Lake Powell Pilgrimage- An Epic Adventure in Scale

Plunging into the liberal waters of Lake Powell when the summer sun blasts and blazes the landscape is an unforgettable and sublime outdoor pleasure. This year our sojourn is simply sketched. In seven days Sven and I can leisurely pilot his MacGregor sailboat up the Escalante River arm and back to Bullfrog Marina, touring remote side canyons along the way. Remote, however, is a relative qualifier in the Glen Canyon area. Lake Powell’s 186 miles spills over the Utah-Arizona border, a location itself remote by national standards. Access is limited to six marinas for 1,960 miles of recreational shoreline, the equivalent of which would be having to rely on only six convenience stores to service the entire western US coastline.

The 26-foot, swing keel, water ballasted craft is self-contained and can successfully operate in a foot of water which means we can journey to the canyon-end shallows where the water segues into terra firma and overnight farther in than houseboats and most powerboats. I’ve discovered from previous trips that I’m hooked on going to the end because the end of the canyon in water is also the beginning of the canyon on land, canyons that often have no roadside access. The versatility of the craft and veteran experience of the captain means that we have plentiful possibilities for remote hiking.


The Glen Canyon Recreation Area is a paradise of scale. The magnitude of water, mesa, canyon and sky can modify one’s concept of the word big, but lilliputian natural wonder also manifests in abundance. There’s a discernible macro-micro rhythm between experiencing the expansive, colossal proportions and dynamics of the main channel versus the smaller natural relationships and forces at the ends of these water-filled canyons.


We have the definitive Stan Jones, “Mr. Lake Powell,” map, and reading terrain descriptions is like imagining from the menu what food will taste like, as each canyon has a different flavor. Since many factors affect where we will camp, we let the day’s final destination be an open-ended decision, but for the first night Iceberg Canyon sounds delicious.


The perspective looking into a canyon mouth draws you in and sparks a what’s-behind-the-curtain curiosity, delightfully satisfied as the sailboat slips around outcroppings to reveal coves with sandy beaches. We bear left at the canyon split, traveling up the longer waterway and determine the perfect place to heave anchor. After securing the boat, I take a late afternoon paddle in the inflatable to the transition to land where detritus from both run-off and receding waters litters the soggy, tamarisk-infected surrounds. Carp congregate in the silty shallows, the slithering vertebrates taking turns mouthing for air with their fish clown lips. My appearance sends them into alarmed retreat, but when I assume a fixed presence they return to their fluid and graceful circular dance.

The dramatic about-face between the calm night air and the agitating heat immediately following sunrise is like a climatic bipolar mood swing and breakfast is naturally followed by a soothing swim. Camping on a boat there is a logistic rhythm you develop in concert with necessary chores and planned travel—stowing, securing, swabbing. The last task is to pull anchor, the act of which ignites a here-we-go excitement as we wend our way back to the main channel.


Time is the only buzz-kill once you start grooving on the surrounding macro and micro cosmos. We need to make the Escalante Arm, and Davis Gulch by sundown, and also this land and waterscape engender gluttony. Slowly and rapaciously feed on the sights of both enormous stretches of varnished canyon walls that look like traditional, polychromatic Japanese watercolors, and also on the small pockets of the sun’s kaleidoscope reflections off the water surface that shimmer in hypnotic pulses on the dome of a carved-out rock wall. Maybe that’s what people mean by being addicted to Powell, feeling the constant urge to satisfy the desire to be the human filter through which all of this unadulterated nature passes.


Keel down, we raise the main and foresail in the mid-morning breeze, but at every twist in the channel the wind changes direction. The extensive open waters of Powell’s bays really are more conducive to tacking and jibing so we furl the sails and return to cruising and witnessing.


Turning right at the Escalante River arm is like getting off the interstate and onto the highway after which we take Davis Gulch, the third exit west and south. Winding through the narrow fingers, light highlights different hues of the coupled rock and water. The palette shifts from russet and heavy teal in the shadows to light-blasted honey-blonde conglomerate and bright, turquoise-colored liquid. Nimble navigating through the watery veins of the canyon’s end is like playing sailboat Operation, the goal to keep the mast from touching the sandstone sides. After squeezing through a willow-choked channel we drop anchor next to a sandy bump.


The next day we kayak to the dry part of the gulch where we continue up the ravine on foot. Tawny dragonflies with their Jackie-O sunglasses eyes breeze through cattails, and silvery fish flash along the sandy-bottomed creek. What there is to do is to take it in, and what a luxury to pass the time in sensual observation enjoying snapshot moments of rusted earth against pure blue sky animated by shivering maple leaf rhythm, or sound bytes of the echoing resonant caw and heavy wing flapping of a shaggy raven. Back at the MacGregor, bats darting through the dusk signal nightfall and the moon passes quickly over the short arc of visible night sky.


Backtracking, we stop at La Gorce Arch, a magnificent natural window through which sunlight is filling the otherwise shadowed cove and spotlight illuminating a watery stage that begs for an Ethel Merman performance. Definitely on the list of memorable Lake Powell moments is floating and fluttering in solar-energized, emerald water.


Powell-a-holics say Willow Creek is a must-see so Sven and I take turns at the wheel, relieving each other from the constant sun and cutting the motor whenever we need to dive off the bow for instant refreshment. Motoring is meditative as the sound of the outboard combined with the lazy breadth of the waterway produce a lulling effect. The craft determines the pace of the trip. We cover significant territory yet travel slowly enough to soak it in.


Splashing through a tunnel of teepee-ed willows in a desert creek is not only the perfect compliment to the late summer heat, but also fairytale-esque. Festooned on the banks above Willow Creek are swaths of elegant, white Jimson weed flowers. Where the tributary has carved out the canyon base, maidenhair fern drape across seeping walls. We break at a sandy loft situated under a deep ledge, the roof of which is composed of textured striations of salmon, beige and wine-colored rock. Movement in a tangled layer of interlocking twigs in a gouged-out creek bend reveals large, stone-gray crawdads with neon orange-tipped claws positioned to intercept a downstream meal.

On day five we journey north to the transitional zone where the character of the conduit presents as the bona fide Escalante River, marking the trip turnaround point. We’ve eaten most of the fresh food and are almost out of cooler ice. At the end of Fifty-Mile Canyon we find the ideal combination of clear water, easy mooring, and sandy beach. The watercourse continues up the canyon, accessible through rock tunnels by kayak where a canyon wren accompanies our passage, his enthusiasm an energetic contrast to the heat and stillness of the tapering gorge.


The following morning, I notice on the cabin counter top the unmistakable calling card of a rodent. Nibbled foodstuffs confirm that a creature visited during the night and though known to his friends as The Man Who Has Two of Everything, Sven has not one mousetrap on board. We can only hope the nocturnal critter left the same way it came.


Welcome afternoon clouds give respite from the searing heat as we rock towards Annie’s Canyon. The texture of the water begins to change as the above sky thickens. It’s obviously raining a distance of no consequence away and we’re closer than farther from Annie’s. Plus, on this stretch, the expanse between canyons is greater than elsewhere on the lake and the thoroughfare is characterized by towering cliffs with few sheltered coves. Sucker holes quickly close as a substantial span of sky reorganizes. Distinctly audible thunder signals lightning edging closer. There’s nowhere for us to go. Life jackets on, we both wait, and keep moving. Ahead we see the slanted gray streaks of rain, but, like in a classic Western, what ambushes us comes from the side. In an instant, light rain turns torrential, and out-of-nowhere  winds tip the wave caps white. We’re caught between a pounding deluge and a slapping lake surface. Staying head-on into the wind, Sven avoids capsize, but there is nothing we can do about the lightning. So close I can’t discriminate between a single bolt versus the ambient environment as it surges with electric energy, and Sven feels shock through his gloves holding the ship’s wheel. I have to relieve my companion when his core temperature starts dropping and, having assumed the helm, find myself casually wondering if either of our lives is more valuable. We reach the mouth of Annie’s as the cloudburst starts to exhaust itself and water cascades from mesa tops in powerful falls.


The volume of water careening over cliffsides is impressive and we’re both a bit bewildered from the tempest so we acquiesce to the beauty of the moment, cut the motor and float in the waning rainstorm. Resuming our course, Sven turns the key, but the motor fails to turn over and after several tries he calls for me to unleash a paddle in case we need to shove off the rock wall. He awkwardly forces the hand pull and the engine starts in gear. Something’s wrong. The gear shifter jiggles in its housing. We have forward, but not neutral or reverse, a circumstance which will make mooring challenging. A houseboat is anchored in the sheltered side canyon we drive into so Sven swings the sailboat wide on the far side of the cove, circles around and cuts the motor in an expert maneuver that sends us drifting parallel to the houseboat. Not only does this veteran Powell family help with what turns out to be a broken shifter cable, they also give us a snap trap as the Fifty-Mile mouse stowed away and is still on board.

Forward gear takes us back to Bullfrog. Stiff afternoon winds pick up and a critical tossing of the anchor allows us to camp one last night, bow windward, near the shore. The conclusion of the trip feels like the end of a fantastic mini-odyssey, complete with elements of epic beauty and intimidating peril. Sometime I’d like to experience this rugged glamour in the winter months, but also know that next summer I’ll be craving another drink of Powell potion.

Leave a Reply