On January 21, 1963 the gates of the new Glen Canyon Dam swung closed and the silty waters of the wild Colorado River began pooling behind a svelte 710’ plug of concrete. Day by day Glen Canyon, the ‘place no one knew,’ as termed by the photographer Eliot Porter, slipped away into the memories of those who had run the river through it, camped on its banks, and marveled at its surpassingly enchanting beauty and quietude. Seventeen years later Lake Powell finally filled to the brim, and through the years people from everywhere used houseboats and Jet Skis, powerboats and kayaks to explore its 96 named and flooded canyons. I was one of those explorers in love with this high-desert gem, and shared its wonders with the world in several magazine features. But I’ve always wondered what lay below the blue water, and if I’d ever see it reborn. That time may have come at last.
The Way it Was
How did Glen Canyon get its name? John Wesley Powell, in addition to being a geologist and geographer of note, was a colorful and perceptive writer, with almost photographic powers of description. As his ragtag first-ever expedition entered this riparian canyon complex in late July 1869, he and his men marveled at the “curious, narrow glens.” In Powell’s book Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons, (1895), he describes Glen Canyon as a -curious ensemble of wonderful features—carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Canyon”.
The Way it Is
Climatologists have stated that our current dry period is actually a megadrought, exceeding the long drought that in the early 1200s is believed to have uprooted native tribes and cultures throughout the Southwest. Snowfall on the western slope of the Rockies feeds Lake Powell, and as is well-known, higher temps and less precipitation since 2000 have drawn down both Powell and Lake Mead, changing the recreational options on both lakes. The last time Lake Powell was this low was late November of 1967, when the lake was first filling. Yet, there may be a silver lining to our great Southwestern drought, at least for those who thirst for adventure.
Page is the Gateway
Page is the place to begin your personal odyssey, with full services and currently the only powerboat rentals on this great lake. In search of that elusive silver lining, in mid-February of 2022, I rented a 22’ pontoon boat from Lake Powell Vacations in Page, stuffed it with camping and photo gear, and set off from Wahweap Marina on a mission of discovery.
My chief goal was to see what sights have reappeared as the lake level dropped to 170’ below full pool, and perhaps walk in the virtual footsteps of John Wesley Powell and his intrepid crew. They traversed Glen Canyon’s 169.6-mile length twice, in 1869 and 1871, marveling at its features and leaving place names that hint at the beauty that was drowned after 1963.
Life Finds a Way
You can still rent and run a houseboat on Lake Powell, but truly roaming the lake’s hidden glories requires a rugged powerboat that can tie up on a sandy/rocky shoreline and enter narrow sinuous chasms. While I truly love the houseboat experience on Lake Powell, savoring them as luxurious wilderness base camps, sometimes roughing it is the best way to take the measure of yourself in a wild landscape. And make no mistake, this is reverting to the old ways. My two rugged friends beach camped with me for three cold nights, sleeping without tents under a huge waxing moon.
Is life returning to what was once Glen Canyon? The steadily dropping water level should allow new plant growth on open soil as the weather warms. But on this winter quest it is the animal life that I find striking. I’ve never seen so many birds on these waters, as flocks of ducks and other small waterfowl flourish in many of the side canyons we ease into on our search. For the first time ever on Lake Powell, I see a striking Bald Eagle soaring over the main channel. He alights on a pillar of striped sandstone near Mile 65, in solitary splendor, watching us from 100’ above. I take it as an omen of better days ahead.
Cruising Wetherill Canyon at Mile 40, we step out on sandstone shelves that have been in wet darkness for five decades, to stretch our legs. Sharp-eyed Jeff calls out softly and points north, to a herd of ten very healthy desert bighorn sheep running on the high sandstone. These are the first bighorns I’ve seen at Lake Powell in nearly forty years of visits. Perhaps the low-water fears are keeping humans away, as we see not a soul the first two days out and less than a handful after that
Known as “The Grand Canyon State,” Arizona is a popular destination because of its sunny weather, diverse desert and mountain landscapes, and...
About the Author
Kerrick James is a travel journalist specializing in active and cultural adventures worldwide, but Arizona is home. The 2020 SATW Travel Photographer of the Year, he’s rafted the Grand Canyon for magazine stories, to teach photo workshops, and purely for fun.