The river is a magical place. I haven’t been journaling much recently, but I filled about 15 pages as soon as I got back from this river trip. I wanted to capture everything I was feeling and write down everything I never wanted to forget. The flow of the rapids and grandeur of the canyons. The laughter of the middle schoolers and the warmth of the river guides. The pure freedom and bliss I felt out on the river. It only took five days on the San Juan to change my mindset and spirit forever.

At the beginning of the trip, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting myself into. My coworkers all came back from their trips raving about the experience, but the day-to-day details were still hazy. Only after my own trip did I realize how difficult it is to put your time on the river into words. There is something truly special about the San Juan and the moments that are shared just between you and the river. When you’re drifting through the canyons, paddling through rapids, and opening up to strangers, the rest of the world just melts away.

 

Sometimes we got to hop off the rafts and float/swim/run down the river. This shot definitely encapsulates the beauty and majesty of the San Juan.

 

We woke up around 4:30am every day to cook breakfast and break down camp. I never got tired of waking up to see bats still flying around and the sun slowly climbing up behind the canyon rim. Once we worked together to clean the dishes and repack the rafts, we set off for a long day of travel. The guides rowed on and off for about eight hours each day, and we’d stop for lunch somewhere along the riverbank. Then we would float some more in order to get to camp before sunset. After some games, dinner, and dishes, I got to do my part as a scientist and teach the youth about bats. Then, we finally went to bed around 9:30pm, which feels pretty late after being up since 4:30.

The best way to keep cool and stay energized? Water fights, of course.

I have never gotten closer to a group of people faster, and I can say without a doubt it was because we weren’t constantly on our phones. Without the distractions of technology, we had to rely on each other for entertainment. Every day, we floated for about eight hours down the San Juan. That’s eight hours of storytelling, brain teasers, and water fights. Eight hours of really talking and listening to one another, sharing life experiences and advice, and discovering who these incredible people around you are. I was surrounded by river guides who could crack a joke after rowing all day and cooking dinner. I bonded with kids who constantly surprised me with their kindness, wisdom, and uninhibited spirits.

I came on this trip as a biologist from Glen Canyon, but I’m so grateful that the experience turned into more than just a scientific excursion. When you spend 24/7 with a group of people— cooking for each other, falling asleep next to each other, and keeping each other safe— you share a journey unlike any other. You go home with moments and challenges and stories and beauty that no one on the outside can every truly understand. When I returned from the trip, I found myself in the same position as my coworkers, trying to describe an indescribable experience.

I told a student that I do bat research, and my favorite colors are blue and green… and she worked it all into this drawing for me.

Now, I might be romanticizing this river trip… but it was pretty amazing. It’s crazy to think I came out here for dragonfly research and ended up floating down the San Juan with some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. People who reminded me how to connect with others, spread happiness, and live wildly. I might not run away immediately to be a river guide, but I can’t say I’m not considering it. All I know for now is that something deep inside me has changed because of this trip. I experienced the love, the beauty, and the magic of the river, and those are feelings that won’t be going away any time soon.

Oljeto Wash, our last campsite. This trip will always have a special place in my heart.

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Written by Katherine Ko
Hi there! I am a rising senior at Vanderbilt University double majoring in Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology and Theatre with a minor in Environmental and Sustainability Studies. I look forward to applying both my biological and artistic skills to a career in environmental stewardship and education. I love travelling, hiking, acting, singing, and photography (just to name a few). I hope you enjoy reading about my adventures!