Why The Bears Ears Matter

Already dreaming of the desert’s warmth with this recent cold snap in Telluride? In her recent article for the Denver Post, writer (and Telluride Inside… and Out regular contributor) Emily Shoff explores the precarious status of our closest desert neighbor and talks about the role it’s played in her students’ lives. 

Seventh- and eighth-grade students from the Telluride Mountain School hike through the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah in September. Photo Credit: Emily Shoff

Recently, as a part of my job at the Telluride Mountain School, I led 14 seventh- and eighth-graders on a week-long backpacking trip down into Dark Canyon, a deep canyon that runs like an artery down the center of southeastern Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument. It is a difficult place to get to, reached only by driving a string of dirt roads, and followed by an arduous hike that descends more than a thousand feet in less than a mile.

But like other trips, once in the canyon, the class falls in love. It’s hard not to. With its intact ruins and seductive swimming holes, the canyon is an ideal outdoor classroom for middle schoolers, a place whose geology, ecology and history seem to seep from its very sandstone walls.

Our days are filled with exploring the 300 million-year-old limestone that form the walls of our temporary home, learning about the canyon’s history, and improving our navigation, stove use, and first aid skills. Nights are dedicated to journaling in tents by headlamp, reading stories around a campfire, and stargazing.

On the final day in the canyon, the group rises in darkness so that we can climb in the cool of the day, and I am in awe of by how quickly and quietly my head-lamped students move. Three days earlier, half of this group had never shouldered a large backpack; now they move with the sleek efficiency of mountain lions, evidence of whom we’ve seen in prints left in the canyon’s sand. When, hours later, we reach the rim, we gather together to share the things we will leave behind in the canyon.

“My fear of heights,” one boy shouts, and the group chuckles, remembering his tear-stained face on the descent, a descent that seems to have occurred a lifetime ago, given his transformation on the return.

“My fear of snakes,” another calls.

Students popcorn around the circle, sharing their ideas whenever they are ready. “Bugs,” the kids call out. “Sleeping outside. Being away from my family. “

One girl remains. The quietest one. The one who just moved out West with her family. She was the last one in the canyon and the last one out. “I’ve learned to never doubt what I can do,” she says at last.

Some other life event might have taught that seventh-grader of her potential, but I know of few that do it as eloquently and succinctly as uninterrupted time outside. There are few places in the U.S. and even the world that possess the solitude, beauty and history that Bears Ears possesses. Yet, we are at the risk of losing it forever.

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