On Lake Powell, Kayaking a Reemerging Canyon

August 12, 2003

The curving little slot canyon in Lake Powell that our group has been kayaking for the past quarter hour abruptly narrows until it's impassable. In the lead, Tom Hogan, whose kayak is sandwiched between high, pink walls, shouts back that we need to reverse out. His voice, amplified by the encroaching sandstone, booms, then echoes and plaintively fades.

"Turn arroouunnd." I'd happily comply—the canyon, though sinuous and lovely, is claustrophobic—except that I'm an abject novice as a paddler and not at all sure that I can make my boat go backward. For a moment, I panic and begin pushing off with my hands against the close stone, making my kayak carom wildly from wall to wall.

"Whoa," Jim Adkins, our guide, shouts from behind me. "Maybe you should just get out and turn that baby around." Sheepishly, I glance down at the water. It's perhaps a foot deep. With exaggerated dignity, I clamber out of the kayak, then upend and twirl it with as much grace as is possible in these confines. Jim grins. "That was easy, wasn't it? Just so you know, if you'd wanted to do that last year, you would have had to carry scuba gear."

Who'll Stop the Drain?

Tom, his wife, Grace, and I are taking a long weekend's jaunt on the depleted, though still immense, body of water. This year, the 186-mile-long (300-kilometer-long) reservoir ("Fake" Powell, as an eco-snark friend of mine calls it) that straddles northern Arizona and southern Utah hit its lowest level since Glen Canyon Dam stoppered the Colorado River in 1963.

The lake, which inundated what many considered the Grand Canyon's lovelier sibling, has dropped by a hundred feet (30 meters) in the past few years, leaving a bathtub ring high up along the rock towers that emerge from the surface. The reservoir is at just half its capacity—it was full as recently as 1998—and the water is expected to continue falling. (It is typically at its highest in July and its lowest in February.)

This diminution of one of humanity's great endeavors to dominate nature was brought about, of course, by natural forces. The severe drought across the West over the past half decade has starved the lake while increasing the need for water in the parched lower basin of the Colorado River, which includes Las Vegas and its inexhaustible demand for fountains and faux naval battles. The drop in reservoir levels has intensified concerns about water supplies throughout the desert West.

It also has reinvigorated calls to drain the lake altogether. Activists argue that this would actually safeguard water supplies by cutting evaporation and seepage into the underlying rock, which now claim up to a million acre-feet (120,000 hectare-meters) of water each year. Besides, they say, sediment is slowly choking the reservoir. Decades or centuries from now—the time line is hotly disputed—the facility may have to be closed anyway. So, goes the argument, why wait?

Apart from inflaming passionate debates, the drought has revealed an entirely new Lake Powell, with tantalizing glimpses of what Glen Canyon must once have been. At its deepest point, the lake still measures 450 feet (137 meters). Nevertheless, majestic rock formations, submerged for decades, have risen back above the surface. Drowned slot canyons have reopened. Riparian landscapes have reasserted themselves on ground that, as recently as last year, was underwater.

Many of these newly exposed areas are accessible only by small, maneuverable craft, and that fact has helped create an outdoor-industry boomlet. A few years ago, there were no kayak outfitters on the lake. Now there are a half dozen, catering to people who desire an atypical Lake Powell experience—one that offers the chance to learn and repeatedly employ reverse-paddling skills.

Treetop View

When Glen Canyon Dam went into service, hydrologists were more concerned about the waters flooding than falling. In 1983 excessive rainfall threatened to send the lake roaring over its banks; only hastily constructed retaining barriers held it back. But that's a distant memory. "We're in a prolonged drought cycle," says Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Glen Canyon Natural History Association. "Cycles end—but is this a 5-year cycle or a 20-year cycle? Honestly, no one knows."

Continued on Next Page >>


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