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“Lake” Powell Packraft Soiree

If you live in the West, you probably are aware of the severe drought that has plagued the Southwest in particular over the last few years.  What was not as well known, however, was that it was more than just a few years:  in fact, it’s been the worst drought in 1200 years, according to a study done by folks at UCLA that had its results published last year.  And considering how many people rely on the water on the Southwest US’s rivers – which almost all are tributaries of the Colorado  – this is a big deal.  Some 40 million people rely on the Colorado, and things are getting pretty dire there, to the point where Lake Powell – one of the major storages of the Southwest’s water, is now at 24% of full pool, a full 145 feet below where the level was 20 years ago.  Last summer a fairly desperate move was made to force more water downstream into Powell by the Bureau of Reclamation, which released unusual amounts out of Blue Mesa dam (above Gore Canyon) and Flaming Gorge (into the Green above Lodore Canyon) which created its own share of problems, and another sub-optimal winter means that Colorado River water managers will need to get even more creative, since basin-wide the snowpack is at 82% of average, and the current inflows are at 50% of average for early April.  

That is the bad news.  The good news is that “Lake” (reservoir) Powell is now at a level that it is actually not only returning Glen Canyon to its former glory, but nearly all of the marinas are closed and since the bottom of the boat ramps are well-above the water line, no one can actually access the houseboats still floating at the marinas, so the Lake is essentially the domain of human-powered or at least small boats.  No doubt, there are many who love houseboats and make a living off the houseboat industry and if they deigned to read this – will revile me for sort of celebrating the demise of the reservoir, but for adventurous types, this is the best opportunity in a generation for exploring Glen Canyon, since not only are there no houseboats, but many of the historically-submerged features of Glen Canyon are not only once again revealed, they are out in most of their glory.  

Last fall our friend Mark suggested a trip checking out the Powell area in the Escalante-San Juan arms areas kinda using this old historic map for reference:

But for a variety of reasons none of the people Mark proposed the trip to could make it.  But we kept thinking about it over the winter, and when it finally warmed up down there and Team Hanlon of newly-formed Big Red fame were finally able to tear themselves away from a stellar winter of powder skiing at Rogers Pass to bolt for the sunny desert and a fun packraft trip.  

The nearest point of contact to the lake aside from the marinas is down the Hole in the Rock road, so down it we went, happy to be again living the #beigeforesterlife (Big Red isn’t a fan of washboardy roads).   With a bit of research we found a nice canyon to access the lake:

Ready for water, in he desert
All packrafters should pack skulls…..
Goin’ in….
Pretty nice!

The canyon had just enough spice for us to be wondering if this was really a good idea after all, but it worked out well. 

A bit of cold wading….

Soon enough we found ourselves in the obvious silt bed of the retreated lake”

And there were some clues that it was indeed, old lakebed….

the ground was littered with mussel shells.
Despite my best efforts, my pack is still a bit of a shitshow…..

And shortly thereafter, we hit the reservoir:

A few years ago Greg, Mike and I did a Grand Canyoneering trip that involved a couple of very light, very simple, and very fragile packrafts, and despite the fact that all of us were intimidated enough by one of the few Grand Canyon scale class 1 (on a scale of 10) rapid that we elected to portage it (Matkatamiba; those of you who have floated the GC will…..absolutely never remember this teensy little rapid!) I was so enamored with the concept of the super-simple, super light packraft that I bought a 3# “Scout” from Alpacka.  I have felt sheepish that the thing has never touched water….until it hit Powell.  And I was quite pleased that it performed right to my expectations. 

A tiny boat, but it floats well!

Yes, it kinda weaves back and forth on each stroke and I had to paddle fairly hard to keep up with the rest of the crew in “regular” packrafts like the Wolverine, Yak, and Alpackalypse, but for the size/bulk of the boat, it was great.  

While I am not necessarily a fan of flatwater paddling, being on Powell with virtually no other watercrafts (and a blessed lack of wind) was sublime.  I’ll be the first to admit that the striking contrast of the blue water and red rock is extraordinarily beautiful, and the infamous bathtub rings of the prior/higher lake levels is receding faster than many people anticipated.  

A few hours of paddling brought us to the famous Hole in the Rock, which is a steep, incredibly rocky gully that apparently a gaggle of Mormon settlers used to get down to the river in an extraordinary feat of determination; it’s a testament to the fact that people have always gone to great lengths to execute what their leaders tell them is their manifest destiny to do.   Given that this route is – in places – pretty challenging to walk/scramble up, it’s pretty extraordinary that these folks gave this a go with horses and wagons.  

Anybody up for a wagon train?
Some old steps, for the horses?
A place where a wagon was rubbing on the rock?
The state legislature has proposed paving the road out here to basically enable easier access for the hordes of Mormons who want to get in better touch with their ancestors, but paving it is a bad idea. And clearly the Park folks aren’t too up on keeping the signage up to date….
heading down into the Hole…

Hole in the Rock is near the confluence of the Escalante arm (river) and the Colorado, and a ways further up the arm leads to Crystal Creek and one of the legendary Glen Canyon spots:  the Cathedral in the Desert.  The Cathedral was was – until recently – at the bottom of lake, but is now back; we aren’t sure if it is now in its full glory, but it’s a pretty nice place.  

Calling it a “cathedral” that is typically man-made doesn’t nearly do this place justice!

Not far past are other arms that are both paddleable and then hikeable to hitherto drowned features, and again, since the lake has been recessed for so long, they actually are coming back pretty quickly to becoming natural despite being underwater for 40 years.  

Tons of amazing camping on the recessed shores

However, there are plenty of reminders of the recent past:  red “solo” cups (a good reminder of my frat daze, since they are are always associated with kegs) are probably the most popular litter, but underwear is a close second:

along with a variety of other boat/party detritus:

a lawn chair
A boat….

When you drive the freeways in and out of Utah and adjacent states there is usually a “watercraft inspection” site at a weigh station or rest stop.  It typically doesn’t seem to have much relevance to kayakers and rafters who are going from one swift, cold stream to the next, but a visit to Powell provides a vivid example of what happens when something like the Quagga Mussel takes hold.  There are approximately 7.8 bazillion of them in Lake Powell, and apparently they have devastated the Great Lakes and are doing the same to big lakes in the Southwest and SoCal.  

the mussel shells are pasted on all the rock just above river level

When we returned from the trip we were quite careful to wash the boats out carefully to avoid spreading these to other rios.  

There are other features on the lake that are identified as “historical” because 20 years ago they didn’t exist to our eyes, since they were under water:

And the extent of the other folks we saw was limited to a couple of other packrafters and three sea kayakers.  

As recently as last August when an unusually strong monsoon cycle (that gave us an exciting rip down the Paria!) cleared a lot of the lake silt out of the canyons, further re-naturalizing the drainages and making them a pleasure to walk up, once we were able to make it past the quagmire at the lake’s edges:

Greg has pretty long legs, and he was goiin’ deep here…..
but nice camping once out of the muck

A nice daylong walk up another beautiful canyon was a great way to stretch the legs after a couple of days of paddling:

Ash stoked about a great trip!

back up to the Hole in the Rock road.  

This was one of the few times in our paddling life that any of us had actively gone after an absolute flatwater trip, and it was incredible.  Supposedly Reservoir Powell has as many miles of shoreline as the entire eastern seaboard, so there’s plenty more to explore. 

Like most folks in the Southwest, I am quite concerned about climate change and the ensuing/ongoing drought and not only its affect on powder skiing (less) and avalanche conditions (more seasons like this one, characterized by long dry spells broken by big wet storms) but also the literal sustainability of the hordes of people dependent on the water.  However, in a warped way I find myself kinda rooting for Glen Canyon to be “restored” by alarmingly-decreased levels of a reservoir built on the hubris of water “managers” who failed to recognize or acknowledge the possibilities that their massive plans could be so easily compromised by an earth that simply doesn’t deliver enough precipitation.  The reservoir surface is now at 3523 feet (above sea level), and “dead pool” – the point where gravity will no longer feed water into the turbines deep inside Glen Canyon Dam – is 3370 feet, 150’ below where it is now (and with less volume overall, it takes less volume loss to create the foot-drops).  According to this article, 3525 is the critical point, and the lake is already below that (but the runoff hasn’t yet gotten going).  

But in the meantime, Powell is ripe for adventuring and exploring, especially if you need more solo cups and old underwear.

Thanks again to Ashley for continuing to be keen for this over the last few months and being my bestest pard, and to the New Hampshire Packraft Team for once again making the journey to our little corner of the world!  

And thanks to Greg for many of the better photos here, including the intro one. he’s a man of many talents, and increasingly one of them is photography!

4 Comments

  1. Rocky Contos Rocky Contos

    Nice write-up. Remember we went into Cathedral in the Desert in 2005 at the end of our Escalante kayak trip (on the motorboat). The lake looks even lower now.

  2. Allan Allan

    Another great trip Tom, thanks for sharing. Fyi Blue Mesa is on the Gunnison above the Black Canyon. Gore is on the Colorado and above the confluence with the Gunni.

  3. Dave Robbins Dave Robbins

    Brilliant of you to take the opportunity to see what heretofore could not be witnessed. How ironic it is that climate change relentlessly created a beautiful endeavor for you. Thanks for sharing.

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