Monday, November 28, 2011

Lake of Liberty

​It holds nine trillion gallons, our river guidebook says.
​This means nothing to me.
​180 miles long, 1800 miles of shoreline, it mentions.
​I’m starting to get an idea of the enormity of the thing.
​Six or seven days, we figure. If the weather holds.
​But it’s not until my back and shoulders and hands ache from paddling into the wind all day that I begin to comprehend what Lake Powell actually is. Liberated from the twin tyrannies of current and friction that constrain the movements of the river runner or hiker, the lake explorer is free to experience the desert in a craft as large and comfortable as the pocketbook allows. Direction of travel is unrestricted and motors are almost necessary. We arrive in 14 foot kayaks, traveling in the general direction of the sea.
​Darkness falls as we leave Cataract Canyon, groping our way by starlight between the narrow canyon walls. We are still riding the high from the biggest rapids all trip; we sober up as the current slackens and walls of silt grow higher on both sides. There’s nowhere to camp in the steep, soggy mess so we press on, down to Dark Canyon where I camped three years ago, a little stream running into the Colorado. That confluence is maybe sixty feet underwater now, result of several big winters in the mountains, canyon now an arm of the reservoir. We search in vain for a break in the stinking muck, finally sinking up to our knees in the ooze as we haul gear high up a slick bank to level ground.
​“Where’s the firepan?” I ask Zak, the method required on heavily traveled rivers to dispose of ashes. He breaks sticks, throwing them on the silt.
​“Somebody already left a trace,” he says bitterly, words lingering in the unnatural stillness of the canyon. We place an entire dead bush on the fire, illuminating our world for a half minute.
​I want to hate Lake Powell. Hate the way it stifles the rapids of Cataract, the way it buries Glen Canyon under houseboats and sediment, the way it accepts the warm, muddy waters of the Colorado, Dirty Devil, Escalante, and San Juan and returns only cold, clear water at the whim of far away cities. But as I paddle down in the morning, views of the Henry Mountains between sheer walls, I begin to think that even if river has been replaced with reservoir, a beautiful canyon is still a beautiful canyon. Zak disagrees.
​“If you don’t have anything negative to say about it,” he opines, “don’t say anything at all.” We pass under a bridge, the only one for over 150 miles, upstream and what used to be down, and are mildly surprised to find Zak’s family waiting for us at the boat ramp. They’ve come to run the reservoir with us, parents in a motorized cataraft, sister in a long kayak like ours. When we paddle close to the raft, we receive handfuls of Oreos. This is dangerous.
​“You know,” I start, belly full, sunshine pouring down, polished Wingate cliffs stretching in every direction, “people come out here and do this for fun. I can kind of see how it would be nice.” Zak glares and we launch into a debate on the ethics of enjoying this place. Do we enjoy ourselves, accept this fate, do nothing? Assume change is impossible, be depressed, do nothing? Should we feel guilt? Do canyons have a right to exist? We rope Zak’s sister, Molly, into the discussion. She is 16 and paddles faster than we do.
​“It’s confusing,” she summarizes. “Maybe we should take some responsibility, try to change this. I don’t know.” We are alone on the water and all having a pretty good time, forgetting for a moment the canyon floor hundreds of feet below.
​I prop a disintegrating copy of John Wesley Powell’s Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons on my boat, Powell on Powell, and try to imagine what floating down Glen Canyon would have been like. It sounds nice. I pretend I’m down there, winding around the golden cottonwoods, joining the handful of people who ran the river before ’63. I want to feel Ed Abbey’s rage at the dam, but it’s difficult to empathize with a place destroyed over twenty five years before I was born. I feel like I’ve lost something I never had. We round the corner and a small city comes into view, resolving itself into hundreds of houseboats vacant for the winter. The marina is miles fro the old riverbed and mostly deserted this time of year. We pull up our boats, build a fire, and make camp near a sign proclaiming all three acts illegal. The Podmores head back to Colorado. Just after nightfall, bold foxes lick our bowls and steal a bar or chocolate from my kayak.
​In the morning, Zak and I walk up to the gas station, the first building we’ve been inside of for ten days, and purchase two gallons of water, imported from California, twelve cans of 3.2% beer from the Front Range, and infant sized microwaveable burritos, origin unknown. We paddle in Lake Powell the way it was meant to be paddled, shirt off in the hot November afternoon, beer half consumed, water jugs untouched. We do not paddle more efficiently. Zak consults the map and announces that we’re behind schedule.
​“The good traveler has no schedule,” I suggest, quoting Lao-Tzu. I’m the slower half of the expedition, barely unzipping my drysuit by the time Zak has started a fire. He sounds annoyed.
​“Yeah, well we do.” We both know that our Grand Canyon launch date has been set for almost two years, a coveted permit Zak obtained by virtue of being the only person to apply for November 29th. Our boats move a little faster, not much, spurred by the thought of the hundred miles of flatwater between us and the dam. Another map check and we determine that we’re about halfway between the source and the sea, about 850 miles out of the 1700, give or take some miles. This news doesn’t really matter to us; it’s a abstract number among actual canyons and confluences. Fifty days of wear on our bodies and gear are more concrete. I feel hard lumps on my heels where they press into the floor of the boat. When I stand I wobble sometimes, and have to scramble up the nearest slope to reassure myself that my legs work. Each of my three pairs of socks smells like fish in different stages of decomposition; two pairs are unwashed since the Wind River Mountains. We feel like two of the luckiest people alive, even if we are on the reservoir. I stop paddling; the silence buzzes in my ears. There hasn’t been another boat since the marina. I yawn loudly and the echo returns four or five times, from every direction, so I do it again.
​“If drowned canyons could talk,” the sandstone repeats, melodramatically, “what would they say?” I wait for a moment, but the walls offer nothing original, and we labor on.
​The solitude lasts for a day, then houseboats and powerboats buzz by almost constantly. The canyon opens up and at the southwest end of Powell the flooding is more extensive. Reservoir arms stretch out of sight, buttes float in the center, inhabited by houseboaters in folding chairs. It’s even harder to imagine the river now. I linger to take pictures as Zak paddles mercilessly ahead. We pull into the Wahweap Marina, dwarfed by giant boats. Kayaks do not feel welcome here. We walk past swarms of Japanese tourists into the entrance of the Lake Powell Resort, where I almost stagger as I’m hit with a wave of thick, perfumed air. The lady at the desk pretends not to notice us walking around the lobby in half-zipped drysuits but reluctantly reveals information when pressed.
​“Camping?” she says, not quite masking her disgust, but she knows of a park a few miles away that’s “pretty much free, payment’s on the honor system.” We step back out to the marina and I’m struck by the vivid dystopian vision: an artificial sea in a barren wasteland, populated by aquatic robots, no human pilots in sight, triple smokestacks of a coal plant as a backdrop, all the more frightening because the experience is packaged as a vacation and people are pretending to enjoy themselves. Maybe I’ve been on the river too long.
​The dam presents its brutal concrete face, bristling with antennae, making no attempt to hide its functionality. We paddle up until our boats touch the line of jostling barriers, littered with stern warnings: VESSELS KEEP OUT. KEEP OUT SECURITY ZONE etc. etc. We are silent. I imagine snipers in the concrete bunker, beads trained on our temples, under strict orders from the Department of Homeland Security to pick off the captains of boats filled with ammonium nitrate that venture too close, thus ensuring America’s continued prosperity. Children throw rocks into the water, laughing and splashing on shore. They have not come from The Source and are carefree. There is nothing to say, only an heavy oppression coming in from the highway, airplanes, powerboats, electric wires, concrete, our ability to move crushed by the unmovable bureaucratic machine four decades ago. The space and light and liberty were all a sham, because we’re here at the locked gates trying to leave under our own power, the way we arrived, and are unable. We bob gently in our small plastic craft on the edge of this continental sea, profoundly powerless, witness to the injustice of it all, and paddle back through the wakes of tour boats.
​Forced by the canyon walls and legality, we must rely on internal combustion, load our kayaks on a friend’s car, drive forty five minutes around to Lee’s Ferry and get towed fifteen miles upriver in a motor boat to the base of Glen Canyon Dam. To escape Powell we submit to the forces of its creation. But back on the open water we will have the freedom to imbibe in the pleasures of civilized life, and when they become stifling after a hours or a day, we can leave, get in our boats and float on down that body of water sometimes known as the Rio Colorado. We are inextricably bound to this civilization, using and consuming its products, but almost alienated enough to examine it from the outside and question its foundation. Like the marina foxes, we exist on the periphery, subsisting on excess. I make no apology for this. In exchange for our meals we can offer society only an opportunity to live vicariously in this elemental world of water and rock - and the dangerous notion that life out here is as valid as life in there.

And so we go to lose ourselves for twenty five days in the Grand Canyon.

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