Life in Transport: From GCY Guide to Grad School and Back Again

By Madeline Friend

Author’s note: You can read the full text of my research here and find the accompanying digital storytelling tool here.

Grand Canyon Youth guide on a boat with kids

The author, Madeline Friend, rows GCY participants down the San Juan River.

While on my first Grand Canyon trip ever as a participant with Grand Canyon Youth in 2009, I had never heard the words “fluvial geomorphology.” Like many people, I mistakenly used “hydrology” and “fluvial geomorphology” interchangeably. I had an interest in water flowing, water moving, water dancing, but I had not yet been exposed to the systematic study of these phenomena.


So, as a nervous 17-year-old heading down to the river for the first time, I prepared my required educational project on what I knew: hydrology. Ever the diligent student, I came prepared with notecards, activities, big ideas, and big questions. Through our time on the river, I got to see these questions in action: a classic pool-drop river with fan eddy complexes and fascinating hydraulics.


Of course, I did not learn those terms until years later, when as a volunteer trip coordinator on a GCY Partners In Science trip, I met fluvial geomorphologists Alan Kasprak and Joel Sankey. I was preparing to apply for graduate school and knew I wanted something in the water realm, something of rock and suds and grit. Dr. Kasprak and Dr. Sankey, besides being great boat buddies, were scientists at the USGS Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center. The sandbar research our group helped them with was fascinating and sparked the technical link I was looking for in my pursuit.


This led me to earn a graduate degree from Utah State University in the Department of Watershed Sciences. Fittingly, Dr. Kasprak served on my advisory committee, along with Dr. Belize Lane and Dr. Peter Wilcock, my main advisor. These scientists helped me develop my character as a researcher, ask enduring questions in the field, and effectively communicate my work. Most importantly, they supported my drive to work and give back to the Colorado River system.


Through my past ten years as a river guide, slipping seasons in around grad school and international travel, I still take the most glee in walking up and down sandbars with youth, asking questions and doing our best to understand the character of this indomitable river.


Scientist jumping in the air with arms spread in a desert scene

Madeline is a proud GCY alum and guide. Her first GCY trip introduced her to river science, inspiring her to earn a BS in Environmental Sciences-Biology from Northern Arizona University and a MS in Watershed Sciences – Geomorphology and Earth Surface Processes. 
She has boated extensively in the US, Canada, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia, but loves to circle the eddies of Western US rivers best. She guides for OARS Dories in Idaho and Grand Canyon Youth in Arizona and Utah.
You can read more of Madeline’s writing here.

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