The Lake Powell Paradox


My Dad grew up on a 2,300-acre ranch in Big Sky Country. His life was embedded in livestock, crops, and weather. On the ranch, there wasn’t the type of nature separation we experience today. Life was the elements. My Dads upbringing heavily influenced my parent’s choice when purchasing their first home. He was no longer on a ranch, but access to nature was of primary importance. I grew up in the sprawling Salt Lake suburbs, Pleasant Grove, but my house was a mere few hundred feet from the base of the foothills.

Mount Timpanogos watched me grow from an infant to a defiant teenager and I looked up the high Wasatch peak each day of my life. I spent the summers wandering the foothills of Timp with my young caretakers who I loved as sisters.

It was my home turf that primed me for love of the desert.

I was sitting on a rock above the Kiwanis Park waterfall when I realized that all through my life nature would be my source of recharge. It was a moment decades ago that molded me. The moment I realized that nature was happiness and peace for my soul.

I was already 12 when I first met the desert. I will never forget the impression burnt sandstone made on my soul, my mind. I woke up on our neighbor’s houseboat. My family was invited to spend a week with them at their favorite place in the world. I must have been asleep the car ride down and I remember it was dark as we were pulling up to the houseboat in Seven Mile Canyon. It was in the morning light that the desert first smiled down on me. At first, I thought it was a dream. I woke and stared in awe at the face of sandstone. I felt myself falling in love.

My favorite childhood and teenage summer memories are stored in the depths of the green waters of Lake Powell. Every summer I anticipated a week afloat in the desert sunbathing, hiking, and exploring. The expansive waters provided patience enough to learn slalom skiing and wakeboarding. I loved Lake Powell with un-tainted admiration.

By the age 21, Lake Powell harbored over 60 days of joyful memories. My parents had purchased their own houseboat share., and my family and I had found our own group of friends who enjoyed going big. I watched a bit envious, but mostly in admiration as my brother and friend competed for air and threw huge tricks on the wakeboard. Big backflips, corkscrews, and salmon dives. The most youthful houseboat residents scamper up rocks to reach the top of whatever cliff we called home for a week. Not to mention the parties, with things getting strange enough that my 80-year-old grandma competed in a round of beer pong.


The lake was perfect until my junior year of college.

It only took one professor to strip my unchecked adoration with some strong truths. It was anthropology class, Southern Utah Archeology that unveiled the reality of the dam. At first, I was resistant to the strong criticisms from my professor. He taught about the cultural and archeological destruction. He recalled teams of students and professors who fled to the desert to race the water in hopes of saving history.  Frantically artifacts were unearthed and removed; remnants of communities that were clues to our nations past were scoured and left to drown. Native people must have felt sorrow watching ancestral homes and pieces of life being destroyed by the rising water. The race between culture and death was real and while bits of history were spared the bulk was lost. Now as I slalom ski on the smooth morning water I wonder what lies below. I wonder if the souls from the drowned graves haunt the waters. More was lost than the physical remains of the past.

Rainbow Bridge, which still holds a space of significance in any Glen Canyon National Recreation Area map was a place of worship before the flood. For the Native People of the Southwest the arch that soars near the convergence point of the Escalante, the San Juan and the Colorado Rivers was power. Rainbow Bridge is something I can only envision. I never saw the sacred ground with my own eyes. The college professor explained that for the Native people of the Southwest desert any place where rivers meet is significant.

In 1869 John Wesley Powell led a canoe expedition down the Colorado River where he experienced Glen Canyon in its ancient form. Powell led the expedition with one arm and an unquenchable thirst to explore. In his journals, Powell wrote of exciting beauty found around each bend in Glen Canyon. Powell was the first known white man to document an exploration of the Colorado River. On reflection naming the damned river, some consider the name Lake Powell as being blasphemous to the explorer. Powell set off on his epic voyage of the Colorado River 130 years ago, he had no beta and a small team of men. As a geologist, he read the sandstone walls and understood the story of time written on the stone. How would Powell feel knowing that the walls where the story of the earth was written had been drowned? How would he react knowing the rapids that he and his men braved in wooden boats are now dormant, covered in a giant body of water named after him?

When I was 21, I began to rethink my relationship with Lake Powell. I understood the loss of culture and the race to save remnants of the past. I saw the destruction of a sacred land by flooding. I feel the irony in the name, naming the reservoir after an adventurous explorer. All that knowledge didn’t stop me from anticipating a week on the houseboat each summer.

Even after my college course, I continued to love and explore Lake Powell. My parents purchased wave runners and my husband and I annually ride them down Smith Canyon until the end, where we anchor the watercrafts and walk up the slot canyon. We never make it to the end, instead walking until the water and beer are almost gone and then turning back. This past year we visited Hanging Rope Canyon and scrambling up rocks with aid of a precarious rope was a deep delight. Even though I felt a twinge of guilt that some of my friends and family couldn’t make it up the rope(s) it didn’t stop me from going. I encouraged my sister-in-law’s brother to come with me and we scampered further up the canyon in swimsuits and shoes. For Robin coming from the Netherlands, Hanging Rope Canyon must have felt as wild and foreign as the Colorado River to Powell and his men.

I still love waking up to the first orange glow and gazing on the glass smooth water. The whole crew is asleep up top of the houseboat and I look to my dad to see if he is up yet. Usually, it is the two of us anticipation bursting as we set out to be the first boat on the smooth water for slalom skiing. My brother usually wakes up just before we set off and my mom comes to hold the flag and watch her loved ones spray walls of water. I love this time as the four of us. My dad refuses to go first and often needs a little coaxing to get out at all but always seems to enjoy his ride the most. My soul soars in an indescribable way with that one slim board under my feet that allows me to fly over the water at 29 miles an hour. It feels like natural evolution swimming to flying under the cliffs and expansive desert sky.

I love hiking to the remaining native ruins high in the cliffs. It is easy to imagine life thousands of years ago when your feet connect with sand and rocks. I look forward to the legitimate bonding time with freedom from Wi-Fi, TV, and social media. We play cards during the heat of the day and by the light of lamps. We eat well, play hard and actually get to know each other.

Then I read The Monkey Wrench Gang followed immediately by Desert Solitaire and my love of Lake Powell was laden with guilt. I can hear Seldom Seen’s dialogue damming the green death. I read and reread Down the River to imagine Glen Canyon before the flood.

Here I am still in love with the first place I met the desert. The Lake that sparked a love that changed my life and at the same moment I hate its history. I hate how it came to be and wish that I could refrain from visiting each summer for a week. The irony is thick. Here we are in the age of climate change and the doom of species due to our fossil fuel driven world and I can’t help but love flying around the damned river on gas-guzzling recreation machines. I am addicted to the thrill of catching air on my wakeboard and flying over the water on the slalom ski. I relish the time in solitude with family in friends gained by driving a car several hundred miles south, then driving a giant barge boat deep into the canyons.

How can I care about the environment, be an Abbey enthusiast and still love that damned Lake? I guess the answer is I don’t really know. The irony of our time is not lost on me. I and like-minded others flock to the desolate places to recharge, find strength and inspiration and yet we reach our sacred places via gas depended machines. We step out of the culture cycle, but only with aid from items purchased and maintained in society. The car, the boat, the wakeboard, my ropes, even the tents and sleeping bags are all manufactured in our society using the dirty energy practices that are dooming us. I don’t really know the solution, I know for me despite wanting the hate my favorite summer vacation, I just can’t. I will still visit Lake Powell and enjoy the recreating and bonding that are forged within Glen Canyon. I will visit and take my joy with a grain of salt. Feeling the gravity of lost culture, lost land and lost adventure while in the same breath creating a new culture based on recreation that is enjoyed on the new landscape created by the dam. I will sort our recyclables and insist that no plastics, metals or papers are thrown in the trash. I will encourage other to fill reusable water bottles from the 50-gallon tank up top instead of using one-time bottles. I will plan carefully so we don’t waste food and arrange carpools from Salt Lake to Bullfrog. I will not forget that my thrills are driven by oil and gas which are the same substances causing the demise of species and habitats across the world. Essentially I will be grateful for the experience of floating on a giant boat, deep in the desert, surrounded by loved ones and living out one adventure after another. I will be grateful, enjoy in small doses and not forget the sunken history.

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