Lessons from a Desert Wander

Paddling on a mirror--Lake Powell

Paddling on a mirror--Lake Powell

Each spring a mass migration takes place across the United States as college students take a break from classes and flock to locales far and wide for some good ole fashion fun.  As an alternative to the debauchery that takes place at such places as Daytona Beach, South Padre Island and others, many collegiate outdoor recreation programs such as the one at Fort Lewis College (Outdoor Pursuits), offer an alternative for a grand adventure in a wild and remote place.  The following is one such spring break adventure told through the writing of five amazing students who had the courage to try something different from the norm and in doing so, learned a little bit more about what they are capable of achieving.  To see more photos and learn more about the trip, visit the innovators of the pack rafting world, Alpacka Raft



Why sign up for a trip where you know nobody and then get into a van full of 9 other people who are in the same situation as you? Why travel to a region with no roads, guarantee of drinking water, ways to get help, or the option of turning back? Why would you paddle until your hands can’t grip the paddle anymore? Why march in and out of desert canyons with bags that are 2/3rds of your body weight? Why walk until your feet get numb to the pain, almost making it easier for you to drone on over the slick rock and sand. What madness would make you continue this over 7 days and 80 miles?

If you glean anything from this, let it be that when you stop tired and sore, look out towards the lands you have just traversed, and are then overcome by emotion of the beauty surrounding you. When you wake up every morning feeling closer to your teammates as they huddle around a pot of coffee laughing, joking and telling stories. When you end the day and are congratulated and feel the overwhelming pride of what you have accomplished together, as a group. When you all sit around the dinner stove, talk and share about the day over a meal.  And, as you finally lay down and rest your aching body in the moonlit canyon and open desert while watching the stars rotate above you. When you feel, see, and experience all of this, it no longer seems like madness to do such a thing.

Matt Sisler (Kingston, MA - Environmental Studies - 4th Year)

The Landscape

In the distance there lies a great, untouched giant, powdered lightly by snow that trickles down into red veins that disappear beneath the horizon.  I can’t help but stare as I twist, once more dipping my paddle into the wondrous, yet unrelenting water of the lake.  See, the mountain has dwarfed me for days, watching as I paddled between sheer cliffs amongst the roar of three-foot swells brought on by the song of wind, smiled as I climbed steep boulders with my comrades and walked into canyons I never knew had names.  I have heard it’s laugh when it has disappeared and have felt it’s glow in the morning as a golden sun set it ablaze, welcoming another day’s travel…and I have bid it adieu, as I stood on the opposite side from where I began, and wondered why it left me so mystified.

There is a wonder to this place, to this region, this environment, the untouched tops of blood red canyons and the well-trod paths which give hope that a human had once conquered this same quarry, and as such, so could I.  I think myself a wordsmith, but words truly cannot describe the beauty, wonder, and adventure that surrounds us.  So I think again—back to when I stared at Navajo mountain from the comfort of my sleeping bag, back pressed against slick rock as the sun rose in the east and set my world on fire, promising me another 14 miles of walking—and I smile at how lucky we are to see, to trod on, to dance and sing in, and to share this magnificent beauty that surrounds us.

Josh Mendrala (Littleton, CO - Creative Writing - 1st Year)


It was a lot harder than I was initially expecting.  I was the smallest person on the trip with my petite 5’, 105 lb frame.  I found myself constantly at the back of the pack sometimes struggling just to keep up with everyone else.  The first couple of days, especially that Sunday, or “Suffer Sunday” as we called it, I struggled to stay positive.  “Suffer Sunday” started off with blue skies and warm weather, but quickly turned into a very cold, windy day.  The water of Lake Powell started to form white caps and the wind gusts were blowing us all sideways.  As I was already in the back of the pack, I found myself fighting to get to the cove that everyone was taking shelter in.  I was paddling as hard as I could just trying to stay in the same spot, but slowly I was getting pushed further and further away from the mouth of the cove.  I was already feeling like the weakest link in the team and I couldn’t shake the idea that I wasn’t strong enough for the trip. Another day, we were hiking 14 miles to get back to Lake Powell and for the last half of our trek or so I was very far behind the rest of the crew.  My feet ached, my pack was around 60 pounds and I had a sharp pain in my shoulders.  I felt defeated.  However, in both of these instances I had put myself in a defeated state of mind. No one else cared about my little steps or paddle strokes and it was the jokes and laughter that took me out of my head.  With each tough day came great challenges, but as one of my friends pointed out, it was the little things that really shaped how you viewed a situation. This trip helped me learn that adversity, in all situations, can be overcome with a little help from friends, a smile, and at least for me, a handful of GORP.

Nicole Cookson (Denver, CO - Environmental Studies - 3rd Year)


Traveling in the backcountry can be done alone, but the more demanding the adventure the greater necessity for teammates.  It became apparent that this trip down the San Juan and into Lake Powell was one of those demanding trips that could not be completed alone.  Everyone in the group was going to have to set egos aside and come together.  On the second day of the trip, we camped just above the river where the banks were caked with mud.  Here we helped each person get in and out of our rafts even if this meant holding the boat and accidently letting it flip over before we had the chance to enter.  This was an opportunity to forgive and forget, because we all knew what was to come.

On the third day, we transitioned to walking. We worked our way through what became known as “Boulder Alley” by offering each other hands while climbing over large rocks and passing packs up from below.  After just a few more miles, a redistribution of weight was apparent if we wanted to make it any further that day.  

The fourth day of walking was less demanding, but the mileage increased.  The smallest things would bring huge smiles to our faces and allow us to temporarily forget the pain.  Each person had the ability to brighten another’s day even though we were all physically and mentally exhausted.

However, it wasn’t until the fifth day that I personally realized the impact we each had on one another.  There was 14 miles left to reach the lake and at about mile ten I noticed that all but one of us had been complaining about something or another so I asked this person how it was that they continued to walk without complaint. They responded that it wasn’t the fact that they weren’t tired or sore, but that they knew complaining didn’t help themselves or anyone else.  We were all suffering together and were all going to finish this trip together, as a team.

Sam Rossman (Steamboat Springs CO - Business Administration - 3rd Year)

Lasting Impressions

I believe glory comes from the process of doing. A goal is great, and I think we should strive to fulfill them. But as one of our leaders stated while we traversed across the stinkin' desert, "our day is made of single footsteps." And that resonated with me. We could have camped on the glowing purple slick rock that encased waterfalls that ran into pools 35 feet deep. We could have spent the night in paradise, where the Navajo walls towered in the starry night sky. But instead we stopped to appreciate it.  We knew that if we went a little bit further, only a couple of more miles, we would be in a better position the following day. 

And so, we continued, making camp at dusk near the bottom of Cottonwood canyon. It wasn’t a particularly noteworthy camping spot, but I’d like to think the stars were a little brighter there. I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that I experienced while appreciating that canyon. My heart was still, our laughter was pure and my mind was peaceful.

My lasting impression from this trip is to carry that peace. To be able to have a still heart and a sound mind while experiencing the chaos of this world. It’s a challenge, potentially heavier than the initial 90-pound pack on my back. It’s a challenge for all of us, knowing the terror and injustice in this world. But as a community of adventurers, we have to be the ones to carry some extra weight when some are struggling. We have to be the ones to help each other up boulder ally.

Jerad Bussell (Fort Collins, CO - Anthropology - 3rd Year)