Glen Canyon Recreation Area
December 21, 2016
Driving Southeast to the deserts of Utah from the edge of the continent in California with 2 sea kayaks strapped to the roof of the truck felt odd, and almost wrong--a feeling confirmed by the numerous stares we received from onlookers. It was December 2016, and we had sprinted from our Montessori school with gusto, because Winter break was here at last, promising two weeks of vacation and adventure!
We were headed to Glen Canyon Recreation Area, or more commonly known as Lake Powell, for a 6 night paddle on the river of many fingers. Lake Powell is located in a very remote part of Utah, and only back roads and small towns would guide us there from St. George, where we spent a few days with family. Neither of us had ever been to Capitol Reef National Park, so we stopped off for a quick 5 mile hike to explore the park that was right off the highway. The trail provided a wonderful view of the Henry Mountains, another remote destination we drooled over at sunset, where we began scheming about a trip into those lonely, tall peaks.
Our plan was to put in at Hytte, the Northeastern-most boat launch on the lake. As we drove up to the boat ramp we quickly realized that, unless we wanted to port our kayaks (with hundreds of pounds of gear in them) across knee-deep mud and overgrown reeds for several hundred yards, we weren’t going to be launching from Hytte. The water level was far too low. Damn! We quickly got back in the truck and headed for Bullfrog Marina, only 30 miles away as the crow flies, but a two hour drive on the only road that winds around the lake.
It was dark and bitterly cold by the time we arrived at the campground at Bullfrog. We quickly went through our gear, and set up the bed in the truck. Hungry foxes approached us as we putted around the truck, apparently accustomed to people, or just in dire straits mid winter. We had a very cold and restless night’s sleep, the condensation from our breath froze on the camper windows, leaving streaks of frost that morphed through the night. This was to be our first tour with sea kayaks. Many unanswered questions, and even downright worries, not to mention the cold air, kept us tossing and turning. As soon as the sun began to rise, we jumped out of the truck, ready to get going. The cold was a shock to the system, especially coming from the balmy California winters that hover around 60 degrees. Thankfully, a marina bathroom was unlocked, which was surprising given our off-season arrival, and it had a hand dryer that blew warm air! We cooked breakfast and made coffee in the comforts of the warm bathroom, & donned our paddling clothes before embracing the Utah winter.
Cope grew up spending summers waterskiing, camping, and fishing on Lake Powell. A popular summer destination, two million people visit the recreation area, waiting in long lines to launch boats amidst blaring music and the smell of gas was a familiar memory. As we pulled the truck down to the boat ramp, the marina felt like a ghost town. The countless houseboats that are so popular on the lake were anchored a few hundred yards from the ramp, eerily quiet and still. We paddled away from Bullfrog with the Henrys off in the distance, wondering, quite frankly, if we had screwed up in our calculations to push off into the cold, together, but alone.
This being our first multi-day tour, we were unsure how fast we would be paddling, and how many miles we were going to cover each day. As we left the marina area and reached the main channel of the lake, we waved to a passing patrol boat, not realizing it was the last time we would see another soul on the trip. We paddled 8 miles to the south of Bullfrog and found a small, quaint campsite with a nice beach landing. We still had plenty of light left in the day, but decided to collect firewood and make camp. As we pulled out our gear from the boats we laughed at the amount of stuff we had. Being lightweight backpackers who carry at the most 40 pounds for a week, the 100 pounds each we carried in our boats seemed crazy. Paddling with the extra weight doesn’t make a difference once the boats get up to speed. By the end of the trip, we were thinking about all the heavy things we could bring on our next trip- cast iron? A case of beer? The possibilities seem endless!
Cope told stories by the fire of the times where there were thousands of people boating through the canyon, leaving beer cans and litter wherever they went. It was hard to think about sharing this magical place with so many tourists. We were so lucky to hear only the stillness of the desert and the sound of water trickling from our paddles throughout the trip.
Our trek continued South the rest of the week. As part of the regulations of Glen Canyon, we had to carry a wag bag, or as some people call it, a poop bag. Because Glen Canyon is a highly trafficked area, all human waste must be packed out. This was Cope’s first time experiencing the convenient, yet smelly pooping system. At first, the idea of pooping into a bag and then keeping that bag until the end of the trip was not very appealing, but by the end of the trip the appeal of not having to dig a 6-inch deep hole in nearly frozen ground outweighed the bag of poop we were carrying with us. Cope had become a convert by day three. :)
On Christmas Eve, we strung waterproof lights onto the boat and took a few family photos for the album. That night, the wind picked up and snow began to fall. We awoke in the middle of the night to some very strong winds. At one point Trailbride was nervously bracing the top of the tent with both hands, while Cope slept soundly next her, occasionally muttering, “It will be fine.” We woke up to a white christmas the next morning. Our kayaks had blown a few feet from their resting position the night before and our paddling wetsuits were iced over. We learned our lesson that night about putting something in the boats to weigh them down, and bringing our paddling clothes into the vestibule of the tent to keep them as dry as possible. We brushed off the snow from our boats and continued our paddle, heading for a side canyon to do more exploring and hopefully find some petroglyphs.
We based camped for 2 nights on the Pollywog Bench at the mouth of the Escalante River Arm. We enjoyed leisurely mornings complete with pancakes, fried eggs, and coffee, and reveled in the fact that we didn’t have to pack up all of our gear. The many side canyons of Lake Powell stretch for hundred of miles with petroglyphs and natural arches decorating the walls. Historically, this was a sacred place for the native people who once roamed these unsubmerged lands, but sadly, much of the canyon walls can’t be seen without scuba diving below the surface. The Glen Canyon Dam was constructed from 1956-1966, creating Lake Powell were the Colorado and San Juan Rivers once flowed freely. As we paddled in search of petroglyphs and sign of ancient life we talked about the beauty of the canyon, the hideousness of the damn, and of course, Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. We mused of joining the likes of Doc, Bonnie, and Hayduke in their attempt to destroy the famous dam, and let the Colorado River run free again.
On our second to last day on the river, we hit some intense headwinds. The towering canyon walls become a windtunnel, resulting in seriously choppy water and whitecaps. Without radios to communicate with one another (rookie mistake), paddling became suddenly stressful for the first time in our short paddling careers. As experienced backpackers, weather is nothing. Rain? Hike. Snow? Hike. Wind? Hike. Paddling is a different beast. Weather means a significant impact on the safety of a trip. It is not uncommon for kayakers to layup for days waiting for the right weather windows. When the wind picked up and the river became rough, we were hardly making any forward progress, and we were running out of steam. The idea of getting off the water seemed like we were quitting, but we did, and made camp. We soon learned from later experiences that we did the right thing.
We woke up the next morning ready to put some miles behind us. It was 20 miles to Bullfrog Marina, where our trusty Toyota Pickup, Gus Gus, was parked, our chariot to a hot meal. Our longest day up to that point had been 12 miles, but we aren’t strangers to long-distance travel, so we decided to go for it. We left camp at 8 am, eating our lunch on the boats & stopping only to pee. The wind had shifted, and the current was kind to us at times, even letting us surf a bit. We made it back to the marina at 4:00, shoulders screaming and backs throbbing. We loaded everything back into the truck and headed for the closest place to get cooked, non-dehydrated food. By the time we got onto the road it was dark and beginning to snow. We narrowly missed a massive elk on the road, but Cope drove like a champ, and we pulled into Cedar City at 11:30 pm. Being it the day after Christmas, we were surprised and excited to find IHOP still open that was directly adjacent to a motel! We ordered way too much takeout, took hot showers, and slept in a soft bed. After this trip we were definitely hooked on kayak touring.