The Navy moved me all over the world when I was on Active Duty, and provided me opportunities to drive across the country solo three times when I was still in my twenties. The first took me across the southern section to Pensacola, and was pretty much a straight (and hot) shot. During the second, from Jacksonville to San Diego (for SERE training – ouch), I meandered a bit more and discovered my love for mountain towns. Taos and Telluride were standouts, and I remember being just a bad decision or two away from chucking it all and going AWOL, dropping off the grid, and joining Telluride’s mountain rats for the foreseeable future. I’m sure that would have worked out well. The third and last was from Whidbey Island, WA to Washington DC after my first squadron tour, during which I broke my Jeep off-roading in Canyonlands, spun out on a snowy I-70 exiting the Eisenhower tunnel, and unwittingly lured a bear into my Yosemite campsite (and almost my lap) by carelessly eating salmon burgers and not properly disposing of the detritus.
I’m actually surprised at how little I remember about those trips – what I recounted above is a significant chunk of it. One thing that did stand out from the second crossing, however, was a guided river rafting trip I took (possibly in Moab?) and the diatribe our guide delivered about Lake Powell.
Here was my view of Lake Powell: it’s a magical place. I had been there one time, on a houseboating trip with my family, and while I remember few day-to-day details, “otherworldly” is the overarching impression that remained. Everything we saw and did was overwhelming and superlative. The water was impossibly deep blue and cool, the canyons of fiery orange were everywhere you looked and went on forever, sometimes getting so narrow that you could hardly fit your boat through, only to continue winding for miles. The surface of the water was flat and smooth, perfect for water skiing. And solitude was simple to find, with hundreds of completely empty beaches, cliff jumping spots, or scenic anchorages to choose from. And then after we left I learned that we had seen maybe one-twentieth of the lake, likely much less than that even. Lake Powell is hard to get to, but it’s a true wonderland.
Here was my river guide’s view, which I had honestly never heard expressed: It’s a crime against nature. Bowing to political pressure, the powers that be took one of the wildest sections of one of the world’s most beautiful rivers and turned it into a reservoir, now filled with gas-guzzling noise-making boats and jet-skis, not to mention the thousands of people dropping their empty beer cans into the shallow remains of the once-deep canyons. All of those canyons buried forever underwater. And what’s more, he said, one day the sediment that will now collect on the bottom will get so high that the reservoir won’t work either as water storage or as recreation area any more, and we’ll be left with just a river again, but ruined as compared to its previous state.
It’s almost impossible to be unhappy while floating down a rushing river, so I think as far as I went at the time was to toss off a laughing “tell us what you REALLY think!” before negotiating the next set of rapids, but it did surprise me, and clearly it stuck with me. I’m not a geologist so wasn’t (and am still not) in a position to evaluate his claims of what Lake Powell will someday become, though “completely filling up with sediment” seems extreme. Again though, I filed it away.
Here are some facts about Lake Powell, some of which I found a bit surprising. It stretches for just over 185 miles over the former Glen Canyon, almost entirely through Utah, and is formed by the Glen Canyon dam on the Colorado River. It has about 1900 miles of shoreline. As well as the Colorado, it’s comprised of dozens of its tributaries, all of which form sizable side canyons. It’s the second largest reservoir in the US by maximum water holding capacity, though as of today (due to water levels) it is holding more water than Lake Mead, which is the largest. The dam was completed in 1963, but the lake only reached full capacity in 1980. Though the level fluctuates, it has since dropped as low as 150 feet below its full level due to drought and downstream water demands. As a National Recreation Area, it is administered by the National Park Service.
And here’s an aerial view of the Bullfrog Marina area, where we stayed. Check out all these side canyons.
Now back to the present day.
I previously mentioned that we had made a few tough decisions about route planning between Colorado and Moab, and I think the fact that Father’s Day fell over the weekend in question give me a touch more pull in the deliberations, so I took the family to Lake Powell for a few days. I had hoped to find a last-minute deal (or cancellation) on a houseboat once we got there, but spoiler alert — we didn’t. I figured, though, that even from shore Lake Powell’s magic wouldn’t be diminished, and if nothing else we would do some daily boat / jet-ski rentals and whet our appetites for an eventual houseboating extravaganza, hopefully with extended family. Bullfrog Marina is one of the two (and the smaller) main marina complexes on the lake.
The scenery along the route was sublime, as it is on most any drive through eastern Utah.
We got inadvertently off the beaten path west of Cortez and crossed the Utah border on a lonely two-lane road with widely scattered ranches and gorgeous rock formations. Our plan was to stop for a hike at Natural Bridges National Monument before making our way to the ferry across the lake at Hall’s Crossing. There was a catch, though, in that the ferry runs only every two hours, and we had no idea how many cars would be attempting to make the crossing, so we didn’t want to arrive too late and risk getting stuck on the east side. I’ve come to deeply disdain time constraints on this trip. This instance reinforced that feeling, as Natural Bridges was worth far more time than we gave it.
The girls did bag Junior Ranger badges and we were able to do something that approximated a hike, but it felt like a shortcut, and not in the good way.
Ah well, the scenery was nice.
We arrived at the ferry with a good twenty minutes to spare, and discovered that we needn’t have worried about it filling up. This is the middle of Utah, not the San Juan Islands…
Our arrival at Bullfrog was inauspicious, and possibly a bit portentous. We followed the signage to the campground, but could find no place to check in and furthermore noticed that there were no electrical / water hookups, as advertised. This isn’t a show-stopper, but with temperatures hovering in the 90s, an a/c is pretty much mandatory in our sealed metal box, and running a generator all day to power one is not ideal. After conferring with another arriving RV camper who looked similarly confused, I managed to find a spot with a shaky bar of 4G coverage and call the number listed on our reservation, only to be told that the RV campground was somewhere entirely different. “Ah, great,” I thought, ”that must be where the really nice area is.” Mmmm, no. The RV campground, we discovered, is in the “afterthought” zone of the complex, i.e. out at the fringe of open desert, where the cell coverage went to zero and the marina’s amenities could be spotted in the distance but certainly not walked to (and not even reasonably biked to). Power and water, yes. But that’s it, and with a steady hot wind that made it impossible to open our awning past a few feet and unpleasant to sit outside.
Still though, it’s undoubtedly pretty there, and the wind HAD to die down at some point right? Lots of ways to make the best of this. Plus we still had water play days in our future. I set about managing expectations, and Tacco and I took an impromptu hike down into one of the many eerie washes, which dead-ended in a small, narrow box canyon. It’s nice to get a little alone time with her on occasion.
The next day, Father’s Day, had been mine to plan, so I set about finding a beach from which we could base and seeing what sort of toys we could rent to have sort of a mini version of what a day houseboating would look like.
The first thing I discovered upon checking out the marina, was wow, this appears to be in poor repair. Why had I missed this before? Had I missed this before? Maybe it’s a recent thing, maybe I just wasn’t old enough to pay attention, or maybe when you’re houseboating you really don’t look closely at the marina because all you want to do is leave it. But it and the equipment there were not well maintained. And the prices!! Holy cow. I guess when you’re the National Park Service’s chosen vendor and you’re in the middle of nowhere you can charge whatever you want. But still, what they were asking, particularly for the condition of the equipment you were getting, seemed borderline immoral.
Father’s Day, though, and here we were at Lake Powell, and no way was I going to let this opportunity slide, so I sprung for a two-hour jet-ski rental and got Tacco set up at the “beach.” Scare quotes again because… well, here it is.
I mean, I can’t call it a bad place to be, but it’s not what I remembered from the Lake Powell of my youth. And poor Tacco was destined to sit there under the Clam (our pop-up tent / awning) she would set up, hoping it wouldn’t get blown down by the wind, while I took one kid after the other out jet-skiing for a few hours. God bless her, she’s a trooper and didn’t complain, though I’m pretty certain she was digging deep to find the silver lining.
Leaving Tacco and the others behind, I took Firebolt with me to pick up the jet-ski, so that we could ride together to the beach, which was a decent distance away. After slogging through the check-out process, which the employees didn’t seem to be especially enthusiastic about, we jumped on a jet-ski and started the long, bobbing trek through the wake-free zone before we could open up the throttle and tear across to the beach where the family was waiting. The jet-ski seemed sluggish, but I chalked that up to our having to go so slowly though the 20 minutes or so of no-wake area. They’re designed to go fast.
Not this one, evidently.
When we finally reached the end of the long, floating jetty and I prepped Firebolt and jammed on the throttle, I was surprised to feel us lurch sluggishly forward, picking up only a knot or two and digging the nose deep into the water. The engine was revving or at least doing its best to, but it felt like something was either diverting the flow or there was some sort of obstruction, and with the added water we’d taken on, it was difficult to remain upright. For a moment I thought we were going to sink right then and there and have to swim over to the end of the floating jetty and wait, about a half mile off-shore, for someone with either a charitable soul or time on their hands to see us and pick us up. I was able to get tenuous control of it, however, and turn around to head back. No worries about “no-wake” zones this time, as we couldn’t have made a wake if we tried, but it was more than a little frustrating losing an hour and knowing that I had no way to contact Tacco to let her know what was going on.
After limping the wounded jet-ski back to the dock we finally found someone who could help us out. This didn’t seem to be his job, so I appreciated his assistance, but it was disconcerting that he couldn’t find someone whose job it actually was, and even more so that I had to ask him to make a note on our reservation so that they could adjust our fee / times. He assured me he would take care of it.
We finally got a good, or at least an operable jet-ski, though, and made it out to the awaiting family. And it was fun. Not crazy insane fun, but fun. Hot, yes. Windy and dusty, yeah, a bit. But you could always get in the water. Though the water and shoreline weren’t as clean there as my mental images of them. I did get to take extended rides with each of the kids and do some ridiculous high-speed maneuvering, as well as some cove exploring. I took Keeper directly across from the marina, where he jumped off and climbed a sandstone slope that was far bigger than it looked.
Firebolt, Woodsprite, & Tacco and I took high speed mini-trips into various little watery tendrils of lake, and several screams of delight were elicited. At one point Keeper decided to swim out to a little island that he could claim as his own, and I subsequently ferried the girls out there to join him.
It was great, I can’t say it wasn’t. Did it match up to my memories of Lake Powell though? Not at all. And I don’t think the seed was quite planted in Tacco or the kids either, which bummed me out a bit. I was further brought to Earth when returning to the marina and finding that they were offering me no discount on my exorbitant rental fee after my near-sinking. Not sure whether the employee who had helped us earlier had even informed them. But then after my reminding them of what happened, I found myself in a “let me go back and talk to the manager” negotiation for a smaller discount, even though what I had asked for was modest. It was a little bit disgusting, to be honest, and having no desire to waste my time haggling while the family waited at the car, I agreed to their negligible refund and left.
Our plan for the next day was to rent a ski boat and tube for the day, and attempt to salvage the lake visit with some no-kidding exploring and some on-the-water time away from the marina. By this time I had come to the conclusion that Lake Powell is indeed amazing, but only once you get out of the marina area, so I was intent on doing so.
Well, plan foiled again when we showed up in the early morning, having spent a few hours getting everything together for the day and packing it into the car (not to mention steeling myself for the price I was about to pay and the condition of the boat I was about to rent)… “today? Oh, I’m sorry, we’re out of boats for today.” This after telling me yesterday that we would have no problem whatsoever getting a boat. And no, this wasn’t the same employee with whom I had wrangled over the broken jet ski discount — they really were out of boats, or at least boats that worked.
This led rather quickly to a family pow-wow in which we discussed the merits of spending the day…well, somewhere here, we weren’t sure just where… or calling it a wash, packing up, and heading to Moab a day early. That ended up being a pretty easy call, and once we verified that Moab had space for us, we were back to Davista to button up and bolt.
So where does that leave me with Lake Powell?
I certainly haven’t changed my position on its otherworldliness. It’s still stunning and superlative and I want to bring the family back. But I am firmly convinced that the less time at the marina the better. Lake Powell’s allure lies elsewhere, and frankly the National Park Service (or in this case their proxy at the lake) is not doing a particularly diligent job. Maybe there’s a back story, I don’t know, but given that this was just the beginning of the season I don’t think it was fatigue. I shudder to think of what it will look like in September.
More than that, though, I found myself returning to what my surly river rafting guide had said so many years ago, and wondered what it would’ve been like to be visiting the original Glen Canyon instead of Lake Powell. It certainly hasn’t filled in with sediment, but the level is extremely low, so low that they’ve had to cut a channel in one part of the lake in order to get houseboats away from the marina without sending them on a several mile detour. And the mussels, I haven’t mentioned the mussels. Way back when we first visited Grand Teton National Park last year (so long ago!) I complained about their wanting to inspect our inflatable kayaks before putting them in one of their lakes. I now know why. I guess the zebra and quagga mussels are invasive species that hitch rides on boats, and just take over wherever they can. Well, in Lake Powell they have. So much so that they seem to have given up on trying to control it, instead they just try to inspect boats to keep them from getting into other lakes in the region. Just about every rock wall that plunges into the water was covered with them. Billions and billions of them – unfathomably many. It seems so odd to see mussels on the rocks in the middle of the desert. And here are these government run marinas inefficiently and expensively funneling partiers into the once-pristine lake that was a once-even-more-pristine canyon with a rushing river at the bottom. It’s a little depressing.
So… maybe he had a point.
Jury is still out for me. And I certainly want to return still to see if I can recapture the magic with my family. But it did make me think.