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Stories and Connections: The History of CFI

by Brennan Patrick Gillis

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A Legendary Legacy 

The Canyonlands Field Institute was born in the summer of 1984 when like-minded co-founders Karla VanderZanden and Robin Wilson realized their dream of providing adventures with an educational purpose. When Robin met Karla, she and her husband, Bates Wilson, had been thinking about turning their Professor Valley Ranch into a place for inspiring connections to nature. One river trip later, the name “Canyonlands Field Institute” was created. Not long after that, CFI became a 501(c)(3) organization and the first of thousands of river trips kicked off from the boat ramp. 

Karla and Robin hit the ground running with the help of friends such as Ken Sleight, Tim Graham, and Tom Till. The dynamic CFI team created a variety of hikes and seminars on natural history, human history, writing, and art. As a hub for these educational adventures, Professor Valley Field Camp was established on BLM land adjacent to Robin’s Ranch. 

In 1991, Robin Wilson died, leaving behind a legacy of persistence, inspiration, and joy. The organization continued its impactful mission with her memory as motivation. 

Robin wilson 88 on a phone
Robin Wilson, 1988

A Period of Growth 

Over the following years, the Canyonlands Field Institute became a leader in the Outdoor Education industry. Through river running, adventure seminars, and field programs, CFI quickly gained a reputation for creating authentic connection between person and place. Through this period of growth, CFI carved a niche by providing groundbreaking student-centered curriculum that utilized science, art, exploration, and reflection to create a pathway for anyone to participate in nature on their own terms.  

No river trip is complete without a safety talk!

In 2014, Professor Valley Field Camp was moved from BLM land to a private parcel of land in the heart of Professor Valley. Despite the operational obstacles of relocating our base of operations, CFI saw this change as an opportunity. 

In 2019, CFI was given the Castle Rock Ranch. This 160 acre property in Castle Valley, UT represented a new opportunity for CFI. However, any decisions about how to develop this asset were waylaid by the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic. During 2020, CFI shut down spring programming. But, we also used the opportunity to create an essential service for the community of Moab: Adventure Day Camp. By creating an affordable childcare option for the summer, CFI supported Moab families recovering from pandemic upheaval. Post-pandemic, Adventure Day Camp still provides a subsidized childcare option for Moab’s families.  

NTGIT swiftwater rescue wading
NTGIT teaches communication, leadership, and technical whitewater skills.

Today, CFI is nationally known for our expertise in the outdoors. Through our Native Teen Guide in Training, the First Year Naturalist Guide, and our Youth Desert Access Programs, CFI has allocated resources to reduce financial barriers of access to the outdoors. We utilize a combination of student-centered curriculum, Social-Emotional activities, and place-based immersion to bring about outcomes that are unique to CFI programs. 

In addition to our many youth programs, CFI runs Adult Adventure Seminars and Private Group Trips. These experiences serve to connect adults and families to nature while serving as an essential fundraising engine to subsidize our youth trips. Our seminars have historically covered topics in archaeology and geology, and we are looking forward to introducing new topics in the upcoming seasons!

A Future of Authentic Exploration 

According to tech blog “Exploding Topics”, the average teen spends 7 hours and 22 minutes looking at screens each day. Technology usage has been linked to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and feelings of exclusion among youth. 

As we head into our next 40 years, CFI is committed to creating more opportunities for unplugged connection to nature. We believe that disconnecting with devices allows you to develop relationships with yourself, your peers, and your natural surroundings and can combat the side-effects of increased technology usage. 

Thanks to our dedicated supporters, we are able to partially subsidize every youth program we offer. In the coming years, CFI plans to increase scholarship funding for Title 1 schools, expand opportunities for Indigenous youth, and further remove participation barriers for all kids historically excluded from the outdoors. 

adventure day camp playing mary jane canyon
Real personal connections are created when kids are given the chance to disconnect from tech.

True to Robin and Karla’s vision, CFI encourages people of all ages to experience wild nature directly. We embrace authentic, emotional connection, and stride toward our roots as humans, pursuing the core of who we are.