A Motor-Less, People-Less Boat Trip Across Lake Powell with Brendan Leonard
Brendan Leonard of semi-rad.com on how to paddle Lake Powell all by yourself.
A couple weeks before Christmas, I am sitting in a kayak in the middle of a 250-square-mile artificial lake in the middle of a very real desert. I’m going through my usual mental ritual, asking myself what life choices I could have made differently and why normal people actually do things like this.
“There’s a dead bighorn sheep here,” my friend Sinjin says from the shore. “But other than that, I think it’s a pretty nice campsite.” The five of us—myself, photographer Forest Woodward, my girlfriend Hilary Oliver, adventurer Kalen Thorien, and Sinjin Eberle of American Rivers—agree that it’s a great spot, aside from the sheep, and we pull our kayaks onto the shore.
We are 42 miles into an 85-mile kayak trip across Lake Powell in Arizona, and at 4 p.m., we have chosen our camp. It’s a small beach in the middle of sandstone domes half-buried by the still waters of the Colorado River that are captured by the Glen Canyon Dam.
I have several questions at our halfway point, starting with, “Can you be a conservation advocate and still enjoy Lake Powell?” Another is, “Why do dead animals keep showing up at our campsites?”
On Day 1, we pull into a cove just before dusk to find a dead carp floating next to the shore at the exact best place to take the kayaks out. On Day 2, we find two dead mice. Fast forward to Day 4, and Sinjin finds a bighorn sheep, which we named Bob.
How Bob died was a mystery to all of us—right at the edge of the water, no signs of trauma. Our best guess was that he walked down here to get a drink then got stuck in the sludge at the edge of the water along the shore.
When Sinjin suggested this trip, 85 miles of paddling from Halls Crossing to the Antelope Point Marina, I knew it was a strange idea. People don’t paddle kayaks across Lake Powell. They ride on giant houseboats with waterslides and scream across the water on Jet Skis and speedboats. But I knew I wanted to go.
I’d had a huge adventure on a 28-day raft trip through the Grand Canyon a few years ago. It included the downriver side of the Glen Canyon Dam, where the Colorado River is more or less still wild. Lake Powell is on the upriver side, and I wanted to go there, but I’d never pictured experiencing it by motorized means.
I wanted to get out here on this big lake in a small boat, with a wild canyon buried 200 feet below the bottom of my kayak. I wanted to see how it felt to be here.
We paddled into what used to be the Cathedral in the Desert, and still kind of is, depending on how concerned you are about seeing what used to be the floor. On our trip, at a fairly typical Lake Powell water level of 3,605 feet, the floor was invisible underneath about 50 vertical feet of water. Post-Glen Canyon Dam, the whole cathedral is only visible when the water level dips below 3,555 feet, which it most recently did in 2004 and 2005. As we paddled out from underneath the arching ceiling where the 200-foot-tall sandstone walls almost touched in the middle above our heads, everyone in the group had a different, mostly solemn reaction.
I was fairly numb, and a little confused, paddling my kayak out of Escalante Canyon to its confluence with the former Colorado River. I stopped, popped my spray skirt, pulled out my notebook and started to write.
As an outdoors person, Lake Powell confuses the hell out of me. It’s not supposed to be here at all, and wouldn’t be if the Glen Canyon Dam hadn’t been built in 1963 and backed up the Colorado River into this canyon and all the side canyons stemming from it under a reservoir. I’ve gotten so much from wild lands—identity, a career as a writer, inspiration, memories, humility, and more photos than I can store on a single laptop—so I know I should prefer places that are as wild as we can keep them.
Underneath my kayak, I imagined a system of canyons looking like some of the terrain along River Road outside Moab: waves of blood-red sandstone domes cut through by creeks, each canyon meandering away from the Colorado River revealing unique terrain with each turn around the next corner. Lake Powell has ghosts underneath it, hundreds of feet below the bottom of my boat. I’ll probably never see them unless the dam goes away in the next 40 years, and that’s sad. But minus that, minus the head-shaking about what was buried when the U.S. decided to build a dam here, I was having a great time paddling around all this desert terrain, picking a new campsite each afternoon.
Months later, friends would ask how the Lake Powell trip was. And I would take up a few minutes of their time answering. Confusing, I’d say. Interesting, awesome in a very strange way, enjoyable. Cold. Good to be there when no one else was. Sad that all those canyons below us were buried in years of silt backed up by the dam. Cool to be exploring what was left of all the side canyons with the ease of paddling a boat across the flat water. Hell, I don’t know.
Every day, we camped in a different spot along the shore of Lake Powell, perched on sandstone sculptures that would have been 200-some feet above the Colorado River had the dam never been built. We paddled into dead-end canyons until they were too narrow to turn our boats around. We paddled next to vertical sandstone walls that dropped straight into the inky-black water, and we scraped off pieces of the 40-foot-high bleached-white “bathtub ring” left on those walls by the receding lake water.
We spent 12 hours each night in our sleeping bags as the temperature dropped to 32 degrees and the sun disappeared from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. We saw an average of one boat per day the entire trip and didn’t talk to another human until day seven.
We camped in coves picked clean of vegetation by other visitors, who I assume arrived in houseboats and then ripped out anything taller than six inches in a desperate attempt to keep their fires going. We built our own fires out of driftwood gathered and lashed to the front of our boats, and sat by them as long as we could, until our hands and feet grew too cold and we finally gave up and went to bed at 8 p.m. And thankfully, in eight days, we barely felt a headwind at all.
I hated it and I loved it and I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind freezing their ass off for a little solitude. If you tried to kayak across Lake Powell in any season but winter, you’d probably find it filled with engine noise, boat wake, and hundreds of other people. We were able to have a wilderness experience in the most opposite-of-wilderness environment I’ve ever been in in the southwest desert, a man-made reservoir lapping up at the edges of wild red rock canyon country.
60 miles into our trip, we rounded a bend to see the smokestacks of the Navajo Generating Station a few miles south of the shore of the lake.
We talked to the first people other than our group. It was a couple guys from a kayak company based in Page.
We paddled into Antelope Point, past a row of two-story house boats with names like Well Earned, Big Dog, and Portfolio. I knew Sinjin’s idea was ridiculous at the beginning of the trip, but at the end of it, as we slowly tracked across the lake water in our tiny kayaks next to those big boats with full-size residential air conditioners mounted on their lower decks, that drove it home.
I’m not saying there’s a right way or a wrong way to experience Lake Powell, but I know one way to feel like you have the whole place to yourself. I don’t know how it will make anyone else feel when they visit, but I hope it inspires some questions, just like it did for me.