A Grand Adventure

UC Davis Students Connect Serious Science with Serious Fun in the Grand Canyon

While some people were spending spring break at the beach or catching up on their Netflix queue, students from UC Davis' "Ecogeomorphology" class were rafting down the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

This year, the class invited two of us from UC Davis Strategic Communications to come along for the first half and give science communication advice to the group. Of course, we had to take a few pictures while we were there.  

[Full multimedia journey: grandcanyon.ucdavis.edu]

Two men and woman in raft in Grand Canyon
Morning light enters the Grand Canyon as UC Davis professor Truman Young, project scientist Sarah Yarnell, and guide and junior specialist Sasha Leidman begin another day on the river. Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis 

The class split in two groups for the 225-mile river journey. On March 10, our group embarked from Lee's Ferry, rafting 90 miles before hiking to the rim on March 19 along Bright Angel Trail. We passed the second group on their way down the same day. They traveled the remaining 135 miles to the next road access at Diamond Creek. 

The class is conducted during winter quarter by the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and the Center for Watershed Sciences, in partnership with Campus Recreation’s Outdoor Adventures. While its first trip to the Grand Canyon was in 2003, students have taken this optional trip for each of the past five years.

Two women and a man whitewater raft
Serious fun. From left, UC Davis students Jordan Hollarsmith, Steve Maples and Madeline Gottlieb run a whitewater rapid on the Colorado River. Credit: UC Davis

‘This is what Davis is’

The trip is the physical and visible representation of what the class is all about: Geologists, hydrologists and ecologists learning to communicate with one another and the public. It’s a skill necessary in real-world careers, where working on environmental problems requires a variety of expertise that isn’t always taught in siloed classrooms.

Students in North Canyon of Grand Canyon
Class is in session in the North Canyon of the Grand Canyon. Credit: Kat Kerlin/UC Davis

“For me, this is what Davis is,” said geology professor Nicholas Pinter while hiking in Carbon Canyon during the trip, his feet crunching on the trail. Pinter holds the Roy J. Shlemon Chair in Applied Geosciences, which partially funded the trip. “This is the fusion of cutting-edge science — multiple sciences, in this case — and wild outdoors. It’s more than an experience, it’s an odyssey.”

The classrooms are pretty spectacular: red-walled caverns, Anasazi ruins, rock formations and fossils, the river itself. It’s the students’ textbooks brought vividly and tangibly to life.

University students at Nankoweap granary ruins, overlooking Colorado River in Grand Canyon
UC Davis students hike to the Nankoweap granary, ancient Anasazi ruins overlooking the Colorado River. Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

Time travelers

Guides from Campus Recreation's Outdoor Adventures took care of a million details, making sure everyone was well-fed, safe, on schedule and — more or less — dry. Most of the guides were UC Davis science students or alums themselves, with unique perspectives to lend while they rowed.

"This trip changes people's lives." — Carson Jeffres, Center for Watershed Sciences

As a group, we were unplugged, off-grid, and literally immersed in the river, rocks and landscape around us.

Geologists, ecologists and hydrologists helped teach one another about rocks, plants, fish and flow rates — usually informally as they scrambled up a trail or gazed up at the vertical cliffs slowly floating past.

Inside Red Wall Cavern of the Grand Canyon
Red Wall Cavern looks deceptively small from the outside but can hold thousands of people. The UC Davis group played Frisbee, ate lunch and explored fossils in the limestone walls while here. Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis 

We slept each night under a sky bright with forgotten stars, to the sounds of softly strumming guitar and the nearby rushing river.

Night sky of stars at the Grand Canyon
Stars and music: A night in the Grand Canyon, with traces of headlamp. Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis 

Over the course of eight days on the river, we traveled through about a billion years of geologic time. 

Woman looks at map of Colorado River while on a river raft
Geology graduate student Millie Levin traces the river with her finger on the guide map, anticipating the next rapid. Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

“This trip changes peoples lives,” said Carson Jeffres, field and lab director at the Center for Watershed Sciences, who just returned from his sixth trip to the Grand Canyon with the class. “They think, ‘Maybe I wasn’t on the right path,’ and they change their path after eight days on the river. It’s a weird fundamental shift. It’s different than any other class on campus, I can guarantee that.”

River guide rows raft on Colorado River in Grand Canyon
Guide, emergency medical doctor and UC Davis alumnus Avi Patil rows passengers — and the camp's entire kitchen — down the river. Credit: UC Davis 

When asked for three words that describe her experience in the Grand Canyon, geology grad student Roxanne Banker summed it up nicely: “Wet. Awesome. Science."

Not a bad way to spend a spring break.

Men and women sit in circle on beach by Colorado River in Grand Canyon
Each evening before dinner is "Science," when one or two students give short talks relating their research to what the group has seen in the canyon that day. The scenery acts as an outstanding visual aid. Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis  

Continue the Journey on the Grand Canyon

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Kat Kerlin and Joe Proudman

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