Peaceful Transitions in Glen Canyon

(A travel story, now 25 years old. I’m inspired to post it here after a trip to visit my grown son in New Mexico reminded me how much I miss the West.)

The scenery off the bow of our 50-foot houseboat shifted slowly northward as our captain found her “attention arrested by some new wonder.” She indulged her urge to explore and “we found ourselves in a vast chamber carved out of rock.” Slowed to an idle, our boats’ wake lapped back to us from the canyon walls.

The view is of the bowl of stone and natural wonders that hold the waters of Lake Powell. The quotes are by John Wesley Powell, the Civil War veteran  and explorer who wrote more than 110 years ago about the land some 400 feet beneath the surface of the lake in southeastern Utah that bears his name. In Powell’s time, Back then, the only water here was a placid stretch of the Colorado River on its way to the Grand Canyon 75 miles south and then to the Gulf of Mexico.

Powell named the Glen Canyon after the verdant ribbons of vegetation that lined the river and poured over from the ledges and dooryards of ancient aboriginal homes. These cave dwellings of the Anasazi farmers were chiseled from cliffs vaulting hundreds of feet off the canyon floor.

With a gentle shove from the two 75-horsepower outboards, we moored on a sandy beach at the foot of a semicircle of cliffs that rose from the canyon pool about half the height Powell had seen. After lunch and a midday swim in the shadows of the August sun, the grotto narrowed to a crevice in the rock. We gathered in the wheelroom of our pontooned home to plan our voyage. In our first of seven days on the lake, we found ourselves wandering, lured by silent finger canyons off the main lake and ignoring the itinerary we had set at poolside in Page, Ariz. the day before our trip began. After the huddle, except for a consensus about visiting Rainbow Bridge, the largest natural arch in the world, we firmly decided not to decide.

Instead, the days were spent in a state of meander, punctuated by the rituals of a beach house in high summer; small groups off to explore or swim, sharing passages from our novels, grabbing snacks and drinks, planning only the evening meal. The difference was motion and discovery; the process of remaking our setting by the hour or the day through territory that had been virtually inaccessible for hundreds of years. It is this accessibility that is the wonder and, to some, the horror of the flooded canyon that is Lake Powell.

Construction of the 710-foot-high Glen Canyon dam began in 1956 at the southern edge of the canyon, approximately 120 miles from Flagstaff, Ariz. At its completion in 1963, it joined the ranks of more than 40 dams that make the 1,450-mile Colorado one of the most segmented rivers in the country. By 1967, the canyon floor and its glen of columbine, monkey-flower and hanging gardens had begun to disappear and tributary creeks for 186 miles across northeastern Arizona and southeastern Utah had become bays of a nine-trillion gallon reservoir.

Our own adventure began at Wahweap marina near the dam at the southern edge of the lake, one of five marinas. The main channel traces the route of the Colorado; feeder creeks are now broad bays that intersect the channel like splayed limbs. Off the bays are hundreds of inlets and side canyons that finger out in myriad directions from the bays.

Our Lake Powell houseboat, with its 10-mph maximum speed, was augmented by a 14-foor Boston Whaler, towed in back and used for scouting, resupply and fishing. Only the first two justified the small extra cost. Once a day I, the lone fisherman, set out for canyon shallows in search of bass. Despite occasional dips at the end of an ultralight rod and a menu of bait that included lures and the local lizard-like waterdogs, the bass stayed deep and aloof.

The houseboat is designed to sleep 10 in a configuration that requires lots of friendship and little privacy. After telephone conversations with locals and rental agents, we hit upon a combination that turned out to be perfect for our group of four couples. The rear section of the boat, with two wide sets of bunk beds and a narrow aisle to the back deck became our hold by day and a private bedroom by night. A short ladder up the back led to the upper deck where folding lounge chairs brought from home were occupied all but the hottest afternoons and where one couple spread sleeping bags each night.

My wife and I and another couple brought tents and spent the early evening hours scouting campsites within a reasonable flashlight walk of our mooring. Except for our California couple who disdained anything that smacked of camping, the trip became an exploration of the land as well as the lake. Each twist in the canyons that showed us a new cathedral of stone rising from the water often revealed a sandy beach or an elbow of low ledges that gave us hiking access to the 360-degree horizon of Utah’s desert floor. With equipment no more complex than sneakers, hats and extra water, these climbs left us almost airborne over the lake. After dusk, the stars appeared to envelop the canyons in cool sheets and the summits shrank back into earth.

Despite Powell’s popularity, we never failed to find ourselves alone for hours at a time. Occasionally, we tied and abandoned the boat for hours along some stretch of the 2,000-mile shoreline to enjoy hidden pools or rock passages that one of our party had wandered into. Each afternoon, a designated pair would motor out in the Whaler to pick an anchorage for the night from among the dozens of quiet inlets within reach.

For all the beauty and the solitude the lake provides, modern travelers can’t escape the controversy that has surrounded the area for the more than three decades of the damming. There is a sense of impermanence about the place. The wonder of the rock above us caused our conversations to turn to the unseen valley below us and musings about the geography of the land were mixed with discussions about the politics of flooding it.

Already, when the water level is down in the lake, the cliffs are bisected by rings in bathtub beige. Someday, the lake will fill with descendants of the same Colorado River silt that cut Glen Canyon to begin with. Instead of flowing downriver as in the days before the dam, the rolling rock and sand stops in the lake, promising to make a sort of canyon batter in the future.

Edward Abbey, who travelled the length of Glen Canyon in a rubber dinghy shortly before the dam was completed, wrote in “Desert Solitaire” about the canyon’s demise and the certain coming of modern man as canyon intruder, whom he scorned variously as “the tool-making breed” and “Slobivius Americanis.” His own journey was an attempt to recapture the vision that greeted Powell in the last century as the one-armed Shiloh veteran floated the river on a sedan chair strapped to his raft. Wrote Powell, “Past these towering monuments, past these mounded billows of orange sandstone, past these oak-set glens, past these fern-decked alcoves, past these mural curves, we glide hour after hour, stopping now and then as our attention is arrested by some new wonder.”

In his recreation of Powell’s voyage, Abbey recorded with grace and love the natural wonders soon to be flooded. His narrative seethed with thoughts of the dam, which “lodged like strontium in the marrow of our bones — that Glen Canyon has been condemned. We dare not think about it for if we did we’d be eating our hearts, chewing our entrails, consuming ourselves in the fury of helpless rage.”

To others, the loss of the canyon by damming was a birth, yet another cut of history along the Colorado. “This is Lake Powell Country,” writes Stan Jones, guide, mapmaker and entrepreneur of the resort area. “Until the year 1963, maps of this region revealed only the Colorado River, its 200-mile long Glen Canyon, and remote lifeless plateaus slashed by hundreds of tributary gorges. Today, the muddy old river is gone.”

One midafternoon, when the sun had done its best, we motored out to the main canyon and eastward toward the fabled Rainbow Bridge. Along the route we viewed fantastic murals on the sandstone painted by the seepage of iron and manganese across and down the cliff face. At various sites in Glen Canyon lived the Anasazi, Navajo for “Ancient Ones” and they grew corn, beans and squash in the river valley. They built cliffside homes to protect themselves from enemies and today, in some spots, the dwellings are a short walk off the boats. The speculation is that these ancient inhabitants of “Lake Powell Country” were forced from their homes in the 13th century by drought. Their pictures and words etched in the stone can still be seen from the lake surface.

Abbey’s route to Rainbow Bridge, described in harrowing detail in his narrative, was a scorching and dramatic half-day hike along the twisting floor of Forbidden Canyon. It took us little more than a half hour to follow. We who travel by boat, warned Abbey, “(can’t) understand that half the beauty of Rainbow Bridge lay in its remoteness, its relative difficulty of access, and in the wilderness surrounding it, of which it was an integral part. When these aspects are removed the Bridge will be no more than an isolated geographical oddity, an extension of that museumlike diorama to which industrial tourism tends to reduce the natural world.”

From the docks where daytrippers leave the party boats, you can see the Rainbow spire that curves gently from ledge to ledge across a deep ravine, the product of millenniums of erosion. The Bridge remains one of the most popular sites in the southwest; more people view it in a year than saw it for the centuries before its modern discovery in 1909.

Before the discovery, Rainbow Bridge was a place of prayer to the Navajo, spoken to the four winds, the black, the blue, the yellow and the iridescent. “From the tips of your fingers a rainbow send out, by which let me walk and have life. All is peace, all is peace, all is peace.”

This day, on perches surrounding the arch, small knots of people stood and stared as if expecting the thing to move, to do something, to push through the disbelief that it had been created in place. Sitting there, reaching into the cloudless sky and back again it is a reminder that the writings and words from the Anasazi to Abbey are chapters in a story that will never be completed.

Someday, the silting of Lake Powell will add another chapter. The waterway to the Bridge will become a bog, a marsh, until perhaps one day, again, the route will be hiked with a hat, plenty of water and a singular attitude.

A Utah travel book written in 1945 says, “Once you sleep under that noble sandstone arch…you will never be the same again.” You can’t sleep under the bridge anymore; not on the ground.  But for the next several generations, you can lie on your back and with a gentle kick, float under that arch as far above the canyon floor as the birds flew for centuries, at peace with yet another transition.

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