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Go with the FLOW: Fort Lewis College launches new river education program

Fort Lewis College staff members, faculty, students and supporters raft the Chama River on a training trip in June as part of the FLOW program, or Fort Lewis on Water, which will engage hundreds of students and numerous academic departments to provide life lessons and academic training outdoors. (Courtesy of Gigi Richard)

Fort Lewis College has established a new signature program at the heart of outdoor education and experiential learning in the Four Corners. The FLOW program, or Fort Lewis on Water, is about to take off.

Recently, FLC staff members, faculty and students rafted the wild and scenic section of the Chama River through the Chama River Canyon Wilderness of the Santa Fe National Forest. “I’ll carry vivid memories of laughing on my boat and looking at those canyon walls for years,” said environmental sciences major Mike Ward.

What we do in the classroom, we’re now taking out on the water. After careful thought and planning, the college purchased equipment from raft company Canyon Rio based in Flagstaff, Arizona, including valuable annual commercial river permits for eight launches on the Chama River and about 30 launches on the San Juan.

Bruce Saxman has been hired as FLOW coordinator and senior lecturer of adventure education. As we talked during breakfast on our second day of a training trip on the Chama, he said, “We have a mountain river to raft in northern New Mexico in spring and summer. The San Juan is our desert river to explore in southeast Utah all fall.”

Bruce Saxman, manager of the FLOW program, pilots a raft on the Chama River. A senior lecturer with the Adventure Education Program, Saxman will coordinate eight launches a year on the Chama River for Fort Lewis College students and staff members, and 30 annual launches on the San Juan River, beginning at Bluff, Utah. (Courtesy of Gigi Richard)

“Part of FLOW is to instill a sense of excitement and awe, and at the same time, it includes scientific work and cultural/historical understandings,” said FLC Provost Cheryl Nixon.

“A lot of schools talk about experiential learning, but the magic of the FLOW program is that it provides an opportunity for sustained interdisciplinary exploration,” said Dean of Arts and Sciences Jesse Peters. “As students navigate the contexts of a greater river ecosystem, they start to see the many complexities that intersect. Courses linked with FLOW will be examples of meaningful connections across the arts and sciences. Students will become deeper thinkers and more engaged citizens who are ready to make meaningful and positive change in the world.”


What will students learn? Lessons in environmental science, geoscience, adventure education, biology, history and writing. Rivers are great places and spaces for journaling, writing and remembering. Anyone can laugh and splash in an afternoon on whitewater, but on multiday trips there are life lessons of teamwork, food preparation, picking up micro-trash, river safety, Leave No Trace ethics, and how to use the all-important groover, or river toilet. It seems counterintuitive, but on river trips you pee in the river rather than endanger the fragile riparian habitat of water-loving, hydrophilic plants near the river’s edge.

Then there’s new vocabulary to understand. Students will learn the drybag squat to squeeze extra air out from around their gear. A pillow in the river is a rock with water slipping over its edge. A swimmer is someone who has left the raft and is having an out-of-boat experience. A throw bag contains the safety line you catch. There are the dangers of a strainer or a fallen tree in water, and to avoid foot entrapment never stand in a river with current above your knees.

During a June training trip, Fort Lewis College staff members and students enjoyed Class 2 rapids on the Chama River. FLC will run Chama trips for students in spring and summer. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

A fireline is the alternate spacing of river trippers who help to move heavy gear out of the boats, as dry bags are tossed person to person and moved uphill toward camp. A duckie is what you solo paddle. An eddy is your friend who lives behind a rock. The put-in is where you start. The take-out is where you end, and in the middle is all that floating, moving river time and a sense of friendship and camaraderie when rain comes and we’re huddled under a tarp.

“Spending time on the river is one of the best ways to foster new ideas and collaborative educational opportunities,” said water scientist Alan Kasprak, who is a fluvial geomorphologist who thinks “the Chama is an ideal spot for student research going forward – think mapping the location/elevation of channels, gullies, terraces and vegetation and how those features change through time.”

Gigi Richard, who directs the college’s Four Corners Water Center, has already pioneered a river studies and leadership certificate at FLC approved by the River Management Society.

Fort Lewis College students and staff members took rafts, kayaks and duckies down the San Juan River during a September trip. The college is launching its new FLOW program, Fort Lewis on Water. The program will combine outdoor education and experiential learning. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

There are opportunities to get underserved communities on the river and to allow students who would never have a chance at a river trip to see the Four Corners landscape in a new and vital way.

Funding has already come from Forever Our Rivers Foundation, and we have a grant out to the Catena Foundation to help us build a sustainable, community-based FLOW program that matches the college’s place-based educational emphasis.

Another goal of the grant Richard worked on is “to create opportunities for meaningful student engagement in scientific and social issues and to develop pathways for FLC students toward water- and river-focused graduate programs and careers.” Fundraising will flow towards FLOW.

“I already thought FLOW would be a game changer for FLC and higher education, but now I know it,” said Vice President of Advancement Melissa Mount, who duckied every rapid on the last day of our trip. “It’s a stellar example of FLC’s unparalleled outdoor learning opportunities and showcases how we are living our commitments to being powered by place and learning in action. I see huge potential to secure additional philanthropic support to sustain and elevate this great program.”

The goal is to raise money so all of our students can participate.

During a June training trip, Fort Lewis College staff members and students enjoyed Class 2 rapids on the Chama River. FLC will run Chama trips for students in spring and summer. Fall river trips will be held on the San Juan River in Utah. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

“There are implications for all of our majors,” Mount said. “First and foremost, FLOW is for our students. This program is on the cusp of connecting our students to our place and to each other.”

On a college campus, the ultimate in fundraising is an endowed chair in an academic program. On our Chama trip, one of the FLOW program’s supporters, Mitch Dion, talked about doing just that. Except the chair he had in mind was paying for the groover toilet seat, but hey, why not? If you can have a named building, soccer field or internship program at a college, why not a specially dedicated groover? With everyone sitting on it during a river trip, the chair would certainly receive a warm reception.

For the new FLOW program director, it’s a bit overwhelming. “It’s humbling. So many people have put so much effort into this. There are so many advocates. It’s going faster than I thought it would,” Saxman said.

Outdoor Pursuits Director Brett Davis gets Fort Lewis College students outdoors climbing mountains, rafting rivers, skiing steep slopes and picking up trash. He also coordinates the SOL Program for the Student Outdoor Leaders group. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

Early FLC proponents included Brett Davis from Outdoor Pursuits; Aaron Ball and Lee Frazer from Adventure Education; Gary Gianniny from Geosciences; Cynthia Dott from Biology; Richard Fulton retired dean of the School of Education; and Steve Schwartz, vice president for finance and administration.


On the Chama, we floated past an abandoned ranch, drifted under black lines etched under beige rock called the Tiger Wall, reclined in a natural hot springs and let the stars pinwheel overhead in a truly dark sky. We hiked off river to compare our sandaled feet to much larger three-toed dinosaur tracks. The Chama offers spectacular views of 300-million-year-old Entrada sandstone.

On a quiet part of the Chama River, Fort Lewis College staff members drift past a rock formation aptly named Tiger Wall. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

On the San Juan River, students will see 60-million-year-old Navajo sandstone, Comb Ridge, the remains of Amasa Barton’s trading post, Raplee’s Anticline with its geometric patterns and the preserved prehistoric River House, home to Ancestral Puebloans who left stone rooms and clan symbol petroglyphs and pictograms as rock art.

I hope to go on some of these future trips. Our students need to know the values of silence, solitude and darkness and the quiet all night murmur of rivers on rocks. They need to learn how to read a river like boatmen do and to understand, as Reed Karaim wrote, “Part of the romance of rivers is that they are forever disappearing around a bend. Following one leaves you with the perpetual sense of possibility, the continued sense of surprise.”

At the Mexican Hat takeout on the San Juan River, Fort Lewis College students pose with some of the trash they collected during a three-day volunteer program. In gratitude, the Bureau of Land Management awarded the students orange volunteer T-shirts. The college’s new FLOW program, Fort Lewis on Water, will feature frequent trips on the San Juan.(Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

There is river history to absorb, shared stories, the politics of Western water, the urgency of tribal water rights, but also the pure enjoyment of traveling together with canyon walls rising on either side. Life lessons learned outdoors. A college education does not get better than that.

Andrew Gulliford, an award-winning author and editor, is professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at andy@agulliford.com.

Fort Lewis College students negotiate a rapid on the San Juan River as part of a trash cleanup during Public Lands Day. Note the abandoned tires stacked in the raft. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)