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A Guide’s Field Journal of ’22 Native Teen Guide In Training Camp

by Brandi Atene

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Brandi Atene shares insights, memories, and stories from the 2022 Native Teen Guide Rafting Trip

The 2022 Native Teen Guide In Training Camp was a success. This year’s NTGIT brought 18 students from tribes and nations across the western United States to the San Juan River to explore, learn, and connect under the mentorship of Indigenous river guides. The 8 day river trip was free for participants thanks to the Val A Browning Foundation and the Utah Office of Indian Affairs. Check out lead guide Brandi Atene’s day to day field journal!

NTGIT Lead Guide Brandi Atene

Day 1: Drop Off To The Adventure Zone

Parents said their “byes” with tears in their eyes, even some of the teens did the same. Bats, manatees, elephants, penguins, turtles were among the animals in our introduction Name Game. One of the burros across the river gave a pretty loud introduction as well. CFI Guide Sasha led us in a very tiresome and upbeat game called Dead Ant Freeze tag that broke down some first day awkwardness and inspired laughter among the teens.

During our walk back to our campground, this sunset captured my attention with beautiful bright colors against the clouds. I listened to the teens chatting about where they came from and getting to know one another after only meeting a few hours before. At this point, most of them were not aware of the adventures to come in the next couple days.

Sun sets on Sand Island
How do these tents work again?

Day 2: Ethnobotany, Canyoneering, and Community Conversations

Plants in Dine, English, sometimes Italian, and even Latin started off our morning. We had the pleasure of hearing Dine ethno-botanist Arnold Clifford spread his knowledge with the backdrop of a hanging garden alcove that couldn’t have served as a better outdoor classroom.

Then it was off to Canyoneering in the afternoon, where we met up with local outfitters Wild Expeditions. One of their guides was actually an alumni of a previous NTGIT camp. She helped ease the teens’ hesitancy and anxiousness as she could see some of them were very nervous since this was their first time canyoneering. We all came together in support, maneuvering through narrow slot canyons and getting our feet wet.

In the evening we were rejoined by our alumni NTGIT canyoneering guide. She led a wonderful and honest discussion of “what it means to be an indigenous guide.” She shared her relevant journey with the teens, as many were the same age as her. Her story touched my heart as a daily reminder of why I lead this program..

Day 3: River, Rain, and Fry Bread Feeds the Soul

A hearty breakfast of pancakes and bacon to started off our launch day on the San Juan river! We checked in with other private groups and companies to discuss the logistics of which resident campsites were spoken for along the river for the next couple of days.

An immersive introduction to rigging, lessons in boat anatomy, and safety talks were given before we pushed off. Finally, on the river, each guide gave lessons on reading the water, different paddling strokes, and working as a unified team. I could see some ease come to the teens as we spent more time on the river.

Camp crews, fire lines, introduction to the “groover’, are among the activities when we get to our campsite. Teen girls come together around the camp stove waiting for their turn to drop their dough into the hot lard, as they make frybread by the river.

Female rain comes just before dinner, and we put up the river wing. Waterfalls form from across the river, gave the teens an opportunity to take this moment and stand in awe of Mother Earths’ creation, which was then followed by the brightest rainbow to end our day.

Taking shelter under the river wing
Chasing waterfalls after a rain

Day 4: Snake House – Where History Comes Alive

A hike to Snake House in the morning was followed by an afternoon of learning the ins and outs of swiftwater safety swimming and rescue with throw bag practice. At the end of the day we did a reflection and wrote in our journals, this is what I wrote down:

Reflections at Snake House

Here I am sitting at Upper Snake House with the NTGIT crew. What a past couple days this has been! And we still have 3 more nights after tonight. Every time I’ve had a moment to myself, I catch myself thinking “I can’t believe I’m doing this!” It’s very humbling. All the hard work that I’ve been doing is finally paying off. Seeing the teens seize the opportunity to even be on this trip is amazing. Some have been struggling with being away from home. But I think they’re coming around. I’ve seen progress as far as opening up, stepping out of their comfort zones. I’m looking forward to the next step and days. I hope tomorrow when we make for Chinle camp, that the teens want to get on the guide stick. I know there is always that one kid that will just break out and surprise everyone. The main thing I’ve been enjoying is hearing the laughter and seeing their faces. I’m so blessed and humbled to be able to experience this first hand.

Brandi Atiene’s River Journal

Day 5: Finding Your Captain’s Voice

We are moving to the next camp. Teens are still getting used to the responsibilities and processes of packing up, rigging boats and camp crews. We hit the river and give the teens the opportunity to take the lead on the paddle and oar boats. One of the teens finds his captain’s voice, and he mentions ‘it gave him a powerful feeling.’

On the oars for the first time
Double ducky on the San Juan

Three miles later we got to our next campsite. The teens got the fireline figured out shouting “PERSONAL GEAR, KITCHEN, GROOVER!” Camp is set up, and we take the teens up the trail to float down the river to cool down. Navajo burgers are on the menu tonight and yet again we have delicious frybread. After dishes are done and put away we all gather by the river around NTGIT Instructor Avery Old Coyote who is sitting on the boats ready to lead a discussion around Indigenous water rights. Another great outdoor classroom setting.

Across the river I can hear a couple cows and I wonder if we’ll be visited by any burros or turkeys throughout the night. As I settle into my sleeping bag on the boat, I feel a sprinkle on my face, I can hear my fellow guides groan and some of them set up their tents and all I do is grab my tarp and place it over my body and close my eyes.

Avery leads a riverside discussion
Time to cool off!

Day 6: Rapid Lessons & Perseverance on the River

Reaching for our “Hopes and Dreams”
Cruising downriver

The events on this day I will never forget, starting with a hike up Chinle wash to see some structures and pictographs. We were blessed with light female rain during our hike. This day we made our entrance into the canyon, encountered our first rapid and planned to practice swiftwater entry and swimming a rapid. We pulled over at Prospector camp for lunch. My guides offer to start lunch while I engage in an activity with the teens. I lead them in a teambuilding activity we call Hopes and Dreams. I enjoyed seeing them come together to achieve their hopes and dreams.

When lunch is ready, I send the teens toward the food while one of my fellow guides approaches me and informs me of a situation that is happening down towards the river. A guide had cut themselves when crushing cans of chicken into our recycling bag. When I learn what is happening, I make the call to push through the whole canyon because one of our own needs to be evacuated from the field. We would have to push 10 miles from our lunch spot. We got hit with heavy rain and most of our teens did not bring raincoats. This stretch was tough but our teens seemed to understand the need to push through and we worked together.

As we get to our campsite for the night it is well after 8pm. I take care of my fellow guide while my other guides take care of the rest of the group and get started on dinner. After everything seems fine, I take a minute to process the day and I catch this scene of the teens watching the sunset comforting each other and I just know this was a tough day but we all came together for the better. Spaghetti dinner by headlamp while I announce to the group my gratitude for sticking it out today. I tell them I’ll give them the treat of sleeping in an extra hour as I felt like I needed it too.

Day 7: Stepping Into Self-Discovery

Yesterday’s activities are still fresh in my mind. Once our camp is established we gather the group for a Shallow Water crossing demonstration. The day was sunny and hot so we utilized the river. The teens showed great teamwork and balance from solo to pairs to group technique. “STEPPING….stepping!” were the words they shouted to one another for the perfect communication in the group technique. Some teens weren’t willing to try, but with the help of the other teens they eventually joined the activity.

Shallow water crossing with the wedge
Bracing on each other to move through swiftwater

In the afternoon, we all gathered under the river wing where Sasha led a knot tying demonstration. The teens used their personal throw bags for practice. Knots, hitches, bights were among the different techniques that were shown. Such a sight to see these teens so concentrated on their ropes and others stepping up to help their fellow Guides In Training.

“…does the rabbit come out of the hole?”
Student presentations on the final night

We gathered just after sunset when dishes were done from dinner and the teens gave their presentations they had been preparing for throughout the trip. They were told to pick a topic and give a presentation to the whole group when they were ready. With the anticline of the desert in the background, we sat and listened. After the groups were done presenting, Colleen led a discussion around leadership and shared her journey. The teens were full of questions while collaboratively sharing their own views on leadership.

Day 8: From Strangers to Family

I was woken up by the constant swaying of the boat I’d been sleeping on throughout the trip. It was still dark, and I could see an object in the river and I noticed it was a water jerry. I grabbed it before it passed and then another. I searched frantically for my headlamp and when I turned it on the river had risen a significant amount! Enough to make my boat sway and just about let loose. I check the other boats and only count 4!! We have 5 boats! I bolt down stream shining my headlamp hoping to see the 5th somewhere but didn’t see anything, just a whole lot of river and debris. I tried to pull in the 3 boats and yelled at Colleen who was sleeping in one of them. I wake up Mollye and Eliza to help and they are surprised as I was. As we pulled in the other boats, I saw the 4th boat which floated up Lime Creek and was behind some shrubbery so I couldn’t see. What an event to wake up to on our last day!

“Where. Is. My. PINEAPPLE!?”

Camp is packed up and while my guides are doing the final touches on their rigging, I engage in a game called “Where’s my Pineapple?” The teens worked together to get the “pineapple” across a certain point without it being seen. One of the teens takes my place who happens to be one of the smallest bodies on the trip. I watch as they brainstorm and come up with quite a good strategy of putting the biggest body directly in front of her.

All forward!

Before we launch for take out we gather one last time for a reflection of the week. Lots of words and highlights shared. I had so much to share with the group but I was just baa shił hozhǫ́. With the rise in water level this day, we were zooming downriver, barely putting in work. We got to Mexican Hat take out fairly quickly. From here we started derigging boats and gear, with the help of the teens, we made good timing and the icing on the cake was Avery showing up. We were all glad to see him in good spirits.

We set on the road back to Sand Island. The kids’ laughter and music requests made the short drive memorable. The teen’s faces when Avery brought out some PFDs that NRS had donated to the program was priceless. Parents were showing up left and right, wanting to take pictures and getting us altogether, dirtier and a shade darker from when they first dropped them off.

NTGITs sporting their brand new NRS life jackets

Guide Spotlight: Learn more about CFI Guide Brandi Atene and her connection to the San Juan River.