On Lake Powell, Kayaking a Reemerging Canyon

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As our group paddles the lake, Jim frequently points out caves and fire pits 40 to 50 feet (12 to 15 meters) overhead that he boated to just a year ago.

"We could float a mile farther in last month," he says ruminatively as we ground our boats on a muddy beach in one canyon. "Hope you don't mind some extra hiking." We don't. For the next hour, we squoosh through the damp canyon, past rockfalls and over rounded, marble-like boulders. Lush tamarisk, willows, and reeds line—and in spots choke—the channel. The land here is a discordant but oddly affecting mix of skeletal rock and rain forest.

"Is this what Glen Canyon used to be like?" Grace asks.

Jim shakes his head. "I know it feels like we're walking on the bottom of the canyon," he says. "But we're not. There's 10 or 20 feet [three to six meters] of mud between us and the true bottom." He points to a dead branch poking up through the sand. "That's probably the top of a tree." We stare in silence. It looks disconcertingly like the raised arm of a drowning man.

Overhead, the long slice of sky above the slot has deepened to purple. Evening is coming. The last vestiges of sunlight gild and burnish the pink walls. Jim, who's wiry and dreadlocked, a leathery white Rasta, has been guiding raft trips in the Grand Canyon for a decade and outfitting kayakers here on Lake Powell for three years. He pats the warm sandstone and draws a deep, sighing breath. "I would love to have seen Glen Canyon the way it was," he says. "But I have to say, it's pretty darn great as it is."

Echo Chamber

Although it's possible to kayak on Lake Powell without motor support, it's not ideal. The reservoir is blessed with some one hundred major canyons, as well as countless smaller, unnamed chasms. Many of these side canyons are miles apart, and equally far from Page, Arizona, the starting point for most trips. Self-powered, you'd spend much of your time paddling in the main channel, with its rough water and extensive motor-craft traffic. Better to laze against the cushions in Jim's pontoon boat on the ride out of Page and watch the red-rock mesas slip past on the way to a sandy campsite.

West Canyon, one of the longest and most spectacular of the lake's slots, is a few miles beyond our tents. We motor close and land on a narrow, white-rock abutment, then take to our kayaks. The water slowly draws in upon itself, until the surface shimmers pink with the reflection of the rock walls. The lake peters out after three or four miles (five to six kilometers). From there we hike another four, through a wide, swooping channel, until it, too, thins. Eventually, we're scrambling sideways until, abruptly, the walls curve back outward into a kind of rock chamber filled with deep pools. It's breathtaking. Tom looks at the water, glances back through the telescoping slot, then erupts into a loud "yahoo!" The sound bounces and repeats.

On our final day, we paddle into Face Canyon, about eight miles (13 kilometers) closer to Page, and end up hiking over ground that was underwater until a few years ago. Few signs of the submersion remain, apart from some clamshells and sun-dried crayfish. Scrub pine has taken hold on the bare rock. Tumbleweeds blow by. Nature has a rapscallion adaptability, I think. Glen Canyon, even if the lake were drained, would never be what it once was. But it's no longer what we tried to make it, either.

We end up hiking to Slit Arch, a cracked, wobbly-looking rock formation. It appears ready to tumble. It apparently has looked that way for millennia. I find the thought appealing. A breeze brushes past. You can smell the lake from here, but not see it. Hundreds of years from now, the scent, too, may be gone. But Slit Arch, I'd wager, will still stand.

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