A Trip to Drought-Wracked Lake Powell Reveals the Lost Wonder of the “Cathedral in the Desert”
Like Venetian gondoliers, we stood at the boat’s helm and paddled through murky water. Under the boat, gray fingers of long-submerged trees reached to the surface, dead hands stretching skyward. Red sandstone walls rose 500 feet above us in swooping contortions. Across the canyon, sunlight reflected from the lake and made a strange, undulating pattern on a high alcove wall.
We moved farther in. The walls grew higher and the shadows deepened – the reds and pinks transformed to an eerie black and beige. The only sounds that broke the silence were echoes of our paddle strokes and the rising sound of a cascade somewhere in the recesses ahead.
For the four of us on the boat – journalist Christopher Ketcham, river guide and conservationist Laurel Hagen, cartoonist Travis Kelly, and me – the journey was a pilgrimage. We’d all read about this place, but none had ever laid eyes on Lake Powell’s most legendary landform, a deep sandstone grotto flooded by the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, a place once known as the Cathedral in the Desert.
Before the submergence of the vast canyon straddling the Arizona-Utah border, you could have floated a raft to the confluence of the Colorado and the Escalante Rivers and walked up canyon a few miles to this point. But after the dam was completed and the water began to rise, the main canyon and the tendrils of hundreds of smaller side gorges filled up with water and silt.
Those who knew Glen Canyon – the rare few who saw it in the days before Lake Powell drowned it – speak of it with almost religious reverence, as a wondrous desert wilderness lost to the urban development of the arid Southwest. “There was a time when, in my search for essences, I concluded that canyonland country has no heart,” Edward Abbey wrote in “The Damnation of a Canyon,” an essay about a last float trip he took in 1959, three years after construction began on Glen Canyon Dam. “I was wrong. The canyonlands did have a heart, a living heart, and that heart was Glen Canyon and the golden, flowing Colorado River.”
To an even smaller subset, the Cathedral in the Desert was considered the heart of Glen Canyon. In the documentary, Let the River Run, David Brower, founder of Earth Island Journal, described the Cathedral in the Desert as “the ultimate magical place in Glen Canyon.” He recalled, “When you walked [in], it was so much like a cathedral that you felt you better be quiet there – and we were.” In the Sierra Club’s subsequent campaign against proposed dams in the Grand Canyon, Brower seemed to be conjuring the flooding of the Cathedral when he wrote, “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can get nearer the ceiling?”
Today, when the lake is at full capacity, the floor of the Cathedral is submerged under 12 stories of water. But during our visit in early April, with the Southwest embroiled in the fourteenth consecutive year of drought, the lake had dropped to 125 feet below its “full pool” elevation. While downstream cities, farmers, and industries fretted, we vagabonds for beauty rejoiced. The Cathedral in the Desert had, for a brief window, been restored.
But there was a hitch: We weren’t sure what we would find when we arrived. I wondered if, after decades underwater, the place had been radically transformed – perhaps bleached by layers of minerals or littered with silt and garbage. And even if its beauty remained, now that the Cathedral was reachable by motorboat, did it retain any of its wild character? Could it still be the heart of the heart of the Colorado Plateau?
In the weeks before our trip, Hagen monitored Powell’s water levels obsessively and sent email dispatches about the daily water levels pulled from a monitoring station. The horizontal axis was the date; the vertical was the elevation. The data looked like a mountain sloping precipitously downward and to the right. Each day, the water fell by inches, even feet, until it reached an all-important elevation of 3,575 feet – the point at which, we had been told, it is possible to stand on a sandbar at the bottom of the Cathedral.
This was not the first time Powell had dropped to such staggeringly low levels. In 2005, the lake fell to 3,555 feet, a record low 33 percent of capacity. During a brief window between March and May, the water receded entirely from the remote sandstone cloister, allowing visitors to enter the Cathedral on foot and get a glimpse of Glen Canyon before it was transformed into a great rock cistern to supply water and power to the mega-cities of the American West.
The current 3,575-foot mark has another, more ominous meaning for Western water managers. Under a 2007 accord, it is a trigger. Once the reservoir falls below this level, water releases from Lake Powell must be curtailed by 10 percent. Those cuts, which went into effect last June, mean less water flowing through the Grand Canyon and into drought-wracked Lake Mead, which supplies 90 percent of Las Vegas’s drinking water.
At the time of our visit, the Rockies held a slightly above-average snowpack, thanks in large part to a series of late-season snowstorms. This, of course, meant little in the dire math of the drought. In the words of Randall Julander, a hydrologist with the US Department of Agriculture, the additional moisture was “like expecting a road-killed jackrabbit to feed a whole pack of hungry coyotes. It’s not nearly enough to go around.” Some hydrologists have posited that, at the current rate of decline, the reservoir’s elevation could drop to 3,370 feet in as little as two decades. That point of stagnation is known as “dead pool,” the level at which the reservoir falls below the outflow pipes and water can no longer exit the reservoir by way of gravity. If the Southwest happens to be entering one of the multi-decadal “megadroughts” that have wracked the region at least three times in the last 1,000 years, things could get much, much worse.
But these dire predictions had little bearing on our present situation. The additional snow in the mountains meant that once the spring melt began in a few weeks time, the Cathedral would be inundated again. We had to hurry.
Our original plan was to creep across the 1,900 square-mile lake in a vessel of questionable lake-worthiness – an underpowered and ragged motorboat inherited a month or so earlier by Hagen, one she christened the Death and Glory and that Travis Kelly described as looking like “something out of the Great Depression.”
But the boat never arrived. A wheel bearing on the boat hitch went bad in Green River. The Death and Glory was, for all purposes, the Dead on the Side of the Road. On the night before our scheduled launch, talking around a smoky campfire atop a sandstone knoll overlooking the reservoir, we hatched an ill-advised Plan B. Using an aluminum transom and a small outboard motor, we would lash two canoes together to make a crude, gas-powered catamaran.
The next day, in bright sun and driving wind at the bottom of Lake Powell’s Bullfrog boat ramp, we built the ungainly vessel. As Hagen strapped the transom in place with webbing and duct tape, Ketcham hauled over a small outboard motor from the back of Hagen’s sandblasted pickup. Satisfied with the boat’s stability, we began to pile in our gear, which reduced the draft of the canoes by several inches. Then we hopped in, cracking a ceremonial beer and laughing triumphantly, and a little nervously, as a fierce gust quickly pushed us a hundred yards from shore.
If we do not take steps to dismantle the dam, nature surely will. It’s only a matter of time.
Our patchwork catamaran was blown out another hundred yards before we could get the small outboard motor started. But once we did the engine’s modest torque caused the back of the boat to sink lower in the water and sent small waves splashing into the boat. Frantically bailing and paddling the craft against the wind, we aimed toward a rocky point near where a small crowd had gathered to witness the conclusion of this short, ill-fated expedition. Exhausted and drenched, we finally reached the shore. As we hand-lined the tape-job boat back to the ramp, we named the vessel the Catastrophe.
We entertained the idea of renting kayaks. But that would have meant a paddle trip of roughly 50 miles round-trip to reach the Cathedral, which would have taken several days and involved a treacherous crossing of the lake in high winds. With the window for a visit narrowing, we succumbed to the powerboat economy of Lake Powell. We laid our credit cards down, procuring a Triumph with a 150-horsepower oil-dribbling two-stroke motor, white Naugahyde seats, a ragtop canopy and multiple beer holders. The fiberglass dagger of a boat was $600 per day, plus gas, which we agreed to divide four ways. The sales attendant asked how long we’d like to keep the pleasure craft. We assured her we’d have it back in 24 hours.
Oh, how easily we were seduced by speed. Once on open water, Hagen throttled up, putting the boat on plane, leaving a great furrowed wake behind us. Over the glassy waters we skipped, the red walls of Glen Canyon peeling away in a frantic red blur; the engine a high, metallic cry of pain; the hull gnashing at the surface of the water like a fang. Ketcham laughed wildly and in his Brooklyn growl dubbed the craft the Hypocrisy. Commandeering the wheel, he added throttle and the boat surged, careening toward a flock of cormorants (or maybe they were geese; our velocity was too great to be sure) that had congregated in front of our vessel. The boat skittered through pulses of black wings, deeper into the recesses of the drowned canyon.
Within an hour, the canyon widened and we squinted at a printout of an aerial photo of Powell. Looking at our watches, we assumed we had to be getting close to the Colorado River’s confluence with the Escalante, the last river in the lower 48 to be mapped during the John Wesley Powell Expedition of 1872. Our hunch was confirmed by a buoy, and Ketcham turned sharply without slowing, leaving a sickle-shaped wake behind us. The water became clearer and green smears of large rocks – which could have been the tops of monoliths the size of office buildings – appeared mere feet beneath the boat’s keel. I frantically called out and flapped my arms to slow down. After a few more minutes we’d reached the mouth of Clear Creek, the waterway that flows through the Cathedral.
We cut the motor to a crawl and aimed the boat up-canyon. The walls narrowed. We began to notice the tops of trees protruding from the lake’s surface. Wide sandbars and deposits of silt appeared inches below the waterline. With the push of a button, we drew up the propeller and began to paddle.
For nearly 40 years, environmental activists have called for the decommissioning and removal of Glen Canyon Dam. The arguments are powerful and based on the simple premise that if we do not take steps to dismantle the dam, nature surely will. The steady process of siltation, coupled with the lake’s rapid evaporation rate, will eventually render the dam’s hydroelectric generation capabilities useless.
It’s only a matter of time. Although original estimates by the Bureau of Reclamation posited a lifespan of as much as 700 years, newer studies, such as one by University of Southern California professor and author James Powell, say those figures are far too optimistic and don’t take into account reduced precipitation and inflows, rising temperatures and demand, and the changing dynamics of silt deposition as water levels decline. The end of Glen Canyon Dam’s functional lifespan, Powell says, could come as soon as 50 years. At that point, the dam will be an obsolescence, good for nothing except the continued destruction of a natural wonder.
The low static of falling water ahead soon rose to a sharp percussive slap. In the sun-starved recesses, the air grew chilly, easily 10 degrees cooler than at the canyon’s confluence with the bloated Escalante. Ketcham and I stood at the boat’s helm and used our paddles to probe the water for sandbars while Hagen paced from port to starboard, calmly intoning where we should steer. Meanwhile, Kelly, with beer in hand and legs kicked up on the boat’s gunwales, stared in awe at the great crescent-shaped void unfolding above.
Silently gliding around one more bend, suddenly the vessel could go no farther. We had arrived.
Incised into the terrace was a narrow fissure through which a ribbon of water flowed. Before our eyes adjusted, the top of the waterfall seemed to disappear by gradations into a pool of pure black. It was early afternoon and though the bottom of the chamber was swathed in deep shadow, the tops of the walls – easily 500 feet above us – were slashed with sunlight and pulsated intense reds, beiges and pinks. The great alcoves were warped and wrinkled like the contours of an internal organ enlarged to geographical proportions.
Water remained in the base of the chamber, but there was a sandbar maybe 15 or 20 feet square and three or four feet above the level of the water. The sun hit it like a spotlight. We rowed the boat close then, once we could see the bottom, plunged into the cold water, heaving the boat onto the sandbar with a hand-line. When the vessel was secure, we stripped off our clothes and swam into the dark water and the waterfall’s ice-cold spray. Ketcham retrieved a small hand drum from the boat and pounded out a frantic rhythm that rattled through the rock atrium. I crawled from the water onto the sand. As the cold mineral-tinged water dried, my skin tingled.
In spite of the grandeur, the Cathedral was tinged with a certain eeriness. The feeling was not tied to aesthetics. I had visited deeper, darker gorges before. And when it came to a combination of color, light and the improbable arrangement of natural elements – waterfall, soaring alcoves, booming acoustics – few if any places I’d visited were its scenic equal. “Cathedral” is an apt term.
The unease, I soon realized, was tied to the Cathedral’s alive-yet-dead, Schrödinger’s-cat-like existence. We were here, yes. Proof of that was accumulating on the screen of my digital camera as I snapped photo after photo. But where was here? In two, perhaps three, weeks, all of it would be gone again, submerged under the lake’s rising waters. Could this strange, Brigadoon-like place be thought of as still wild in any way? Or was the Cathedral now purely a human artifact, its wildness leached away into the waters of Lake Powell?
The great defender and wanderer of wilderness, Bob Marshall, believed a place could only be considered wilderness if it couldn’t be traversed in a single day on foot. The gold standard definition of wilderness, penned by the conservationist Howard Zahniser, is the foundation of the Wilderness Act, which since its passage in 1964 has set aside roughly 110 million acres of land. “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
By Zahniser and Marshall’s standards, the Cathedral is hardly wilderness. There’s little argument against the fact that it’s been “trammeled” and “dominated,” subjugated under the deep waters of Powell. And as for Marshall’s requisite day of non-mechanical travel, we had arrived in a matter of hours and relied entirely on fossil fuel combustion to get here.
And yet, we were doubtlessly among a small handful of people to see this place in the last 50 years. Some of the US’ most remote wildernesses had surely seen far more visitors during the same span. Which is to say, the Cathedral’s ephemeral existence – its temporal remoteness – gives it an undeniable wilderness-like quality.
In his seminal book, Wilderness and the American Mind, author and river runner Roderick Nash points out that the Italians have a different but equally instructive term for wilderness: scene di disordine o confusion, a “place of disorder or confusion.” Although the Cathedral may not qualify as wilderness in a purist sense of the term, it is doubtlessly a scene di disordine o confusion. When the water fades, the wild beauty returns. But that beauty has a terrible meaning for the 30 million people who depend on the Colorado River for drinking water and energy. Indeed, it quickly became clear that our short respite in the Cathedral was contingent on the long-term failing of the West’s most important hydraulic engineering project. The “confusion” is the tension between those two realities – the staggering yet temporary beauty of the place set against the crushing long-term drought that has revived it. The “disorder” is the disturbance to the climate we are causing, along with the social chaos it portends in the Colorado River Basin.
We’ve made nature all but an anachronism. And in some locations, we’ve replaced it with something altogether new – fearsome and disorienting wild places that show us the far-reaching consequences of our industrial civilization. They jar us from our delusions that wilderness can be parceled off and isolated from the metabolic effluents of our cities. Call them the emergent landscapes of the Anthropocene. Call them the accidental wildernesses of climate change.
In Siberia, for example, surreal crater-like holes have been appearing across the landscape. The most likely cause is the explosive release of underground methane as permafrost melts. In the Andes, increasing glacial melt is causing vivid blue lakes to form and others to swell, threatening villages downstream – an inverse to the fading waters of Lake Powell. In some locations, accidental wilderness is re-emerging where we once thought we had a foothold. With California mired in its worst drought on record, hundreds of thousands of acres across the Central Valley have been fallowed because of water shortages (or retired outright because of salinization). In places, there is no vegetation at all, creating a landscape more reminiscent of Chile’s Atacama Desert than the garden valley of California.
There is also the rapid and relentless “blueing” of the world’s low coastal regions as sea levels steadily rise. In the United States the most radical land transformation is taking place on the Mississippi River Delta, which has lost as much as 1,900 square miles – an area the size of Lake Powell at high water – of wetland since 1930 due to water diversions and rising sea levels. As peat soils dry, the land subsides and disintegrates, leaving in its place a strange new wilderness of floodwaters born of human inertia.
After leaving the Cathedral, we motored a few more miles up the Escalante River and hiked barefoot into the lower reaches of Davis Gulch, a deep slot canyon where in 1934 the artist and traveler Everett Ruess wandered with a train of burros, and disappeared, never to be seen again. Ruess could not have known that in a few decades many of the places he saw and captured in his writings and drawings would lay at the bottom of this titanic reservoir. Still, I like to imagine he had such foresight. Ruess left several inscriptions across the Colorado Plateau, one of which is found in the upper reaches of Davis Gulch, at the base of a towering arch. It reads, simply, NEMO.
We paused in a towering amphitheater and Hagen sang a somber Irish ballad, in which a young man recounts seeing for the first time the woman he loves wending through a crowded fair. The woman for whom his heart yearns is, in fact, a ghost.
Last night she came to me, / My dead love came in. / So softly she came / That her feet made no din. / As she laid her hand on me, / And this she did say: / It will not be long, love, / ‘Til our wedding day.
As her voice rang through the upper reaches of the chamber, Ketcham and I looked up at the white smudge of calcium carbonate high above – Lake Powell’s “bathtub ring.” In a month or two, houseboats and powerboats would glide effortlessly through the narrow canyon, 50 feet above our heads.
On this day, however, a small stream flowed at our feet, diving over small cascades and into drying pools jammed with dozens of small fish. Into one of these pools I dipped a toe and the fish congregated around it, staring at it as if it were an alien intruder. They seemed to be waiting for something. I wondered if somewhere in their DNA were stored the memories of the rushing torrents of spring in the once wild and unfettered canyon. Or had the changes – the dams, the boats, the drought – already imprinted upon their blood? Did a new and terrible knowledge reside somewhere in their deep heart’s core, a reckoning with this faltering synthetic circulatory system upon which the fate of the West depends?
Jeremy Miller writes from Richmond, CA. His last story for the Journal, “Rough Waters Ahead,” appeared in the Winter 2014 issue.