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Experience the CFI Educational Journey through Film

by Brennan Patrick Gillis

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“The River has a story to tell.” Take a journey down the San Juan River to see CFI’s educational methods firsthand.

In October of 2021, Canyonlands Field Institute teamed up with Visit Utah and Local.Studio to create a film that tells the story of CFI Education on the Upper San Juan. This project is part of a larger effort from the Utah Office of Tourism to showcase examples of responsible, ethical, and sustainable visitation of Utah’s natural resources. The film project was designed to highlight CFI’s leave no trace ethics, visitation with respect, and educational method as a model for experiencing Utah’s natural beauty. We took 4 days and 3 nights to raft the Upper San Juan, from Sand Island to Mexican Hat, Utah, working to create filmable moments along the way.

Follow CFI down the San Juan River to see our educational style in action.
Learn about CFI Guide Brandi Atene and her connection to the San Juan River

What was it like to be a guide on a film project?

No one river trip is the same. The twists and turns may be familiar, the lines through rapids may be practiced, and the prickly pear spines may be as pokey as they always are, but the story of each river trip is like the river’s water itself; never told twice. Heading down the river with the express purpose of filming CFI’s story forced me to experience the familiar flows of the Upper San Juan from a new perspective.

Local.Studio’s Bryce Van Leuven showing a student some footage. Photo: Michelle Craig

There was a film crew of 5: a director, camera operator, sound engineer, photographer, two producers, and six students. Our educational journey is inspired by the way the river both shapes and is shaped by the canyons. Like the river, students mold their own educational journey toward meaningful connections to themselves, their peers, and the natural world.

So, creating educational moments with the purpose of filming them was a challenging adjustment for the educators on the trip. Instead of asking myself whether that lunch spot would be good for Create-A-Canyon, I found the questions I asked myself took another tone. Would there be enough light or space at camp for filming? Would the turning leaves of the cottonwoods be visible when we film folks moving through the dinner line?

On the river, it is the questions we ask ourselves and each other that shape the story. While adjusting to a completely new style of the trip was challenging at first, it forced me to experience the river through a new lens. Being interviewed on camera was a novel experience for most of the guide staff. CFI’s Education Director, Alex de Moor had never been asked to put into words the emotions and ways he felt about the San Juan River. In his words, this project helped him arrive at “the understanding that there is a story that the river can tell, and that it takes time to understand the story.”

The individual, organic moments the river gives us are the story. The emotional connections forged when humans are immersed in the landscape, are the story.

Alex faces off against Local.Studio Director Sean Slobodan in Rocky Handy. My money’s on Sean. Photo: Michelle Craig

The biggest challenge of telling the story of CFI is the fact that the individual, organic moments the river gives us are the story. The emotional connections forged when humans are immersed in the landscape, are the story. These moments and connections may translate to tales afterward, but they are generated through experience. Alex reflected that he doesn’t know “if you can get that same story from a movie – the goal is to show that this place has the ability to share a story, and it requires actually being immersed to experience that story.”

CFI’s goal is to create genuine connection. At first, I thought that the desired outcome of this film trip was to create a great film. I thought that we would be concentrating on sound and lighting and creating filmable situations to tell our story. As we made our way down river, it became clear that these contrasting desired outcomes were two sides to the same cobble. By immersing ourselves in the joys, challenges, and triumphs that only the river can bring, we created the story of our trip.

Thank you to the talented crew at Local.Studio for telling our story. Enjoy!