Walking with the Ancients- A Stand Up Paddle Across Lake Powell

Thursday 9/27/2012 Dirty Devil River
above Hite Marina

Here we stood, at the end of
a long road which revealed what we had been working, begging, dreaming and
planning for over the past several months. The pale desert sunset gave us her
last shimmer of light. There was nothing but ancient red rock and a dusty Dirty
Devil River. To the northeast, as we set up camp, loomed the mightiest
contributor to one of the largest man made reservoirs in the United States, the
Colorado River; ever cutting deeper into the crevasses of Glen Canyon that hold
Lake Powell in its entirety. We set our sights to Stand Up Paddle the entire
length of the lake from the Northernmost end, above Hite Marina, to its other
extreme.  The paddle covered some 150 miles, winding our way to Lone Rock,
just beyond the Wahweap Marina, near Page, Arizona.

On October 1, 1956,
President Eisenhower, with a push of a button, silenced this mighty river for a
stretch by setting off the first blast to begin construction of the Glen Canyon
Dam. But she still held a rhythm that was unlike anything we had seen or felt
before.  So, as we sat restless that late September night pacing back and
forth in the near full moon we talked, with uncertainty, of what lay ahead.
After plunging into the dark water to wash off the cities tentacles; the three
of us crawled into our sleeping bags and drifted off.

We all lay in silent
anticipation, as many adventurers have before taking on an ambiguous physical
feat. Whether it be a weekend snowboard trip to a new mountain, a multi-day
camping trip, or an extended trip abroad you find yourself lying in your bed,
long  before your normal “lights out”, in hopes that the morning comes
early so that you can take the first step towards whatever it is you are
looking for. This is our journey, as we walk like the ancients.

At first light we all laughed
in realization that we were packing up our homes for the first of at least 16
times over the course of the trip. While water in our stoves boiled to make
breakfast, the lake did the same.  Small minnow sized fish called “Shad”
are forced to the surface by the larger hungry predatory bass creating “boils”
in the water. This frequent but random event turns the surface from a tranquil
slither to a violent torrent if only for a moment.  Just long enough to
get you running to the water’s edge, fishing pole in hand, almost before you
even know what is happening. An instinctive eruption that was the first of many
examples of the wildness that still can be found in this desert oasis.

Team Paddle of Powell (as we
had come to refer to ourselves in emails and phone conversations with
prospective trip sponsors) loaded up all our food, tents, clothes, books, maps
and other odds and ends into two 35 liter dry bags each, kissed the sky and set
our noses South. After the previous year’s meager winter showing, Lake Powell
at its head was more of a ribbon than the large reservoir that it can become in
other years. We set to the days 17 mile paddle lost at the base of endless
walls of fossil rich Navajo, Kayenta, and Windgate Sandstone, dating back some
200 million years. Soothed by the calm water and deceptively docile cliffs
around us in the morning dawn the place felt so ancient and unfamiliar. Yet we
felt drawn by the realization that the desert holds its beauty close and is
hesitant to reveal to those not willing to pay their dues.

So we did the only thing we
could; we threw away the key to the exit and breathed a collective sigh of awe
as we passed quickly through the first miles of many.  It was hard to
fully understand what we were taking on. The silence amongst the three of us,
that first morning in particular, provokes a memorable thought process. Was it
the reality of the task ahead settling in, or just our creaky muscles breaking
the bonds of an early rise that moved the group towards silence? Echos of a Walt
Whitman quote crept into mind “…but where is what I started for so long
ago? And why is it yet unfound?”  Time, it seems, would reveal the answer.
And so we moved on, with the sound of our paddle boards cutting through the
water. Hite Marina provided us with our first opportunity to top off on water.

After navigating our boards
through a field of brush and sticks that stuck up through the water like the
sharpened lodge poles on some medieval battle field, we jumped one by one onto
land only to sink into the suction of knee deep mud. We quickly realized why no
one was out walking the beach in the perfect morning weather. If they had, they
would be sucked into the gunk up to their eyeballs and there they would stay. A
few minutes of squirming and struggling, we set off, leaving three sets of
damp, muddy footprints in the dry ground as we walked past a sign that read
“low water” on the marina boat ramp.

Back on our boards the day
wore on but our spirits didn’t seem to come down. Paddleboarding may not be the
most difficult of all outdoor activities, but one thing that you learn is that
it is all about finding your rhythm. The ability to open yourself to the
elements, the movement, and your surroundings can make or break the experience.
We were ushered by a string of buoys, marking our progress each mile. It
grounded us and we would stop to assess our progress and plan for where we
would camp. That night’s destination was Good Hope Bay. Chosen for obvious
reasons, and after the first bass was caught, it brought about the camp site
which would become our stencil for the rest of the trip. A placid, deserted
landscape which allowed us to unwind and contemplate the first day’s example of
what we were to repeat seven more times.

When traveling on 14 foot
paddle boards with a lengthy fins and 65 lbs of gear lashed to it, the last
thing you want to do is have a camp or landing zone that doesn’t allow easy
unloading and docking of your board. Not to worry, Lake Powell has a solution.
Like a helpful concierge at an upscale hotel, Mother Nature provided levels
ascending from the water’s edge which acted like shelves for our boards to rest
on. These shelves created a convenient location for us to remove gear from the
decks of our boards while still allowing the fins to be left in place, just out
of reach of the water’s meddling.

With camp found and gear
unloaded, the sun was just setting and the near full moon began climbing the
eastern sky behind us. Our tired feet pulled the last of the day’s heat from
the sand as we sat tending to the evenings meal and recounting the day’s
events.  The boat traffic this far north is scarce as most would tell you
from experience. So as the darkness grew and the few boats returned to camp, we
let our minds unwind and our heart beats slow to a new pace. Dusk became a
highlight of the canyons daily march. Lake Powell is home to 6 species of bats,
and at dusk the Pallid Bat would come alive. Swishing and diving for insects
never afraid to invade your personal bubble when in pursuit of a tasty insect.
Its flight each evening makes for an exciting reminder of the world that is
alive all around you.

A toast to our day, and it
was off to bed with the moon so bright in the sky that Jake requested we turn
off our headlamps. The 8:30 pm crash time would become a constant over the
course of the Paddle of Powell.  It was early to bed, early to rise.

Over the course of the next
several days we made quick work of our time on the water, waking early each
morning to glassy conditions. As the buoy miles piled up, our minds and bodies
turned each corner with renewed possibility. The sheer size of the landscape
constantly catches you. Millions of years of time shaped the mass of energy
around us. How many secrets do these walls hold? How deep would one have to
delve to find the river bottom? And how carefully will we have to pass by to
ensure we have allowed the beauty to soak into our sun drenched skin?

One particular afternoon we
had been paddling through what came to be the longest most demanding day for
our team. As the miles racked up 15-20-25 we found ourselves fumbling along
massive sandstone walls, trudging directly toward the inescapable late
afternoon sun. With deep rolling chop testing our balance and our reflexes,
each stroke of the paddle gained you an insignificant feeling of progress.
These were the moments when you questioned what you were looking for and
whether it would be worth it, as Walt Whitman had forewarned.

With boats passing only in
hurried transit, our discomfort solidified the fact that we knew we were
ultimately alone. Alone to push our bodies, hearts and minds into an arena we
don’t often get to flirt with. Strength, courage, power became a mantra in
between epic stints of curse words aimed at pretty much every object in view.
In order to keep from just laying down on the board in hopes that maybe the dam
may be blown out and therefore creating a powerful suction that would pull us
to our destination. Alex began to repeat “strength, courage, power” over and
over to himself. Strength, paddle stroke, courage, stroke, power, stroke.
Pausing after nearly an hour into this mantra, a strange inner dialogue
began that ran through the whole rest of the trip. Power? Power was a weird
word for the subconscious to pinpoint. Our power was so obviously trumped by
those walls, wind, time, water and space. Yet with this adversity, in this
moment, among these friends, our power felt inextinguishable.

So we pressed on. Miles
passed, and by about mile 29 or so delirium set in, along with the sun to the west.
We pulled off the main channel and searched for a quiet cove to set up the night’s
camp. After nearly ten hours on the water the stench of accomplishment was not
enough. Something still pulled at us. Perhaps a desire to acknowledge and respect
the day we had just worked through. So after walking our tired bones to the top
of a sandstone knoll overlooking Bullfrog marina, we gazed south west as the
sun sizzled into oblivion just beyond our realm.

The quiet of the night that
settled upon us seemed endless. The reservoir surrounding us settled to midnight
calm. Tired muscles and minds were set to building camp, making dinner and
griping about the pains of the day. We couldn’t have been prepared for what lie
ahead nor would we have wanted to spoil it by knowing. Strangers like Bill at
Hole in The Rock, became quick friends. Where past and present meld as we
pirated house boat slides and carried on about the ceaseless battle between man
and nature in the deserts of the southwest. Experiences are made and the
stories are our own.

We battled the elements,
sometimes winning, sometimes conceding. We tested our egos and our friendships
and finally after pioneering a 150 mile self-supported SUP journey we found
what we were looking for, an opportunity to seek the unknown. A journey whether
large or small instills in its participants a sense that the unknown is out
there, and for us the search will never end.

Landing on shore we were
graced with hugs and high fives, sandwiches and cold beers.  The previous
eight days floating in our minds as a testament to our will and determination.
We had challenged ourselves both mentally and physically against the elements,
knocking another bullet point off our list of adventures. Coming ashore to a
group of close friends and family, we couldn’t have been more pleased to power
down and celebrate after a long stint walking the way the ancients did.

One Response to “Walking with the Ancients- A Stand Up Paddle Across Lake Powell”

  1. This is a tremendous piece with exceptional writing, and some fine pictures. There’s nothing quite like experiencing the joys of America through nature. Great touch on the past with Eisenhower. Truly inspirational.

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