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The Song of Glen Canyon

photos by Jonathan Waterman

In September, hoping to beat the summer crowds while enjoying the sanctity of Glen Canyon, deep inside a vertical passageway beneath a clear, blue sky, we heard what sounded like approaching thunder. As it grew closer, the storm revved up into an echoing, earsplitting NASCAR race. Ever since Glen Canyon Dam finished flooding the most beautiful stretch of the Colorado River in 1980, most paddlers have avoided Lake Powell—after all, up to two million motor boaters throng this reservoir each year. But here I was on Lake Powell again, feeling the injustice of motorized access being prioritized over the enjoyment and protection of nature.

On cue, six cigarette boats roared into view, consuming as much fuel (.86 mpg) as a half dozen 747s. They were playing “poker,” making pit stops to draw from a deck of cards while racing across the 140-mile-long reservoir. I briefly considered that they, too, felt moved by the towering red sandstone, alternately blackened by tapestries of dark, ancient varnish. Yet the racers were moving too fast to appreciate anything but the cold Buds, the poker game, and steering around errant “canoeists”—as motorheads name all boaters who lack engines.

We waved our kayak paddles to avoid collision, then aimed carefully into their giant wakes to avoid capsizing. As they disappeared from view, they continued hoisting their drinks while passing graffiti-defaced Anasazi petroglyphs and ruins, heaps of litter, and copses of invasive Russian knapweed and tamarisk.



That night, we paddled around the flooded chamber called the Music Temple. The best sandy beaches were hogged by houseboats (averaging .5 mpg), accompanied by the obnoxious whine of jet skis (averaging 3 mpg), circling their mother ships like worker bees surrounding the hive. While amplifier-boosted music, revelry and bright lights all have their place, if you are camping amid the starry tranquility of the canyonlands near a raucous houseboat while pining to sing a song of wilderness freedom, you could be forgiven for feeling out of place. Even worse, the lake water surrounding marinas and popular tie-downs is often fecal contaminated.

It’s no surprise that these wake-strewn waters have become paddlers’ lost paradise. As a more apt profile of the typical boater here, Deseret News obituaries often feature the epitaph: “He loved His Lake.” And given the elevated prices at the marina gas pumps for expensive, fuel-consumptive, boats, this reservoir is not a place that the average American citizen can afford to visit.

The lake’s namesake, Major John Wesley Powell, famously mapped the last unknown corner of the West by rowing several hundred feet beneath our hulls when he explored the Colorado River in 1869. Amid this otherworldly Glen Canyon, he described the “ensemble of wonderful features—carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds and monuments.”

Amid the startling, 500-foot long, 200-foot high chamber he named the Music Temple, his brother Walter belted out a song famous to all 19th Century Americans. His slow, deep baritone entranced the party: For the white folks say Old Shady’s free, Walter sang: So don’t you see that the Jubilee  is coming, coming. Hail, mighty day!

Each second of Walter’s voice resonated for another 11 seconds in the incredible chamber. The Major, who lost his right arm to a bullet at Shiloh, was moved to tears. He had hoped to heal his deranged brother Walter, also traumatized by the Civil War, by inviting him on this historic journey.

It proved no accident that the visionary older brother would be appointed Director of the U.S. Geological Survey. Repeatedly funded by Congress to study the arid west and its irrigation potential, the Major advocated small dams (with 500 times less storage than today’s evaporative Lake Powell), to be built by local citizenry rather than the federal government. John Wesley Powell tried to staunch southwestern expansion in favor of sustainable growth based upon limited water, but as a reward, politicians backed by realtors and agricultural investors forced him out of public office.

The rest is history: Enormous dams stalled rivers and provided storage for agriculture throughout the west. On the Colorado River system alone, more than a hundred dams were built. Flooding Glen Canyon—a place then unknown by conservationists—saved a dam from being built upstream in Dinosaur National Monument. Completed in 1963, the Glen Canyon Dam stood 710-feet high (more than eight times higher and vastly more expensive than anything Powell had ever recommended) and took 17 years to cover Glen Canyon with 500 feet of water, creating 1,900 miles of shoreline.


The architect of this lake, Floyd Dominy, used his political clout as the Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner to distort both the legend and counsel of John Wesley Powell. In his office, Dominy hung a prized photograph of himself motor boating across the lake he called “the Jewel of the muddy Colorado River.” In these activities, he described finding “Peace. And a oneness with the world and God.” He nearly succeeded in building two more dams in the Grand Canyon, because he believed that the big hole, like Glen Canyon, was better off as a reservoir since recreational lake tourism outstripped the usefulness of mere National Parks.

Today, in times of drought heightened by impending climate change, the wisdom of these enormous storage reservoirs is being questioned. Although 36 million people are sustained by the Colorado River, 79 percent of the water actually goes to agriculture, most of which supplies the dairy industry. Fortunately, Dominy’s Bureau has become a quiescent “water boy,” delivering the precious fluid and electricity from its dams—rather than building more dams. A recent Commissioner of the Bureau, Dr. Dan Beard (author of Deadbeat Dams), recently began calling to disband the agency and take down Glen Canyon Dam.

Here’s why: Dams sterilize rivers by blocking nutrient-rich silt to native plants and animals downstream. Then the rivers are refrigerated by delivering clear, deep and cold reservoir water to the same plants and animals that have spent millions of years adapting to warm, silty rivers. Dams flip off the light switch of evolution.

Then there’s climate change. The Bureau’s analysis of over 100 climate models for 2070–90 show up to 45 percent less stream runoff throughout the Colorado River Basin. In its backward, politically motivated actions, the Bureau of Reclamation created these massive reservoirs during the wettest period of the fossil record. According to tree ring timelines (a science ignored by Dominy and his ilk), the previous millennium experienced droughts much more severe than the first 14 years of the twenty-first century. So scientists agree that the southwest is due for another Mega Drought.

This past winter while New Englanders dug out of snowstorms, many Westerners spent an inordinate part of January through March riding road bikes in shirtsleeves. Lack of precipitation and high temperatures is no temporary fluke. Here in the southwest, 11 of the past 14 years have experienced “severe” to “extreme” to “exceptional” droughts and warmer weather.

So what does changing climate have to do with Lake Powell paddlers? To begin with, Major John Wesley Powell would have gone rolling to his grave if he knew that this Glen Canyon desecration would be named after him. But sometime in the next few decades—as drought continues to raise the bathtub rings on reservoirs throughout the southwest—this dam will come down because there won’t be enough water left to spin its hydro turbines, let alone irrigate Big Ag. We can only hope that the dam will be decommissioned (like Commissioner Dominy, fired for his excesses by the Nixon administration) sooner, rather than later, through lucid ecological policy rather than forced pragmatics.

On this coming dam-free jubilee, paddlers and patriots alike will have a chance to revisit the Music Temple. Although bleached pale by mineral-rich river water, the lofty chamber will retain the acoustics popularized by Powell. The Major, like all river runners and soldiers who fought to end slavery, would support both the modern movement to free rivers and complete the civil rights business started by the Civil War. It’s well known that the “Old Shady” ballad belted out by his brother in the Music Temple 146 years ago paid tribute to freeing the slaves, along with heralding better times for all Americans. Freeing this river and protecting one of our greatest natural treasures would truly honor the legacy of the war hero, explorer and public servant, John Wesley Powell.

As no small consolation, when the dam comes down (and not if), the speedboats will race no more, most of the invasive weeds will wither, the litter will be removed and hundreds of drowned Anasazi ruins will reemerge like long-lost Atlantis. Granted, it’ll take a decade of rain to rinse the bleached bathtub rings away and bring back the red hued walls above the river.

But mark my words, the song of “canoeists” will reverberate once again in the Music Temple: So don’t you see that the Jubilee is coming, coming. Hail, mighty day!

—Jonathan Waterman is the author of 12 books including The Colorado River: Flowing through Conflict and Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River.

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