Telluride Mountain School Goes to Dark Canyon

Telluride Mountain School Goes to Dark Canyon

Emily-Dark Canyon 4It’s not easy for an adult to pack a backpack for a week-long trip in the desert. It’s even harder to try and organize 15 middle school students and do this. But that’s exactly what the Telluride Mountain School does every year at just about this time: the school takes their 7th and 8th grade class backpacking in the desert.

This year, Telluride Mountain School returned to Dark Canyon, a sacred place in Southeastern Utah that nature writer Terry Tempest Williams has described as a “landscape of the imagination, a secret we tell to those who will keep it”.  The class planned their meals, shopped for their food, and yes, packed their packs. Using valuable orienteering skills that they had learned earlier this fall, the group also mapped out their route into the canyon.

Emily-Dark Canyon 2Associate Head of the School and founder of the annual trip Andy Shoff says the trip is not without its challenges. “Getting down into Dark Canyon is no easy feat. The descent is steep, the area remote. You have to really trust that your students can do it.” But then that’s exactly the thrill of the trip: Dark Canyon is a test of the skills that Telluride Mountain School students build throughout their time at the school.

Telluride Mountain School starts taking its students on wilderness trips as early as the first grade. The trips progress incrementally. In first grade, students go on a 2-day rafting trip and a hike to check out dinosaur bones and stay in cabins. In third grade, they go canoeing and hiking and stay in a wilderness hut or tents. But by fifth grade, they are rafting down rivers like the San Juan River in Utah and camping along the shore at night.

The school sees incredible value in taking its students outside. Program coordinator, Jamie Intemann, who is working on degree in outdoor education and who got to go to Dark Canyon for the first time this fall (and who took these amazing photos!) , saw a tremendous change in the kids over the week. “You start out and everyone’s nervous, wondering if they can actually hike into a canyon and spend a week living outside. By the end of the trip, no one wants to leave.”

Dark Canyon-Lydia writingAndy Shoff also says that trips like these change the relationship you have with the kids. “Once you’ve spent time outside together, there’s a relationship. It’s no longer me as the teacher and you as the student. It’s all of us collaborating together, learning together. That’s exactly what we hope to foster in the classroom.”

Dark Canyon is just one of many trips students go on. This fall, the high school went biking for a week on the White Rim Trail, a 100-mile loop in Canyonlands National Park. In the spring, the entire school will go on experiential trips. The younger grades will go to regional places such as Kelly Place, outside of Cortez, and Santa Fe. But 5th grade on up will go further afield, studying ecology outside of Seattle at IslandWood and studying marine biology and volcanology in Hawaii. “The trips are just of one the many things that we do at the Telluride Mountain School,” says Andy Shoff. “They’re a part of our larger mission: to deliver a program of challenging academics that promotes critical thinking, aesthetic expression and ethical behavior, while encompassing a commitment to community service, global citizenship and engagement with the natural environment.”

Andy admits though that this desert trip remains close to his heart, remembering his first trip to Dark Canyon 20 years ago and a favorite line by Terry Tempest Williams. “She writes, ‘Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.’ If we can instill just some of that in our kids as they move forward in the this world, then we will have succeeded.”

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