When the wealthy, mostly older, white men of influence and power made the decision to place yet another dam on the already beleaguered, but still rambunctious Colorado River, in 1952, there was little consideration of what would be lost. The only thing that the decision makers weighed heavily was the value of the hydroelectric power it could generate. United States taxpayers would foot the bill for the dam almost without question as the area to be inundated was so remote that very few people had ever heard of it, much less seen it. Barry Goldwater, one of the few, admitted after the awe inspiring Glen Canyon and its tributary canyons were drowned, that he regretted his vote to build the dam.
By the time I visited Lake Powell, the reservoir was filled to capacity for the first time. This was June, 1980, seventeen years after completion of the dam.
My uncle Ted had a small inboard motor boat and eagerly agreed to meet my husband and me at the lake for a week of exploration. It was early spring and the water was frigid and the main channel was mined with dead trees, recently floated down river by the high water. Waterlogged, they floated just beneath the surface and could only be detected by a stub of a branch that might be visible at close range, making traveling on plane a bit hazardous. I sat on the tip of the bow to scout for underwater obstructions, directing our path upriver.
Our craft had a small cabin at the front and upholstered seats at the back. It valiantly carried my mom, cousin Dan, husband Perry, me, and our captain, Uncle Ted AND all of our camping gear and food for the week-long trip. My husband (now ex-husband) was the life of every party. He could keep everybody laughing and so, made a great travel companion. But, he was heavily dependent on beer to maintain his equanimity. So, we burdened, or maybe overburdened, the USS Minnow with several cases of beer. We were riding low in the water but the lake was calm and we figured that the load would become lighter as the days went by.
In those days, Lake Powell was a remote wilderness, and even though campsites were few and far between for tent camping due to the alluvial deposits being below the water level, we had little difficulty finding suitably level sites for our tents. A particularly memorable site was on what had become an island in Forbidding Canyon. As the water level had pushed all of the wildlife to the top of the ever-shrinking hill that we had selected for our campsite, our tent was besieged by mice as soon as the sun went down.
The marinas where gas was available were approximately 50 miles apart. There was a marina at Rainbow Arch in those days (it has since been relocated to Dangling Rope) where one could buy gas and much appreciated ice cream. It’s crazy what a luxury ice cream is when camping in the desert. Utah regulates alcohol strictly, so there was no beer sold at any of the marinas. By day three, we were out of beer which constituted an emergency for my husband. The closest state liquor store was fifty miles north at Bullfrog, so we headed upriver to buy what passes for beer in Utah. The dramatic canyon walls fell away as we approached the broad flat bay at Bullfrog. The state liquor store was perched above the lake on the opposite shore from the marina, so we first purchased the beer and then went to get gas. Considering that we couldn’t have made it back to our camp on the fuel we had left, it’s telling that we risked the gas station closing before we got there rather than the liquor store. I think both closed shortly before dusk as travel on the lake is discouraged after dark.
The gas station at Rainbow Arch was moved to Dangling Rope canyon for a couple of reasons, the main one being that floating gas tanks are sitting ducks for drunk, inexperienced boat pilots, and Rainbow, with its vertical canyon walls, offered no escape should the dock become an inferno. Though there are signs posted at least a half mile from the docks mandating wakeless speed, pilots driving rented boats occasionally misunderstand their meaning and come into the dock at full speed. As we stood on the dock, we observed a 45′ houseboat approaching with Captain Nemo at the helm. Beer in hand and all hands on deck, he roared towards the unsuspecting, ice cream-licking tourists that had just disembarked from the tour boat. As luck would have it, he wasn’t very precise in steering his craft and managed to overshoot the dock and merely sent a wave over it. Shore patrol was on him like stink on poop and the crowd applauded as he was loaded onto the hoosegow. (or would it be called hoos scow in this case?)
At the end of the week, sunburned and craving a restaurant meal, we loaded the boat and nosed into the main channel. High clouds had cast a shadow over the lake turning the sparkling green water an ominous black. A chill wind whipped the waves into white caps as we plowed our way across Wahweap Bay. Water was precariously close to coming over the side of our intrepid little craft but thankfully, everyone except our captain was unaware of the danger we were in. The little inboard motor couldn’t overcome the weight and the rough water to get on plane, so we chugged along, fervently hoping the tour boat didn’t pass us and swamp us with its wake. When at last we reached the safety of the dock, retrieved the tow vehicle, dragged the bedraggled USS Minnow up the ramp, Uncle Ted discovered that he had a bilge full of water, having forgotten to turn on the bilge pump.
Today, just as Glen Canyon vanished under Lake Powell, Lake Powell is vanishing due to years of drought. The water level is just thirty feet above the level necessary to turn the penstocks and power generation is already down to 25%. It’s a very real possibility that the water level will drop to dead pool level in the next few years. There are few people left alive who remember the canyon and its glorious side canyons but I would wager that every one of them is experiencing schadenfreude at the prospect of the canyon’s restoration.