Sedimental Journey

World Reports

Flaking, Hank Turner
Gray “veneer” flakes off an exfoliating canyon wall. Photo: Hank Turner

During Easter week in 1965, two dozen people paid a farewell visit to the lower Escalante River on the Colorado Plateau. Glen Canyon, on the Colorado River, just a bit downstream, had already begun to disappear beneath the waters of Lake Powell. The canyons of the Escalante were still above water, but not for long. It was a last opportunity to see this extraordinary country and its most magnificent feature, the Cathedral in the Desert, before it all was drowned in one of the greatest crimes against nature ever committed.

The group included Dave and Anne Brower and their children, Ken, Bob, Barbara, and John; Nancy and Ed Eberle; photographers Phil Hyde and Dave Bohn; Dick Norgaard and his parents; my parents, my brother, and me. We spent a week exploring side canyons, knowing that we were among the last people on earth who would see these places in their undisturbed state. Each night, Dave would urge us not to let the same fate befall the Grand Canyon downstream. The Bureau of Reclamation was pushing for permission to build two dams there to generate unneeded power and destroy the living heart of yet another irreplaceable canyon. Dave blamed himself – rather unjustly, in fact – for what was happening to Glen Canyon. He was determined that the Grand Canyon be spared. To see what was about to be lost was profoundly moving. I thought then that if I could help ensure that such a calamity never recur it would be a useful and rewarding way to spend a life. After a stint in the Peace Corps, I went to work for Dave at the Sierra Club and never looked back.

If ever there were a
perfect time to let
Glen Canyon
return, it is now.

Exactly 40 years later, six of those people made a pilgrimage back to the Escalante to see what 10 years of drought had revealed of what had lain buried beneath the reservoir so long. Anne, Dave, and Bob Brower are gone now, as are my parents and Dick’s, but Ken and Barbara came, along with Nancy Eberle, Dick Norgaard, my brother Hank, and me. Dave and Anne’s three grandchildren were there, with assorted spouses, children, and friends.

We rented two houseboats at the Bullfrog Marina and proceeded at a stately pace 30 miles to the mouth of the Escalante, over beautiful blue-green water that should be brown with silt. The surface of the reservoir has dropped about 150 feet from its maximum elevation (“full pool” is the term of art), leaving a hideous grey ring on the sandstone. I stood on the top deck, getting angrier and angrier at what had been destroyed.

But was the destruction permanent? This is what we came to investigate. Streaks of new color slid down across the bathtub ring in places, and the grey veneer on the walls had started to flake away.

Stripes, Hank Turner
The ugly bathtub ring gives way to the forces of renewal. Photo: Hank Turner

Dick headed straight for the Cathedral. The waters of Lake Foul, as Ed Abbey probably called it first, still reached onto the Cathedral’s floor, in a pool just wide and deep enough for two houseboats to maneuver. The rest was occupied by silt and sand that covered the natural floor of the chamber to a depth of many feet. Hank estimated it at 40 feet deep; Dick thought it was closer to 20. Either way, the silt had killed the ferns and mosses that once decorated the bottom of the Cathedral’s walls and shrank the volume of the chamber in a way that seriously diminished the astonishing acoustics of the place. Still, it’s an extraordinary spot.

Here entered a little lesson in relativity. Those of us who had seen the Cathedral in its natural splendor were, to one degree or another, disappointed. Barbara cried. Dick cried too. I was numb, wondering whether my memory was tricking me — I remembered a much grander space.

Meanwhile, the people who were seeing the Cathedral for the first time were awestruck. The soaring walls are still there; so are the magical rays of sunlight that throw a spotlight onto the canyon floor just in front of the waterfall. I suddenly recognized that the Cathedral is still there – all Glen Canyon is still there – it’s just up to its knees in sediment. If the drought persists or, better, if the powers that be decide to lower the level of the reservoir by another 50, 100, or 200 feet, nature will take care of the rest, flush out the sediment, restore the color of the walls, plant willows and cottonwoods, bring back frogs and herons.

The process has begun. We hiked up Davis Gulch one morning. Lower down it is a nearly lifeless canyon filled with silt and the tops of dead cottonwoods. A few miles upstream, under a soaring alcove, the first colonists have arrived – the alien invaders tumbleweed (from Russia), tamarisk (from Egypt), and native datura, willow, cheatgrass, and cottonwood. Here the first bedrock is visible in the streambed as the creek tumbles down a two-step waterfall. Above the fall, one soon rises above the high-water line and returns to a living stream, here dammed by beaver. Give nature a chance and we’ll get Glen Canyon back.

Cathedral in the Desert. Hank Turner Photo
Cathedral in the desert
Photo: Hank Turner

In his later years, Dave Brower took frequent walks from his Berkeley Hills home into nearby Tilden Park to get exercise and collect golf balls that had been hooked or sliced over or through the fence. Ken told of his father’s best day, when he found a packrat’s nest that held 50 balls, to which Dave helped himself. By the time he quit collecting the balls there were two big trash cans full. So it seemed quite fitting when, on the sandbar where we spent our first night, Barbara found a golf ball. Maybe the old man is up there watching and dropping balls to endorse our visit and encourage us to keep pressing for the liberation of Glen Canyon. The next day Ken found a ball at another spot. Later I found another.

Who knows?

Lake Powell holds about 24 million acre-feet of water at full pool. As of spring 2005, before the year’s record snows melted, the reservoir held around 8 million acre-feet. It was two-thirds empty, in other words, and western civilization had not ended. Lake Mead downstream has plenty of storage capacity. The amount of electricity generated at Glen Canyon Dam is trivial. If ever there were a perfect time to let Glen Canyon return, it is now.

Take action: To learn more and get involved in the effort to restore Glen Canyon, please visit

Tom Turner is senior editor at Earthjustice, and author of Wild by Law: the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and the Places It Has Saved; Sierra Club: 100 Years of Protecting Nature; and Justice on Earth: Earthjustice and the People It Has Served. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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