Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lake Powell--Siren Of The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Wahweap Marina
As much as I disliked wearing a sunhat, I bought one anyway--a simple straw visor embellished with a rainbow and the words: Lake Powell. The narrow brim would interfere only a little with my using a camera, yet afford ample protection from the water-reflected glare of the bright Arizona-Utah springtime sun.

Less than a half hour out on the lake, the wind scooped the hat from my head, sailed it end over end, then plunked it down at the tail of our tour boat's silvered wake where it bobbed feebly before disappearing against the turquoise of Lake Powell's vast expanse.

Tour Boat
I resigned my fate: in a short while my nose would be a definite pink. By the end of the day it would be utterly Rudolphian. The only alternative was to go below where I could sit in comparative luxury, surveying the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area's slick rock desert and jagged-edged shoreline from behind large picture windows.

But no more would I know the way the tour boat's sleek, white hull sliced the morning-blue water or the way the sunlight refracted her wall-like oversplash. Gone, too, would be my completely unobstructed view of of the rusty-red buttes against the cloudless sky, wind-honed cliffs shaped like crazy stacks of phyllo dough, and sheer sandstone slabs that pierced the mid-lake waters like giant shark fins from some mysterious netherworld. Besides, upper deck seats were at a premium and once relinquished, would never be recovered. All things considered, it was better to stay topside and burn. So I did. Both

More than two million people annually visit this aquatic playground in the desert. At least 75 percent end up on the lake. A few are content to simply toe-dip the edges or cast a line from shore; most launch private boats or marina rentals, then venture far out into the lake's seemingly endless reaches.

At any given time of year, kayaks slip into dead-end canyons and water skiers zig-zag behind a powerboat's high, white plume. Canoes make their way into quiet coves while scuba divers investigate the glassy waterworld from the bottom up.

Somewhere along the lake's 1,960 miles of canyon-indented shoreline houseboats glide past petrified sand dunes, fishermen wait in shaded nooks, para-sailors catch the currents, and tour boats set their course for Rainbow Bridge National Monument.

The slick rock bridge is Glen Canyon's supreme attraction. And little wonder. The soaring ribbon of sandstone is world's largest natural bridge--a symmetrical formation that stands 290 feet high, spans 275 feet, and is so wide across it could easily accommodate two lanes of traffic.

The Navajo named it Nonnezoshi or "rainbow turned to stone." To them, the salmon-pink bridge with its tar-like patina of desert varnish was a sacred shrine, and Indian lore claimed that those who dared walk beneath must first say a special chant.

Today, tour boats regularly make their way up Forbidding Canyon to the mouth of Bridge Creek, tie up at a park service courtesy dock, and allow passengers to disembark. From there it is an easy quarter-mile walk to the bridge.

Before Glen Canyon was flooded by impounding the Colorado River to create the 186 mile-long Lake Powell, the trip into Rainbow Bridge was so long and arduous only an intrepid few ever stood in awe of this wind-polished masterpiece.

Now they come by the score--youngsters to splash in the water's of Bridge Creek and adults to crane their necks and snap innumerable photos. A small sign along the trail claims that "those who pass beneath the shadow of this bridge will leave their troubles behind." Perhaps it is but the poetic thought of modern man. Maybe it is an Anglo rendition of an ancient Navajo chant.

Glen Canyon Dam
Although Rainbow Bridge is one of nature's grandest accomplishments, the bridge and dam at Glen Canyon are two of man's top  engineering feats. The quarter-mile long bridge is the world's second highest steel arch bridge--a graceful span that rises 700 feet above the Colorado River,yet is set between cliffs so steep and sheer it seems little more than a child's matchstick miniature.

The dam itself is a white monolith--a 710 foot-high, 1,560 foot-long concrete crest that holds back the combined waters of five rivers: the San Juan, Dirty Devil, Escalante, Green, and Colorado. At full lake capacity it impounds 27 million acre-feet of water--nine trillion gallons that transformed Glen Canyon's arid side canyons into yawning bays, its buttes into islands, and its inaccessible wilds into a watery highway.

Today's Glen Canyon is a far cry from the historical watercourse along which prehistoric Indians built their cliffside homes and early Franciscan friars sought desperately to cross. Neither is it the "carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcoves, gulches, mounds, and monuments" first officially mapped and described by the adventurous one-armed Civil War veteran, Major John Wesley Powell.

Whether this longest of the Colorado River's named canyons has been improved or ravished depends largely upon one's point of view. There remains, however, some constants: this is still a desolate and ruggedly beautiful land wherein only four paved roads lead. It is still a place where titanic chambers glow with the soft, subtle colors of the Southwest, where rock is water-smoothed and wind-honed into Swiss cheese look-alikes, and sunsets are so electrifying they set aflame an infinity of sandstone statuary.

And it is still a land tortuously dissected--a place crushed and cemented by the intense pressure of ancient seas, then uplifted, sheared, tunneled, and polished to such a degree that investigating Glen Canyon itself (or any of its major 96 side canyons) requires either a boat or a sturdy pair of hiking shoes and the constitution of an Olympic athlete.

A boat is easiest. Packaged tours are easier still. True, scheduled excursions do not turn around to retrieve wind-stolen hats, nor do they pull into one of the lake's five marinas just because you desperately need sunburn cream for your fragile nose. There are, after all, things to do, places to see, and miles to go before the sun goes down.

But there are plenty of pluses. A skilled skipper can get back into side canyons so narrow and twisted you'd never have the nerve to go there by yourself. And you'll be put ashore at Rainbow Bridge just in time for lunch--along with enough food to feed yourself plus Paul Bunyon and his blue Ox, Babe. You'll get a close-up  view of Glen Canyon Dam from the backside and enough historical information to satisfy even the keenest curiosity.

But even above all that, you'll enjoy the leisure of skimming past Kodachrome reflections without having to worry about whether the red channel guides are supposed to be on the boat's left or right side or whether that white thing in the water is a shoal warning or a regulatory marker. For true landlubbers, there is no better way to explore this varicolored vastness. I'm glad I went. And I'll go back again. Only next time I'm taking a tie-on hat and enough sunburn cream to (pardon the pun) sink a ship.


Glen Canyon National Recreation Area comprises 1.2 million acres of vermilion cliffs and dramatic rock formations astride the Arizona/Utah border. At its heart lies Lake Powell, the second-largest manmade waterway in North America (bested only by Lake Meade, another Colorado River impoundment farther south).

The recreation area has five marinas. Wahweap Marina in southern Arizona is accessed via Highway 89 from Page, AZ. Bullfrog Basin, Hall's Crossing, and Hite Marinas in Utah are accessible via Star Routes 276, 95, and 263 from either Hankville or Blanding. Dangling Rope Marina, approximately 50 miles uplake of Wahweap, can be reached only by boat.

The National Park Service maintains public launching ramps and small campgrounds at Wahweap, Bullfrog, Hall's Crossing and Hite. Park Headquarters is located just outside of Page, AZ. Self-guided tours of the dam begin in the Carl Hayden Visitor Center and take approximately 3/4 of an hour.
For more information, contact the Superintendent, Glen Canyon NRA, Box 1507, Page AZ 86040

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