A person walks through an opening in canyon walls.

Intensive trip forges strong bonds for Water in the West team

'We are the future': Students experience the unpredictability of water in western U.S.

PAGE, Ariz. -- For the majority of students who have grown up around the Great Lakes, it’s easy to take water for granted. As they spend four weeks experiencing first-hand the drought in the western United States, their outlook on water is changing. 

For Jenna Kuiper, a rising sophomore studying political science, the journey has been eye-opening. “This trip has shown me a lot of new stuff I’ve never thought of before, and I would have never been able to explore if I hadn’t gone on this trip.”

Where water supply in Michigan is fairly predictable, students on this trip have learned first-hand that water in the west is not. One day, sudden unexpected rainfall and the risk of flash flooding prompted a swift exit for the group from Water Canyon, where they had just arrived after a 45-minute hike. The very next day, students hiked just under a mile in near 90-degree weather near horseshoe bend with the promise of seeing a waterfall, only to find that it had dried up.

For Kuiper, this trip has opened her eyes to the importance of education and preservation of natural resources. “We are the future. The more that we choose to teach ourselves and learn, the more that it will benefit us in the future when going about water allocation and water issues.”

People stand in a stream surrounded by canyon walls.
People stand on a trail along tall rocks.

Petroglyphs and slot canyon explored during 10-mile kayaking trip

MARBLE CANYON, Ariz. -- Students kayaked 10 miles of the Colorado River on May 25, stopping along the way to explore rock formations in a slot canyon and to see petroglyphs that are between 3,000 and 6,000 years old. Hear more about students’ experience kayaking the river:

Friendships grow during car rides, dinners and challenging hikes

A person reaches back to give a hand to another person as they walk through a crevice between rocks.

HURRICANE, Utah - For just shy of two weeks, the 21 students venturing on the inaugural Water in the West trip have spent nearly every moment together. From intense hikes at high elevation, to measuring water discharge in various rivers, to nightly dinners together made by a different group of students each night, there’s rarely a waking moment where they’re not together. 

But now, looking from the outside, you’d almost believe the entire group is best friends. “I don’t think anyone ever feels left out,” Lizzie Kalafut, a teaching assistant on the trip, said. “On days off, everyone wants to go do something together. And I feel like that’s almost just as much what these trips are about, as much as the actual learning and educational part.”

For instance, during lunch (sandwiches in a park nearby their most recent hike), a group kicks around a soccer ball they found while others swing on a swingset together (faculty member Peter Wampler joins in for both). 

It’s easy to get along during the easy moments - but it’s the challenging hikes in 95-degree heat that truly test the bond of a group. But for this group, that is where students shine. 

The best display of this support, encouragement and camaraderie could be found in Red Reef Park, a stunning landscape of red rocks shaped by water over the years. Natural water slides into pleasantly cold pools of water are around every corner, and students take full advantage of each one.

A person high-fives another person with a body of water in the background.
Justin Hahs supports a fellow traveler on the trip.
A person kicks a soccer ball while others swing in the background.
Peter Wampler kicks a soccer ball with others during some down time.

It was a beautiful hike, but not always an easy one. It involved climbing near slippery waterfalls and navigating rock formations high above water holding onto only a rope. Hikers found themselves wading through neck-high waters before reaching a climb that is nearly impossible without someone boosting you up from below or pulling you up from above. 

That’s where Justin Hahs could be found, helping boost up nearly every single student so they could  enjoy the stunning waterfall. Justin only knew two other students at the start of this trip, but based on his interactions, you’d guess he’d known everyone for years. 

“We’re building friendships for a lifetime here,” Hahs said, thinking about the cramped drives, challenging hikes and nightly dinners. “We’re eating together, cooking together, hiking together, we’re doing absolutely everything together, and I really couldn’t think of a better way to get to know a group of people.”

How water shapes our world: findings from three national parks

CEDAR CITY, Utah -- In a library classroom on the campus of Southern Utah University, the group – still slightly sunburned and freshly showered after the day’s hike – gathered to discuss the things they’ve seen. 

They studied hydrographs of the Virgin River, where they had been the day before, and faculty member Peter Riemersma prompted students to identify the different roles that water has played in shaping three of their main locations so far: The Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park, all in Utah. 

The students made many observations. Molly DiCosola pointed out that Zion was more lush and green, thanks to the Virgin River. Evan Hodson explained the role that frost wedging played in what they saw at the Arches and Bryce Canyon. 

“Water expands when it freezes, and if there’s water in cracks then it’s going to expand and push that crack open more,” he said. 

Wampler compared Bryce Canyon with a landscape students are very familiar with: The ravines along GVSU’s campus. “What’s going on is a process called headward erosion. As a stream gets water in it, it tends to erode its headwaters back toward the highland area. All of Bryce Canyon is marching one direction; it’s exactly like the ravines by campus.” 

More images from the Water in the West trip

A person splashes water on their face while standing in a stream.
Two people place their hands on a rock formation.
A person sitting atop a rock helps another person climb up.
A small waterfall is in the foreground with canyon walls behind it.
People kayak down a river with canyon walls in the background.


Sign up and receive the latest Grand Valley headlines delivered to your email inbox each morning.