We all stop speaking as our kayaks slip between sheer sandstone walls 200 feet high and across the inky slackwater covering what used to be Clear Creek. Clear Creek is a tributary of the Escalante River, which is a tributary of the Colorado River, which started to become a lake in 1963, which is why we’re here now: to see what’s still left of Glen Canyon, a place conservationists and desert rats have mourned since the Glen Canyon Dam created a reservoir on top of it.
We’ve paddled in here to look for the most famous place in Glen Canyon, the Cathedral in the Desert, perhaps the most-lamented of all the buried features. It’s Day 3 of our eight-day trip from Hall’s Crossing, River Mile 93, to Antelope Marina, River Mile 6. I am near the front of the group, with my friend Sinjin, the river activist; Kalen, the pro skier who’s been falling in love with the desert for the past year; my girlfriend, Hilary, who’s been in love with the desert for a decade now; and Forest, the photographer who grew up whitewater kayaking in North Carolina. The trip was Sinjin’s idea, and I don’t know it at the moment we’re paddling into the Cathedral, but he’s got tears streaming down his face right now.
The walls climb to a parabolic ceiling about 150 feet above my head. What used to be the floor of the Cathedral is about 50 feet below the hull of my kayak, by my best guess. Lake Powell is at almost exactly 50 percent capacity the week of our trip in early December, with a water level 3,605 feet above sea level. The floor of the Cathedral is exposed when the lake’s water level recedes to 3,555 feet, which it briefly did in 2004 and 2005. If we’re lucky — or unlucky depending on who you ask — I will be able to see the floor of the Cathedral again in my lifetime. Which might be the next time I see my sunglasses, as I’m about to lose them in a surprising, and kind of expensive, metaphor here in the Cathedral.
“Can you paddle around a bit?” Forest calls over to me from his boat. I don’t get a lot of action sports modeling gigs, but paddling a 17-foot sea kayak is definitely in my wheelhouse. So I paddle in a few circles. Along the north wall. Along the south wall. And then to ham it up a bit for the camera, I figure I’ll crane my neck back to look up at the sandstone walls, all the way to where they almost come together at the top, leaving a polygon-shaped hole filled with blue sky.
And that’s when my sunglasses slip off my head, glance off my boat and plunk into the water. They don’t even float for a second. They’re gone, replacement value $240. Now I have five more days of paddling under a desert sun glaring off the lake, with nothing more than squinting to protect me from macular degeneration. As I mentally catalogue the locations of the two pairs of Chums I have at home and chastise myself for not bringing them on a flatwater kayak trip, I don’t know Lake Powell will deliver a strikingly appropriate metaphor in a couple days. So I’m just a little mad at myself, and further confused by this place that, as a river-runner and conservationist, I’m supposed to passionately dislike.
The week before we drove from Denver to Page, Arizona, to start our trip, Hilary and I met with a mortgage advisor in an office park in the suburbs. We felt out of place in the meeting, two dirtbag writers who had only recently moved into an apartment after a couple years living full-time in our van, now trying to get a house loan. In discussing the home loan and the timeline for our first house purchase, Lou asked about our trip and how long we’d be out of cell phone range. He had been on a houseboat trip on Lake Powell once, and he asked, “Have you ever just laid on your back out there in the desert and looked up at all those stars?” I remembered nights sleeping out on a Paco Pad in the Grand Canyon, the air outside my sleeping bag a chilly 40 degrees, the Colorado River rushing by. I smiled and said yes, and assumed his experience out there was pretty different.
Most people who have experienced the Colorado River in Glen Canyon in the past three and a half decades have done it in a motorized boat, and called the river “Lake Powell,” as it is on the maps for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963, and the lake reached what’s called “full pool” in 1980. Prior to our trip, I had never considered Lake Powell as a venue for any sort of recreation, because I usually spend my time in the outdoors doing human-powered activities, and when you bury a river under a reservoir, it becomes a haven for motorized boats. On the downriver side of the Glen Canyon Dam is the granddaddy of all raft trips in the United States, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. On this side, it’s a lake, more famous for spring break trips, jet skis, and two-story houseboats with built-in water slides. I don’t think it’s too bold to hypothesize that if you prefer to paddle your boats, you very likely don’t believe in Lake Powell as a vacation destination—but if you own a houseboat, you probably think it’s the greatest place ever.
On our first day, we crammed our gear and food for eight days into drybags, stuffed them into the hatches of our kayaks and pushed the boats in off the 80-foot-wide boat launch ramp at Hall’s Crossing. We paddled across night-black water, glassy and gently lapping against steep sandstone walls and the bottom of the “bathtub ring,” the veneer of bleached algae and calcium carbonate covering the bottom 20 to 40 feet of the walls everywhere we looked. We headed down what we assumed was the middle, passing the buoys marking each river mile, alternating red and green. Our plan was to paddle 87 miles in eight days. We crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t run into any headwinds. The first day we paddled 10 miles, stopping just before sunset in a small cove. My hands hurt, my shoulders ached and my back was stiff from a full day in the kayak. Since putting in, we hadn’t seen a single other human being, which wasn’t surprising given the temperature. A few minutes after pulling my boat onto the shore, the sun dipped below the horizon and I put on all the layers of clothing I had in my boat, including a down jacket. It was cold. No one made it long after dinner before retiring to their sleeping bags for almost 12 hours.
We fell into a rhythm: Wake at first light and stay in our sleeping bags until the sun was nearly on us, then eat, pack boats, paddle 10 or more miles, and pull into camp at 4 p.m. for the last hour of daylight before dusk. Unpack boats, set up camp, filter water, cook dinner, eat, and get back into sleeping bags by 8 or 8:30 p.m.
Each day of the trip, we saw one boat. We only talked to two other human beings the entire trip, on our seventh day. On Day 5 we tried to paddle to Dangling Rope Marina in hopes the store there would be open and have ice cream sandwiches—I had checked their website and didn’t see any notice that they’d be closed. We paddled into the wind to get there, only to find it closed up for the season. Room to dock dozens of boats, several gas pumps, a ranger station, a store, and no road access, save a short, steep, narrow track of asphalt that apparently led to an airstrip above the marina. It was perhaps a bit foolish to hope the marina would be open, with the rest of Lake Powell a ghost town. Pro tip: If you want a huge lake to yourself, kayak across it in December.
Paddling next to Sinjin, I finally admitted that although every grain of my Ed Abbey-informed sense of ethics despised it, the trip was kind of cool, in some sort of post-environmental-apocalypse sort of way. Every day, we paddled a ton of miles, past beautiful (albeit half-submerged) desert terrain, and camped where we wanted. Even Forest said the trip had turned out to be way more fun than he expected. Was it OK for us to actually enjoy this place, I wondered, even though it was a shadow of its former, wild self?
“I think the problem is a lot of river people are never going to come here,” Sinjin said. “Because that would be admitting that this place has something to offer—including being an example of something we should never do again.”
Sinjin is the third generation in his family to fight to keep the Colorado River wild, before and after the Glen Canyon Dam. He works for American Rivers, an organization that opposes the dam, but doesn’t advocate for its immediate removal. The reservoir and dam are so integrated in the complicated plan of how water is managed in the Southwest that blowing it up (as plenty of environmentalists and river-runners have no doubt fantasized about) would explode the entire region’s water policy. Long before the Glen Canyon Dam was built, in 1922, seven states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California) created the water policy for the Southwest, not realizing the data they were using to divide up the waters of the Colorado River came from an unusually wet period in the river’s history. So they overestimated how much water the river could provide, and over-promised it. The Glen Canyon Dam now divides the “upper basin” of the Colorado from the “lower basin.” And American Rivers says that although a wild Colorado River flowing through Glen Canyon would be wonderful, getting rid of the dam is not a sustainable option right now.
“Powell plays an important role in the basin—it stores water for upstream states to ensure compact compliance and lower basin deliveries,” Matt Rice, Director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program, says. “It produces hydropower for millions of people, which pays for important conservation programs to restore endangered fish species and improve water quality for fish, wildlife and agriculture, and remains an important recreational resource for millions of Americans.”
Rice says strategic conservation measures could make decommissioning the Glen Canyon Dam in a decade or two possible—or climate change could deplete the reservoir to the point where it won’t be able to generate hydropower. Sinjin, sitting in the middle of the lake, has a more succinct, impassioned answer: “At the first opportunity we have to take it out sustainably, [expletive deleted] blow it up.”
Eric Balken of the Lake Powell Institute represents the other side of the conservation movement, which wants to restore Glen Canyon by eliminating what’s seen as a wasteful reservoir that loses 123 million gallons to seepage into the porous rock underneath each year, and another 168 million gallons that evaporate off the surface of the lake annually. Balken says they don’t necessarily want or need to remove the dam, although they wouldn’t complain if that went away too. They just want Glen Canyon back.
“Our mission is to fill Lake Mead first,” Balken says, referring to the Colorado’s other massive reservoir some 290 miles downstream. “The amount of water that’s lost to seepage in Lake Powell is so great that just by storing water in Lake Mead instead, you’d have a savings of 300,000 acre-feet—which is the same amount of water that the entire state of Nevada gets from the river each year,” Balken says, citing a 2013 study.
The lake is a paradise of rock, both above the water and no doubt below. I sat in the middle of an almost mile-wide spot in the lake one morning, slowly spinning my boat around the 360 degrees of desert view: rounded burnt-red sandstone walls dripping with dark streaks of desert varnish; black patches and ghost-white sections where a chunk of sandstone cleaved off a thousand years ago or last week; some fallen blocks the size of cars, some the size of buses, one the size of a tennis court; alcoves just starting to form by erosion or large enough to hold Ancient Pueblo ruins, plates of sandstone that have peeled off their ever-eroding ceilings piled broken on the floor, a ring of bushes and green vegetation 60 feet above the water line, a 50-foot tall bathtub ring below that. And finally me, floating in the middle of it all, wondering how many Canyonlands National Parks lie unseen 250 feet below my kayak.
The next morning, the sun poked out behind a hazy cloud and illuminated the water around Hilary and me just deep enough to see a school-bus-sized boulder appear under the water between us and a rock wall.We were paddling hard, and as I warned Hilary about the rock, imagining it sneaking up underneath her boat with just enough angle to flip her into the water. Nobody wants to have to climb back into a kayak out of 45-degree water and try to dry off in partly cloudy 45-degree air. Later we’d paddle over the tops of barely submerged pinnacles in the middle of the water, with maybe only a foot and a half of lake water covering them. How did people drive houseboats through here and not tear them open on these things?
I start to make peace with the reservoir. It’s not going away anytime soon, so I might as well enjoy it in some way. How many lakes in the U.S. can you paddle across for eight days and hardly see another human? I tried to make a sort of emotional truce with the place, taking photos and having fun with my friends, even if I was scratching my head at the whole thing.
On Day 6, I got the idea that it would be cool to see Grotto Canyon, the site of a famous photo of river activist and musician Katie Lee—the one where she’s wearing a bikini, not the one where she climbed up into a slot canyon naked (which Hilary hung in our apartment). Maybe we’d just be able to see that spot?
I paddled into the canyon between a 30-foot-wide slot in the sweeping walls. The canyon closed down to where I could scarcely take a stroke without scraping my paddle on the walls, and the water beneath me cleared to where I could see the shallow bottom. One, two, three 16-inch-long carp appeared out of the back of the canyon and swam underneath me so close I could have tapped one with my paddle if I’d been quicker.
“I think we’re on top of your Grotto,” Sinjin says from behind me. I think we are too, as I see the back, where the walls narrow to a point, and a curving waterfall streaks down the notch during rainy days. I can’t turn my boat around—if I hold my paddle perpendicular to the walls, both ends touch rock. A tiny stream of bubbles rolls out of an invisible hole in the flat floor six feet below my boat. I take my paddle and push it down, the blade hitting the bottom. Silt. Soft. This canyon and dozens like it are covered in water and entombed in the silt that’s gathered above the dam. I imagine beer cans, boat parts, deck chairs, Mardi Gras beads, the occasional busted flip-flop down there as well, the detritus of a river made into a lake, which thusly loses its self-cleaning mechanism. Oh, and my $240 sunglasses.
With two days left I pull my kayak onto the beach at our campsite. I turn to my left, and six feet past the bow is a pair of sunglasses, sitting in the sand, with dirt crusted over the lenses. I pick them up, rinse them in the lake, and give them a look: black with scratched neon yellow lenses, the logo from a casino, The Reserve at Star Pass, on the temple. Crappy, gaudy, easy, one of those things you get “for free” but really you paid hundreds or thousands of dollars to someone before you got them for free.
The whole trip, I have been searching for metaphors for the Glen Canyon turned Lake Powell: It was like a Yankee Stadium buried and replaced with a new Yankee Stadium (to which Hilary said, “Yeah, a smaller, shittier Yankee Stadium”). It was like driving around your dad’s hometown with him and listening to him tell stories about a pool hall where he’d spent his formative years and then finding a KFC where the pool hall used to be. It was like those things, yes, but it was probably most like losing a really nice pair of $240 sunglasses with pristine (and polarized!) lenses, and a couple days later, finding some scratched, old, semi-nasty casino sunglasses in the dirt, putting them on your face, and saying, “Well, they’ll have to do for now.”
I woke up at 3 a.m. to the dreaded reality that I had to pee, and I’d have to leave my warm sleeping bag to stand outside in the 35-degree air for a minute or so before crawling back in. Hilary and I had cozied our bivy sacks into a niche in the top of a sandstone dome, and I was only halfway through the night with another five cold hours to go before the sun came up. The moon had just popped up over the eastern horizon, barely peeking out. If I bent my knees and squatted slightly, I could make it disappear behind the curve of the earth. Sometime in the night, the lake had begun lapping at the steep walls of the cove beneath us, loudly swishing around our campsite, surrounded by water 50 feet below down the sloping rock walls.
I slithered back into my bivy sack, a slight breeze wafting cold air into my sleeping bag through the opening at my face. I laid there on my back on that big rock and looked up at the stars just like Lou, our mortgage advisor, had done from the deck of a houseboat sometime when it was warmer and much busier here. Between when I went to sleep and now, Orion had rolled from the eastern horizon over my left shoulder all the way to the western horizon, over my feet, and a shooting star tracked across the dark bowl of sky. I don’t know about this place.
More from C&K
Tale of Two Rivers: From two sources to the sea down the Green and Colorado
Digital Feature: Circling Back