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The First Year Naturalist Educator Program: A Confluence of Lessons & Memories

by Eliza Van Wetter

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Not all skills are technical. Here are some moments from the field that provided insights beyond my initial training.

When I first started with CFI, I didn’t truly understand the power of the river. I had already fallen in love with the river after 5 summers of commercial guiding, as I was shaping a job around a recreation I personally enjoyed, however something was missing. CFI changed this for me. As soon as I found myself with a goal that centered education instead of tour guiding, the whole experience changed. The river’s bends became a classroom full of potential for meaningful learning, growth, and immersive discovery.

This perspective shift gave me the opportunity to see the potential for student learning in any outdoor setting. The variety of new experiences and challenges I faced through the First Year Naturalist Educator (FYNE) program, allowed me to become the Naturalist Educator I am today.

I have learned an incredible amount in the last five months. These are a few photos that best capture some of the lessons and takeaways from my time with CFI. Enjoy this photo journal of my season as a CFI First Year Naturalist Guide.

Lesson 1: Redefining Control in Labyrinth Canyon

Seven Canoes tied up on the bank of the slow moving Green River. The walls of Labyrinth Canyon reach up in the background.

This was my first trip of the season with CFI, and as it began I felt full of doubt that these canoes would stay upright in the hands of students. As the week went on, I had a thought that would follow me all season: watching students learn to paddle their own canoes forced me to examine ways to give up control while still trusting the outcome. The trip went great and every canoe stayed right side up.

Lesson 2: The Power of Listening with Native Teen Guide in Training

group of NTGIT students presenting in a semi circle
Four students present to a semi circle of peers on the bank of the muddy San Juan River with a sky of glowing orange clouds above.

These students are Native Teen Guide in Training Camp participants, who were given the task of presenting a topic they researched on this week-long river trip. As a non-native myself, I had the privilege of spending time on the river around a majority of indigenous guides and participants. This experience emphasized to me the importance of listening more than speaking.

This trip filled me with grief and guilt over the continued violent history that indigenous people in the United States live through. However, it also filled me with extreme hope that these amazing, intelligent young people have the potential to be stewards of these lands, waters, and of their communities. Learn more about the Native Teen Guide In Training Camp here.

Check out the Video Recap of our 2021 NTGIT Program!

Lesson 3: Freedom to Explore Through Unstructured Summer Play

A week of summer day camps is a lesson in group management. It was also a visual representation of the joy that can come from unstructured play in nature. I learned, this summer, that sometimes all a kid wants is the time and space to have fun with their friends. As an educator I can provide that through the balance of structure and freedom to explore.

A group of summer camp students playing on the edge of a muddy pool in Courthouse Wash.
A group of summer camp students playing on the edge of a muddy pool in Courthouse Wash.
Sasha, another First Year Naturalist Educator, demonstrates how to hold the Rainbow Trout that a student just caught.
Sasha, another First Year Naturalist Educator, demonstrates how to hold the Rainbow Trout that a student just caught.

Watching students light up over the excitement of fishing was something I really enjoyed during Explorer Basecamp in the La Sal Mountains. The intimate feeling of holding a fish is a very valuable experience that I think students will carry with them longer than anything else we did that week.

Basecamp provided an opportunity for students to develop new skills through hands-on experiences, and it was very fulfilling to witness the success that can come from place-based learning outdoors.

Lesson 4: Embracing Your Stretch Zone in the Outdoors

Three students float off the side of a red raft in the muddy Colorado River.

Watching students genuinely enjoy themselves and be playful outdoors was my favorite part of working with CFI. At the beginning of most river trips, students will often seem doubtful, hesitant, or reserved. However, watching them engage in their stretch zone, as they leave the traditions of their classrooms behind and immerse themselves in enjoyable outdoor moments on the river, is a worthwhile transition to witness. Unfortunately, there are various barriers for many to having time and access to the outdoors. But being part of an organization like CFI, who is providing young people the opportunity to engage in outdoor spaces in a safe and productive way, is a powerful experience.

Lesson 5: Coaching Through the Rapids of Westwater Canyon

At CFI, I almost spent more time instructing people how to row a boat than actually rowing a boat myself. Letting go of the oars felt quite uncomfortable at first because it involves giving up all control of a craft that I have spent a lot of time learning to control. At the end of the summer season, we had a group of college students row every rapid of Westwater Canyon. Westwater is the most challenging section of river we run and it has served as an important place of growth for all of the staff at CFI. This was the second time I had coached someone down Westwater and I felt empowered by my knowledge and the opportunity to share it with someone else. It was incredibly satisfying to help another have a meaningful experience on this very special section of river.

Three students sit on a raft, one is seated at the oars rowing the boat through the quickly moving water of Westwater Canyon.

I felt empowered by my knowledge and the opportunity to share it with someone else.

Riverways are areas of erosion and deposition; they shape their ecosystem while carving paths, polishing, removing, and giving life to the landscape. They are outdoor spaces that require us to relinquish control to follow the flow, provide space for silliness, and encourage intimate and authentic connection, all while bringing to the surface our most genuine selves. Thank you to rivers of the Colorado Plateau for carrying me through your canyons and rapids. Until next season!

Naturalist Educator & Author Spotlight:

Growing up in Colorado’s Front Range, Eliza has a deep appreciation for accessible public open spaces and was constantly reminded by her mom that seeing outdoor spaces busy with visitors should always be celebrated. Throughout her life, spending time outside has been essential to everything she does and has created a passion for helping other people feel comfortable and happy in the outdoors. While attending Whitman College, Eliza began recreating on rivers and fell in love with the joy that comes from a day spent on moving water. She left her first season with CFI with a love for quality outdoor education and a deeper connection to desert landscapes. Eliza’s favorite things include skiing, petting dogs, making chocolate chip pancakes outside and sleeping under the stars.

Curious about the FYNE?

The First Year Naturalist Educator training program is a paid professional development program for outdoor educators beginning their career of connecting people to, and fostering care for, the natural environment. The position focuses on facilitating land-based programming for school and youth groups at our Professor Valley Field Camp and multi-day river trips on the Green, Colorado, and San Juan Rivers.