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Paddling Lake Powell (long)


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I wasn't sure whether or not to post this, but Juan has shared his trip out west, and I figured why not...

Lake Powell is a reservoir on the Colorado River. It backs up about 150 miles behind Glen Canyon Dam, more or less NNE along the Utah-Arizona border.

Being a native westerner, Berkeley educated liberal, backpacking environmentalist -- it has taken me over 30 years to acknowledge the existance of this lake, which is truly the antichrist of the environmentalist movement. The floodgates of the dam closed in the mid-sixties, after the crux battle of environmentalism -- the same battle which did save the canyon of the Green River through Dinosaur Natl Park, but lost Glen Canyon, as well as the tax deductable status of the Sierra Club and David Brower's position as head of that club. Anybody who has read Edward Abbey's literature has seen the references to "Lake Foul" and his rebellious desires to reduce the dam to rubble.

Glen Canyon was the prettier and quieter sister of Grand Canyon. Just upstream, it had flatter water, lusher desert vegetation, hauntingly beautiful waterfalls / caves / chambers. It suffered the death sentence of being remote, and relatively unheard of. Since being drowned, it has been taken over by beer drinking water skiiers and families in houseboats -- mostly locals from Salt Lake City and Phoenix.

The lake, although 150 miles long, is only about half mile wide (on average), but with zillions of little side canyons -- what mathematicians call a fractal boundary -- with more coastline than California. There are only three points of access via paved road, for it is in some of the most remote country in the lower-48. If you've seen those sexy Sierra Club calandar pictures with sheer sandstone walls rising hundreds of feet in soaring arches above a glittering blue lake, they were probably shot at Lake Powell.

Dennis and I have been friends since Berkeley (mid 70s), with several backpacking trips, wives, kids, and hair loss along the way. My backpacking expeditions in the last decade had expanded to include much of the desert backcountry north of the lake, and, with my new found love of sea kayaking, I became curious. We decided to swallow our liberal disgust, and see what the Lake was really like. We arranged to rent two folding boats (Feathercraft) from a shop in Seattle, plus flights, car, and time away from responsibility. We flew into Salt Lake City, drove down to the lake (~4 hrs), assembled the boats, and were paddling on the lake by late Sunday 10/14, boats laden with camping and hiking gear, food, cameras, and more food. We didn't have to be off the lake for over a week.

The geology of the Colorado Plateau consists of layers of rock, mostly different types of sandstone, tens to hundreds of feet thick. These have laid down over millenia, and been exposed as the elements saw fit to carve. What results is sheer cliffs where the rock is of the harder variety, and flatter and broken benches where the rock is softer. If you are picturing the generic view of the Grand Canyon, with alternating cliffs and benches for thousands of feet down, you have it exactly. There is also an overall tilt to the land (i.e. the sediments were laid down when the land was tilted differently than it is now), so the boundaries between zones aren't level. This means that the lake level crosses different boundaries of rock -- and the gestalt of the lake can be wildly different from one zone to the next.

We put in at Bullfrog Basin (the middle of the three access points). This is a broad bay where the lake level coincides with a particularly wide bench in the local topography. The shore here is broad and sandy -- inviting lakeside camping, road access, but not much photography. We paddled up-lake from there impressed by the huge sky and clean desert air more than by the rocks. Starting late, and with stuff lashed on the boats randomly with no regard for balance, we made camp fairly quickly, on a little peninsula with a sandy beach. The first of many crystal clear moonless desert nights addled our senses with too many stars. Dinner was Gruel Helper .

Middle of the next day, we had crossed out of the broad basin topography, and the walls were now 200 foot cliffs of red sandstone plunging perfectly vertically into the water and far below. No landing possible for a mile or more at a time. We paddled up Moqui canyon, which wriggles about 5-6 miles to the SE away from the main channel. We didn't paddle for speed...we spent much of our time with chins dropped and paddles resting, staring gaga at the walls. The colors and shapes were both endlessly varying and repeating. Right away, I realized the futility of the cameras -- where do you point the damn thing when you are surrounded 360 by scenery that nobody will believe anyhow? I shot many rolls of film, some pictures of which are stunning, yet it absolutely fails to capture the mood.

Moqui canyon breaks up into multiple smaller canyons...one of them ends in a tangle of dead tree trunks, which most boats can't punch through. We carefully wind our way to the head, and land on a shaded quiet sandbank, which is covered with tracks of several sizes of birds (from Great Blue Herons to ducks), small mammels (racoons?), large mammals (coyote or bobcat). We work our way back out, camp on a sandslide on a random bend, and the next morning explore up to the head. The water level (30-40 feet below the high water mark at this time of year) meets the canyon gradient at a murky muddy beach -- where we park and explore several more miles up canyon on foot. Very little left intact of Anasazi ruins, what with stinkboat access and all, but the amount of trash drops precipitously as one hikes a half mile or more from the shore.

We exit Moqui slowly, paddle several miles up-lake, and then go into Crystal Springs Canyon. This is a smaller version of Moqui, with many confusing twists and turns. A compass is nearly useless -- you really need a good memory of the rat-in-maze variety to find your way in and out if there are numerous branches. Here we find a huge cave (a large overhang between rock layers), where many have camped before...probably going back hundreds of years. One of our best campsites, and none too soon, as we found it in dwindling twilight. The next day we realized how much of a last gasp this was, for a short distance beyond, this side canyon ends. Unlike Moqui, this ends not at a beach, but at a box cliff -- there is a narrow slot, kayak width, which can be penetrated another 30 or 40 feet, but that is it. Practically a cave, the walls go up several hundred feet, and it is cold.

Exiting Crystal Springs, we next head across the main channel to Smith Fork Canyon -- reputed to have one of the best "narrows" hikes around. The topography at the mouth of the canyon is different here -- more open, and whiter rock. We paddle several miles up to the head of the canyon, make camp at the head, and hike for most of the afternoon. The narrows here are stunning -- several miles long in a very-committed channel of rock. The walls vary from 30 or 40 feet high up to several hundred feet high, and are often close enough that you can reach out and comfortably fondle both walls at once. The floor is scoured clean by frequent flash floods -- sand and psychedelic carved rock formations. By my watch it is long since time to turn back (i.e. halfway from starting time to sunset), and we brought no flashlights...but it is too beautiful to stop. We keep hiking, thinking that around the next corner will be a rockfall to make us turn back, or we'll top out on the plateau. Neither happens -- we keep hiking up and in, faster and faster like a craps player in Vegas on a losing streak. We know each other well enough to realize what is happening without talking, and occasionally glance at each other with sardonic grins, then pick up the pace again. Will it end? Finally it does -- a 10-12 foot rockfall, with the curve of the plateau above. Dennis is not satisfied, however, and a short scramble to the rim is necessary before we are hightailing it back to camp, which we gain in late twilight. Gruel Helper again.

Should I continue? The days keep following, side-canyon after side-canyon. Like the rock patterns, they are all a little the same, a little different. One day we camp on the edge of the main channel, with a little lagoon, view of Navaho Mountain in the distance (which has a cell tower, so we can call our kids to say we're alive), and we hike up the side of a sheer, overhanging 700' sandstone cliff called the Tapestry Wall. We spend hours at the top, staring into the distance, listening to the quiet, watching the water skiiers running each other over on the lake below, and eating dried gruel. We explore the "National Park Official Restored Anasazi Ruins", called Defiance House, in Forgotten Canyon (complete with stairs and handrail for the stinkboat folks). We hike up the heads of several more canyons, catching an insignificant glimpse of what it was like pre-reservoir -- quiet desert canyons with shady cottonwood groves, willow and tamarisk thickets along the stream beds, quiet springs trickling here and there from the walls, and the ever present line of uneven cliffs receding into the distance.

By the time we must return to civilization, we are relaxed, replenished, and humbled. We've seen a tiny fraction of the lake, and desperately want to come back for more.

Other highlights? For our 8 days of mid-october, we had nary a drop of rain, a few clouds, temperatures from the high 70s to the high 80s during the days and high 40s to low 60s at night. Water temperature was 72. We swam constantly -- every stop, and often a quick soak from campsites. We stayed cool paddling by filling hats with water and throwing over our heads. Neither boat wakes nor wind raised sufficient waves for spray skirts, which we left off for the whole trip. Ditto for rudders. We did use the sea socks recommended with the Feathercraft boats -- these keep the sand out and help keep water out if you flip. We didn't get to test the water tightness, but they did help with the sand, and weren't as much of a pain as I thought they would be. Recent Park Service rules dictate that all boaters carry portable toilets - to keep catholes at low water from becoming e-coli buildup at high water. We made a 4" PVC "boom-tube", which was less hassle than I thought it would be. Water was pumped from the lake with an MSR filter; we pumped about 7 quarts once a day, and it was generally enough. All our gear was standard backpacking gear, tried and true stuff -- neither of us have much experience doing paddling-camping, but we figured that the camping part wouldn't be any different than desert backpacking which we have done, and it wasn't. We packed a small tent, which we never bothered to set up. In mid-october, the nights are long, so be prepared with entertainment if you can't sleep 12-14 hours a night -- fortunately, Dennis and I were embroiled in the world championship Dominos match over the duration of the trip (didn't you read about it in the sporting press?), and had many books for when that grew wearisome.

If you want to repeat the experience, there are few kayak rentals to be had on the lake -- and most are of the sit-on-top type for houseboaters to take along for diversion. We rented Feathercraft folding boats from a shop in Seattle (which alas, had to close its rental operations post 9/11 due to loss of their liability insurance). The other option is to follow Juan's lead and rent a tupperware Eclipse from the REI in Salt Lake City (a fine shop which I frequent several times a year). Anybody who wants more info can let me know -- I have lots of local information.

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AHA!!! Hi Jeff: I've been after Buddy to let's PLEASE go paddle Lake Powell....I agree with the environmental issues BUT it's way too tempting to get into all those canyons (which I love dearly) to ignore and anyway - it's there and isn't going away anytime soon. Thanks for the post. You have given me fodder for nagging again on the Lake Powell thing...

Dottie Hogan

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