Down in Glen Canyon: Canoeing the Colorado River, Arizona

DSC_0604(State #47/50) Night approaches down at the bottom of Glen Canyon. The moon sets to the south, paralleling the opposing canyon wall, absorbing all the light as the land around darkens. Growing brighter and brighter until beaming white, the quarter sliver is impossible to ignore. I extend a hand, count my fingers and guess the time it will take to exit the scene, giving way to a sky lush with stars.

Ducks wing past, filling the dry air with rushing feathers and nervous quacking. A blue heron follows, emitting loud, echoing croaks. Tiny bats flit above, erratic in flight, piercing the evening with their own echoes. Crickets chirp, fish splash and unseen birds sing their final notes of the day. Upstream, in the distance, an owl hoots. Deep in the canyon I’m the only human representative for miles and, for the first time in over a week, I can enjoy nature’s visuals with the accompanying soundtrack of twilight.DSC_0507 (1)

Four days previous, I stirred to bleary-eyed awareness at dawn, following a wheezing and restless night. At 8,000 feet, gusts ripped across the Kaibab Plateau, flattening my tent against me. I pulled the poles from their grommets and crawled back into the collapsed tent, trying in vain for shuteye. More concerning than the pole-snapping wind was my six-day-old cold, which wasn’t getting better. Admitting defeat, I drove into town and spoke to a supermarket pharmacist. She asked a few questions, frowned and told me to see a doctor.

Afterwards, I spent a few more crummy nights trying to sleep in my car in the desert outside of Page. And yes, if I listened close, over the howling winds, I could hear all of the world’s tiniest violins playing just for me. My parents must have heard them too, because they put me up in a motel. I realize a respiratory infection doesn’t rate high on the Hugh Glass spectrum of wilderness adversity, but I didn’t care by that point. A real shower, a real bed and actual sleep (along with antibiotics) worked. Finally, I woke up rested and ready to paddle up the Colorado River.DSC_0457 (3)

Sunshine poured down on Lee’s Ferry on a Sunday afternoon. Large groups loaded rafts, preparing for three week floats through the Grand Canyon. With slightly less gear, I set


I took this a week earlier in Pinnacles NP, California — another Condor release site (notice the numbed tag)

off and paddled up the Colorado. As the miles passed, the wide expanse of Glen Canyon closed in, narrowing the gap of blue sky above where two huge soaring birds caught my eye. I confirmed with my camera — California Condors, a critically endangered animal saved by an aggressive capture/breed/release program. In 1987 only twenty-two were left on the planet. And there they were, two ten-foot wingspans, a few dozen deaths from non-existence — an incredible bird and feat of conservation.

DSC_0482Below the enormous scavengers, winds polish the rough edges of the high walls and shadows fill the cracks where ice has cleaved off enormous chunks of sedimentary stone. At river level, I guided Rider over the green-tinged, clear water. Twenty feet down, trout darted between aquatic vegetation anchored to a sandy bottom. This river has run this course, cutting down through the uplifting plateau, for millions of years, but it has only been clear and cold for fifty. When John Wesley Powell floated down the Colorado in 1869, it was muddy and warm. The 1963 completion of the Glen Canyon Dam changed everything — the hydrology, the sediment load, temperature regimes and the entire riparian ecosystem. Three of the eight native fish species — Colorado pikeminnow, roundtail chub and bonytail — disappeared. I know people enjoy catching trout, but I’d prefer the natural Colorado to Lake Powell’s 46 degree outflow. I’m not alone either, there’s a growing movement to drain the reservoir.DSC_0471 (1)

Continuing up, I kept my canoe to the sides, taking advantage of slower moving eddies in the shadows of the gorge. I paddled over occasional riffles and past pontoon boats of waving tourists. Motorboats roared by every ten minutes, most leaving behind large f-you and your canoe wakes. People were a constant feature on the river. Then a few kayakers slid past in late afternoon. That small group, the last bit of weekend traffic, rounded the bend and disappeared downstream with the current. The canyon went silent and there was peace on the Colorado.DSC_0495 (2)

Upstream of my eventual camp, the early evening light reflected off of the walls, onto the placid water. Gawking at the canyon rims, I drifted, careless of my boat’s path as I studied the faces in the stone. To my left, a rock figure skulked, watching me with a demonic smile beneath the shadow of a larger, hooded wraith. And no, I wasn’t overdoing my medication: see for yourself.DSC_0567

Higher up, two hawks flew in tandem against the sunlit wall, patterning their every move off each other, which wasn’t difficult as one was feathery with a white undercoat and one was its shadow. The canyon face, sheer and flat, was an excellent backdrop for the display. The sun was at the perfect angle to create an undistorted silhouette, as if Wendy Darling had stitched the raptor’s dark half to its talons. The hawk circled higher and higher, riding thermals to the clifftop, but never able to leave its specter behind.

I floated back down to a campsite in reverence of my surroundings. The bed the night before, though fantastic, could not compare. After all, wasn’t this the reason I endured restless nights in my car, quit my job and drove tens of thousands of miles around America? Simply, yes. While there are multiple reasons for my trip — to be quiet and to behold the natural world from my canoe is reason enough.DSC_0529

Evening drifted on towards dusk as I created a friend from leftover firewood at camp. Wary of sitting, I paced around my sandy site, rotating my gaze between the fire, the stars and my sandaled feet, where I checked for advancing spiders, snakes and scorpions. Then, for the hell of it, I began singing as loud as my recovering lungs allowed. I belted out “Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona,” before scouring my memory bank for more of The Eagles, James Taylor and Robert Earl Keen. Hours after celebrating silence, I was creating the noise pollution.


Ring-tail cat tracks the next morning!

I retired to the tent to read after dinner and spent fifteen minutes dozing off on the same page of The Invention of Nature. Eventually, I lost the battle and awoke, face stuck to the book, to a clinging tin can. Outside the tent my mesh trash bag was gone. I looked around camp: nothing. Expanding my search, I scanned the shrubs with a flashlight from the top of a boulder. Two glowing coins shown bright from a gap in the bushes. Narrow faced and slender-bodied, the creature moved like a cat — a ring-tailed cat! The scamp fled and I found my bag amongst older scraps of trash; this critter wasn’t a first-time offender.


My paddle busted, solidifying its place, one day, on my mantel

The next morning my schedule had one item — canoe three miles upstream to Horseshoe Canyon. Entering the famous bend, I traversed one swift section before polling up another riffle. I was nearly to flat water, prying at the riverbed when I should have walked the boat, then SNAP! My paddle broke in half. First cracked in Florida’s mangroves, repaired with a hose clamp in Rhode Island, my faithful paddle finally met its end in Arizona. Time to turn around. DSC_0635 (1)

A thousand feet up on the rim, fifty people looked down on the postcard image and, presumably, me. The air was warm, the sky was clear and I could breathe, so why not put on a little show for the tourists? While traveling through fast riffles, I began a two-minute canoe dance routine. Standing up, I turned my boat 180 degrees and made exaggerated gestures, using paddle #2 as a prop and, occasionally, pointing up at the humans. Though faraway, I’m confident dozens saw my spinning boat and body flailing against the green Colorado and thought, Holy Smokes, I hope he didn’t quit his day job.DSC_0640 (1)

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Colorado River, Arizona (Glen Canyon)
  • Miles Canoed: 18.5
  • Dates Canoed: 9/24-25/2017
  • Elevation: Approximately 3120 feet above sea level (Lee’s Ferry)
  • Launch/Take Out: Lee’s Ferry Boat Launch (36.865642, -111.586847)
  • Campsite: Mile 6 Camp ( 36.875298, -111.561783)
  • Furthest Point Reached: Horseshoe Canyon (36.880022, -111.514621)
  • Huge Thanks to my Parents for getting me that Travel Lodge for a night in Page! Thanks to the medical professionals that helped cure my respiratory infection. Thanks to the Park Rangers at Glen Canyon for keeping me company and letting me crash the Star Party one night.
  • Songs Sung on the River: Your Cover’s Blown by Belle and Sebastian, Take it Easy, Take it to the Limit and Peaceful Easy Feeling by The Eagles, Fire and Rain, Hey Mr. That’s Me Up On the Juke Box by James Taylor, My New Life in Old Mexico by Robert Earl Keen, Me and Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin and Boss D.J, by Sublime
  • Delicious Local Restaurant: State 48 Tavern in Page — Tasty beer battered fish tacos, fantastic smelling wings and no one beat me up in the alley for rooting for the Cowboys over the Arizona Cardinals.
  • Book to Read: The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Mammals: Ring-tail Cat! Golden Mantle Ground Squirrel, Rock Squirrel and small bats (22 species live in the Grand Canyon).
  • Birds: California Condors! Osprey, hawks, vulture, great blue heron, coot, merganser, blue wing teal, mallards, canyon wren and swallows.
  • Reptiles/Amphibians: Multiple Lizards and a small, tan toad with brown spots
  • Fish: Rainbow and possibly Brown Trout (tons in the deep clear water)
  • Spider: Black Widow! (in the metal fire ring at campsite, way too close to my hand during firewood collection)
  • Dominant Vegetation: Cottonwood (Fremont’s/Alamo), Box Elder, Willow and now more invasive Salt Cedar (tamarisk). A few cedars clinging to the top of the canyon.
  • Noted Species: California Condor, mountain lion, desert bighorn sheep, and chuckwalla lizard, Grand Canyon rattler and the Colorado’s original fish species (most endangered)
  • Ecoregion: Colorado Plateaus, (20d) Arid Canyonlands and (20e) Escarpments
  • Trash Collected: tin can lid, beer can, micro trash and paper scraps
  • Current Threats: Flood regime (or lack thereof), hydrology and water temperature. Invasive species like Salt cedar (tamarisk), trout, burros and mudsnails.
  • Future of Lake Powell: Serious recent discussion about draining Lake Powell, opening the gates and allowing the waters to flow down into Lake Mead, dammed by the Hoover Dam. Experts believe combining the two reservoirs will reduce water loss. Lake Powell loses more ever year to evaporation and seepage into underground fissures. Hotter temperatures and reduced precipitation due to climate change serve to exacerbate the current water losses.
  • American Rivers has also recently published an article about the potential of draining Lake Powell and Restoring Glen Canyon to its natural state. The movement, as both the AR blog and NYT article convey, is not without controversy. Water in the West and controversy? Surprise, surprise.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $4134 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given!
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2 Responses to Down in Glen Canyon: Canoeing the Colorado River, Arizona

  1. Anonymous says:

    Absolutely gorgeous pics!

  2. Another great story of your paddles. Thanks for sharing.

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