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As Lake Powell recedes, Glen Canyon reveals its secrets

Drought will alter the Southwest. Climate change means longer, hotter summers.

“What happens under the turquoise skies of the continent’s most celebrated landscapes will presage changes that people the world over can expect to experience,” writes author and conservationist William deBuys.

Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the United States, can hold one and a half times the entire annual flow of the Colorado River, yet it’s at only 46 percent of capacity.

I could wring my hands at this. Take shorter showers – which I do. Quit watering my lawn – which I have. But I also see the bright side of the dry side: Glen Canyon, flooded to create Lake Powell when the gates of Glen Canyon Dam closed in 1963, is re-appearing.

In 1869, explorer John Wesley Powell wrote: “We have a curious ensemble of wonderful features – carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds and monuments. From which of the features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Canyon.”

Powell added: “Much of the region is of naked, smooth, red rock, but the alcoves and glens that break the canyon walls are the sites of perennial springs, about which patches of luxuriant verdure gather.”

As for the dam, Wallace Stegner lamented: “In creating the lovely and the usable, we have given up the incomparable.”

Inundated for over half a century, the canyon is emerging from its watery grave.

•••

The questionably named “Lake Powell,” or “Lake Foul” to a host of environmentalists, is receding. Slowly, inch by inch, Glen Canyon is coming back. And just like Katie Lee who explored it in the 1950s before the dam, I want to see all of it, too.

Katie explored Glen Canyon wearing red Keds sneakers, a broad-brimmed hat, and often nothing in between. I’ll stick to shorts, a T-shirt, hiking boots, and, yes, I’ll wear a hat. The side canyon names are magic: Anasazi, Alcove, Labyrinth, Face, Cathedral, Forbidding, Explorer, Fence, Piute, Iceberg, Moki, Farley and Blue Notch. There are buttes, mesas, gulches and plateaus to discover. As the water level drops, boats stay away. Bays become mud, then hardpan. Too far to reach with houseboats, the secrets of Glen Canyon can now be rediscovered with hiking boots alone.

I can’t count how many times I’ve been to Lake Powell. As the reservoir recedes, options increase. For years as a Volunteer-in-Parks, or VIP, I was part of a crew on the “Trash Tracker,” a 64-foot houseboat. We spent hot summer days filling “The Eliminator,” an aluminum National Park Service barge, with garbage from 1,700 miles of shoreline. We drove a slow, old speedboat nicknamed “Minnow,” and we explored nooks and crannies of Glen Canyon in between stretches of picking up trash.

In Seven Mile Canyon, I remember the dulcet sounds of water dripping from maidenhair ferns onto sand and stone as we walked past redbud trees. We saw willows, cottonwoods, killdeer, swallows, hawks and swifts. Cathedral in the Desert now has a 50-foot waterfall in the middle, and the canyon floor supports ferns, long grasses and even columbine flowers.

•••

I’ll never forget the morning we motored the fiberglass boat up to the edge of a steep slot canyon. We couldn’t move another inch. Captain Bruce George tossed out an anchor, we switched to sandals and dove off the boat. We swam under a stone lip and with waterproof camera cases came up in a spectacular grotto at the base of sacred Navajo Mountain. Instead of the sterile and weed-infested soil of most of Lake Powell’s desiccated beaches, here were ferns, cattails, dragonflies and honey bees. We saw signs of busy beavers and heard the lonely descending notes of canyon wrens.

We walked through warm water, mud clinging to our feet. We crossed beautiful white sand. Out of the sun’s glare we enjoyed the deep shade of a high vertical slot canyon that swallowed us up. Hushed, we walked in silence. Soon came the soft drips of cold, falling water from darkened ancient clefts in Navajo Mountain.

The Hopi believe their ancestors climbed up a reed and emerged into the Fourth World, and I felt we’d done the same thing. That we’d left everything behind and discovered a new world on an old planet. The backcountry of Glen Canyon can be like that – self-discovery away from the jet skis and the boom boxes of houseboat stereos.

•••

In the hottest spring and summer days, cool side canyons, seeps, dripping springs, delicate flowers, tiny frogs, mud and white puffy clouds scuttle between Navajo sandstone walls. The main channels of Lake Powell can be crowded with zany vacationers ready to party, but the secrets are in the side canyons.

Keep hiking until you’ve gone beyond the last fire ring, the last detritus from illegal fireworks. Walk until there are no footprints. Then pick up your pace and walk until twilight before turning around.

“Glen Canyon was alive. The lake is a graveyard,” argued Ed Abbey.

About the dam he said: “I objected to it because it destroyed one of the most beautiful canyons in the world. Not as big as Grand Canyon but equally beautiful nonetheless. For almost 200 miles, the Colorado River flowed through it with no serious rapids. Anyone could float it. It was beautiful and alive, with the river lined on both sides with groves of cottonwoods and willow that were home for all kinds of bird, mammal and insect life.”

Cactus Ed didn’t live long enough to experience our persistent drought. The orgy of 20th-century dam building in the American West occurred before the National Environmental Policy Act and other laws requiring public input. Environmental groups want to drain the lake, to breach the dam, but nature is doing what they cannot. Lake levels drop and side canyon hiking gets better. Lake Powell is a whopping 104 feet below full pool.

•••

Last year, California had the driest February since 1849. This could be the beginning of a decades-long mega-drought that might last 35 years or longer. In 1276, a drought lasted 23 years and devastated the ancestral Puebloans. When it was over, they had abandoned the Colorado Plateau. In January this year, the Colorado River Basin experienced its lowest 16 years of inflow in more than a century of record keeping.

As the water level drops, the hydroelectric generators at Lake Powell may not be able to provide electricity to 5.8 million customers.

We can wring our hands at drought, or we can take a hike up Ticaboo Canyon. Lake Powell covered over 2,000 archaeological sites. Some are re-appearing. Forgotten Canyon is now like the Anasazi would remember it. For decades, you motored up to the base of the dramatic Defiance House ruin. Now, you walk toward it across a dry flat, noting the strange sight of empty plastic milk jugs tied to the tops of dead trees – floats 12 feet above you where vacationers once tied off boats. Forbidding Canyon, Balanced Rock, Davis Gulch – are all being reclaimed.

Hiking alone, when I see the first star, I turn back toward camp. Silently retrace my steps. Years of drought may be upon us, but I find hope in nature’s healing work.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.

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