Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio


3 million a year go to splash in the desert

LAKE POWELL, Ariz. - For all the trouble Joe and I got into as teenagers - and especially for all the things we got away with - it almost seemed like a bad idea.

Two novice boaters, a 22-foot powerboat, and 186 miles of Lake Powell: the long, narrow stretch of jade water inside Glen Canyon's high red walls on the Arizona-Utah border. And, oh, yes, a forecast for 30 mph winds. Joe and I had been warned repeatedly that wind turns an afternoon on Lake Powell from real pretty to real nasty real quick.

Three million visitors enjoy these waters every year, by houseboat, kayak, tour boat, or in the kind of vessel we were about to board for motoring through the canyon at 35 mph. The Monday morning was still flawless: 71 degrees, bright and breezy.

I've known Joe since high school, when we would try, and often fail, to stay a step ahead of trouble. These days we're responsible grownups. Joe is a married cop living in Arizona, and I'm renting oversize boats, trying to figure out which of those danged buttons gets the thing going.

"I think we can do this, Joshua," Joe said, backing our rented 260-horsepower, V-8 Bayliner Capri into the water. "I have faith in us."

We followed our instructions to the letter. Red switch for a couple of minutes to chase fumes near the engine. Drop propeller. Half-turn key to cycle fuel pump. Turn key remainder of way. Vroom, vroom. And ... off we went!

The wrong way. Within two minutes, Joe and I dead-ended in a cove of smooth, low white rock. After a second misdirection, we finally found the narrow channel that led us to the heart of the lake. And then we were really off, zooming freely amid the 100-foot rock walls and craggy beauty all around. As the day went on and the light changed, the water became greener and the rock, already so red and marbled that it looked like huge cuts of steak, turned redder still. And on a Monday afternoon, we had it largely to ourselves.

Lake Powell exists only because of the 710-foot Glen Canyon Dam, finished in 1963, that stands at its western edge. Otherwise, like the Grand Canyon, the lake would merely be the Colorado River passing through on its way to the Gulf of California. Detractors, and there are plenty of them, say the canyon was too beautiful to have been flooded by engineers. But it was. Think of the Grand Canyon filled nearly to the brim with water, and you have Lake Powell, which, beyond a boater's getaway, supplies water storage and electricity to large swaths of the Southwest.

Dozens of side canyons branch off from Glen Canyon, like exits off a freeway, and they too are accessible by water. They started wide and narrowed around every goosenecked turn. The red rock closed in on us until the sky was just a blue slit overhead. Navigating a 22-foot boat out of such a scene is as difficult as it sounds - reverse, forward, reverse, forward, cranking the wheel one direction and then another.

A few hours on, the sun started to sink, and we headed back to the marina with visions of dinner and beer. It was about then that I learned the power of the wind. They probably didn't get above 35 mph, but they were enough to push us around like a child can a marble. At the wheel I felt the sensation of telling the boat to do one thing and the wind making it do something slightly different.

The next day, fortunately, dawned calm. We were back in the boat by 7:30; the water was glassy and still. Newly confident and finally oriented, we sped upriver, skipping the canyons we'd already seen to find new adventure.

About midday we wound up at Rainbow Bridge National Monument, an arch of rock achievable to most people only by boat, and maybe the lake's biggest tourist draw. Lunch and water on our backs, Joe and I hiked the two-thirds of a mile to the arch - a stunning red span across a dribbling creek that was once powerful enough to carve the thing out.

Back at our boat we saw a dozen kayakers paddling toward Rainbow Bridge quietly and rhythmically. Though we were about to power off in our water SUV, I had a twinge of regret. I wanted to see the lake as these people saw it: slowly, deliberately, quietly. It was another experience.

Joe saw me getting wistful.

"It would take us a lot longer to do what we've done in a kayak," he said.

Good point.

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