2010: Lake Powell

Kayaking the Colorado


I was very excited about our next adventure: paddling our own kayaks along a calm section of the Colorado River canyon. Lake Powell was getting hotter and hotter, and I hoped being on the water would give us some relief.

The flatwater portion of the river runs from just below the Glen Canyon Dam to the historical river crossing of Lee's Ferry, the official beginning of Grand Canyon National Park. There's no launching point for private boats closer to the dam; power boats can launch at Lee's Ferry and motor upstream, but personal watercraft like canoes and kayaks have to get a "backhaul" -- a ride upriver -- from one of the raft touring companies that operate from just below the dam. When we toured the dam, we'd noticed a number of rafts tethered far below on the river, and now we'd be hitching a ride on one of them.

Lee's Ferry is about an hour from Lake Powell, and the drive itself is spectacular. About twenty miles south of Page, the road breaks through the banks of Antelope Pass to overlook the flat Marble Platform. Looking across the hundred-mile distance, you can see the fissure in the earth known as Marble Canyon -- more work of the Colorado -- and the Vermilion Cliffs rising above the Platform.

Just before crossing the Navajo Bridge that spans the river near the outpost of Marble Canyon, we saw two Navajo jewelry stands, where bare-bones overhangs provide a minimum of shade to the peddlers. I wondered how they could come out in the heat, day after day, and whether the tourists provided enough of a living to make it worthwhile.

Rather than stop and buy jewelry, we satisfied our inner tourist with a photo of Mike next to a giant balanced rock alongside the highway.

A few more miles and we arrived at the launch site, which consists of a dirt parking lot, a concrete launch ramp, and a gravelly beach where a bunch of intrepid rafters were loading gear for a multi-day whitewater trip.

The water was calm and flat where the pontoon rafts floated, but a few hundred yards downstream you could see -- and hear -- the water picking up speed.  Better them than me, I thought; no whitewater for this dainty miss.

Back at the parking lot, Mike had spread a tarp and was busy assembling our Folbot kayaks, collapsible boats that travel around in extra-large duffel bags. While they're a bit of a pain to assemble -- about a half-hour per boat, when you're in practice -- they do provide excellent portability. There's no way we could carry regular hard-sided kayaks around on our rig.

Mike finished the boat assembly just in time for our 10:30 rendezvous with Colorado River Discovery, but so far there was no sign of our raft. Finally I approached some other folks who had carried down a canoe and a kayak, to find out if they were also waiting. The man told me that the bus in the parking lot was here to pick up the rafters; the bus driver told him the raft would arrive "no later than 11 a.m." So we waited.

Rafts arriving... ...and leaving.

Finally I heard a distant motor and saw a light-green raft just turning the corner upstream. This must be our chariot. There were actually three rafts approaching, which was probably a good thing; besides us, there were two other parties expecting a backhaul today. It would have been pretty crowded on just one of those rafts.

Meanwhile, the whitewater group had finished loading and they were about to get under way. I snapped a photo as they took off into the unknown.

There was a bit of confusion after the raft passengers disembarked. One of the rafts took off back upstream, still empty; the driver shouted that he'd be right back, that he had to help a boat with a problem. It seemed that each raft driver had the name of one backhaul client. Nobody called our name, but somehow the second boat driver got confused and loaded our kayaks instead of the canoe belonging to his assigned party. Once he discovered the mistake, he decided just to take us instead and tell another driver to pick up the other party. Our young pilot seemed overly rattled by the rather harmless mix-up, and the gentleman who was left behind on the launch ramp looked a bit displeased. As we pulled away from the ramp, I was happy to see that another raft was already moving into place to pick up the other passenger.

Once we got underway, our boat driver overshared a bit. His dog swallowed a fishhook yesterday and he's worried about the pet, thus his distraction and confusion. He can't afford a vet because he has big medical bills from his own shoulder injury and no medical insurance. He suffers from anxiety and OCD (thus the extra concern about the mistake). He feels unappreciated by the rafting company and bored with telling the same story to tour groups day after day. He'd love to move to Zion and work there, but he stays here because of a girl he thinks he wants to marry. And oh by the way, girlfriend has to go to court next week about her DUI.

I kept thinking, here's this incredibly good-looking young man working in a beautiful place, and he's a complete mess. And by the way, "anxiety disorder" is not a great resume bullet for a river raft pilot.

But we survived. The trip upstream took a little over a half-hour. Since I'm not a strong paddler, our young fella suggested that we begin our float about halfway up to the dam at a landing just upstream of Horseshoe Bend. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day; even with the wake of the raft and an occasional speedboat, the water was incredibly calm. Once the raft left us behind and we were alone, the surface became as smooth as glass.

We boarded our kayaks and shoved off the small sandy beach. For the next few hours, except for an occasional passing speedboat, we would have the river all to ourselves. It was glorious.

Even in these placid waters, there were occasional small eddies from unseen rocks beneath the surface. More than once my boat tried to turn upstream. We felt mysterious alternating cool and warm air currents at various points as we floated silently along. It was awesome and magical.

After a couple of hours of mostly solitude, we made a stop at another small beach. This one is also a raft stop; we came around the corner just as a full raft was heading downstream. Good timing.

We found a good sitting rock in a small patch of shade -- hard to come by here -- and enjoyed our lunch. Intrepid Mike used materials at hand -- a metal step, a sandal, and a camera with a timer -- to capture the moment.

After more than four hours of floating and paddling, we were both getting tired and wondering how much further there was to go. Finally I spotted a familiar landmark area on a hillside in the distance; I knew it was near the launch point. After fifteen minutes or so, we rounded a corner and saw the ramp in the distance. At the same time, a strong headwind suddenly started to blow in our faces. Instead of floating slowly downstream with the current, my boat started to go backwards. I paddled hard to get near the shore and out of the wind, to avoid losing any more headway.

I huddled near the shoreline for a few minutes, avoiding the wind. Mike was already searching for the tow rope he'd brought; at that point neither of us was sure I could manage the five hundred yards to the launch ramp. But the wind started to abate, so I willed my deadened arms to dig in and paddle for home. I think both of us were surprised that I was able to paddle hard for a sustained five minutes to reach the goal.

Me. Toast.

It was good to uncramp my legs and stand up on land again. We quickly disassembled the kayaks and loaded up for home. Our trip had taken about six hours. I dreaded how sore and stiff I would be tomorrow, but this day had been the highlight of the whole trip for me. I left Lee's Ferry exhausted but serenely happy.