Live Every Day Like You’re on the River

By Kat Ko

A scienctist stands in knee deep water in a red rock canyon holding a net and a big smile on her face with a

Kat Ko is a biologist by training and an explorer at heart. She is passionate about making science accessible to everyone and connecting with others through outdoor adventures. Her pink hair in this photo is the result of a GCY dye job! Photo by Rebecca O’Dell.

I like to joke I got the job because no one else wanted to work in the desert in the summer. My summers of 2018 and 2019 were spent at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (GCNRA) working for the National Park Service on natural resource management programs. Little did I know how much working in Arizona would change my life, both personally and professionally.


My work involved monitoring bats and sampling dragonfly larvae, and both projects enlisted the help of volunteers from the community. Naturally, GCNRA’s partnership with GCY was the perfect way to bring science on a river trip while gathering critical data for the park. I’ve been lucky enough to go on three GCY expeditions now, and everyone says this- and we say it because it’s true- these river trips change your life.


Page High School students investigate the science along the San Juan River. Photo by Lonnie Pilkington.

My job was to engage the youth in bat and dragonfly programs and bring an element of science to the trip. However, from the very moment I arrived at Mexican Hat for my first expedition down the San Juan, it was clear that on these river trips, I was more than just a scientist. The GCY guides welcomed me into this new family where I was an explorer. An educator. A listener. A part of this journey through the canyon.


The vast canyon welcomed our humble little group of explorers into its sacred space filled with history, culture, and spirituality. The land and water brought us together through shared experiences of awe and fascination. The connections we made with the space, and with each other, never felt forced or dishonest. I had a meaningful, authentic interaction with every single person on every single trip, from 11-year-old middle schoolers to guides who were old enough to be my parents, because the river allowed us to be our truest selves. The river accepts us for who we are and teaches others to do the same.


I could go on forever about why I love GCY, the Southwest, the rivers, and the canyons… but, the one thing that stands out to me the most is passion. The passion that these people have for each other, for the land, for growth, for discovery. It was the most wonderfully unexpected experience for an Asian-American girl from New Jersey to have in the desert Southwest.


Group of Grand Canyon Youth circle around a scientist holding a net

GCY participants prepare to look for dragonfly larvae in the Grand Canyon. Photo by Carla Roybal.


In times like these, when the world is fraught with protests, death, and injustice, I find myself channeling the passion I felt on these river trips. I think of the youth and guides with whom I connected, and I remind myself of the lessons I learned in the canyon: Never judge someone based on how they look or where they’re from. Work together to get through the hard stuff; protect one another. Just because people disagree doesn’t mean they can’t have a productive conversation, grow their perspective, and learn something new.


It’s hard to stay optimistic when life is plagued by injustice and inequity. This is when I remember my experiences in the canyon, and I think about what a wonderful world it could be if we all lived every day like we were on the river. Talk to a stranger. Learn a new perspective. Find solutions to the problems. Live every day and treat every person like you would if you were on the river. It just might surprise you what a beautiful world we can create.


Grand Canyon Youth participants stand in water with nets looking for dragonfly larvae

GCY participants search for dragonfly larvae, which can live underwater for up to nine years before turning into adult dragonflies! Photo by Carla Roybal.

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