Then & Now – Reflections on Lake Powell

Tim and Deborah at Rainbow Bridge, Lake Powell. 1988

I have been looking forward to our stopover and two-day boating trip on Lake Powell since the idea was hatched back in June. Throughout the years, Deborah and I have spent over 190-days on Lake Powell. That is over a half-a-year of our lives. I first visited and fell in love with this magical meeting of water and coral-colored sandstone in 1970 when my college roommate’s dad purchased a boat. He provided the boat to us to use, and what fun we had. We drove on all-night trips to get there. There were the out-of-mind and out-of-body experiences.  And, the time we bartered for gas at the old Rainbow Bridge Marina. And, I’ll never forget how we fought scorpions and rattlesnakes while in our sleeping bags. All that, and we just kept going back.

And Then …..

“Catch Ya Later” 1990

Once Deborah became a part of my life, I found that she too loved Lake Powell. Together, we went through the progression of three different boats. For years, we spent over 30-days each summer on the lake. Weekly, we would leave work early on Thursday afternoon and drive over 5-hours to enjoy all-day Friday and Saturday on the lake.  Sunday, we would enjoy the last daylight hours, before the unwanted return trip to Phoenix.

Deborah wasn’t really happy when I traded “Catch You Later” for a boat already named “Double D.” Fortunately, people didn’t stare at Deborah, as she anticipated, and “Double D” turned out to be our favorite.

Lifestyles twist and priorities change.  As our daughter reached her teens, we went in other directions. Thus, it has been 25-years since we last visited this magical, yet still controversial lake.

Reflections

It was time for reflection and re-discovery on Lake Powell, but also a time for thought and wonderment of what this canyon might be if it had never been dammed and flooded. Driving from Bryce Canyon, we listened to Foreigner and Journey, just like we had 25-years ago. And then, of course, Michael Jackson and Thriller. We wore that cassette tape out, one summer, at Lake Powell.

I haven’t launched a boat in quite a while – but all went well. Deborah moved the boat to the waiting dock while I parked the trailer. The lake is now 105 feet below capacity, and I could only imagine the long walk back up the ramp I was going to have the next night. But with the excitement of what was to come, I bounded down the slope to get going.

A strait has now been cut to connect Wahweap and Warm Creek Bays. The natural shortcut was originally created when the lake first rose to a level of about 80-feet below its maximum. Today, instead of using the man-made shortcut we decided to travel the extra 12-miles up the Narrows and relive all of our past experiences.

Then and Now

With straight cliffs on both sides and water over 500-feet deep, the Narrows was always very choppy. That has all been calmed with a very long no-wake zone around Antelope Point Marina. We were surprised to see this robust and beautiful marina, located in the middle portion of this very narrow channel. It was an even greater shock to see the size of both the private and rental houseboats now on the lake. When we rented our first houseboat in the early 80’s, and it was little more than a small trailer on pontoons. Today’s models reach three stories and 75-feet in length.

Drama on Lake Powell 

I could not help but recall the story of the houseboat that almost got away from us during our annual trip in 1986. After a morning of pulling and bouncing each other around on a tube behind our speedboat, we were relaxing while sipping rum and cokes with friends Don and Jean. All of a sudden, a micro-burst of wind came sailing through Rock Creek Bay Canyon and threatened to break loose our houseboat anchors and slam us into the canyon wall. Jean and I each grabbed an anchor line, and I’m screaming “start the motors” to Don and Deborah. I knew we needed to push the boat against the shore to hold it against the wind.

While Jean and I were desperately trying to hold the boat from breaking loose, Don yells from the captain’s helm, “Where are the keys?” I remembered that we had put them in our speedboat’s glove box when we left on our morning excursion. I yelled, “In the glovebox of the speedboat.” The speedboat was tied behind the houseboat.

Don and Deborah rushed to get the keys, but as they began to open the rear sliding glass door of the houseboat, the wind blew the door off its tracks. Deborah is now holding this large pane of glass to keep it from crashing onto the deck while Don tries to get the houseboat keys out of the speedboat’s glove box. Next obstacle; the glove box is locked and the keys are in my pocket.

How Will it End?

Don is now running back and forth, while Jean and I are losing our grip to control the houseboat. At this point, I don’t know where Deborah is. Then, in amazement, Jean and I watch as our new air-mattress bed lifts off the houseboat’s top deck and slowly rises up into the sky like a kite. It easily clears an 800-foot cliff which was about 300-yards away. The same cliff the houseboat would soon smash into if we didn’t get the engines started soon!! Jean and I could no longer hold the ropes as the force of the wind took control.

We are all still here today so obviously, we survived this drama. I still didn’t know what Deborah was doing the entire time that Don, Jean and I were screaming and scrambling through this keystone cops moment. Don got the houseboat running, under control and brought it back to shore. The wind stopped just as suddenly as it had started. As I came back on board, there was Deborah, still posed like Charles Atlas, legs bent and arms straight up, still holding this giant door of glass.

Today and Memories

Today, as we head up the lake, the memories continued to flood in. The water level is now down to where it was when I first visited Lake Powell in the 70’s, and the lake was filling. It is, again, harder to navigate through the twists and turns and deciding what is a canyon and what is the main channel. I hadn’t realized how higher water levels had provided a much straighter line to navigate in the early 90’s.

Glen Canyon

In the 1940’s, the US Bureau of Reclamation planned a series of Colorado River dams in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. The Sierra Club fought diligently against the one dam planned that would cover, what is now, Dinosaur National Monument. They succeeded, trading that site for the one near Lee’s Ferry where Glen Canyon Dam now stands. David Browner, head of the Sierra Club, at that time, had never seen Glen Canyon and therefore did not know what the new lake would submerge. If you want to see some beautiful images of Glen Canyon, before Lake Powell, I highly recommend two books;

 

The Place No One Knew, Glen Canyon on the Colorado by Eliot Porter
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Glen Canyon, Images of a Lost World by Tad Nichols
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Prior to the dam, Glen Canyon was nearly inaccessible but it had the scenic, cultural and wilderness qualities of our greatest National Parks. There were over 80 side canyons with clear streams with unique flora and natural arches and bridges within unique sandstone formations and slot canyons. There were abundant wildlife and numerous Native American archeological sites. Construction started in 1956 and the 710-foot dam was completed in 1963.

Rainbow Bridge

 

Aerial view of Rainbow Bridge, Lake Powell.

Rainbow Bridge is the world’s largest natural bridge considering both width and height. It spans 234-feet across and arches 290-feet over Aztec Creek in Forbidden Canyon, which enters the lake at mile 49. When the lake is completely full, water is backed up into the canyon below the bridge. I have seen Rainbow Bridge when you have to walk over a mile up a rough, dry canyon, and I have seen it when you could simply drive a boat up to look at it.

Tim (in the back, and second from the left) with his buddies at Rainbow Bridge, circa 1974. Note the “Impeach Nixon” T-shirt. Things never change.

I prefer the long walk. It is a sacred place named by Indians as Nonnezoshe, “rainbow turned to stone”. Sitting in its shadow releases your inner spirits.

Teddy Roosevelt and Zane Gray were among the first white visitors to make the trek by foot and horseback from Navajo Mountain in the early 1900’s.

By the 1930’s and 40’s, Rainbow Bridge became accessible by a three-day float trip down the Colorado River from Halls Crossing. At the river, you would hike the last six-miles up the canyon to the natural bridge. That was followed by another three-day float to Lee’s Ferry, the first exit point out of the canyon.

The Escalante River

Our campsite on the Escalante. 2018

Our goal, this trip, was to get to and travel up the Escalante River arm. The Escalante River enters the main channel of Lake Powell between mile markers 68 and 69. It was there that we planned to camp overnight. We brought just the basics; sleeping bags, firewood, hot dogs and roasting forks.

The stars and the milky way were brilliant. Shooting meteors zoomed in all directions. Bats scooped up bugs as they zigged and zagged above our heads. Deborah screamed, waking me from my first sleep, as a large fish jumped just behind the boat, apparently trying to get a bug himself.

I have always considered the Escalante to be the most majestic and spiritual part of the lake. This long and twisting water filled gorge extends for 22-miles off the main channel and has over 15 side canyons of its own. It was the last of America’s major streams to be discovered and mapped. It still has evidence of some of the very first aboriginal occupations in the western U.S. The remnants of pre-historic dwellings can still be seen high on narrow ledges.

Cathedral in the Desert and LaGorce Arch

Two places I most wanted to revisit, within the Escalante, were the Cathedral in the Desert and LaGorce Arch. We arrived at both late in the evening and had them completely to ourselves. Other than Rainbow Bridge, the Cathedral in the Desert is the most renowned spot in Glen Canyon. Unlike Rainbow Bridge, it was completely submerged with over 150 feet of water when the lake reached its maximum elevation.

Cathedral in the Desert. 2018 (to see the Cathedral in the Desert, prior to Lake Powell, reference the cover of Tad Nichols book, above)

The water level has now dropped to the point so that the top 10-feet of, what was by nature, a 50-foot waterfall is now visible. Deborah and I sat in absolute silence and listened to the trickle of water as it passed through the narrow gap and tumbled into the lake. It’s sound echoed inside this giant amphitheater of overhanging sandstone which allowed magical light in but shielded almost all of the sky.

I can only imagine what a pristine place this was when the floor of this canyon was sand where ferns grew from the moisture and small life teamed from this constantly flowing stream. I don’t think you can do justice to this place by writing about it or trying to photograph it. You have to be there, see it, feel it. I’m sorry that most people aren’t able to do that.

Entering Davis Gulch on our way to LaGorce Arch

LaGorce Arch is large by itself, 100 feet wide and 75-feet tall, but looks tiny within the tall and magnificent canyon walls in which it stands. It came into view as we rounded a bend in Davis Gulch and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Years ago, I had stood in this arch, with views of the lake on both sides, and jumped from the arch into the water about 20 feet below. The arch was now over 120 feet above the lake and it appeared to be smaller. Again, Deborah and I sat in awe and amazement.

Ilagorce Arch. 2018

Explore. Discover. Grow.

What a reflective and two-day discovery journey we experienced. I still love this lake. It has given me so many experiences I would never have without it. At the same time, I would love to have it and experience it as Glen Canyon. What an experience it would be to explore, discover and grow. Our last few miles boating back to the State Line launch site were very quiet. Like all previous trips on the lake, I didn’t want this one to end. Not because of the long uphill walk to retrieve the boat trailer, but because of the spiritual magic, I always feel here.

Deborah’s Perspective

I am so grateful that Tim loves Lake Powell because I love it too. Lake Powell has always been a very special place that has provided me with what I believe is a spiritual-type of experience. Although, I have never been able to explain why. I just know that I love being there, and leaving is never easy. However, I always leave feeling rejuvenated.

On this trip, I believe I made a personal discovery and gained some insight, and perhaps a theory, on how and why this lake affects me as it does.

To begin with, the landscape and the scenery is incredibly unique and on such a grand scale. It can literally leave you breathless. Upon arriving, the lake’s inspiring beauty gives me cause to be silent and simply gaze upon the grandeur. Initially, my imagination will run wild with the images that seem to be contained on the canyon’s cliffs and walls. Eventually, my silence turns to mindfulness and being fully present. It is then, that I experience a profound sense of connection and feel part of this enchanting landscape … and the world.

To conclude our 2018 Risk Blossoming adventure, at Lake Powell was better than perfect. It allowed us time to relax, to be silent, listen, experience ourselves, and return home rejuvenated and whole.

“Silence isn’t empty, its full of answers.”

Lake Powell. 2018

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