I saw a billboard while traveling to places seldom seen. It foretold the promise of an elevated station from the comfortable perch of motorized water craft. I took this sign at its promise and decided I needed to visit this fabled promised land.
We crack a beer in the waning light of day and set out under the watchful stare of Fifty Mile Bench. The plan is to loop two canyons, in hopes of ultimately ending at the beginning. For those with map riddled brains, some creativity, and the small packable boats we wear on our backs the wrinkled topography of south-central Utah beckons forth a near endless tally of shuttle free multi-sport jaunts.
Feet firmly on ground, muscles unwind as the transition from being boxed in that wretched metal contraption to hugging earthly contours begins to unfold. Meandering in a south easterly direction, we attempt to keep the headlights off as long as possible.
Eventually, a small down-climb necessitates the intrusive neon orb to shine free and unrestrained, our world suddenly smaller, bounded by its pinpoint gaze. Occasionally, in a giddy inducing whisper the white hot light sweeps across shadowed walls, varnished and creeping taller and taller as we fall deeper and deeper, sinking into a rapidly transitioning landscape. Welcome to Escalante Country.
After a few hours we unfurl our beds under a highly recommended camp (thanks, Nick). From the deeply recessed alcove we wander pack-less deep into the night only to return again. Some hours later I awake, looking up to see the night sky framed by the arc of stone we slumber beneath, like a giant eye socket gazing out into the infinite.
Morning greets us and we find ourselves privy to a number of unique features both natural and anthropomorphic. Including an arch.
Tranquil morning sun.
And our first tangible understanding of the immensity of the surrounding environs.
With a (luxuriously) unambitious itinerary we choose to follow the muse and strike out in opposite directions with pen, paper, pastel, and camera - simple tools yearning to grasp some semblance of definitive understanding.
My companion has Macgyvered an impressive protective housing for his large pastels that passes the muster with flying colors both (now) on foot and (later) by boat. Hopefully just the beginning of many years of fruitful field work.
His current body of work includes an impressive array of abstract pieces both large and small depicting a variety of desert seeps and as we travel down canyon ideas, like the springs themselves, begin to percolate.
For there is beauty everywhere you look - life springing up in the most improbable places. For me, I hold this memory close, that which I see before me - flowing water, unbleached walls, and green foliage - all serve as a touchstone for where we are headed, an artificial, subdued, placid place I have long since (purposely) avoided.
What I realize now though, in my ever growing comprehension and infatuation for this rare patch of earth is that ones knowledge of the Colorado Plateau - its intricacies, seductive curves, and endless visceral mysteries - can only be informed by the whole - and like it or not Lake Powell is ground zero for that knowledge - what Abbey deemed the beating heart of the Colorado Plateau. And though our generation was spared front row seats to the most unimaginable of losses it is never-the-less our destiny to wander lonely places which bear the wounds of decisions made decades ago. On every big trip taken the last two years I've found myself whether by foot, boat, or bike traveling through the grisly remains of full pool. What's left, the residual scarring, is now a very real and very permanent (in our short life spans) fixture of this landscape. After witnessing the massive periphery of rippling destruction I felt it time to come to the center of it all, if for nothing else to attain a deeper appreciation of the Plateau and my place within it.
However, in the here and now the story is always different. While it is true that the Glen is gone, remnants of that glory can still be found in these side canyons - arteries still pulsing despite the drowning of the host - as the lake serves as the sacrificial site for the majority of visitation to the area.
And this is ultimately why we have come. To find some of that old magic, a resounding/whispered collective murmur of the essence of place. For to be blunt, there may be no more scenic place on the face of the earth than these canyons - and to move slowly and deliberately here is to revel in the pinnacle of earthly grace. It does not take long to see why those who manifest emotion on page felt the way they did when the Glen fell - this may be the most definitive aesthetic for those of us who cling so tightly to sandstone country.
Nemo supposedly passed through here on his way to his final known camp in Davis Gulch. We find inscriptions labeled "E. Ruess Hunters" - an eerie echo from a grand, romantic, and ultimately tragic mystery.
We push on as things become downright cramped.
It just continues to get better and better.
I lose my partner up-canyon - a daily form of exercise in this spur of the moment off the cuff art creating mode of travel we seem to both enjoy so much. In hushed silence I wander further afield as the timbre of my passage reverberates and echoes all around me. I look up and I find myself under the most immense alcove I've yet to lay eyes on.
I prefer not to dwell in the real world of Big Religion, instead biding my time in the heretical and fantasy laden known reality (built upon the precepts of a delusional logic and confused reason) - however if there was in fact a figurative Eden it couldn't have looked much different than the place I stand now. I remove my pack and take the time to do little more than than gaze, (attempt to) absorb, and appreciate the sculpted fluidity of the rigid natural textiles around me. Soon I hear splashing and see my companion comin' 'round the bend head craning upwards in a state of fixed rubber-necking.
We press on. Bare feet traipsing through ankle deep warm water. Can it get any better than this?
With Eden behind us, Gomorrah awaits.
We drift aimlessly, enchanted by the sweet siren song reverberating off these canyon walls leading us to some ultimate conclusion. Just as we are about to surrender the last ounce of sound mind we are snapped back to the present. Suddenly the hallmark sign is upon us - deep sheer sediment backfill complete with invasive tammies small stream on the canyon floor - and we know where we are and what is coming. I look over and see the preamble, the first totem, an emblem, in that vaunted church of Progress.
It only gets worse from there.
And while the canyon floor is a muddy mess, the canyon walls are anything but, smoldering with a radiance that is starkly authentic, a remainder of that which reigns supreme.
Officially reaching the transition zone, canyon bottom giving way to murky lake, we decide to make camp.
My companions' curiosity gets the best of him and he is called around just one more bend.
In some form of walking meditation I turn around moving back the way we came and look down to see this. A harbinger of things to come, in a time far far away and long after I am gone. I cant contain my smile.
I decide to call it and turn around as the final remnants of light find their exits.
Back in camp I ready my teevee dinner. The view from the sleeping bag is not too shabby, no need to change the channel.
In the morning the same view burnished with the new light of day.
The put-in for this stretch of river; no busy ramp, angry hung over (or actively drunk) boaters, ranger chat, or off season lottery here.
A thick layer of oily grime (decomposing wood?) sits atop the resevoir as we head for clearer waters.
But again, we find life refusing to cede ground to the error of our ways. We take a moment to stop and smell the roses.
Eventually we tear free of our tiny backwater as the food colored water of Lake Powell proper appears.
And just like that the front lines of this battle are thrust upon us - bleached walls slowly fading beneath the raw unrestrained scrawls of the elemental hand that formed these canyons eons ago. We all return to our maker.
In some places the pale walls hold the line, but for the most part, this far up a side canyon of the Escalante arm, mother nature is hastily evicting an unwelcome tenant.
After a surprisingly motorized traffic free paddle we reach the modern version of the lower Escalante.
Thankfully someone has dropped buoys to guide us. Its a terrifying thought, this place without the proper nav software installed.
What starts as a low deep rumble eventually grows to a roar as I turn around to see a massive pleasure-craft descending on our heading. We quickly paddle to the left side of the channel and the boat graciously slows down. The packrafts look even more comical than usual in comparison.
What's interesting to note is that this man-made environment nearly flies in the face of Newton's Laws of Motion. The wake kicked up by the passing bliss-vessel has nowhere to dissipate its aggregate energy. Normally a shore line would absorb the rippling chaos but here the water meets what was once the top of a massive canyon and reverberates back and forth, crashing into other waves which themselves are looking for an outlet, a testament to its un-natural-ness. All this makes for an interesting exercise in both forward momentum as well as remaining upright.
Frustrated I halt my strokes, say fuck it and await the gradual calming of water while ahead the boat begins to swing left as it continues up-canyon. In the process, coming in hot, it has to shut off its main motor, using starboard/port power (a six point turn!) in order to stuff itself into a place it has no business being.
Dumbfounded by the scene unfolding in front of me I take a moment to reflect on our purpose of visitation - defined (maybe?) by the mode in which we ply these tepid waters. It reminds me of the breadth of what it seen and experienced say between riding in a car vs. walking or even biking for that matter. But there is more to it - particularly here atop the listless surface of Lake Fowell. Trying not to sound like too much of a judgmental asshole perhaps the most striking difference in my understanding is that many of those who come here via motorized vehicle do so to have an experience in a beautiful place. The backdrop of red rock, blue water, and cloudless skies (an apparition, really) is a nice setting to have a dinner party, a reunion, a debauched Spring Break, or to simply escape a work-centric lifestyle. But for those of us traveling another way - human powered- the place is the reason we are here. We need not get distracted with a postcard get-a-way to bring meaning and definition to a landscape as grand as this.
Paddling on the main channel begins to narrow and Miller Time has a hard time following. A more natural settings takes center stage which seems to occur directly in reverse proportion to the amount of bath-tub ring on the walls.
We spy one last group who seem curious as to just what we are up to and request the finer details of our journey. Chad points the way we are heading.
And just like that, small miracles await those traveling at a slower pace.
Eventually we run out of water and are warmly embraced by another canyon devoid of people. The crowds have long since left the arena as we're left alone in a solitary cathedral.
We begin moving up-canyon, cool clear water flowing beneath our feet.
A jewel awaits anyone who wishes to put forth a little effort from the lake in this area. Trickling beneath the massive alcove we make camp lies a living relic of the old Glen, freshly uncovered and as glorious as you can possibly imagine.
And if you look just hard enough, you can just catch a glimpse in the reflection of how this place must have appeared before human meddling.
At night I examine the back of the alcove, full of crude boater-glyphs. This was once a Lake Powell waterfront campsite.
Eventually we bush-whack to our exit via an old stock trail carved into the cliff face - where Nemo's donkeys and various possessions were found - the last trace of him ever to be seen.
Climbing out of one canyon we proceed atop a confounding sea of slick rock in search of a lone sand dune perched at cliffs edge.
We decide to spend the night on the cusp of the canyon in which we started this outing, arising early in the morning for a short and enjoyable walk back to the car.
On the long drive home, not much is spoken, each of us reflecting on the trip in his own way. I'm glad I came, and though painful to witness the destruction first hand the trip has been joyous, helping to soften the negativity I seem to cling to when thinking of the greater Glen Canyon area.
I can't help but stew on Katie Lee's idea, what she deems the ecological catch-22, that in order to save a wilderness you ultimately have to ruin it. Glen Canyon was called the Place No One Knew, so by Lee's logic something still must remain, for we all know how this story ended. Does something endure?
Right now Lake Powell, at certain times of the year, is loved to death by the masses, and while the lake has effectively provided freeway-like access to canyons that once took days just to get to, I can't help but wonder if our consolation prize can be found in the absence of hordes in these more intimate canyons on the periphery? I imagine that if the old Colorado was still pulsing here that the intrepid folks, having won a tough shit-house luck lottery to obtain the right just to float the river, would be of the ilk to get out, stretch their legs, investigating these feeder canyons much more thoroughly than the crowds that now occupy that space. Maybe this place, had it been saved, would be overrun. Not just the river corridor, but all of it. Does there, in the rivers absence now remain a massive de-facto wilderness? Places like the "Magnificent Wall," the "star metate," the left Fork of Mike's Canyon and nearly anything off the San Juarn Arm. Well, over the coming years I plan to put this question to the test, hopefully on trips not much different than the one now fading in the rear view. If I'm up to the task, I will report back. Maybe I wont.
In the end, this may just be a positive spin on a hopeless situation - an innocence of vision - but what else can be done? Life is too short.
But for others, like myself, and most likely like you, the transgression that befell this unconsenting place, perhaps the very essence of the desert southwest, will never be forgotten.