Editor’s Note: In the spring and summer of 2021, as Lake Powell plummeted toward its lowest recorded water levels since reaching full pool in 1980, Forest Woodward set out on a long unscripted meander through what was once Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Over two visits, in April and July, he sea kayaked and packrafted some 130 miles of the lake as the Colorado River muscled again through long-buried side canyons. When these images were made, the lake surface was between 3,565 and 3,559 feet, on its way down to this spring’s low of 3,522 feet—dangerously close to the level, at 3,490 feet, when the Glen Canyon dam may no longer generate electricity. This April, the Bureau of Reclamation announced a plan to push more water down to the lake from Utah’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir, 455 miles upstream, while simultaneously slowing releases out of the lake from Glen Canyon Dam. Climate and drought may ultimately have the last word on Lake Powell’s future. Until then, these pictures and notes are Woodward’s attempts to hold on to the threads of tangled beauty and strange markings of a shifting world.
All photos by Forest Woodward
I slept by the river last night. Smoked too many cigarettes. I watched a translucent spider weave a strange dance and woke to the Paria River greeting the Colorado, the laughter of kindred currents gurgling downstream. Condors dozed with wings wrapped in clay, dreaming Pleistocene dreams in the cradle of a brown god that never sleeps. I grab breakfast in Page and do a last-minute supply run: sunscreen, mezcal, apples, oats, coffee, jerky.
I have four days and a packraft, and I am fairly open to seeing where the wind and my stubby craft will take me. Emergent design, if you will. In 2015, I sea kayaked 90 miles from Halls Crossing, on the lake’s western edge, to Glen Canyon Dam, and these two trips will mean I’ve paddled it end to end. A rather arbitrary achievement, and one that takes no account of the most interesting part—that the landscape here is never the same, and each canyon holds its own beauty and melancholy.
I walk out to a spot below the dam where someone not too long ago sat amidst the hum of turbines and carved the outline of a buffalo into the rock, along with an inscription that everything that was grasped by man would one day be free again. But now it’s gone. Erased from the soft stone along with all the other marks of passing. I watch a canoe pick its way up the Colorado toward the base of the dam, slow strokes against deep currents. It looks cool down there in the shade of the canyon, where the water moves again.
The body of a dead cow lies decomposing in the mud at the water’s edge when I arrive at Farley Canyon, on the north end of the lake. Even in the dark, I can see evidence of a struggle. I wonder how much this scene resembles what Tom Farley might have encountered when he ran cattle here back in the 1880s, when the Colorado River flowed free.
Trying to pinpoint the exact confluence of river and lake is a moving target, but Farley Canyon seems as good a launch point as any. Before the reservoir flooded this area, Utah State Route 95 crossed the river here, and I figure I can put in at the mouth of the canyon. In the morning, I push off past the dead cow and a couple fishing for largemouth bass. One introduces herself as Swamp Donkey Jill, and offers me some live bait. “Usually, the lake’s coming up a foot a day right now,” she says. “It’s sad to see.” She motions toward the mud rings that stretch some 80 feet up from the water’s edge. It’s hard to imagine that a post office and general store sit somewhere under all this silt.
I paddle for a mile, only to find that this finger of the reservoir is orphaned, cut off from the main body of Powell by the receding water. I pack my boat up and hike across mud flats. I check my GPS. It shows my location in the middle of the reservoir, surrounded by water on all sides. I look back down at the cracked mud below my feet and walk on, avoiding bubbling sinkholes and gaping cracks between shifting mud pillars. Eventually I reach water—water moving swiftly in the form of a river. Still no lake. Unsure of what lies ahead, I cautiously put in, floating quickly through high banks of silt. After a couple miles, the river widens, rushing shallow and fast across riffles of sand. The movement swirls me into a fitful sort of calm, punctuated by the splash of carp and the awkward flapping of seagulls and pelicans. Bewildered and excited, I paddle on until dark and make camp beneath a large sandstone formation called Castle Butte.
The names we give things are telling of our ambitions.
Nothing is fixed; nothing is quite as it seems. All of the death out here—the cow, the drowned cottonwoods, the fish turned wrong side up—is evidence of that, of how this place is ever so slightly out of balance. It is something felt and can’t be seen from a plane or a boat. You have to get mired in the mud. Struggle to escape. Clamber up rock after rock covered in sun-bleached quagga mussel shells, razor-encrusted tombstones of the non-native species that have infested Powell. You have to see the death, smell it, hear the buzz of flies, the stench of stagnation. You must also hear the raven’s laughter and the fighter-jet hum of ducks landing in isolated sink pools, the juvenile heron shitting himself as he cautiously learns to hunt, the trio of otters, the coyote who trots away across the mud flats, seemingly quite content with the state of things.
I stop for lunch at a nondescript break in the rocks. Nudge a beer can out of the mud with my foot. Wonder who held it last and when. Turning it over in my hands, one side is bleached by sun and water, the other looks like it could have been set down yesterday. I can barely make out the words “Good Luck” in faded print below the logo of a horseshoe. Good luck to whom, I wonder? To the person who threw it overboard? To the one who finds it? To the waters that covered it? To the drought that revealed it? To Glen Canyon? To Lake Powell? I flip the can end over end. Horseshoe up, good luck. Horseshoe down, bad luck. Or is it the other way round? I wonder at this place and the way it holds paradox. Does a thing have to be lost to be loved or destroyed to be appreciated? I toss the beer can into the bow of the boat. Horseshoe up. Let’s hope we catch some luck—whatever that is.
I don’t think I possess the language to properly convey the strangeness of paddling through the desert as cliffs of sand calve like glaciers around you, rounding a bend only to be greeted by flocks of pelicans and a stagnant lake.
From my camp at the confluence of river and lake, I survey an old uranium-mining road running along the base of an imposing band of red Wingate Sandstone cliffs, leading back to where my truck is parked. I expected to be able to paddle back to my launch point, no walking needed. But there’s a metaphor here about best-laid plans, the need to adapt. What happens when our best-laid plans rest on a flawed foundation? What does the West look like without her brimming reservoirs?
As for me, I can just pack down the raft, strap it to my pack and hike back the way I came. If only everything were that easy.
On my previous trip, my packraft had proved about as efficient in the wind-chopped lake as a unicycle in quicksand, and for my trip in July, I instead find an old British sea kayak on Craigslist and head for the old Hite boat ramp, 4 miles upriver from Farley Canyon.
There is no lake now, just sand and rock and the muddy, muscular flow of the Colorado carrying last winter’s snowpack out of the high country. The flow carries me quickly through the layers of lake bed, 30-foot mud gendarmes calving like rotten glaciers into the flow. I stay toward the middle of the channel, bobbing over 5-foot standing waves carved from the sandy bottom. Dust devils tower and dive. A coyote carefully leads her pups down to the river to drink, scrambling away to a safe distance when she sees me. Rich green grasses have sprouted across the silt plain, and a rogue herd of cattle pauses their meal to watch me pass.
Later, I will sit quietly at the head of the lake and watch as three otters play on the long mud banks below Wingate cliffs. This feeling of quiet and space will change as I move down into the reservoir, closer to the marina traffic and weekend crowds, but here, in this landscape of flux, I feel acutely aware of my human presence.
You try to come to a place properly. To greet the raven at the canyon’s mouth. To whistle with the wren as she sits on the lone branch. To walk slowly. To look about. There is a gravity to some places that is felt, not spoken or measured. You give a prayer of thanks, whatever that means to you.
I find the first feather in Ticaboo Canyon, a raven tail, and place it as an offering by the dark pool. The second feather is covered in mud, hung up in some branches. A raven wing. I place it in the creek to rest. The third feather is unmarred, as if just left, and curled upward. It’s the down of a dark chest, I think. I hesitate. Look around. Reaching for it, I place my thumb and forefinger gently on the quill. As I lift it, I hear the raucous calls of a pair of ravens watching from down canyon. I do not know what they are saying. I don’t know the difference between a good and bad omen, only that it is an omen.
I wake to the sound of wind-pressed waves and the sun low, but already scorching, across the shimmer of the lake. Pushing off, I soon encounter a Forest Service research crew hauling in an endangered razorback sucker, monitoring the spawning range of the fish. There’s a surprising amount of animal life out here. I’m curious how when a landscape becomes less desirable for humans, it might in some ways become more desirable for other life forms.
Animals I’ve encountered on Lake Powell:
Ravens (a dozen)
Coyotes and kits
Schools of stripers
Lizards, four species
Walking up from the water’s edge in the side channels of Moki Canyon takes me through the many cultures of spring breakers that have come and gone here: glow sticks, sunglasses, beach towels, a boomerang, ice bags, squatty potties. These canyons are sacred to many peoples, but perhaps none more so than the spring breakers—at least if we are to judge by the artifacts. I grew up on stories of Glen Canyon, but even if the reservoir were to fully drain, it would still leave us with a silted, shifting world, far from the waterfalls and hanging gardens of Glen Canyon known by the Puebloans. I kick at a half-buried piece of towel, unearthing a red Solo cup.
It’s interesting how unaware of their wake people are. In one narrow stretch of canyon, a beefed-out wakeboarding boat throttles past me, shouting out a request for directions, which I give them with the motion of a hand. They wave a friendly thanks, disappearing around the bend as their 4-foot wake ricochets off the canyon walls and threatens to swamp my little craft. They mean no malice—they’re just unaware of their effect, the reciprocity between them and water and rock and me. Somewhere in there I suppose there’s a lesson. We all drive big boats some days.
I race a houseboat from Forgotten Canyon, where the ancient Defiance House sits just above the bathtub ring, to Moki Point. I don’t think they know we are racing, but still I win, and that feels good. I swim in the lake—well, I fall in, trying to get water—but it’s my first swim after many trips here, and it feels nice. The lake is a place of reciprocity, it seems. I pick an old Coors can out of the mud and not 10 minutes later am gifted a full Dr Pepper (my favorite!) floating in a side channel. Maybe the canyon is more like the giving tree—giving a place to keep water, then giving the water away.
People talk about caring for the Earth, but what they’re usually referring to is caring about a select few playgrounds or curated parks where they climb or bike or hunt. Would we believe someone who said they loved us but only ever saw us dressed up for Sunday service? To really care for something, we’ve got to become acquainted with all sides of it—the dark, the ugly and the painful alongside the beauty and softness. In my mind, if I’m going to say I love nature, I’ve got to go out and into these seemingly desecrated landscapes and see if I can sit within them, with the discomfort.
I struggle the 12 miles from Moki Canyon to Bullfrog Marina in a heavy headwind and stash my boat in a cove. The bustling energy feels harsh as I walk down the baking asphalt to the restaurant overlooking the marina. I slurp a cold beer and fork down a salad, watching the Stanley Cup Finals as the sun ripples red-gold across pockets of orphaned reservoir.
As I’m finishing my third beer and getting ready to head back down to my bivy bag, an older couple from Salt Lake City sidles up to watch the game. We get to talking about the glory days, decades past, when the reservoir sat high and proud on the land. They’re water skiers, and they tell stories of carving cursive lines across glassy expanses of water under deep red rock walls, secret canyons and sprawling bays blossoming up from dry earth. A place of endless possibility.
The water skiers mourn the reservoir of 30 years ago. I mourn the Glen Canyon I never knew. And while I get the feeling our political beliefs might be polar opposites, we sit here over our beers looking out onto a lake that is now miles away from where it once lapped at this deck, and we agree, this is sad. Ugly, beautiful, changing and sad.
We agree the water is leaving the West, and something must be done. We agree that as long as this water is tied up in money, it will be difficult for people to agree what to do with it. We agree that it would be better if more people understood the finite nature of the systems that support life in the American West. Water is what allows us to be here. When it runs out, so does our time on this land.