Just what I need, another hobby.
My friend Wheels read about this 85-mile kayak trip across Lake Powell Brendan Leonard and crew took in winter a few years back. She’s been wanting to head out on a similar trip and I, having zero experience in a sea kayak, was her willing partner. Last year’s attempt was thwarted by a poor weather forecast TWICE and this year we had clear skies so we were on!
We woke up to a gorgeous sunrise and SNOW on our kayaks, a delightful omen of the fun to come. Icy cold temps and blustery winds had us lingering in our sleeping bag a little longer than planned so we didn’t make it to the launch point until the afternoon.
The winds calmed down as we were packing our boats and picked up just as we got in the water. My intro to whitewater kayaking went from zero to whitecap paddling. Our first objective was to go directly across the Colorado River/Lake from the Bullfrog side to Halls Crossing to avoid all the boat traffic in Bullfrog Bay.
The crossing was quite unnerving to start. I needed to get used to the boat while battling waves and creeping panic anytime a speedboat would get too close. We approached Halls Crossing zig-zagging through parked houseboats finally entering the main channel of the Colorado/Lake Powell, I’m still unsure what to call this eerie body of water in the desert.
I will never forget the first time I saw Lake Powell. Gazing down into the surreal blue waters in such stark contrast to the red and white rock surrounding Page, Arizona, I got this uncomfortable feeling in my gut. This water is not supposed to be here.
Lake Powell was created as a result of the Glen Canyon Dam built from 1956 to 1966. The reservoir is named for John Wesley Powell who led a series of expeditions down the Green and Colorado Rivers in the 1860’s and was the first known European to travel through the Grand Canyon. If alive today, Powell would have certainly protested the creation of the dam since he advocated water conservation above all else and believed the arid West was not a place for agricultural development and well, development in general.
The creation of Lake Powell flooded the gorges, spires, and cliffs of Glen Canyon, a place described by Powell as a “land of beauty and glory.” It is hard to believe a place like Glen Canyon was flooded for “progress.” The lake was created to control water delivery to downstream sites like Las Vegas and Los Angeles with little forethought into how much water would be lose to evaporation and seepage in such an arid place not to mention altering the Grand Canyon’s ecology and totally backing up and flooding 186 miles of the Colorado River through Glen Canyon.
Environmental ranting aside, Glen Canyon is still a beautiful place albeit with a huge bathtub ring.
We traveled 10 river miles the first day in just under 4 hours and found camp just past the point where Lake Canyon enters the main channel of the lake. We had a brief moment of the calm weather we were promised before the wind picked up making setting up camp a gigantic pain in the ass.
We chose a totally sloping spot for the tent, but it was the best we could do to get out of the wind. We made dinner huddling around some rocks and retired early since the wind made a campfire totally impossible.
The wind died a tiny bit overnight, but picked up again just as we set our boats in water. We had already changed our plan to try and make it down to the Escalante River outlet in case the winds never stopped and we would not be able to return. We then changed plans again and decided to head back the way we came and head up Lake Canyon hoping that narrow canyon would shelter us from the winds, which turned out was probably the worst decision we could have made since the winds were barrelling down the canyon causing tsunamis (only slight exaggeration) once the waters hit the main channel.
The air was cold, the winds were howling, the water was at close to instant hypothermia temperature, and I had no idea how I would get back into the boat if I fell out. The twenty or so minutes we tried to paddle to the side canyon were some of the most frightening of my life. The whitecapped waves were bouncing off the high canyon walls and combining with the water swirling out of the side canyon to create craziness everywhere. The gusts would catch my paddle tipping me off balance and I had virtually no control over my boat and I couldn’t turn the damn thing around!
Finally making it back to safety and the spot we camped the night before, we shared a beer at 10 am because for 1) we were alive, and 2) it was the only way to calm my nerves and make me care less about getting constantly blasted with sand in my face.
After a few hours of sitting on a rock getting pummeled with sand, we decided to explore “the island” and try to find a more sheltered place to wait out the wind. We spent the next few hours moving our gear to a high point of the island adjacent an alcove which offered a bit more protection from the wind. We passed the hours creating a rock wall for more protection, gathering firewood, reading, napping, checking the height of the waves every few moments, and even running the perimeter of the island as pictured below.
As a slight case of island fever was setting in and we feared getting stuck on this island for days, we spied a few fishermen hiding out in one of our island’s coves.
“Uh, excuse me fisher guys? Have you seen a weather forecast for the next day or so?”
The two men barely looked up from their fishing poles and did not seem phased in the least to see two shipwrecked women staring at them from a rock ledge up above. “Well 45+ mile per hour gusts today and uh… it’s supposed to die down tomorrow.” They stressed “supposed to” like they didn’t believe it and went on fishing like they hadn’t seen us at all.
“Now about sunset there is a kind of miracle. The wind dies. Our blood lifts to the heavily-fortified wine,” I had read earlier in Wallace Stegner’s The Sound of Mountain Water and by gosh darn it, just before sunset a miracle happened. The wind died and we opened some bubbly and toasted to safe passage tomorrow. Blood definitely lifted.
We woke to glass like conditions on the lake and quickly packed our boats before the weather changed on us and headed back upstream to Lake Canyon. We traveled Lake Canyon to where the water was reduced to a trickle and then parked our boats and hiked a few miles up canyon even spying a few ruins high up on cliffs.
It was interesting to hike the canyon to the high water mark and see how high Lake Powell once went and now see the life coming back after the water has receded. It is hard to imagine how anyone ever thought flooding these canyons was a good idea. Did I mention how nice it felt to be off the island?
Back in the boat, we headed back to the main channel of Lake Powell stopping off at a nice beach for lunch and hiking up to the top of the cliffs above the river to get a view of the lake down below. Lucky for me some prickly pear were in bloom and I did a little happy flower dance. Seriously, cacti in bloom made the entire trip worth it!
Considering the minimal wind, we decided to paddle all the way back to the car to eliminate the possibility of spending another day shipwrecked. Covering about 18 miles by boat and 4 or 5 by foot, we made camp at Stanton Creek and crashed early wiped from the day’s adventures. My right palm was blistered, my shoulders ached, and I was glad to be back near the car.
We packed up our boats for the last time and explored up stream a bit before paddling back to the car. I floated awhile in ‘Nanners taking it all in and thanking my little yellow boat for keeping me safe the past 4 days.
I’ve recently been doing a lot of thinking about what my life is going to look like when I can no longer run or ski like I can do right now and well paddling, I think it is something I could get into. Sea kayaking, it is like backpacking but you don’t have to carry anything. You just need strong arms and some hardened palms.
Now that I’ve had a taste of kayaking Lake Powell, I would love to go back. There are so many side canyons that need exploring and it would be neat to do the entire trip all the way down to Page or perhaps upstream to Hite.
I recently picked up a book, Ghosts of Glen Canyon, History beneath Lake Powell to learn more about what is buried under the waters of Lake Powell and will leave you with some words Ed Abbey shared in the foreword:
I do not hold with those who say that Glen Canyon is lost forever. Romantic dreamer that I am, I really believe that sometime soon–say, within the next fifty years–a more enlightened less power-greedy generation will assume the management of our society. And when it does, the gates of Glen Canyon Dam will be opened, Lake Powell will be drained like dirty water from a tub, and a living river and the sandstone canyon will again be revealed to our eyes, accessible once again to sunlight and life.