river. We also learned some history, specifically how the river has been used by previous generations and how it’s grown over time,” said Benjamin Nortnik, Delta High School freshman, sharing his experience.

Riley Cannon, senior at Delta High School and president of the TNC-sponsored Youth Outdoor Network club loved learning more about outdoor careers during the river expeditions.

“Talking with the guides on the river trip was super helpful in my pursuit of finding a similar job. On this trip, I spoke to multiple guides about their experiences on the river and how those experiences shaped them. I got to see how they interacted with the freshmen; I saw their teaching styles, personalities, and interests showing through their lessons, and how much they loved their job. In the end, the river trip was a great way of getting outside, learning more about our Colorado rivers, and pursuing my goals of working in the industry,” she said.

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