Saturday, May 18, 2024

By Boot and by Boat: The Lower Escalante

I've realized something: Lake Powell is my frenemy. 

In 1999, my uncle spearheaded a family reunion trip on Lake Powell. Through no fault of our own, we were somehow assigned a pair of truly ancient, decrepit houseboats. The air conditioning failed on both boats. Then the toilets stopped working, and an entire extended family ended up using the 'woods' for the better part of a week.

I put a fishhook through my cousin's eyelid. My dad tore a layer of skin off the bottom of his foot. A storm whipped up one night, and my uncle spent a frantic few minutes re-anchoring the houseboat, which was doing its best to escape its moorings. My sister and several cousins got badly sunburned on one side of their faces, a la Harvey Dent, from early morning sunshine while sleeping on the roof of the boat. 

In short, it was a terrific trip, total gong show, and a decades-long object of family lore and nostalgia. And it was my first exposure to the red rocks of southern Utah. I was transfixed. It arguably set the stage for my eventual move to the Beehive State.

Yet there's a darker side to Lake Powell. Glen Canyon Dam generates only a negligible amount of power. It loses boatloads of water to evaporation and sandstone leakage. It drowned some truly incredible landscapes - Glen Canyon, along with the lower reaches of the Escalante and San Juan rivers. And the lake is a pathetic vestige of its former self. Back in '99, the reservoir was nearly full, but it's been steadily dropping ever since. An ugly bathtub ring, some forty feet above the current water level, mars the slickrock that surrounds the reservoir. Unsightly silt benches clog the mouth of canyons. In short, Powell is a pathetic, stinking mess. Lake Foul, indeed.

Not all is lost though. As the water levels have dropped, the lower reaches of side canyons have begun to restore themselves. Flash floods clear out the silt and debris. Maidenhair ferns have begun to re-grow on shady canyon walls. Special spots, buried under the floodwaters for decades, have emerged afresh. The river will win eventually, and Glen Canyon Dam - a classic monolith to twentieth-century hubris - will lose. The only question is how long it will take.

Three Days of Wandering

I'd never been to the lowest canyons of the Escalante River, below where Lake Powell's floodwaters begin to back up. After all, a side-canyon that dead-ends into a lake is a one-way street... unless you have a packraft, of course! I looped three canyons into one loop-type substance over a three-day period in May. I was a bit worried about the heat (temperatures were forecast to hit 90 each day), but the canyons offered ample shade, and I was wet virtually the entire time - either splashing through canyons, or paddling on the lake itself. 

The hike begin with a an easy jaunt down a well-worn trail, past a spectacular arch. Evidently, the arch is everyone's turnaround point, because downstream became a mild bushwhack at points. I spent all morning heading downstream, encountering at one point a brief section of narrows with a mandatory swimmer. I suppose I could have blown up my packraft and paddled the fifty feet, but I opted to just swim it. Ninety degree heat for the win!

I passed a waterfall, well below Powell's high-water mark. I even found a few cottonwoods that have started to grow in the years since the lake dropped. Finally, I reached the lake and transitioned to packraft mode.

Thankfully, the afternoon was almost dead-calm, a welcome anomaly in a land of much slickrock and sparse vegetation. I paddled downstream, past my target canyon, to check out Cathedral in the Desert a few hours south. Inundated by floodwaters for almost all of the past fifty years, Cathedral in the Desert has re-emerged in the last couple years, due to falling lake levels. In the 50s, it was a magical place. Owing to its recent rebirth, it's still on the mend. To be honest, it smells like decaying gunk. Ferns are growing, but it'll take some time before it recaptures its former glory. Hopefully lake levels stay low enough to keep it from being re-drowned.

After fighting a bit of later-afternoon speedboat chop, I finally made it back to my target canyon, a seldom-visited gulch most notable for being the last confirmed location of disappeared 1930's vagabond Everett Ruess. The bottom of the canyon contained the single deepest alcove I've ever seen. Words cannot do it justice. It was enormous, and even partially flooded, still majestic.

Near where reservoir gave way to solid ground, I made camp for the night, after fourteen hours of hiking and paddling. It took me about five minutes to fall asleep.

The next morning started out auspiciously, with an easy hike up to a not-particularly-spectacular arch. That's where things got interesting. Two miles of thick brush lay between me and my exit from the canyon. The canyon is seldom-visited, but in reports I've collected over the years, I've noticed a trend of increasing complaints over the years. The brush is getting thicker.

Yeah, it wasn't fun. Not every step was a thrash, but much of it was, and occasionally it was horrific. The entire stretch is a continuous series of beaver dams. Combine deep water, stinking mud, and sometimes-impenetrable riparian vegetation, and you've got a recipe for a frustrating couple of miles.

By and by, I finally reached my exit, an old cattle trail near where Ruess had left his burros corralled before disappearing without a trace. The exit itself was surprisingly straightforward, a gem of a route in an otherwise-hostile environment. I followed my compass for a couple miles overland, through Navajo sandstone domes, before dropping into my third and final canyon via an enormous sand dune. I was certainly glad to be descending, rather than ascending it! 

This canyon doesn't even have a proper name - just a number, as if it were a Swiss account. And like a Swiss account, its secrets are deep indeed. Incredibly, the entire thing was passable, and its amazing narrows stretched on for miles. Deep-red sandstone walls soared hundreds of feet above me, blotting out the searing midday sun. I followed the canyon downstream, underneath incredible alcoves, to where it flows into Lake Powell. 

I won't even try and describe what I found down there, only that physics seems to be broken, and Euclidean geometry ceases to apply in canyon country. An abandoned meander has divided a vestigial arm from the main body of Lake Powell, and it took me hours of pondering to reconstruct how this happened. Ask me about this, if you're really curious about a deeply weird and difficult-to-describe phenomenon. 

I ventured back upstream, the way I came, past the sand dune, and made camp near an amazing alcove underneath a stately cottonwood. The water ceased flowing around here, so I tanked up with four liters, the better to quench my intense thirst. Despite the presence of continuous flowing water for the past two days, the heat left me a bit dehydrated.

The day's heat lingered well into the evening. I played peekaboo with the moon as it flirted with the canyon lip above me. Sleep came easy once again, after another thirteen hours of almost continuous motion.

I hiked the last few miles to my car the next morning, the canyon having transitioned to a dry slot at this point. I bumped into one impassible dryfall, easily bypassed by a faint climber's trail. A couple miles later I hit the dirt road, where I walked a couple miles back to my car.

While the reservoir has certainly marred the character of the lower Escalante, there were still plenty of amazing things to see. Many of them are nameless, poorly-documented, or enigmatic. A little planning, a lot of adaptability, and dropping lake levels made this an unforgettable trip. A weekend well-spent! 

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