Sunday, September 4, 2016

Houseboating and Kayaking on Utah's Lake Powell

Lake Powell is the second largest man-made reservoir in the country after Lake Mead, both of which tame the Colorado River. Lake Powell is created by Glen Canyon Dam at Page, Arizona,  but most of the reservoir is in Utah. The lake is named for John Wesley Powell who was the first to explore and traverse the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, venturing there in 1869 and again in 1871, using wooden boats.

Lake Powell has flooded Glen Canyon, reputed to once have been one of the most beautiful canyon systems in the world, possessing amazing scenic, cultural, and wilderness qualities equal to those possessed by national parks, but which have been under water since the 1960s. Lake Powell extends for 186 miles and has over 2000 miles of shoreline and 80 side canyons to explore. 

I was fortunate to spend a week there in 2003 with an Elderhostel/Road Scholar program exploring the western end of the lake, and I loved it so much I returned in 2012 to experience the eastern end of the lake, this time with my buddy Greg’s company, Adventures in Florida. Both adventures were on houseboats which carried kayaks. Our daily procedure was to motor on Lake Powell, head up a side canyon as far as the large houseboat could go, then anchor it and launch the kayaks. We’d then paddle as far as the water extended, at which point  we’d hike the narrowing canyon as far as we could. As you see in these photos, the scenery was drop-dead gorgeous wherever you looked. 

To understand this better, consider how a side canyon is created. Rainwater falls on the highest portions of the mountain, and if the water falls on perfectly level ground, a lake is formed up high. But mountains are not very level, so as the water travels downhill it erodes channels to flow through, constantly streaming its way downhill. These channels erode deeper and deeper over time, and they wind back and forth as they seek out the softest rock to erode. Eventually these creeks create the side canyons and reach the bottom or main canyon where a river collects all the water from the side canyons and continues to drain downhill. The Colorado is the river at the bottom of this mountain, but after it was blocked by the Glen Canyon Dam, the water filled up Glen Canyon and worked its way up all the side canyons as the lake grew bigger and deeper. Thus all the beautiful scenery and cultural artifacts from thousands of years of human habitation were buried deep under water.

So, you ask, why am I walking on dry ground in the photo above? A reservoir is designed to collect and hold water during periods of excessive rainfall, and when a drought occurs, water is then released to provide recreation for people, water for agriculture, as well as drinking water for communities. In fact, much of  the Colorado River in Arizona is diverted in canals and pipes for usage as far away as California! While I was there in 2003, a multi-year  drought had required the dam to release large quantities of water for several years, so Lake Powell was 90 feet below “full pool” which refers to its maximum holding capacity. 

 If you look at our houseboat in the photo above, you can see the 90 foot tall white band on the cliff. The top of the white line is where the water level had  been before the drought! The white band (called the “bathtub ring”) is exposed rock that had been under water for over 40 years during which time white calcium carbonate had formed on the rock. In the next few years, the continued drought had lowered the water level by 150 feet, exposing even more of the canyon and increasing the height of the bathtub ring. In  2012 when I was there, several years of heavy mountain snowfall and rain had allowed the lake to recover much of the loss, but in 2015 and 2016 it had again fallen to 50% of full pool. See the second photo at the top of this story for a professional photographer’s dramatic aerial shot of a side canyon and the bathtub ring.


The experts have not been overly concerned about the reservoir being half empty, saying that the purpose of the reservoir is simply being fulfilled — it is providing water during drought conditions. The good news for visitors is the ability to explore farther up the side canyons and get peeks at the prior glory of Glen Canyon before it was inundated by the lake. Above I am paddling up a side canyon and below, while hiking a side canyon, we reached a boulder clog created when huge rocks, brought down by rushing water, blocked our hiking progress. I am climbing above the clog using a maneuver called the “chimney move” to continue hiking up the slot canyon (no ladders here!)

On our 2003 trip, we had a naturalist/archaeologist as one of our guides, and he took us hiking in places that had been under water for over 40 years and pointed out the holes in the sandstone seen below — they are dinosaur tracks  from millions of years ago! Wow! Talk about traveling back through time! It blew our minds! And if not for the drought, they would still be under water and we wouldn’t have seen the footprints or known they were there.

On both trips, I took a turn piloting our houseboat while out on Lake Powell. The houseboats are not very fast so you feel the rhythm of the waves and the motion of the boat as you gaze at the slowly advancing scenery. The magic of the lake transports your mind to faraway  places and life slows down its frantic pace. Later as we enter a narrow side canyon, the captains took control again as they searched for a place to anchor the boat for the night.

Below you see us getting ready to embark on our kayaks. It was great fun paddling up the side canyons because the water was calmer since there were no small motorized boats or jet skis whizzing near us. The serenity of the side canyons and the sheer beauty were awesome, and again, we were witnessing sights that humans hadn’t observed for decades because everything had been under water. 

I often hiked after we had tied up for the day, exploring the new area, and on a hike in 2003 in Anasazi Canyon, I reached a point where I was overlooking our four boats anchored far below us, and you get a different and closer perspective of the bathtub ring on the cliff walls. As beautiful as Lake Powell is and as important a function as it serves in providing stored water during times of drought, I can’t help but wish I could raft and hike the Colorado River through an undisturbed Glen Canyon, exploring and relishing the beauty of its flora and fauna and rock formations. And after seeing what was lost by flooding the canyon, I also am ever so grateful to the Sierra Club which successfully fought off the government’s plan in the mid-1960s to build a dam in the Grand Canyon and flood parts of it. What a folly that would have been!

Our boat in 2012 was a larger and more comfortable boat and I had a room all to myself, whereas on the smaller boat seen in the photo above, five of us shared one bunk room. No way! I knew we were in a place where it seldom rained and where there were few bugs, so each night I took my bunk mattress out to shore and camped under the stars. You may have seen fancy hotels bragging that they offered “Five Star” accommodations. Good for them! But these nights on Lake Powell I was blessed with million-star accommodations with the enormous night sky star-studded and blazing just for me! You can see our boats at the water’s edge on the right of this photo below. 

On our final night of the trip as we were tying up the boats, we could hear coyotes yelping at the base of a distant cliff. The next morning when I awoke out on my mattress, there were fresh coyote tracks in the red sand encircling my mattress — the coyotes had obviously come to investigate the interloper invading their turf! 

I wish I had awakened to take a photo of them, though it probably would have been too dark to get a shot. And I’m not exaggerating about the night sky. With little light pollution around, it was ablaze with stars and alive with magical sensations. And the sunsets and sunrises were just as  impressive as seen below.  In fact, each night under the stars gazing at their magnificence, lines of poetry tumbled out of my head and onto the pad of paper I had alongside my mattress, until almost effortlessly, at the end of the week, a poem had been given birth. You’ll find it below, though my mere words on the page cannot come close to expressing the emotions that inspired it. You’ll just have to get out to Lake Powell yourself sometime and experience it firsthand! I hope you do!


Lake Powell Reveries

     (Early morning thoughts over five nights of sleeping under the stars)

Atop the hillside, red sand my bed, 
blazing stars enshroud my head,
houseboat below on lapping sand, 
Gregory Butte commanding the land.
Eyes weary, I fight sleep off
for awesome firmament engenders thought
of places distant, of adventures near, 
of family and friends, of love, of fear,

of earth's great circle spinning here
amongst this starry cosmic sphere,
until thoughts cease and sleep takes hold 
in wafting breeze and pleasant cold.

Then dreams supplant what eyes did gaze
as kayak and houseboat toppled the waves,
of Glen Canyon's glory, long concealed,
by multi-year drought, now newly revealed,

its soaring, timeless, sheer-wall cliffs, 
canvas for ageless petroglyphs,
its sandstone flats where dinosaurs trod, 
its slot canyons choked with boulder clog. 

Till sunlight rises and full moon sinks 
below azure waters etched with pink,
and dazzling sunshine casts its sheen
painting red rock aglow and white rock agleam, 

bathing Navaho Mountain in morn's new gold, 
reminding of tales the ancients told,
and flaunting coyote tracks ring my bed, 
testament that wildness is not dead.

My rousing mind celebrates all it sees, 
till swarming gnats end my reveries,
and back to the houseboat I retreat
to forever relish Lake Powell memories.

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