the land speak for itself and help people to understand its
language,” said the late Ruth “Robin” Wilson,
co-founder of Canyonlands Field Institute. Since its incorporation
20 years ago, Canyonlands Field Institute has embraced this
philosophy by providing opportunities for people to explore
the Colorado Plateau, and learn bout the unique natural and
cultural history. The organization was born from the shared
dream of founders Ruth “Robin” Wilson and Karla
VanderZanden. Both women wanted to increase other’s
understanding of and appreciation for canyon country in an
and VanderZanden met over a cup of coffee at Wilson’s
ranch in Professor Valley early one morning in May of
1983 by arrangement of a mutual friend, Kate Kitchell.
As the women talked and shared ideas they discovered
their mutual vision and love of the Colorado Plateau
Region. Wilson was married to Bates Wilson, the former
Superintendent of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
Before his death in early 1983, the couple had investigated
the possibility of creating an education center on their
ranch in Professor Valley with Utah State University.
VanderZanden was finishing her master’s degree
in Recreation Resource Management and working as a seasonal
BLM ranger in Westwater Canyon. The women began to explore
a way to combine their resources and knowledge to continue
A year later Canyonlands Field Institute (CFI) started
operating from VanderZanden’s home, offering two to three day field trips for
vacationers as well as workshops and seminars for outdoor professionals.
The purpose of the programs was to build a bridge between the land managers,
professional guides, and the public; while encouraging dialog between
different points of view about public lands. The first program, “Canyon
Country Weekend,” was held in conjunction with the Utah Museum
of Natural History in October of 1984. In 1985 and 1986 the first Eagle
Float, Westwater River Rescue Workshop, and Desert Writer’s Workshop
the early years Wilson and VanderZanden were supported by a small, dedicated
staff and board of trustees, as well as their families. CFI partnered
with local outfitters, other non-profits, and the BLM throughout the
1980’s. CFI hired the outfitting services of Ken Sleight Expeditions,
Wild Rivers Expedition, and Sheri Griffith River Expeditions. A permanent
field camp was established through a lease with the BLM for land adjacent
to the Wilson’s Professor Valley Ranch.
In 1993, Steve Arrowsmith made arrangements to sell the Humpback Chub
River Company to CFI at a reduced price, in order for CFI to provide
river programs independently. Shortly after the sale was arranged, Arrowsmith
died suddenly of an asthma attack at the age of 30. Arrowsmith’s
mother then generously donated the company to CFI. Today, one of CFI’s
rafts is named Steve in his honor.
These early relationships with local businesses and organizations have
developed into part of CFI’s business philosophy. “Our commitment
to the local community is fundamental. We purchase food, supplies, and
services from many family owned businesses based here in canyon country
and we still partner with local organizations to provide programs like
Summer Day Camp with Youth Garden Project,” states VanderZanden,
current Director of CFI.
benefited from the efforts of participants in its internship program
and graduate residency in environmental education (GREE). These programs
have mentored outdoor education professionals. Many of these individuals
continue to make significant contributions to the Colorado Plateau Region
like Carrie Howard - a teacher at Red Rock Elementary School; Mary Moran – National
Park Service Biologist; Jennifer Redding – business owner; David
William – author of A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country,
Dee Garceau – history professor, author, and current board member;
and many others.
Over the years as programs have also come and gone, one in particular
is especially well loved by the Moab community - “The Canyon’s
Edge.” A multimedia slide show with photography by Bruce Hucko
and Tom Till, and narrated by Terry Tempest Williams, “The Canyon’s
Edge” played in town nightly for 10 years, inspiring visitors and
Although the slide show was retired in 1996, it is not forgotten. Over
the past year, through a grant from the Utah Humanities Council, CFI
and Hucko have been exploring options for preserving the slideshow and
making it available once again to the public. Hucko explains, “The
Canyon’s Edge is not over-the-hill. It reverberates with a timeless
message that needs to be heard even more today than when it was created.”
CFI is best known for its outdoor education programs on land and river.
Land program curriculum is based at Professor Valley Field Camp and developed
from the theme of “The Canyon’s Edge” focusing on the
stories of the land. River programs have a separate watersheds curriculum
focusing on water resources of the Colorado Plateau. These innovative
programs have attracted elementary, middle school, and high school groups
from all across the country since 1986.
Each year Grand County Middle School eighth graders attend a two night
science camp at Professor Valley Field Camp. Students explore the area
learning about common plants, desert wildlife, stream ecology, and the
night sky. CFI instructors encourage the students to examine their environment
and learn about the land on which they live. Linda Grawet, GCMS eighth
grade science teacher, has coordinated the science camp for many years. “The
camp program is an extension of the science curriculum and works well
with the inquiry-based learning method I utilize in the classroom. Although
many of these kids have lived here all their lives, science camp is the
first time they really look at the rocks and the land. They become more
aware of their surroundings.” Almost 100% of the cost of this program
is funded through donations local businesses, enabling GCMS students
to participate for a small fee.
offers adult and family outdoor adventure vacations that are participatory
and focus on experiential learning. Guides share stories about the early
native peoples, Mormon pioneers, cowboys, and ranchers. Participants
are also taught about the geology, ecology, and geography of the region
as well as proper camping etiquette and safe practices in the desert
environment. Guides foster a healthy respect and love for canyon country
as a beautiful, wild, and sacred place.
Many of CFI’s adult and family trips were developed for the Elderhostel
program, an educational travel organization for older adults. Today,
CFI offers these programs independently under the title, “Adult
and Family ED Ventures”.
In the past 20 years, CFI has inspired visitors and the local community
to take the time to see, enjoy, understand and love the canyon country.
CFI will continue to teach about the desert landscape and strive to fulfill
its mission to inspire enlightened perspectives, passion, and care for
the Colorado Plateau
CFI will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary with a party for members
and friends on September 19 at 4:00 p.m. at Professor Valley Field Camp.
Also, CFI will conduct a Westwater Rafting Trip on September 20 and 21,
which is open to the public. Anyone interested in either of these events
should call the office at 435-259-7750. For more information on CFI’s
programs call or visit the website at www.canyonlandsfieldinst.org.