Chuck Watkins sends us on another Mountain Dispatch from Utah's Lake Powell
Straddling the borderland between Arizona and Utah lies a giant reservoir oasis in the red rock desert. It dams the water of the great Colorado River above the Grand Canyon. Around 2 million people visit the reservoir every year and it is the second largest man-made reservoir by maximum water capacity in the United States behind Lake Mead. The reservoir is named for explorer John Wesley Powell, an American Civil War veteran who explored the river via three wooden boats in 1869.
Lake Powell’s inky blue shape spread itself astride the map of Utah laid out in front of me. My good friend’s repetitive testimony had made me well aware of its red rock canyons, massive overhanging walls and pristine waterways. Eventually, the siren’s temptation for a waterborne wilderness exploration was too great for me to resist. A few weeks and a few planning sessions later and I was on my way west to uncover Utah’s desert oasis for myself.
The Bullfrog Marina at Lake Powell is a busy place. All along its lengthy concrete boat ramp, gurgling semi-truck tractors impatiently waited in line to pull houseboats in or out of the lake. The dock ‘s vehicular activity was flanked by the sweaty throngs of tired families with countless emptied-out gas cans, coolers, dogs and over-filled trash bags. Our comparatively small cluster of 1 truck and 2 roof-top mounted kayaks quietly rolled up to the scene as we threaded our way between the lumbering mammoth houseboats fumbling along the dock. Within an hour’s preparation we set off in the kayaks into and quietly left the murmuring cacophony behind as we leaned forward toward the unknown one slip of the paddle at a time.
Push, Rotate, Draw, Heave, Fore, Aft… “Use your core, not your arms,” Zach would say to coach me along. I struggled a little to try and rekindle my muscle’s memory of sea kayaking excursions long gone by. The more I paddled, the more comfortable I became with the rhythm, but what I could not shake off was the a small nagging bit of self doubt in my head. Will I stand up to the physical rigor. Did I bring enough food. Will I capsize. Will I damage Zach’s gear. Will we get swamped by a swift desert storm. Will either one of us be destroyed by any one of these giant floating frat parties. Can I really survive this. Breathe, Pull, Lean, Breathe, Pull again and again. Hours went by.
As the sun rolled through the sky, the nerves and self doubt began to slowly abate as they were washed against the staggering enormity of the red rock country surrounding us. Sculpted cliff walls looked over our journey as they held back the blackish water’s constant languid pressure. We founded the first camp upon the lightly lapping shores of a slickrock lined inlet.
After pulling the boats ashore we began what would soon become routine – the construction of a temporary but comfortable place to rest and call home for the night. Food was prepared and both sails and weary muscles were unfurled and allowed to dry. Dinner was ate and bedrolls were laid out beneath the intensifying canopy of diamonds affixed against the blackest of interstellar space. The Milky Way’s cloudy edge shone across the heavens, strapping all of humanity in for the ride.
As I became accustomed to the common occurrences of a life spent paddling, the events of each day’s passing began to stream together. From a rare but curious California condor who insisted on investigating our small flotilla over and over – pass after circling pass until the heated air currents lifted his massive wingspan well above our gazing eyes. We were to be met by this same gentle giant 3 times in as many days and each time it stilled the air around us. We watched as he watched.
Occasionally, we would festoon our sturdy boats against the sides of the rarely found floating public restroom facility. These were shining beacons of bowel loosening hope to us, because finding one meant not carrying out your own excrement should you give way to the forces of nature while back at camp. We would hang along the decks of these establishments for as long as it took until the big event finally arrived. Once each of us found ourselves fortunate enough to obtain an adequate release, only then would we resume the day’s travels.
Soon sunsets and sunrises became our only time keepers. We studied and discussed their slight changes over the evenings and following mornings. Subtle progressions made themselves known to only those who cared enough to pay close attention. The heavens retold their haunting yet familiar story out each night, but with small declinations in difference. The moon’s light slowly regressed its brightly lit hue waxing itself away while rising later each night. The entire orchestra of the natural world revealed it’s synchronized splendor and we quietly took careful notice.
After breaking camp on the 3rd day, we made our way to Defiance House. The description at nps.gov says of the pre-historic dwelling:
“…<located> three miles up the middle fork of Forgotten Canyon, <Defiance House> is one of the best-preserved Ancestral Puebloan dwellings in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.”
Originally titled that by University of Utah archaeologists in 1959, the site obtained it’s name because of the large pictograph of three warriors holding their threatening clubs and shields. We arrived in the early afternoon and stayed as long as we could, photographing nearly every inch of the site – soaking up the incredible, emotional vibe.
The end of our trip would come too quickly. Soon enough we were within a distant visual of the chaotic shores of the Bullfrog boat ramp again. Burgers and beers were not far off, and provided more than adequate motivation as we gravitated toward our eventual reward. During the last few miles of paddling, the afternoon’s piercing heat laid waste to my beleaguered shoulders and arms making the last stretch drag on for what felt like days. Breathe, Pain, Rotate, Draw, Breathe… “Use your core, not your arms.” I mindfully returned to the basics until we finally washed ashore one last time. The sun continued to chastise our already tanned hides as we retrieved our vehicle, inspected the gear, packed our belongings. After a quick rest, we stumbled off into the parched desert highlands bound for Moab and the bounty therein.