Coyote's Corner

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Unplugging in Professor Valley

by Bridget Petersen

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Waking up on the first day of a fall Professor Valley Field Camp, I feel chilled by the early autumn air blowing in from the screen doors of the yurt. At this remote location, about 45 minutes from Moab, UT, the dawn’s light glows purple and blue on the eastern sky above Fisher Towers, and the cliffs above the Colorado River fire orange with the sun’s first rays. It’s been a long summer, and I feel excited to be back at work in the field teaching students about the Colorado Plateau. 

CFI programs are unapologetically unplugged. In a world where technology is invading our lives more rapidly than ever, creating real emotional connections becomes increasingly difficult. To many people, especially our students, unplugging is a foreign and terrifying concept. Not having immediate access to friends, family, news, or social media is something most of us would never choose to do. This reluctance is understandable, this alienation real. What about that important email I was waiting on? Or that student loan program I applied for? How is Grandpa today and will he be out of the hospital soon? It can be scary to distance yourself from these questions. Disconnection can make one feel left out, behind, or alone.  

At CFI we intentionally address this journey of unplugging. One of my goals as a naturalist-guide with Canyonlands Field Institute is to help our students transition between two worlds: the world of connectivity with modern society, and the world of disconnectivity in the great outdoors. 

On all trips, we strive right off the bat to create a Sense of Place. On their first night, we hike with the students somewhere quiet, as the sun is setting, and talk about the transition. How did you feel when you woke up this morning? When you packed your bag? What are you worried about? Excited for? With these questions we talk through some of the anxiety associated with disconnection.  

I am looking forward to helping these kids disconnect from their everyday emotional and tumultuous pre-teen lives and connect with wildness. I sit up in bed, listening to the sound of birds down by the creek. I smell the first hints of autumn on the air and imagine the golden cottonwoods and frosty mornings that are soon to come. The stillness and quiet of our field camp comfort my first-day jitters as I breathe in deep the fresh, cool air.  

Leading students on the river, through the mountains, and across the desert instills the value in experiencing the natural world. These are powerful and sometimes life-changing moments. While navigating these challenges alongside students, I have seen first-hand how important and necessary these experiences are, and I have also seen how much they can be taken for granted. 

The morning is chilly. I take a moment to stretch and breathe deeply before unzipping my sleeping bag. After the previous night’s Sense of Place activity, I am looking forward to working with our current group of students as they unplug. This transition is one of my favorite aspects of the CFI educational style. Without screens, they talk more face to face, they notice the beauty of camp, and they make observations and discover the natural world on their own terms.  

I know, from previous trips, that the week will fly by, and soon the very same students objecting to the confiscation of their phones will share during our closing ceremony about how grateful they were to make a new friend, embrace the world around them, or simply take a week to slow down. In these moments, I am reminded about the importance of practicing real world connections for a developing brain. 

It’s time to unzip my sleeping bag, start a pot of coffee, and plug-in to the beautiful and provocative surroundings of Professor Valley Field Camp.