There are times in life when navigating unknown waters can lead to life-changing discoveries. 

Yolonda Youngs, CSUSB associate professor of geography and environmental studies, is one such explorer, whose journey has led her to the banks of the Upper Snake River in Wyoming, where she has dedicated the past eight years to preserving the history of scenic river rafting.

But the course was not always clear. After earning an undergraduate degree in anthropology and archeology in her early 20s and conducting fieldwork in Florida and northern Italy, Youngs worked as a contract archeologist in her home state of Florida for a year.

“I realized it just wasn’t working for me,” she shared. “It’s a great field. I liked the aspect of being outdoors and I loved the discovery. I loved the scientific method. But there was something that just wasn’t the right fit at that time.”

As she pondered her next steps, she recalled family vacations spent visiting national parks throughout the western U.S., and realized, “The thing that always centers me is Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. So, I just packed up my little Honda Civic and drove out to Yellowstone.”  

That decision ultimately led to Youngs’ successful 10-year career as a whitewater rafting and kayak guide for the largest commercial rafting company in the western United States. “I was trained as a river guide on the Upper Snake River and I led kayak trips on Jackson Lake and Yellowstone Lake,” she said.

She moved up the company ranks and began to lead rafting trips on major U.S. rivers — the Upper Snake, the Green, the Yampa, the Colorado. Her trips in the Southwest included guiding “up to 30 people for two to three weeks, with all the food, all the camping gear, rowing through Class III to IV whitewater rapids,” she said.

“Most of these trips were in wilderness areas and national parks, and I just fell in love with national parks,” she said.

That profound connection led her to graduate school at Montana State University, where she studied Yellowstone National Park and Yellowstone Lake to earn her M.S. degree in earth sciences, and then to Arizona State University where she focused her scholarly pursuits on the Grand Canyon National Park and earned her Ph.D. in geography. 

And for the better part of the last decade, Youngs transformed her passion for rafting and national parks into a research project documenting the commercial rafting industry in the Tetons, titled “Upper Snake River Environmental Management and Raft Guide History in Grand Teton National Park.” 

“The goal of the project is to document, preserve and interpret Upper Snake River scenic rafting environmental and cultural history,” Youngs explained. The project is funded by the U.S. National Park Service and the National Science Foundation, among other sources.

“My research finds that the Upper Snake River is one of the great geographic hearths of commercial river rafting in the United States, yet it is often overlooked in scholarly literature. Memory of its origin in the 1950s and 1960s is quickly fading as guides from this era are growing older. This project documents and preserves this history before it is lost,” she said.

The first phase of the project was conducted between 2016 and 2021 when she was a faculty member at Idaho State University. 

“Phase I was six years of massive data collection. I led multiple teams of interdisciplinary students gathering field-based photo data of the Upper Snake River’s landscape, recording 22 oral histories spanning over 100 hours of audio recordings of pathbreaker river guides, digitizing nearly 3,500 of historic photographs and maps, and gathering donations of original objects such as historic rafts and oars for museum collections,” she said.

This community-based project drew upon Upper Snake River raft guides and raft company owners as collaborators throughout the research project. Youngs’ research team contributed to a new archival and museum collections for river rafting now stored at Grand Teton National Park.

Youngs joined CSUSB’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies in 2021, when pandemic restrictions were still in place and as she began implementation of the second phase of her research.

“Phase II includes community outreach and research dissemination,” she said. “This work also continues data collection through recording oral history recordings, digitizing historic photographs and capturing repeat photographs of the river boat landing sites through time,” she added.

Funded by a Wyoming Humanities Council grant, she collaborated in spring 2023 with Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum staff, Grand Teton National Park Service archives and media specialists and leaders of the Snake River Fund to curate a museum exhibit in Jackson Hole based on her research. While the exhibit was on display during the summer, she presented two public talks based on her research and helped coordinate a variety of community events in Wyoming. 

Youngs said she plans to share her passion for rivers of the West with her students by taking them into the field with her as research assistants on grants and projects — and through the National Parks and Public Lands course she teaches, which is offered in spring 2024. She is also creating the infrastructure needed to offer internship and research opportunities to students interested in environmental management, river stewardship, and national parks and public lands, as well as Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

As the second phase of the Grand Teton project continues, she reflected, “I’ve known these parts most of my life and have been doing research in them for 20 years as a scholar. I’ll keep doing this work for quite a while.”

With active projects in Grand Teton National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and even the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Venice, Italy and its lagoon, Youngs’ scholarly interest in preserving environmental and cultural geographies and her connection to the natural world continues to guide her. Her second book, “Framing Nature,” is the culmination of 15 years of research and explores the visual legacy and environmental management of the Grand Canyon. It is now in print production for publication by the University of Nebraska Press.