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Canyonlands Field Institute

Canyonlands Field Institute to Celebrate
20th Anniversary with Community

“Let 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 outdoor classroom.

Wilson 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 Bates’ legacy.

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 were conducted.

During 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.

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 locals alike.

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.

CFI 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

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