Many people visit the multitude of canyons on Lake Powell. They come in motorboats, houseboats, wave runners, jet skis, fishing boats and kayaks. Each brings their own degree of experience to the lake. Some are first-timers; others have visited and enjoyed the ever-changing waters and weather of Powell many times. My visits have been fairly frequent in the last five years. All of them have been in a kayak. Usually I’ve paddled Powell by myself, reveling in the solitude of the side canyons, watching the diamond-like stars appear as darkness fills the vacuum left by the retreating light. The stars… the multitude of brilliant stars create a light so bright that shadows are cast on the walls of dark rock, soft sands or smooth rock where I set up my campsites.
One of my earlier journal entries reads: "It is night; I am in a side canyon and the houseboats, powerboats, jet skis and fishermen have all exhausted themselves and helped reduce the fish population of the lake. Somebody has to do the job or it would become extremely difficult to paddle a kayak in fish soup. And so I lie back on my sleeping pad and watch the stars slide across the night sky. But every once in a while one of the stars comes unglued from the fabric of the night sky and rips a blazing trail across the darkness. Slowly, slowly I drift off into a peaceful sleep."
When I go alone I seek peace and solitude; a time for reflection and spiritual growth. On the other hand, there are times when I invite friends to join me on the lake; to kayak the canyons and share my experiences in the hope that others will see what I have seen, feel what I have felt.
On one such recent trip (at the beginning of October) I had asked a good friend, Larry LaCroix, to join me again. This was to be his second trip with me. On the first one, another friend, John Gallant, joined the two of us. We launched from Wahweap Marina; I believe that was in May, before the summer season on Lake Powell. This time Larry and I drove up to Hall's Crossing, farther north, with much less boat traffic: always a boon for kayakers.
I was using a folding kayak, the same one that I paddled down the Yukon River. Larry brought along his wooden kayak, a Pygmy Osprey kit kayak which he had built himself. A beautiful kayak that simply flies through the water.
We set out early Monday morning with the intent of getting to Hall's Crossing by noon, setting up our kayaks and being on the water by about 1:00 p.m. It was not to be. The drive northward from Show Low, AZ, was quite scenic as we passed through the Navajo Reservation on Rt. 191. But we got caught up in a conversation, probably a master plan to save humanity from the depredations of a failing economy, global warming, brutal wars and the price of gasoline. We missed a turn. I knew we were headed in the wrong direction when I saw a sign welcoming us to New Mexico. Fortunately we had driven only about 30 miles in the wrong direction. However, the scenic round trip did add about one hour to our journey,
Not having learned our lesson, we rejoined our conversation and missed another turn. Looking at the map (Larry's GPS was in hibernation) we saw a road we could take that would put us on Rt. 95. The road we took was truly a road less traveled. But neither of us was too bothered by the error because the road was spectacular. It switch-backed up the escarpment revealing a view that spread farther and wider the higher we climbed. The problem was that we could not drive faster than fifteen miles per hour because the surface was a mix of dirt and gravel as well as steep and with many switchbacks. We added another hour to the length of time for our trip to Hall's Crossing. But that was alright. Both of us had more time than money and we felt we could spend our time freely and recklessly with no concern for the future. Our motto was, "Waste the present! There's no past in the future! No future in the past!" And we rolled on.
Eventually we reached the right route and turned west keeping quiet because we needed to make one more left hand turn onto Rt. 276 which would take us to the park and Hall's Crossing. Two scenic byways were quite enough for one day.
After a seemingly endless drive, we did finally reach Hall's Crossing. It took us about forty-five minutes to unload all of our gear, take Larry's kayak off the roof and pack all the stuff into the kayaks. As I put my kayak together, a glaring problem became evident Back home, as I was packing my kayak into its bag, Larry kept a running conversation with me non-stop! So distracting! I feel perfectly safe in putting full blame on him and his extreme verbosity for what happened. The frame was nearly complete and ready to be put into the kayak skin. It was then that I noticed a critical part was not in the kayak bag. I was missing the cockpit frame which helps to improve the rigidity of the kayak and adds tautness to the skin.
Larry apologized profusely for distracting me back home with his excessive verbosity. I was more than happy to fix full blame on him. But, I was not about to abort the trip, much less go back home to get the cockpit frame and do the scenic drive thing all over again. I improvised by ignoring the problem. The kayak sagged only slightly in the center, creating a rocker that is never present with the cockpit frame in place. The bow and stern were slightly higher than usual, but there was no wind to cause the kayak to weathercock.
Lunch stop and swim break for Larry. Ray’s kayak in foreground, with his NRS Vista PFD on the rock. © Ray Zvirbulis
Since it was so late in the afternoon, Larry and I decided to paddle just three or four hours. There were hardly any motorboats on the water. Even better, there were no houseboats to be seen. There was no wind to speak of, no rain and not even any clouds. The paddling and the scenery were wonderful. It was so warm and pleasant that neither of us put up a tent that night. When the darkness was complete and total (there was no moon), the sky was filled with stars. The Milky Way stretched like a sparkling ribbon from horizon to horizon. I think the temperature did not drop below 60ºF degrees that night. It took a while to fall asleep because I continued to watch the stars as I lay on my back. Once in a while a meteor would slice a gash in the night sky. Eventually the weight of the darkness pressed my eyelids shut and I slept soundly.
Larry and his Pygmy Osprey kayak. © Ray Zvirbulis
We were up early Tuesday and set out at 7:00 after a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. My usual three packets of oatmeal were enhanced by dehydrated pears that I had made about two years ago. That was when there was an abundance of apples and pears in Show Low because there had been no killer frost when the fruit trees were in full bloom. Anyway, three packets of oatmeal are usually good for a couple of hours of paddling. It's about then that my stomach tells me it's time to stop and refill the tank. But sometimes I have to assert my authority by shoving some snacks down the tube as I paddle. Can't let some unruly organ dictate what I do and when.
Tuesday was another beautiful day and we paddled another 25 miles, the mouth of the Escalante Canyon/River. Larry and I had talked about paddling to Rainbow Bridge when we planned the trip. It was another 25 miles down the lake. We had also talked about paddling up the Escalante and then on down to Rainbow Bridge, but our late start on Monday was going to make that an exercise in sadomasochism. So we began to reconsider our plans.
Wednesday morning, after a hearty breakfast of pear-enhanced oatmeal, we came to a unanimous decision not to paddle up the Escalante, back down and then on to Rainbow Bridge. Instead we decided to explore some of the side canyons along the Escalante. We also thought if we had enough time, we would paddle as far up the Escalante as we could.
The still lake surface was a perfect mirror in the Escalante. Note: the high water mark is right at the top edge of the photo.
© Ray Zvirbulis
When we got to Davis Gulch we turned up because we wanted to see LaGorce Arch. I had seen it in the spring when I had been there with John Gallant and Jeff, a friend of his. That particular day we had fought a killer wind that was howling down Davis Gulch. It was raining slightly but the wind was so strong that the rain came at us almost completely horizontal. We even had to take a brief refuge behind some rocks to keep from being rolled over. But on this Wednesday, there was no wind and the water was almost smooth as glass.
|LaGorce Arch – an opening in the canyon wall, with a spectacular view. © Ray Zvirbulis
The lake was much higher this time than it was in the spring. Then we had to pull the boats out and walk about a half-mile to a small waterfall. Now the lake water level was so high that we paddled to the former waterfall; it was now reduced to a slight spillway. We were going to hike upstream because it's an interesting walk, but there were two double kayaks and a motorboat tied up at the spillway. There was no place for us to tie up so we turned back, paddling past the spectacular cliff walls that curved toward the deep blue sky. When we got back to LaGorce Arch we were, once again, awestruck by the seemingly small opening in the massive walls of the canyon. Words fail to convey the sensations experienced. Photos come somewhat closer to the experience but in the end they are just reminders of the sights, sounds and feelings of the place.
Back in the Escalante arm we continued up the canyon until we reached Willow Creek Canyon. It was about 2:00 pm and I suggested we find a place up Willow Creek to set up camp. Larry was also ready for camp. We found a rock outcrop that jutted out into the canyon. On the approach it looked like there would not be a suitable place to pull out the kayaks. But as we rounded the point we saw that the outcrop sloped gently down to the water. We had found the "perfect" campsite. Amazingly enough we both felt that way at the same time.
We got the kayaks out easily and walked up a sandy slope to the top of the outcrop, about 15 feet above the lake. At the top there were a couple of large flat, sandy areas to spread out our gear. And even better, there was a plethora (whatever that means--I heard the word used in a Western movie) of dry firewood. Larry found his spot. I found my spot. It was the best of all possible worlds. By the time all the gear was set up, it was 4:00 and time for supper. I had my dehydrated meal (dehydrated myself) and Larry had his more sophisticated meal of pre-packaged freeze dried stuff.
I had brought along my collapsible fishing pole so after supper I thought I'd try to hook a fish. I decided to do that from my side of the rock outcrop. While casting and reeling in the line, I heard a boat stop on the other side, on Larry's side of the rock. I could not see it because of the rise but could hear Larry talking to a woman. I did not pay much attention and kept casting and reeling in my line. Soon the motor fired up and slowly the boat rounded the point and came into view. Two horrible things happened simultaneously (and at the same time): I saw that it was a Lake Powell Ranger boat and I realized my fishing license was back in Larry's car at Hall's Crossing. The cabin of the drifting boat had not come into view yet. I dropped my pole among the driftwood and scurried up the slope to Larry's side of the rock. The boat drifted past the outcrop and powered down Willow Creek Canyon, The ranger had not seen me! She had not seen the fishing pole! My illegal and nefarious activity had been hidden from her eyes. I was saved. In the brief space of time between catching sight of the patrol boat and hiding in the rocks, I had already decided to sell Larry's kayak to cover the cost of a fine if caught fishing without a license. If needed, Larry would have been sold for a few bucks also.
When the ranger and her boat were out of sight, I dismantled my fishing pole and packed it away. I then went to talk to Larry to see what the ranger had wanted. She first had admired his Pygmy kayak, then asked what we did with our waste (Larry told her we had doo-doo bags---that had made her smile), then she asked if we wanted to volunteer to remove graffiti from the canyon walls. She had been working with a small group doing just that up Willow Creek Canyon. Larry told her he lived in Tucson and thus was too far away. He then proceeded to volunteer me because I live in Show Low, Arizona and, was closer to Lake Powell. Thanks, Larry!
That night we built a big campfire because we had a plethora of dry driftwood. The light from the fire lit up the canyon. The night was cool enough that we could actually sit close to the fire. I had brought along a grill to cook some fresh fish but that was quickly scratched from the to-do list. And once again, neither of us set up tents. The star-filled sky arched overhead like a diamond encrusted cathedral ceiling.
Thursday morning, after another hearty breakfast of oatmeal, we packed our gear and continued up Willow Creek Canyon to see what there was to see. We were hoping to be able to do some hiking at the end of the canyon but, again, because the water level was fairly high (but not even close to the high water mark 50 feet above us) we could not get out of the kayaks. Instead of being a clear canyon we paddled into a stand of willows and shrubs which eventually became so thick, we could not find a way through them. We back paddled until we could turn the kayaks around and paddle back out to the Escalante.
As we continued up Escalante, we kept checking the map looking for Clear Creek Canyon (not the same Clear Creek that is in the Grand Canyon). The entrances to side canyons are clearly marked by floating buoys which helps to find one’s position on the lake. So, a couple of days into our trip we met three kayakers who had gone up Clear Creek Canyon. They were quite enthusiastic about the canyon and said we should not pass it up.
The magnificent walls of Clear Creek Canyon. © Ray Zvirbulis
We found the entrance to Clear Creek Canyon easily enough. About halfway up, the canyon opened up into a small lake and looked like it ended with a barely noticeable, narrow slot; so narrow that it was doubtful the kayaks could be paddled through it. But as we drew closer we saw that the opening was indeed narrow but still wide enough that two or three motorboats, side-by-side, could get through.
|Soaring walls in Clear Creek Canyon: “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” © Ray Zvirbulis
As we entered the opening, the canyon walls quickly closed in on us, arching overhead, nearly completely obscuring the sky. Deep, huge caves pierced the canyon walls. The canyon ended for us at a small waterfall. There was no way to tie off the kayaks and get out of them easily. There were sheer rock walls on both sides and in front of us the water flowed over ten feet of slick rock. So, we turned around and headed back to Escalante Canyon.
As on previous days, the sun was out and shining brightly, but it was not so hot that we were getting burned. To help keep that from happening, I slathered on a generous layer of sunscreen.
The last couple of miles of the Escalante, before it enters the main body of Lake Powell, is wide and straight. Whenever I hit that stretch, I always get the impression that maybe the Army Corps of Engineers had visited that stretch of the Escalante. But I know it can't be true because they can't create something as impressive and aesthetic as that canyon.
As you enter that part of the lake and look far ahead, you can see the Rincon. Some think the work means “circle”, but it’s actually the Spanish word for “corner”. It’s a very wide place in the lake that has dunes reaching toward the base of high canyon walls. It is a place popular for houseboats and motorboats to pull to shore and spend a few days.
At that juncture, where the Escalante meets Powell, the main body of the lake lies to the right (toward the dam and Wahweap Marina---about 75 miles distant) and to the left (back toward Hall's Crossing--about 25 miles up-canyon). Having decided that we did not have time to get to Rainbow Bridge, about 25 miles to the right, we turned to the left, back toward Hall's Crossing.
(Editor’s Note: Ray and Larry’s adventure continues in the next e-News issue. What lies ahead is a rich mixture of exploration, scenes of beauty and high anxiety for each other’s safety.)
Show Low, Arizona