|Kayak Lake Powell - A month in the desert|
by Hank McComas
Formed by the second highest dam in North America across the narrow and steep walled Glen Canyon, the reservoir behind the concrete engineering marvel is technically called Glen Canyon Reservoir. But most know it by the name Lake Powell, after the one armed civil war veteran, John Wesley Powell. Powell was the first man to successfully negotiate the fearsome rapids of the Colorado River, when he and 9 men journeyed from Green River, Wyoming, through Glen Canyon and on into and out of the Grand Canyon. Powell named both great chasms, mapped them, studied and reported on their geology. After his second trip through the canyon and popular best-selling book on what he found, he became very famous. He served as the head of the Geodetic Survey from 1881 to 1894. Powell's idea on water utilization and management in the West were innovative and, had they been followed, would have obviated some of the problems faced by the burgeoning populations of the rapidly growing Southwest of today.
The dam was begun in the era when esthetics and natural conservation were just beginning to become a force in the nation. Lake Meade, the large reservoir behind Boulder (Hoover) dam was built in an earlier time when there was no dissent about the necessity for building such huge projects. Not only was the environmental awareness different, the economy of the country was much more the concern in the depression era when Hoover Dam was constructed. The people needed the jobs and the region needed the power and water that the large construction project would bring to the area. Workers came from all over the country to get a job at the inhospitable and dangerous work site.
By the 1950's however, a lot had changed. The country was building a solid base for prosperity after World War II. Times were not so desperate. However, the West was beginning to grow and new sources of hydroelectric power were being sought to power the newly expanding population. The argument between the states over access to the vital waters of the Colorado River basin had been settled in an agreement brokered by Harry Truman between the Upper Basin States of Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Colorado, the lower basin states of states of Arizona, New Mexico and California and last and definitely least the almost ignored country of Mexico. The Upper Basin states were committed to delivering a set amount of water to the Lower Basin states in any 10 year period. To ensure that the water would be available for the agreed upon deliveries and still have enough water to meet their own needs in the Upper Basin, a large capacity reservoir was deemed necessary. The U.S. Geodetic Survey and the Corps of Engineers where tasked with locating a dam somewhere in the Upper Basin. Their first choice was on the Green River in a deep canyon within Dinosaur National Park.
They soon ran into a very stubborn and determined obstacle - the newly formed Sierra Club. Raising public outcry about the natural history and recreational opportunities to be lost with the flooding of this canyon, the environmental group successfully blocked the construction of the dam within Dinosaur National Monument. That spectacular canyon is still unencumbered to this day.
The Corps of Engineers then began to look for another site along the river system. Attention was soon focused on the Colorado River in an area that may have been the least accessible area in the lower 48 states at that time. A location was found where a high, short dam could be built in solid, safe rock that would create a reservoir with a large capacity. Since so few people actually ever came to this area, there was no constituency to oppose this selection. Plans where firmed and construction of the dam was approved in 1956. In 1957, President Eisenhower sent a signal by telegraph that detonated the first blasting of rock from the canyon walls at the new dam site - Glen Canyon. The hard and dangerous work of building the high dam had begun.
The dam was complete in 1963 and was dedicated by Lady Bird Johnson. The gates where closed and the reservoir began to fill. It took 17 years for the lake to fill to capacity. The small worker town that had been constructed near the dam, Page, Arizona, continued to serve the visitors to the new lake. As it filled, more and more people came to boat and fish upon the expanding lake waters. The town of Page grew from 6,000 dam workers to its present population of 13,000 permanent residents.
But the crisis was averted as the flow into the reservoir decreased. When the flood gate tunnels where inspected, the three foot concrete linings had been breached and cavities as large as 50 feet deep had been formed. The dam was more threatened than had been suspected. The tunnels were repaired and the design changed to prevent future cavitation damage. Measurement systems and new computer programs were created to better predict the run-off in the Upper Colorado basin.
The dam is still controversial and raises the ire and contempt of many in the environmental movement. Some want the dam to be removed and the reservoir drained. Droughts in recent years have made a very large start on just that. This year (2003), the lake is 95 feet below its capacity. Nearly half of the lake's stored water has been delivered to the Lower Basin. And this past summer has been very dry and the level continues to drop. When the climate will revert to recent patterns to once again allow more water to flow into the reservoir and refill the lake is unknown. In the mean time, the reservoir continues to release the required minimum amount of water to the Lower Basin, easing what would be dire water emergencies in the ever growing cities of Phoenix, Tucson and all of Southern California. The abundant farming regions of southern California would not exist if not for the steady supply of water that this and its sister dams along the Colorado provide. When we go to the grocery store and see the tomatoes, lettuce, avocados and dates that we all enjoy in the depth of winter, we have the reservoirs like Lake Powell to thank. Removing the dam is an action with many consequences both regionally and nationally.
However, the beautiful deep canyons of Glen Canyon and its major side canyons, along with a few ancient Puebloan archaeological sites and natural features have been inundated with as mush as 400 feet of water. The thousands of people who used to hike into the harsh and difficult terrain to enjoy the majesty and peace of the rust red rock walls have been replaced by millions of people who come to play upon the 150 mile long lake. Along its 2000 miles of shoreline and in its 96 major canyons, they cruise in luxurious houseboats, armed with an armada of powerful motorboats, ski boats and whining jet skies. Touring the canyons at 25 knots, more people see a canyon in a single week than saw it in several years before the lake was created, albeit they see only a piece of that canyon.
It is an ideal place for such waterborne activities. The days are consistently sunny. The humidity is low, averaging 10% for the year. Nights are generally cool, except in the very height of summer. The water is warm. There is lots of room, lots of sand, and lots of little cul de sacs to investigate. The winds are generally light and the lake seldom gets rough. There are no currents and few shallow, dangerous rocks. Access is relatively easy and there is a significant rental industry to make it all possible. It is little wonder that the place is popular with the motor heads. But what about kayaks? Other than the motorboats, what's not to like about the place? Would it not make a great place for an extended kayak trip?
Although the houseboat and motorboat rental and time-share business is well established, the kayak rental business is just getting started. There are several outfitters with multi-year experience providing trips on the lake, both with and without boat support. ( High Desert Adventures, Lake Powell Kayak Adventures, Hidden Canyon Kayaks ). You can also rent kayaks by the day and the week (Twinn Finn ). Many more providers are just getting started. Most kayak rental places have sit on top kayaks for use from houseboats. For a long tour, make sure to get a touring sea kayak.
The majority of outfitters are based in Page, Arizona, near the dam at the end of the lake (Fly and/or drive from Phoenix or Flagstaff Arizona). There are small rental facilities in Bullfrog, about half way up the lake and easily accessed by paved road from Utah. (Fly and/or drive from Salt Lake). If you are driving in from Colorado, you can also rent kayaks in Gunnison. A few outfitters on the lake have shuttle service for one way trips.
Lake Powell lies in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area as part of the National Park system. All but the very southern end of the lake near Page is in Utah. The southeastern portion of the lake from Antelope Point to the San Juan River is part of the Navajo Reservation. You do not need a permit to access Navajo lands as from the lake unless you plan to hike into the interior.
The most convenient access to the lake is through the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area at Wahweap west of the dam and Page. There is a $10 entrance fee per car good for a week of entry. National Park passes are sold and honored here. There is also a $10 charge for a trailered boat. Car top kayaks are not charged a fee. There is no permit required or charge to camp anywhere on or within 1/4 mile of the lake. However, everyone camping on the lake must have a suitable portable toilet for solid human and pet waste. This includes kayaks. Outfitters can provide these and the state of Utah appears to have some type of loaner program, but I could not find any information about it. Numerous floating rest-rooms and pump/dump stations are located along the lake. (More on this later) The lake is patrolled by rangers based at the various marinas.
There are two launch sites at Wahweap, one near the hotel and marina and one further west on the lake in Wahweap Bay. This second ramp was closed due to the very low lake level that has dropped below the end of the ramp. The main ramp at the marina was also below the concrete but was still open. There are extensive parking areas to cars and cars with trailers. There are special parking areas for long term parking up to 14 days. There is another ramp at Antelope Point on Navajo land north of Page. This will cut off about 11 miles of lake if you want to get up lake more quickly. However, there have been incidents of looting and break-ins to cars left at Antelope Point in years past, so I do not recommend leaving your vehicle there. Check with the rangers at Wahweap on the current status of this facility.
There are five areas of "civilization" on the lake. The largest by far is Page. Here you will find motels, restaurants, Safeway and Bashas food stores, and a Wal Mart. The John Wesley Powell Museum is here, as well as scenic air flights over the lake and tours of the nearby and spectacular Antelope Canyon on the Navajo reservation. Plan to spend a couple of hours at the dam visitors center to learn about the dam, its construction, the lake and how the dam has affected the environment. There are frequent tours of the dam where you get to walk through the interior of the dam and see the huge generators. The Visitor's Center provides an excellent introduction and background to the lake and its history. It is the place to start your first visit to Lake Powell.
In the town itself you will find the Powell Museum. There is a collection of Powell artifacts, native people pottery and baskets, a replica of the boats he used, stories about the two expeditions through the Grand Canyon and cross sections on the geologic layers of both Lake Powell and Grand Canyon areas.
About 40 miles up the lake is Dangling Rope Marina. This facility is floating on the lake and can only be accessed by water. Half way up the lake and on opposite sides of the lake are the small communities of Bullfrog and Hall's Crossing. A ferry runs between the two, connecting Route 279 across the lake. Here you can access a small marina store at either location. They have a very limited selection of food items, canned and fresh. Granola bars, peanut butter, potato chips and a few fresh items like eggs, milk, cheese and lettuce can be found at very high prices, but, in truth, they have more fishing tackle and bait than food. Plan to bring the vast majority of your food or purchase it in Page. I planned to start and end in Page, use my own kayak, bring all my own food for the entire month and paddle up lake to Hite exploring the canyons on the east side and then all the canyons on the west side as I returned down lake to my starting point.
The third day saw the flat land of the Texas panhandle, with green grass and blue daisies on the roadside crossing the Chisolm trail. The third day ended in Grants, New Mexico, close to Arizona. I stayed in a Wal Mart parking lot with heavy rain and flash flooding. The final short day I drove 400 miles to Page across the mesa tops, completing the 2500 mile trip. The approach to Page from the south parallels the Colorado River, nestled deep and out of sight in Marble Canyon. The road stays high on the edge of the mesa providing a spectacular view of the desert floor.
At the center here is a bas relief map which was so large I had to take three shots of it to get it all in. ( Same as above Maps 1 2 3 ). I spent a good quarter hour studying the map to get familiar with the layout of the lake.
Upon arriving in Page I checked into the Motel 6 ($41.22) and then I headed over to the dam Visitor's Center to pick up a better map, check out the displays and ask a few questions of the park rangers.
Castle Rock, which is usually sits on the west side of a passage between it and Antelope Island, was connected to Antelope Island by a broad flat area of sand and weeds, visible in the picture above. At this lake elevation, Antelope Island isn't an island at all. It would be necessary to paddle toward the dam and up through The Narrows instead of taking the shorter route past Castle Rock. Either that or portage over the short passage that was now dry land. But I was planning on going that long way anyhow. The closed passage was my first introduction to how much the low water level changed the shoreline portrayed on my maps.
From the Visitor's Center. it was a short drive to the Glen Canyon Recreation Area to recon the launch area The road to Wahweap runs next to the long east west arm of the lake called Wahweap Bay, parallel to the Utah Arizona border. There are several spectacular views of the dam, Navajo Power station, the lake, Antelope Island and Wahweap from the high road. Many of the land features I would get to know much more intimately in the coming month are easy to spot from there.
I drove out to the west end of the marina area and looked out over Wahweap Bay. From the height of the cliffs, the water looked quite calm, although I could see a few white caps driven by the 20 knot southwest wind on the surface far below. The private houseboats moored in the local fleet looked small from this high up too!.
The long term parking lots at Wahweap have a maximum stay of 14 days and that was going to be a problem. I went to the ranger station to see what could be done about that. There was no one at the station, a common occurrence, I was told. After driving about some and returning several times, I finally caught a ranger in the parking lot at the station. I explained my problem and why I needed to leave my car for such a long period of time. It was clear that this need did not come up much. I had prepared a float plan with a description of me, my kayak, my equipment, my cell phone number, my itinerary, and the names and numbers of several people to contact in case of emergency. The ranger kindly provided me with an orange Unattended Property tag to put in the windshield. He told me where to put my car and said he would keep an eye on it for me. They put all my float plan info on their shift log so that all the rangers would be aware of the arrangement. I was not carrying a VHF, so I picked up the local phone number of the ranger station ( 520 645-2433). I was advised that cell phone connectivity was spotty on the lake and would probably only be possible when the cell towers on the top of Navajo mountain were in sight, a prediction that was to prove quite accurate. My thanks to rangers Jim Traub and Eric Scott. With that, I returned to the hotel where I went to bed early in anticipation of an early start the next morning.
Day 1 - 2003/09/11 - 25.5 miles
I pulled out all the gear and piled it along side the kayak. It always looks as if it will never fit. But I had tested the packing and balance of the kayak before leaving home so I knew just how to pack it to get everything to go in and provide the proper weight balance to make the paddling easy. With everything packed away and still with a clean deck, I was ready for the start of the great Lake Powell paddle. I drove my car to the long term lot and parked it where the ranger had suggested. I left the windows cracked just a little to let the hottest air out. I did not think that there would be much chance of rain, even though I would be gone a month. The silver sunshade would help protect the dash from the strong solar radiation and the white color of the car and the open window would keep the heat down. I left the lids of my equipment cases open so that anyone peering in through the windows would see that they were empty. I put the Unattended Property tag in the window, locked the doors, and walked back to the kayak, down the impossibly long ramp.
I lifted the bow of the boat and walked it into the water. Jeez but it was so very heavy. I did the same with the stern and then I checked the trim. Everything was good. The morning sun had warmed the crisp desert air to a pleasant mid 70's temperature range and the water felt to be the about 75 also. There was a light southwest breeze blowing at about 5 knots. It was 8:10 when I took my first stroke on this big trip. The heavily laden kayak felt more like a submarine than the responsive kayak I had paddled for the last few months. I checked the stability of the craft with a few lean turns and a low brace to each side. The kayak was so stable I was not sure that I would have even been able to tip it over. The effort to get it up on edge was many times that when it was empty. The tipping point was broad and flat and very easy to correct. It was going to be a very safe trip with all this weight packed in so low in the boat.
I paddled past the boats moored inside the breakwater formed by a raft of huge earth moving equipment tires. The tires were bound together with cables and anchored to the bottom by heavy weights on still more steel cables, They formed an effective and cheap barrier to the light chop and wakes of the open bay. The boats inside rode easily against the floating docks also anchored and cabled to the shore. It was a unique and effective system that had no problem being reconfigured for the varying levels of the lake. A more permanent structure would have been rendered completely useless, stranded far from the waters edge by the receding lake.
I continued to paddle east toward the dam. I paddled along for an hour and a half in the light winds. The dam is about five miles from the launch ramp. The entrance road that I had driven in on was visible high on the cliff. Along it were the cars and trucks of other visitors headed for Wahweap. The cars were surprisingly small. I was still unaccustomed to the scale of the walls and the lake.
I paddled toward the dam until I came to the line of buoys marking the closest approach allowed to the dam. For safety and security reason, that is about a quarter mile from the intakes. The low level of the lake was even more impressive on the shear wall of Glen Canyon. The white "bathtub ring", a 95 foot high ring extending all the way around the lake, made up the majority of the wall here near the dam.
I turned the kayak around and headed back up the lake. Ahead of me was 140 miles along the drowned course of the Colorado River to Hite. There would be navigation buoys all along the way, numbered for the approximate distance from the dam. I headed into The Narrows, a section of high walls on the east side of Antelope Island that followed the original course of the Colorado River. This was the only passable way up lake with the low lake level having cut off the other passage next to Castle Rock., which I could still see over the lower portions of Antelope Island.
I continued following the wall of the narrows until I came to the entrance of Antelope Canyon, the first of ninety six major canyons I would encounter on the lake. The canyon forms a spectacular slot canyon on the mesa outside of Page. The fantastic shapes, colors and light within the depths of the canyon are a popular tourist attraction. Located on Navajo tribal lands, there is an entrance fee and Navajo guide is required to see the spectacular sight. I planned to see it when I returned from my trip on the lake. For now I paddled up the much wider lower canyon among the sandstone walls that twisted back into the land for about 2 1/2 miles. I paddled to the end of the canyon. The water became increasing cloudy as I had approached the end. Then the water suddenly ended with a dense collection of small woody stems and sticks brought down by water coursing through the canyon in the rare, brief but frequently violent rains that fall upon the large expanses of impervious rock. Several large carp were feeding in the accumulated detritus. Oblivious to my presence, they pushed through the woody bits with their mouths wide open, gulping and sifting the small particles of food washed into the lake. The bottom had shoaled quickly under the floating debris. It consisted of a dark sticky mud that provided almost no support. I easily shoved my paddle deep into the ooze. With the high steep walls on both sides, there would be no possibility of getting out here. My exploration of this canyon was literally and figuratively at the end. I would not be able to reach the slot section of the canyon from the lake.
My five mile excursion in and back out of Antelope Canyon took two hours. When I emerged once again in the narrows, I continued to follow the steep walls of the old river course. By now the early afternoon sun was high in the sky and it was getting hot. The strong sun, the exercise and the low (10%) humidity were drying me out and I was not drinking enough water. I had a six liter Dromedary bag with a bite tube available and I was toking on it every twenty minutes or so, but I realized it was not enough as I had not had to urinate all morning. I stopped to take in a larger amount of water and in 30 minutes, the result was a call for a stop. I pulled into a small cove along the side of the narrows, the first place I had seen to be able to get out since I had entered the Narrows.
I paddled to the back of the small cove to a small sand beach. I placed my paddle on the sand and stepped out of the kayak - and immediately sank to my knee in a sticky silt that covered the bottom. I slowly pulled up one leg, trying to keep from loosing my shoe at the bottom of the hole. Of course the other foot disappeared into the gunk. Using my paddle, I battled my way to the closest rock and pulled the kayak up onto the soft bank. On the last step I had finally lost my shoe. When I stepped onto the rock I discovered something else - the dark ones are damn hot. I went up the gently sloping terrain until I realized there was no point in going any further. I wasn't going to find any cover. Wherever I went on this smooth slab of sandstone, I would still be visible from the river. No one was coming anyway so it really didn't matter. My suspicions about dehydration were confirmed with the dark color of my urine. I would have to consciously drink more water. I launched the kayak once more, bringing several handfuls of mud with me into the pristine interior of my kayak. My boat was now christened with Colorado mud.
About a mile further along a narrow side canyon off Navajo canyon provided my first exploration into a high walled narrow slot where you could touch both walls with your outstretched arms. Another mile up Navajo Canyon I came upon two large beaches. But they were occupied by multiple houseboats pulled up onto the sand. This scene would be repeated many times in the next month. Most sandy beaches of any size had at least one houseboat on it. I returned to my small 2 foot long beach, nosed the kayak onto the sand chute between two rocky spits and got out onto the solid surface of a rock ledge. I was learning how to get along in this new environment. A sense of satisfaction took hold as the first day's paddle came to a close. Now I would set up my first camp.
I dove into the clear water from off the low ledge near where I had pulled up the kayak. The water was cool enough to be a little bracing without causing any quick breathing. The temperature soon became comfortable as I swam back and forth just off shore. I climbed out of the water and headed back up to camp where I dried out in the last of the sun as it slipped behind the huge wall next to the camp. The golden rays of the sun illuminated the wall across the canyon for another 45 minutes as I began to prepare dinner.
I took some water directly from the lake into my dinner pot and set up the Coleman Extreme backpack stove directly onto the smooth surface of the rock. Since I would boil the water there was no need to filter it. I set up the wind protector around the stove and set the pot on top. Then I went back down to the boat to move it up higher in the chute, away from the water. I did not want the waves of passing boats or any waves generated by that night's wind to cause the fiberglass boat to grind against the abrasive sandstone which it rested on. I lifted and placed the now empty 55 pound boat up the chute and secured the bow rope to a rock climbing chock that I had brought along for just this purpose. It was difficult positioning the rock chock securely as there are few cracks in the sandstone and the rock itself is so soft that it breaks down when any pressure is applied to it. During the rest of the trip I found little use for the rack of chocks I brought with me and would not bring them again. If needed, a rock and a loop of rope would suffice at the few places you can use chocks.
By now the water was boiling strongly. I added the contents of a Lipton dinner to the pot and covered it once more. The Lipton dinners formed the staple of my food stores. Since I did not know what items I might be able to find at the stores further up the lake I had brought enough food to last the entire planned 33 days I would be paddling. I had brought about 100,000 calories with me, enough for 3000 calories per day. With the long days of paddling, I expected to expend about 4000-5000 calories per day. So I was expecting to lose weight about 5 to 10 pounds during the trip. At 181 pounds that would be a good thing. ( I didn't eat all I took with me and I lost 12 pounds. )
The Lipton side dishes made up most of my provisions. I had 43 of them with me at about 600 to 750 calories each, depending on type and whether I added in the Crisco I had with me. I also carried several pounds of nuts of different kinds, granola bars and 5 pounds of Quaker Natural cereal. I had dried fruits, including prunes, apricots and pineapple. For protein, I had several summer sausages, beef jerky, many packets of tuna fish and cans of pink salmon. The volume and weight carrying capacity of the kayak was a luxury compared to the limitations of backpacking. But I was not trying to go gourmet on this trip and the simple fare that I usually use on the trail was all I was planning to have. I was here to paddle and look, not eat.
Local sundown had come early with the huge wall next to the camp site. The sun slowly climbed up the opposite wall, washing the red tinged stone with a warm soft yellow glow. When it cleared the top, the light blue of the eastern sky contrasted with the light color of the sandstone. The twilight seemed to last forever as the loom of the disappearing sun faded in the southwest. As it finally became dark, I noticed what I took to be someone camping on the high rim to the east. I thought that it was a strange place to camp and I wondered how they had gotten out there, carrying the bright Coleman lantern or its equivalent. I seemed like a strange place to stop. I went about my chores in camp. In fifteen minutes I looked back at the "camp" and realized that what I had mistaken for a lantern was actually the planet Mars, which had now risen above the horizon where before it had been right on it. It was impossibly big and bright. As the light continued to fade from the sky, the Milky Way made a spectacular appearance. There were stars everywhere. As one concentrated on any small particular section, more and more stars could be discerned. Constellations that always seem to be extreme flights of fanciful imagination based on a few widely separated stars began to make sense. I could see the claws of the Scorpion. There were stars for even the legs coming out of the carapace. It really did look like a scorpion, not just a couple of stars in a line.
From the vantage of my Ridgerest closed cell foam mattress spread out on the rock top, I watched the stars and several asteroids streaking across the sky. Planes flying at 36000 feet could be tracked across the portion of sky not hidden by the high rock walls. I fell asleep content with the days accomplishments.
About an hour later I awoke because of a bright light shining in my face. The moon had just appeared over the rim. It was so bright it cast sharp shadows off the opposite wall. The brilliant stars were gone, lost in the overpowering light of the full moon. I could not get to back sleep for a while because it was so bright. But I finally drifted off, waking every three hours or so because of the unfamiliarity of my new hard bed.
Day 2 - 2003/09/12- 28.7 miles
My map indicated that there was an arch around the next turn past my camp. Yesterday I had been unable to locate it. This morning I turned the kayak and stared at the high wall until I finally located it. They really are hard to see, and this year with the lake level so low and being so far down in the canyon that I would have difficulty seeing many of the arches that are high up on the rim.
I paddled past the beaches I had found the previous day. The houseboat and motorboat parties camped there were still fast asleep, their accompanying motorboats and jet skis lying blessedly quiet along the sides of the massive floating palaces. It seems that most of these boaters don't really start moving around until 10:00 AM, providing 2 hours of solitude, quiet and calm that can be paddled in the early morning.
I paddled into several short narrow side canyons on the way up Navajo canyon. Like the end of Antelope Canyon, these ended with the collection of muck, sticks and beer and soda cans I would find at the end of so many of these little canyons.
Once more as I approached the head of the canyon, the water turned a light green with increased sediment from the wash that runs into the canyon. A spring gushed from a seep line just two feet above the water. A micro environment of algae, flies, chameleons and lizards surrounded the vertical oasis. Seep lines are common in the canyon as water moving slowly through the semi-porous sandstones meets a slightly more impervious layer and begins moving sideways, appearing as a long horizontal line of moisture somewhere on the canyon walls. The cracks are enhance by thawing and freezing and the slow prying of roots of vegetation seeking the water. Caves and arches are often started by a small seep.
At 10:30 AM, I paddled up to the end of the canyon where huge banks of sticks and drifting desert debris accompanied the sediment banks that formed the sloping bottom of the canyon end. Once again the soft sediments discouraged getting out of the kayak, although the bank would have supported me. Several miles up the canyon is Chaol Falls coming out of Chaol Canyon, a side canyon of the main canyon. The pleasant falls is an interesting destination, but with the low lake level it was quite a few miles of hiking to reach. I turned around here and headed back down Navajo Canyon amid desert debris, floating logs and cat tails torn from the banks by flash floods racing down the sandy bottomed canyons.
On the way back I paddled UNDER a tree still standing from the days before the inundation of the canyon, at least 33 years. Not only was the tree still there, unrotted, but even the bark was still on it. The fresh water and high mineral content of the lake water preserved the old hard wood of the large cottonwood tree.
On the way back down the canyon, I paddled into a number of short side canyons in the high walls of the main canyon. Even the noon sun did not penetrate the overhanging 600 foot high sheer red rock. I reached the main channel at 3:00 PM. Turning right out of the much lower, softer sandstone, I passed the end of Antelope Bay and looked into the wide Warm Creek Bay. Keeping to the right side, the channel headed due east along the Utah border. The southern bank was in Arizona and the northern was in Utah. The next several miles of narrow channel passed between Romana Mesa and Padre Point, site of "The Crossing of the Fathers" where Father Escalante and Father Domingues crossed the Colorado River and exited the canyon region through the gently sloping Navajo Canyon I had just exited. The Jesuit priests, with the assistance and guidance of native peoples, visited here in 1776 as part of an incredibly extensive early exploration of the Utah area. Many of the nearby landmarks are named after the fathers.
Day 3 - 2003/09/13- 27.4 miles
I started the third day arising at 5:30, 45 minutes before sunrise. After straightening up camp, I took a 20 minute swim. The water was great even this early in the morning. I swam until the sun hit the camp and then climbed out to dry off in the sun as it rose over the end of Padre Butte. I followed that with my morning yoga session and a brief breakfast. Even with all this personal time, I still managed to make a morning departure by 7:45. I headed east to the next point, then turned south into Labyrinth Canyon. The mouth of the canyon is very wide as it opens out into Padre Bay. The low sandstone banks, all white with the bathtub stains of the once higher lake, were quite indented with little coves and leads in which several houseboats had set up camp. Labyrinth seemed to be more interesting with the lake at this level. Up where the rock turned red once more, the shoreline seemed to be more regular.
I pulled up alongside the sandstone and studied the micro ecology of the wall. There was a crusty deposit on the wall composed of minerals deposited out of the water and the dried up remains of short (1 cm) algae that still grew under the water line. The algae continued to survive for a foot and a half above the water line, pulling water up the face of the rock by osmosis. I had mistaken the slightly darker wet area as a wash mark where the waves from boat wakes had splashed up onto the wall. But this line was higher than the waves would have reached. Besides there had been no boats in this canyon this morning and the sun and dry air would have long ago removed any dampness from the rock. No, this area was being actively wetted from the lake water beneath it. The algae and deposited minerals scraped off the wall with a light touch of the paddle, but then so did the sandstone underneath it. The wet "rock" had very little strength. As weak as it was, I never saw any signs of accelerated erosion at the water level of the lake due to wave or wake action, which seemed strange. One would think that something would be visible as soft as the rock was.
By 9:30 AM I had reached the end of Labyrinth Canyon. The well compacted sand sloped gently with a small shallow sheet of water coming down the canyon. I pulled up into the 15 foot wide canyon bottom, dragged the kayak through the inches deep water of the final few yards of lake water until I could pull it no further. With no wind, no waves and no tide, it would be safe there while I walked up the canyon. I had read in my lake guide that there was a slot canyon easily reached by walking up the canyon. I changed from my kayak shoes to a good pair of water shoes, something like Tevas, for the walk up the canyon floor.
The water coming down the canyon flowed in a sheet of water just millimeters deep, spread over must of the width of the canyon floor. Running in little channels resembling frost on a window pane, the warm sand supported a wide variety of green and brown algae that produced a sheen on the surface of the water that made it gleam like silver in the sun. The sandstone walls alternated with dry crumbling banks of sand, colonized by a tumbleweed-shaped plant with green stalks, thorns about a half centimeter long and small white flowers. Occasionally, there would be a large dark green plant with huge trumpet bell shaped white flowers. (Datura family Jimson Weed hallucinogenic and poisonous) The massive flower was the size of a plate, with beautiful ribs on the petals, a subtle green in the center and a light yellow on the ends of the stamens.
The canyon continued with a smooth sand floor, narrowing, deepening and darkening as I walked further up its gentle slope. There were many lizards scurrying along the canyon floor and then up the sand textured canyon walls. The linear path began to develop whirls created by the swirling waters of the flash floods that created the canyon. The light highlighted the texture of the sandstone. The canyon opened up once more and flowers ( Primrose?) took advantage of the greater moisture available in the wash.
Colored stones brought from far away and much higher up in a completely different rock layer began to accumulate on the floor where the slowing currents were forced to drop them. The smooth sandy floor gave way to a narrow crevice filled with pebbles and rocks. I was soon climbing over boulders wedge into a narrow place where the torrent had been unable to dislodge them. i clambered over several until I came to a particularly large one requiring a dangerous move to pass it. Being alone in the canyon I decided this was a good place to turn around. With regret for the other sites that may have been ahead of me, I turned back and retraced my steps through the Labyrinth.
I paddled past Padre Butte and turned the corner into Face Canyon.. Across the wide mouth of the canyon lay the Camel Rock and Gregory Butte and the dominant reef separating Face and West Canyons.
The docking height of the facility is quite convenient for the houseboats and even the smaller motorboats, but for someone in a low decked kayak, it is quite a problem. There was no ladder or lower portion on any side of the unit. ( I found out later that all rest-rooms originally had ladders on one side. About half have been torn off by the incompetence of the houseboat operators. How they manage to tear off an iron ladder of seemingly solid construction is a mystery.) I pulled up alongside the facility and reached up to a cleat on the deck. I could just reach it with my up stretched arm. I grabbed the cleat and began to pull myself out when I was quickly reminded how hot black plastic gets in the strong sun. My bare arm was seared by the black edging along the deck. I splashed water on the side several times until it had cooled off, before trying the maneuver again. Grabbing the cleat, I began to haul myself up onto the deck. My kayak then started to slide under the guard rail. The guard rail hung about two feet above the water and it was outdented about 3 feet from the floatation chambers of the floating dock. This required me to give up once more on the attempt to get onto the deck and I decided that since I did not need to use the facility, but was only seeing what was involved, I would abandon my attempt to get on it and would try again later after some thoughtful planning.
In a small cove under Domingues Butte, I came across the first floating rest-room. I paddled over and around the structure. It floated on large steel cylinders over which a deck was welded at a height of about 4 feet off of the water. Heavy black plastic/wood composite guard railing was bolted to the side and extended about half way down the side. Several pieces of the railing were torn off or broken where the amateur boaters had run into it or pulled it off while performing docking maneuvers.
I headed into Face Canyon, passing close to the identifying marker placed in the mouth of the major canyons. The outer portions of the canyon were much like that of Labyrinth Canyon, low white sandstone. The canyon wound back through narrow passages. The walls were very close together and about 60 vertical feet. By this time in the late afternoon, there were several motorboats and jet skis running around in the canyon, and the waves were ricochetting back and forth in the confined area producing a confused and rough passage, I came to a particularly tight section where motorboats can just barely squeeze through. I started into it and was about a boat length in when I heard a motorboat approaching the other end at high speed. It wasn't slowing down. In a hurry, I back-paddled hard and was backing out of the narrow slot when the boat operator came around the last corner before the passage at 20 knots. Seeing me still in the one way section he cut the motor, pushed into reverse and the light responsive ski boat came to a halt as I backed out of the passage. I waited for them to come through, but they were waiting for me, so I paddled through the 100 foot section, passing them on the other side. The high powered ski boat had 5 Australian blokes and two shielas, who laughed and waved, actually said "G'Day Mate!" and the blasted through the passage at rather high speed. I think that they were actually going to try to run the damn thing at full speed, had I not been there.
Face Canyon forked into several branches, all of which remained in the narrow walled canyon cut into the sandstone. One could not see much besides the walls themselves. The branches ended abruptly when the canyon just closed off. On the way back I had another run in with a jet ski, also going too fast for the conditions. But fortunately, when you back off on the power, the jet skis stop quite quickly. Still, the noise and the long lasting wakes made the upper portions of the canyon an unpleasant experience. On the way back I observed one of the crazy Aussies jumping from a high section of cliffs. I tried to get him on the way down, but the autofocus delay on the shutter spoiled the shot and I only have him on the top before the jump. After a successful jump, another one got out on a hydrofoil ski and they were off down the canyon. Having reached the more open mouth of the canyon once more I was able to quietly paddle along the shoreline, observing the structure of the sandstone. There I found this interesting example of a piece of wood buried in the sandstone and now exposed in the rock on the edge of the water, a petrified limb in the middle of the sandstone.
Once I had finished unpacking all the gear and arranging camp, the wind shifted further into the east and began to blow around the rock fall. My camp was no longer in the lee. The quiet shore began to receive waves from the open bay and about half the distance between my ground cloth and the water disappear as the waves rolled up the very shallow beach. Sand from the beach around on the other side of the rock fall would occasionally blow into camp. But with all my stuff out and the late hour and very little prospect of a better site in the 45 minutes before dark, I decided to stay. In twenty minutes, I had company. Two houseboats pulled up on the other end of the beach, caring not a whit that they invaded my camp when there were plenty of others places for them to go. My grumpy mood at this invasion was soothed by the spectacular glow of the setting sun on the 700 foot wall of Gregory Butte.
To shield my little camp from the wind, I gathered some tumble weeds and arranged them in a U shape along the top of my ground cloth. I interlaced some of their ranches and weighted them down with rocks. I lined them with the dry bags of gear. The combination made for an effective sand block and protected me from the blowing sand until the winds finally decreased about 2 hours after dark. Once again the heavens were ablaze with incredible stars. Each night I had waited to close my eyes until I saw a burning trail of an asteroid flame out as it was consumed in the earth's atmosphere. Tonight I was treated to the most spectacular streak across the sky I have ever seen. Unlike most shooting stars that burn bright blue and shoot across a third of the sky in about a second, this one was a greenish yellow, many times bigger in diameter, and took at least two seconds before it burned out. I could see an actual bow wave and the sputtering material is it ablated of the leading edge of the object. Perhaps it was a piece of space junk reentering the atmosphere. In any case, it was a wonderful sight.
About midnight I awoke to a bright moon rising over the top of Gregory Butte. As I sat up to drink some water, two furtive shapes shot across the open area between the rock fall and the next ridge. Two spooked coyotes shot over the sand, up into the rocks and over the ridge. I heard another sound to my right. There I saw another, much larger coyote hunting mice among the rocks and boulders of the rock fall. He seemed to not notice my presence. I got out my pen flashlight and shone it on him. He paid no attention, just went on with his mouse hunt. I figured if he was that intent on the hunt I should leave him alone. In 10 minutes I was asleep once more and did not see them again when I awoke at 3:00 AM and got up at 6:00 AM. Tracks on the beach showed that they had come down the beach between the water and my camp, just some 20 feet from my open camp site. The tracks showed that they had paid no attention to me or my gear, for which I was thankful. At most lake levels, Gregory Butte is a small island and would not have coyotes on it. But the low lake level had exposed a connection between the butte and shore and the coyotes had complete access to the all that area. I had had no problems with any of their prey, the mice that they clearly knew to live in the rocks. I was glad to do without those destructive little buggers which are the curse of the shelters and camps along the Appalachian Trail.
Day 4 - 2003/09/14- 28.8 miles
The next morning the wind was still blowing as I packed up my camp. I almost forgot to take a picture of the camp site. It was mostly packed away when I remembered. The tumbleweeds were mostly in place, but the dry bag wall was gone. The picture did not come out well anyway.
I wanted to get an early start as there was a long way to go today and it looked like there were be a headwind today. However I awoke late (6:30 AM). The water was riled by the wind and waves and I did not feel like a morning swim in the cloudy water. The sun would not hit this camp site until noon because of Gregory Butte. I did without my morning yoga. I shoved the gear into the kayak and launched from the beach at 7:45 AM. The wind was blowing about 15 knots, right on the bow. I set my sights on a steep wall two plus miles from camp and dug in for the slog across the open bay. It felt good to exercise the kinks out after the cold and uneasy night on the beach. The noise from the party boats at the other end of the beach had kept me tossing in the early evening. Shortly after falling asleep, I came awake with a big start as either a lizard or the mother of all spiders ran across my face. Then I did not sleep soundly with some concern about the coyotes poking around camp. I concentrated on an even stroke and keeping up hull speed as I dug the paddle into the small waves and the boat slapped spray off of successive waves. I joked with myself that the air was so dry that the bow spray evaporated before it hit me. It wasn't quite true, but even though there was a fair amount being thrown around, I didn't feel particularly wet in my Cool Max T-shirt.
It took just short of an hour to reach the lee of the big wall. I sat there and drank from my water supply. I had ignored it during the crossing, concentrating on the paddling and had dried out some. It wasn't smart but that was the way I was feeling that morning. I guess I was in a "mood".
I rounded the sharp wall and began paddling in the shade of the 400 foot face. The wind quickly died as I became sheltered by the rock. I paddled along in the smooth water. I soon noticed that the wind itself had died, now that it didn't matter. After another mile I became concerned that what I was seeing along the shore didn't seem to correspond to what was on the map. I knew I wasn't used to interpreting the shoreline in the vastly different lake and the scale of the place still threw off my estimates of distances. I kept paddling along figuring I was misreading the map until I was about 1 1/2 hours from camp. The sun topped the high wall. It felt good on my right shoulder, warning my back..........hey, wait a minute, I'm suppose to be going east. The sun shouldn't be back there. One of us was in the wrong place. I grabbed my map from under the bungies on my foredeck and my compass from around my neck. The compass and the sun agreed. I was going north. I turned the boat around and took a bearing on Gregory Butte. Same problem. I was in the wrong place. The bay that I assumed was West Canyon was actually the main channel of the Colorado. West Canyon which I had in my brain was behind Gregory Butte was directly behind me. I probably would not have made the error if I had seen where the sun rose, but it was behind the butte. I had not checked my map or my compass when I left shore, sure that the obvious opening between the two massive reefs must be the correct way. My eagerness to get across the upwind section in order to make up for the late start had resulted in an hour and a half of paddling upwind in the wrong direction. I worked out where I actually was on the map and then the shape of the shore began to make sense. The nagging voice that kept telling me it wasn't right had been true, but I hadn't listened. Now I was five miles up the creek.
I paddled up several more miles until I was about 7.5 miles from my starting point. The massive reefs of the bay continued on for several more miles. I had seen few places to camp and those were occupied by houseboats. The scenery, though spectacular, was fairly homogeneous and I did not see that I would see anything new further up the bay, so I turned around and headed back down the bay. As I did so, the wind started to increase to give me a light headwind.
Due to the late hour and my detour earlier in the day, I decided to bypass the next canyon, Wetherhill Canyon, as it did not sound all that interesting anyway. I paddled past Dangling Rope Marina as well. The marina was not visible from the main body of the lake, being tucked up inside and around the point in Dangling Rope Canyon. Besides I had no need for the services there. I had barely made a dent in my one month food supply, all my equipment was working properly and the portable toilet I had constructed was working out marvelously. I passed Mountain Sheep Canyon, Little Arch Canyon and Cathedral Canyon before I finally located a campsite on the north shore of the lake opposite Rainbow Canyon. I pulled onto the small low sandstone bench and settled into the camp routine after a long but good day under beautiful cloudless skies. My misadventure had turned out reasonably well and had vastly improved my skills in reading the topography and translating it to the map. I had discovered that under these changed lake levels that one should ignore the shape of the shoreline, the feature that I use predominantly in the low lying east coast, and concentrate on the unchanging high mesas and buttes hundreds of feet above the water and sometimes miles beyond the water's edge. It was a very different way of navigating, but one that worked much better here.
In two hours I returned to almost where I had begun that morning, but with 15 miles already paddled. I turned east past Grand Bench and into a part of the lake that looked much different than what was on the map. The low water significantly changed the low features of the shoreline, cutting off and shrinking bays, connecting mesa to what the map showed it be islands and creating high mounds of rock where the map showed navigable waters. I stopped at one pile nearly 100 feet high for lunch and to take this picture from the top of what was once a submerged rock reef. My kayak beached far below looked so small from the once submerged rock pile.
Day 5 - 2003/09/15 - 21.8 miles
The first day my shoulders were tired, the second day my torso was tired and the third day my legs and so on. I wasn't sure whether this was because as one part grew stronger, it placed more stress on another part or whether I was compensating in some unconscious way for the stiffness in the other part. In any case, I was sure that all the stretching exercises, swimming and use of a nutrition drink, Cytomax, was really helping. Cytomax really reduces my soreness under heavy physical exertion. I had about 3 pounds of Cytomax powder and started each morning and ended each day with a quart of the prepared drink. The drink has no preservatives and makes a wonderful culturing media for mold and bacteria, so you must be especially careful with your hygiene in any bottle you use to store this drink, as it will grow an impressive amount of mold/bacteria in a very short period of time. I figure if the buggies like it that much, it must be good fo me too!
The next morning dawned to yet another cloudless sky. The early morning sun turned the rocks to the west and south into a brilliant orange glow as I did yoga on the smooth rock top overlooking Camp 4. Each morning I was getting the camp routine down a little better. I awoke about 30 minutes before sunrise. Yoga practice came first as the sun rose in the sky and eventually reached my camp. Then a swim as the warming rays gathered strength so that I would dry off faster and stay warm when I exited the water. Then a cold breakfast of cereal bar and dried fruit with a little summer sausage. I would start my paddle at about 8:00 AM, taking the first mile easy with a relaxed cadence until I was warmed up. The rest of the day was at a steady paddling rate at a speed over 4 knots. This kept my average speed for the day at near 3.5 knots, so in the 7 to 8 hours of paddling each day I was making about 27 miles per day, well over the 20 mile per day average that I had allotted for the trip. Although I was getting a little sore, each day the problem was in another part of my body.
Signs point the way through the twisting canyon to a small side canyon where a large floating dock and rest-room speak of the heavy visitation this place receives. Only the ranger cleaning the rest-room was here at 9:30 AM. I took advantage of the freshly cleaned and restocked rest-room. There were also freshly emptied trash cans here and I took advantage of them to dump the small amount of trash that I had accumulated from my dehydrated and canned food and the much larger collection of trash I had picked up along the shoreline. I was collecting two pieces of trash each day. Unfortunately, I had many pieces to choose from as there was a lot of trash, mostly soda and beer cans, floating at the ends of the canyons and along the shore. I certainly had the opportunity to collect a lot more had space allowed. I concentrated on the trash that was not floating as I though that those items might eventually be collected if they ever made it to the dam area. What people were thinking when they littered in this incredibly beautiful place was beyond my comprehension.
I paddled across the lake to the mouth of Rainbow Canyon which is marked with a large sign at the entrance. The high dark red walls of the canyon framed the deep blue sky as the waning moon set.
The canyon is the location of Rainbow Bridge National Monument. This is the only national monument that I know of that is not reachable by road. It must be accessed either by boat or via a long and arduous trail over the mesas at the end of a long dirt four-wheel drive road. Most people come by boat. There are excursion vessels making the journey multiple times each day bringing visitors from the Wahweap area 45 miles down lake. Many others come by motorboat and houseboat. As I paddled into the beautiful canyon, a ranger vessel headed for the monument and I were the only ones up and about at this hour.
With the low level of the lake, the docks were much further down the canyon than normal. The floating aluminum docks were anchored by steel cable to the sheer walls of the canyon some half mile further down than they were when the lake is full. A trail has been constructed along the canyon providing a fine walk to Rainbow Bridge itself.
The pleasant walk along the trail was filled with the fragrance of the blooming flowers, including Datura, the large white blossom I had seen in Labyrinth Canyon. Eight foot tall reed like spikes of green leaves ended in a large yellow flower. Pink sprays of compound flowers graced the ends of other tall asparagus like foliage. Delicate little red flowers found sanctuary in the hanging garden seeps along the high canyon walls. Finally at a turn in the trail, I could see the arch spanning the almost dry wash where the paved trail indicated the normal location of the floating docks. I continued up the trail to see the entire massive stone arch spanning the small creek that had formed the world's largest natural rock bridge.
The massive arch is 290 feet tall and spans 275 feet across the water that created it . Sacred to the indigenous people who long knew of its existence, the natural wonder was "discovered" by A. J. Wetherhill and others in an expedition to locate the wonder. Two native guides led them to it. Wetherhill immediately defaced it by carving his name on it. Teddy Roosevelt visited the bridge in 1913 and showed a greater sensitivity to the religious nature of the place. The monument was created by President Taft in 1910.
I still was without any company as I approached the base of the bridge. Signs requesting that one respect the solemnity of the site and warning of prohibitions against climbing upon or walking under the arch are posted in the viewing area.
I returned to the floating docks to find the first of the motorized visitors had just arrived. Two small motorboats with people and dogs were unloading on the noisy metal docks. They were viewing a swirl of fish next to their boat. Fishing is not allowed within the Monument boundaries due to tight confines and the heavy traffic. The fish took advantage of this and there was a little school of carp and large stripped bass that came up to beg for handouts at the side of the dock. They were not the only one trying to scam some food. As soon as the people left their boats and walked up the dock, the ravens arrived to see if there was anything they could raid.
I paddled back out of the canyon to the lake. On the way, the large excursion boat from Wahweap passed, sending large waves rolling back and forth from wall to wall of the canyon. The 100 people or so on board waved and snapped my picture. The silence and solitude of Rainbow Bridge was done for this day. Come early.
As I exited the canyon at 1:30 PM, I spied a stark reminder that navigation in the canyon is not completely without hazard. I wondered why the park service did not take this opportunity to clean up this wreck exposed by the low water. The low lake level made it possible to easily retrieve large pieces of junk like this and the corroded outboard motor I had seen on the beach at Gregory Butte.
The next canyon up lake was Oak Canyon. The map showed it as a wide bay with two small canyons at the apex of the triangular shape. But it looked nothing like that now. There were many smooth sandstone islands and bays where the map showed just water. In one on the bays was a floating rest-room. I went over to it to see how my new plan for getting up on the deck would work out. I had spent some time thinking about how to do it and I was prepared with a 25 foot piece of 1/4 inch nylon in back of my seat.
I went back to the potty dump station at the rear of the facility. The stainless steel, although bright and reflective, was hot too and I managed to burn myself there as well on the high heat capacity metal. I looked at the small hole at the bottom of the dump sink and realized that the dry packages that had been baking for days in the 3" toilet black PVC tube would not be going down there anytime soon. No doubt they were that small in order to keep people from dumping trash down in them. I checked out the two toilets at the front of the facility. They were nice and clean and even had toilet paper. There the opening would be big enough, so I emptied my portable toilet there and then washed it out in the sink on the other side. Empty and clean once more, I got back into the kayak which was quite easy with the stabilizing paddle and rope.
Oak canyon was much like the other canyons I had visited except near the end there was this big cottonwood standing in the water with even its smaller branches remarkably well preserved after at least 23 years under water. The long dead tree was festooned with fishing lure ornaments and monofilament tinsel.
I paddled all the available canyon and then headed up lake once more. I found a large deep water cave near mileage buoy 56 and paddled to the back of it. Right across from the cave I found a great little place to pull up the kayak. Right on a projecting peninsula on a turn in the river, I could see well up and down the river. A nice swim, stretching and dinner topped off a good day.
As night fell, I sat watching the dusk fade in the western sky. There had not been any biting insects anywhere on the lake so far. Tonight I noticed there were a larger than usual number of small shrimp shaped sand colored bugs that appear just a dusk. They hovered in the lee of any vertical object, a rock, a dry bag or my body. They never landed but just milled around in a cloud. Soon the bats were out looking for them and any other insects about. There were a lot of them here. If you stood up and remained still for a few minutes, the insects would gather down wind of you and the bats would come in to get them. You could hear the flutter of their wings as they zipped past. The open area at Camp 5 allowed me to see the moonrise when I awoke at 1:30 AM.
Day 6 - 2003/09/16- 27.3 miles
The river straightened out and opened into a small bay. Cha canyon was off to the right. I bypassed it for now because I wanted to stop there on the way back and do a day hike. I headed up to Wilson Creek Canyon a small open canyon on the north bank. There was a motorboat camp there so I continued on to Syncline Canyon. There I found a great little rock for a nice swim, lunch and a one hour rest in the sun. Up until now I had restricted my sun bathing to morning and afternoon hours. But now I felt that I had enough of a tan to spend a while in the full sun of midday. I limited it to 20 minutes a side. I had avoided any sunburn so far and I wished to keep it that way. Reluctant to leave this idyllic spot I lingered another 1/2 hour before pushing on. I paddled once more into a narrow twisting river gorge.
I awoke well before sunrise. The moon was still up as the first light of dawn crept into the eastern sky. A bat fluttered across the face of the silver disc. It was crisp and cold this morning. I sat in my sleeping bag and watched the dawn. Soon the sun was ready to peak over the edge of the walls at the mouth of the San Juan River, my objective for the day. I climbed up above camp to watch the sun spread down the mesa wall on the west side of camp. As it cleared the rim, it cast a angry red glow on the rock wall across the lake north of Camp 5. I cleaned up camp, making sure that I left only unavoidable traces of my presence. The soft crumbling sandstone turned to a sandy footprint as I loaded gear into the kayak.
Finally I came to the toppled form of Dinosaur Rock. Half of the spire lay at the feet of the remaining piece. At one time it was probably an arch but only this nub remains. The rock broke in half in the winter of 1973. How long had it stood watching the river flow past? How long will this piece be here after the lake itself is long gone?
Around the corner, the river opened up into a wide bay. A 10 knot breeze blew down the river, a headwind of course. I started across the open water and was about half way down the bay when I head a sound like a freight train on the other shore. Looking to the south I could see a line of white caps racing to the east, but the edge was advancing toward me. The sound got louder. At first long, low waves reached me, but soon wind driven waves danced all around the boat. The wind picked up to 25 knots and the waves increased to 2 feet. In the short fetch, the waves were very steep. So steep in fact that I was actually able to surf them, even with the heavy load in my kayak. It took 2 or 3 waves to actually catch one, but once I did it was like being on rails. The kayak surfed along very straight and stable. Once up to speed, it lost that speed very slowly, When one wave waned I was often able to catch up to another and start the process all over again. I flew down the bay, all the while looking out for a place to camp that would have protection from the wind. I pulled into several areas, but there was no wind break to be had. I knew that the canyon would be narrowing once again into an area known as the Great Bend, with the same high sheer sided walls I had seen in the morning. There would be wind protection, but probably no where to pull out. At. 4:30 I pulled into the shore. I was early. The blistering down wind ride had put me at my objective much sooner than I had planned. The camp site wasn't great but at least it had some protection from the wind which had piped up to 30 knots. I pulled up onto the beach which had an area of larger pebbles and a covering of dried water weeds that kept the sand from blowing around. A small hill with a four hundred foot cliff behind the beach provided some wind break. Local sunset would come quite early tonight. Sheets of low clouds began to appear. A change in the weather was coming. I decided to take my evening swim early. I plunged in to notice that the water here was definitely colder than several days ago. There is a definite temperature gradient. The farther north you are and the closer to the river entrance, the colder it gets. The wind had also stirred up the colder water deeper in the lake. My swim was a little shorter than usual. I got out in time to dry off before the sun went behind the wall at 5:30.
Day 7 - 2003/09/17- 30.9 miles
The next morning the wind was still blowing. I quickly decided that there would be no swimming today. I had a quick breakfast and broke camp quickly. A short drive up wind brought me into a tight canyon where the loops of the San Juan began once more. In the canyon, the wind dropped off and I was in still water once more
The walls rose high as I approached the Great Bend, a section where the river makes a big tight turn around a long peninsula. The wind began to increase once more at 10:00 AM and by 11:00 AM it was once again at 25 knots. The wind swirled from various directions in the gorge and alternately was ahead and behind as the river turned.
After the Great Bend, the lake widened once more and I had a serious up wind paddle. The water had gotten even colder and began to carry more sediment, an indication that I was approaching the beginning of the flowing river. I was surprised as I had yet to reach Zahn Bay. The map indicated that the lake normally extended 17 more miles to Clay Hills Crossing before the San Juan river current started. But not this year. The water became ever more silted and soon looked as if I was paddling in chocolate milk. Drift wood of varying sizes began to appear in increasing density. When I reached the beginning of Zahn Bay, the lake became only inches deep. There were mud banks and snags everywhere. Soon the water was flowing at 2 knots in a shallow channel, dumping its sediment in a bar formed across the whole width of the remaining lake. I had reached the end of the San Juan arm of the lake. I turned around and retraced my route back to my camp of the previous night. Along the way I went up several canyons on the north side of the Great Horseshoe bend. On the way out the gusting wind slamming up the bend and then funneling into the narrowing small side canyon created so strong a wind that for some minutes I was unable to progress against it. The small waves created by the strong wind in the small canyon were torn in half and the spray sent whipping across the surface of the water, soaking me within minutes. I battled my way to the mouth of the canyon and then turned into the main gorge. There, under the lee of the high walls, I paddled back past the Great Bend and re-established my camp at the same spot as the previous night. It still offered some protection from the wind.
About 30 minutes after dark, I began to hear the freight train sound again. The wind that I had so carefully avoided with my camp selection turned 180 degrees and blew right across the open bay onto the shore of my camp. The waves began to roll onto the shore and break on the rock at the foot of my ground sheet. I grabbed my bivvy sack and pulled it over my sleeping bag to protect it from the spray blowing onto it. Eventually I had to move my gear further up the beach and position the boat to partially block the wind which blew 20 to 30 knots all night. The temperature plunged. I put on all my clothes but was still cold in my 35 degree rated bag. I spent an uncomfortable night and I was happy when light finally appeared in the eastern sky.
Continue to week two............