The Watershed Semester | High Desert Center
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The Watershed Semester


From border issues, to hydrology, to backpacking the Grand Canyon: this is going to be epic.



This semester integrates the highest levels of learning and adventure while focusing on the landscapes, stories, science and connections surrounding the Colorado River.  We will travel from high in the snow-covered mountains of Colorado to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico and back again.  Along the way we will meet and learn from U.S. and Mexican experts, experience numerous outdoor adventures, and come to understand what it means to lead a life intertwined with the human and natural landscapes of place.

This semester is for people who embrace the challenge of understanding and experiencing one’s place in the world, and how we each affect and are affected by our surrounding human and natural communities.  You will be able to fully participate meaningfully in important conversations about topics like water use, food production, immigration and border issues.  You’ll have witnessed first hand how our decisions affect everything from rare dolphins, to soil salt levels, to the jobs and health of the people you befriend in Mexico.  And, you’ll walk away with a collection of inspiring stories, some of which you might have published.

When do I apply?

Right away.


Participants will focus on four areas:

  • Colorado River Resource Management. Human water use in the southwest: the history, implications and solutions.

  • Southwest Ecology.  Experience the flora and fauna and their interconnections.

  • Journalism and Story Telling.  Working with journalists to develop the art of seeking out and telling meaningful stories.

  • Outdoor Leadership.  Backpacking.  Canoeing.  Backcountry cooking.  Team building and decision-making.  Route finding.  Risk management.


Colorado River Resource Management

The Colorado River, known as the lifeblood of the American Southwest, begins as snowmelt in the mountains of Colorado and in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. Nearly all water in the Colorado River is used for agricultural, municipal and industrial purposes, and recreation.  As a result the river no longer reaches the sea and countless ecosystems have been altered.  This course looks closely at the history, problems and solutions of Colorado River Water use.  In the process, you will understand where your food comes from and the implications of our choices.  You will meet inspiring farmers, ecologists and city managers and delve into water law and hydrology.  Finally, you will experience the river and its canyons, farmlands, and irrigation canals first hand, creating personal stories that add richness and depth to the big picture of the West.

Southwest Ecology

The Southwest is home to some of the most diverse and rich ecosystems in North America.  This course is about experiencing it in a hands-on way.  You will search for endangered Clapper Rails in the Cienegua of Santa Clara and pupfish in Organ Pipe.  You will meet Mexican Biologists who study Totoaba, Vaquita and Corvina in the Sea of Cortez.  You will key out cactus and see first hand the affects of cattle grazing on plant diversity.  You will watch Pelicans through your binoculars and discover desert beetles.  In the end your naturalist journal will describe hundreds of southwestern species that you experienced first hand.


Journalism and Storytelling

Life is more interesting when you can find the important stories, hear them direct from the original sources, and then integrate and retell them in a way that is compelling and inspiring.  You will work with accomplished journalists to learn how to do just this.  You will enter a new community, talk with locals and  identify the interesting issues.  You will find the key people and interview them.  You’ll frame and write a story and receive editing and feedback.  Finally, if you’ve done the first part well, you’ll send it off to a potential publisher.  The skills you gain in the process will not only make life richer but make you a more effective activist and communicator.

Outdoor Leadership

The word “leadership” is overused, but it’s an important concept.  What does it mean to draw people together, to be the glue and inspiration, to facilitate group decisions and empower self and others, to make worthwhile things happen?  In our time traveling and living together, we’ll consider these questions as well as what it means to be a team player. Living on the road, camping, and adventuring create extra challenges to everyday living–packing up camp, cooking outdoors, pushing your physical limits, staying warm, hauling water–these elements provide the context to explore both teammate and leadership skills.  In the process you’ll learn about yourself, be challenged to grow, and master a number of relevant outdoor skills, from outdoor cooking to canoeing and backpacking to risk management.


Activities and destinations:

  • The high  Colorado Rockies in winter and again in spring.  Skiing into a snow-bound cabin.
  • The Sonoran Desert during its February bloom.   Organ Pipe. The Pinacates, Mexico.
  • Rocky Point.  Sonora,  Mexico.   Cedo (a biological station on the Sea of Cortez).  Learning from  Mexican scientists.
  • The former Colorado River Delta and Cienagua de Santa Clara in Mexico.
  • A canoe trip on the Colorado river
  • Backpacking the Grand Canyon

  • The border and border issues in Arizona.
  • A long, multi-day hike from the fence in Mexico north towards Tucson, following the path of numerous illegal immigrants.
  • Studying large-scale agriculture and water use on the lower Colorado River and also small-scale organic agriculture and permaculture on the upper river near Paonia, Colorado.
  • Backpacking in Utah Canyons.  Find and explore ancestral pueblo ruins.  Study their culture and what they can tell us about the relationships between desert civilizations and irrigation.
  • Working with journalists and High Country News.   Paonia,  Colorado.


The Watershed Semester FAQs


The answer depends on where we are and what we’re doing.  Most days we’ll be up with the sun, either meeting that farmer or border patrol agent or hiking to the next canyon.  We’ll do things all things and then settle in for a meal we cook outside and connection around a campfire and sleeping under the stars.  At least once per week we’ll have a day off for doing laundry, sleeping in and generally taking care of ourselves.


The program fee includes all food, housing, transportation and activities while the group is together but does not include your individual transportation to and from Denver and optional spending money for personal purchases or activities. You will need a passport and to provide your own health insurance.  You will also be asked to come with some of your own outdoor equipment, like a sleeping bag, hiking boots and a water filter.  An equipment list will be provided after you are accepted to the program.


We are  accustomed to meeting the needs of vegetarians and vegans, although you should expect to eat local beans and walnuts rather than avocados and soy cheese.  We can also minimize gluten, although it has proven challenging to serve those who are strongly celiac (we have done it).  If you have special food needs that aren’t easily met with a local, whole foods diet, you might need to supplement with your own snacks.  Please talk with us well in advance about your special needs.


 Participants should already be in decent shape by the time they arrive, able to comfortably walk six miles with a pack in two hours as backpacking in steep country will be a significant portion of this semester.


We will ask you to sign an agreement form that includes:

  • No use of drugs (including tobacco and marijuana) and alcohol.
  • Doing your share of cooking and cleaning.
  • Abiding by fire and general safety procedures.
  • Participating fully in program activities unless there is agreement otherwise.


  • Participants, and their parents if participants are not legal adults, will be asked to sign a release form before the program starts acknowledging the risks associated with this program.  They include the risks inherent to backcountry travel in rough and remote county, traveling in Mexico, working on farms, and travel in vans and cars driven by staff.
  • Participants are often unsupervised by staff during days off and certain adventures.
  • Participants, by consent, may also engage in dumpster diving, skinny dipping, and other unconventional but safe adventures.


After the interview, if you have been offered enrollment, we will hold your spot for two weeks and ask you to make a $1000 payment and complete and send in medical history and consent forms as well as an acknowledgement of risk form.  When we receive these, we will formally accept you and give you a spot in the program.