THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY© Christopher Earls Brennen
"For a transitory enchanted moment
man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent,
face to face for the last time in history
to something commensurate to his own capacity for wonder".
From ``The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The great orange and ochre cliffs rise majestically out of the steel-grey waters and soar toward a cloudless sky. It is an awesome place, this man-made lake, Lake Powell, truly a land for the brave. Set in one of the wildest and most remote landscapes in the world, it has both magnificent scale and special grandeur.
In earlier times, before the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, the ruggedness of this wilderness presented an almost impenetrable barrier to western-bound adventurers. South of Moab in east-central Utah, the mighty Colorado River, over many millions of years, carved an immense and virtually impassable rent in the face of the earth. This gash runs about 400 miles southwest and then west through Cataract Canyon, Glen Canyon and then the Grand Canyon. South of the Grand Canyon lie the inhospitable deserts of Arizona, California and Mexico, extending all the way to the Gulf of Cortez. And so to travel west, the early explorers and settlers (except for a few foolhardy souls) were forced a long way north, through Moab and Green River.
Native Americans, known today as the Anasazi (Navajo for the ancient ones), adapted to the merciless heat and the paucity of water and, in small numbers, had managed to survive in this arid land. Indeed their stone granaries and kivas can be found in many of the canyon cliffs. But even the Anasazi were overwhelmed by drought (and other factors) and moved south in the 1300s to create the modern Pueblo settlements of Arizona. In later centuries, the Navajo, though located primarily to the southeast, filled the vaccuum in a minor way (along with a few Utes and Paiutes from the north and west). They used this wilderness on an occasional basis and only in very small numbers. Consequently, it was largely unoccupied when the white man was confronted by it.
There are several epic stories of expeditions that tried to cross rather than circumvent this wild place. Indeed it is a land that only the daring would venture into. Some understood the risks necessary to reap the rewards of this wilderness, others did not. In the 1770s, during the Spanish colonial period, a party of priests headed by Fathers Dominguez and Escalante, having made their way west by the northern route, tried to return east through southern Utah. Theirs is an epic saga of struggle with the wilderness and the place where they crossed the Colorado became known as the Crossing of the Fathers. It now lies submerged under Lake Powell, more specifically under Padre Bay. More than 50 years passed before a second crossing was made by a party of Mexican traders. Another half century passed with very few venturing into the wilderness. Then, in 1869, there occurred one of the greatest expeditions of exploration ever undertaken. A one-armed ex-soldier by the name of John Wesley Powell with a party of nine other men disembarked from the train in Green River, Wyoming, outfitted four small wooden boats and set off to float the entire length of the Colorado canyons. Powell's dispassionate account of their hair-raising adventures descending the entirely unknown cataracts of the Colorado through Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon is a must-read for any serious student of adventure. Miraculously, all but three of the men survived. The three who did not had abandoned the expedition and climbed up out of the Grand Canyon onto the Kaibab plateau where they were killed by Shivwits Indians.
The next 70 years saw some small scale cattle ranching and the beginnings of tourism in a few accessible locations such as the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. A Mormon refugee from justice by the name of John D. Lee fled south and descended the Paria river to its junction with the Colorado. There he established the first regular river crossing at a place that now bears his name. Today Lee's Ferry is still an important crossing and the starting point for most rafting expeditions down through the Grand Canyon.
In 1956, the US Congress, after much debate, approved a Bureau of Reclamation plan to tame the wild Colorado. Work began almost immediately on the Glen Canyon Dam located where the Colorado crosses from Utah into Arizona. The dam, about 600ft high, was completed in 1963, but the lake behind it, named Lake Powell after the one-armed adventurer, took another seventeen years to reach its high water mark. Unlike almost any other reservoir, Lake Powell, is not one large body of water but a whole branching network of narrow channels where the water backed up into a maze of canyons. The lake is almost 180 miles long and its shore line stretches for an amazing 1900 miles. Today it is a wonderland that is most readily explored by boat. We planned to explore a little piece of it.
Friday, June 7, 2002, was a joyous and exciting day for Doreen and I when the whole family came together in the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in Page, Arizona, the town built to serve the Glen Canyon Dam. Doreen and I had driven there from California, spending a night en route in the lodge at Zion National Park. Our elder daughter Dana with her two children, Quinn and Gavin, and our younger daughter Kathy with her two children, Troy and Payton, flew into Phoenix from Philadephia and Chicago respectively and then drove north to Page in a rented minivan. The reunion was joyous indeed. We were all deeply excited and, perhaps, a little uncertain about the trip we had planned in a rental houseboat on Lake Powell. But that was not until June 9. We spent the next day, Saturday, exploring the Upper Antelope slot canyon (Navajos took us there in a truck), swimming in the hotel pool and shopping in the supermarket for all that we would need over the next four days.
On Sunday, June.9, we rose early and eagerly. The wind was blowing quite strongly and I could not help be concerned about how difficult it would be to manoever the boat under these conditions. But there was no time to dwell on it. We packed all our stuff into the two vehicles and drove down to the Wahweap Marina where we completed the formalities to rent a 36ft houseboat for four days. I also rented a small boat with an outboard motor, what they called a "Livingstone". Then we walked down to the rental dock, located our houseboat (number 91) and waited for the instructor to show up and give us instructions on the operation of the houseboat. She was quite brief, too brief - especially about the controls for the two large outboard motors that powered the houseboat. Then she drove the houseboat over to the next dock (called the T dock) where we tied up and began the process of bringing all our gear down from the vehicles and loading it onto the boat. Fortunately there were porters with carts and small tractors that did much of the work for us. At this time I also walked back to the rental dock to fetch the Livingstone. Inside the break water it was easy to drive despite the wind and waves. However, one of the staff present decided that the Livingstone was too small for the wind and waves that day and offered me a larger powerboat for no extra cost, an offer I gladly accepted. Thus we ended up with a very useful ??ft powerboat - but without any instructions as to how to run it! The staff drove both the houseboat and the powerboat out beyond the breakwater, tied the powerboat into a towing position behind the houseboat, turned over the controls to us and left in another powerboat. We were on our own.
In Gunsight Bay Lake Powell
Despite the wind and waves, it proved easy to drive the houseboat and, from Wahweap, I headed directly over toward the main channel in Lake Powell. That channel follows the original course of the Colorado River. We readily found the buoys that mark it and turned to head up Lake Powell. Navigation turned out to be easier than I thought. Red buoys mark the right side of the channel going upstream and green buoys the left side. Both are adorned by a large number, the distance in miles from the Glen Canyon Dam. Since our National Geographic Trails map of Lake Powell showed these buoys and their numbers, we could easily locate ourselves. Gavin, especially, liked looking out for the numbers. Occasionally there was no buoy to be seen, but by heading straight a buoy would eventually come into view. There were also signposts at the larger intersections.
Despite the waves kicked up by the unpleasant wind (35-50mph gusts), the houseboat was steady and moved along at 8 or 9 knots. We rounded Castle Rock, turned right and then left into a section called the narrows. Dana drove the boat from the time we rounded Castle Rock until the end of the trip while I helped with the navigation and other deck duties. Kathy made lunch. Doreen made sure the kids wore their life-jackets when they came out of the cabin. Because of the wind and waves, water often ran up onto the fore-deck. The kids enjoyed the excitement of the water splashes and were soon soaking wet. We began to feel some modicum of confidence that we could handle this adventure.
After passing through the Narrows, we turned left into the large bay at the mouth of Gunsight Canyon. At the head of that bay, quite a few other houseboats had stopped at widely spaced spots on the many beaches. We picked out a spot at a beach in a beautiful cove with a high cliff behind it. It was on the west side of Gunsight Bay and, following instructions, we ran the boat onto the beach at full power. As we did so I rushed to set the anchors though, if I had stopped for a moment to examine matters, I would have seen that they were hardly necessary. As I did so I became aware of distress at the back of the houseboat and Doreen ran forward to tell me that Kathy was badly injured. Moreover, the powerboat seemed to be drifting free; fortunately the wind blew it towards me and I soon secured it. Then I jumped on board to find out what had happened to Kathy. Apparently as we had accelerated the houseboat forward to ram it onto the beach, the towline to the powerboat had suddenly snapped. More specifically the metal link joining the towline to the powerboat had snapped and the rope and half the link had rocketed forward, striking Kathy on the chest. She was badly bruised and very shaken but otherwise seemed alright. Doreen applied ice to the bruises and we waited to see how she would be.
The wind was still blowing but seemed to be easing. The staff at Wahweap has assured us that this was the last day of the wind and that the weather would be excellent the next day. For the rest of the afternoon the kids played on the beach and we enjoyed the scenery. I took the powerboat and briefly explored Gunsight Canyon though I did not go far. There were many boats moored and beached at the place where the canyon narrowed. The kids explored the virgin beach while Dana, Kathy and Doreen relaxed. Though badly bruised Kathy did not need further medical attention.
Dana and Kathy prepared dinner and we sat and talked with gin and tonics. As night fell we organized our sleeping arrangements in preparation for an early night. Troy and Quinn were to sleep in the bed in the aft cabin, Dana with Gavin and Kathy with Payton in the two beds in the fore cabin and Doreen and I on the fore deck (Doreen had a foldup bed). As we said our goodnights, Kathy asked: "Dad, have you tied Mum down?" Doreen was marvellous, never having slept in the open before. She loved the star-studded night sky.
Monday, June 10, dawned beautifully and we were keen to be on our way. After breakfast we released the anchors and, with only minor difficulty, managed to start both engines. We then put the engines in full reverse and, following the instructions, tried to get the houseboat off the beach. It did not budge. We then tried turning the thrust full to one side and then full to the other. Not a glimmer of movement. It seemed firmly stuck. As Dana and I were frantically trying to figure out how to solve this problem, another strange incident occurred to which, in the heat of the moment, I did not pay enough attention. While still on board I happened to look down one side of the houseboat, and noticed a snake in the water. It was hopelessly trying to climb up the side of the pontoon. When I drew the attention of the others to the snake and then quickly moved back to the task of getting the boat off the beach, I failed to absorb how upset Kathy was by the snake and its efforts to climb on board. She and Doreen did try to tell me it was a rattlesnake and they vainly attempted to hit it with a spade while hanging over the side. I was so intent on the effort to float the boat that I paid little attention. And when I climbed down to the beach to begin pushing, it seemed to have disappeared - at least for the present.
After trying repeatedly for about 30 minutes to float the boat, we recognized that we needed help. A group who had been waterskiing happened by in their powerboat and were kind enough to come on shore to help. We tried pushing and then digging away the sand alongside the stuck pontoon, all to no avail. Our helpers then had to leave but gamely said they would return shortly with other members of their party. After they left I called Wahweap Boat Rentals on the ship-to-shore radio ("Calling Wahweap Boat Rentals this is houseboat 91... ") and requested assistance. But soon our helpers were back though with only one or two additional people ("the teenagers had gone to the marina"). Nevertheless we were going to try again. Then someone had the bright idea of removing the steel gang plank and using it as a lever at the bow of the stuck pontoon. With a great deal of effort this began to move the boat and soon we finally had it afloat. Once it was well afloat, Dana edged it back toward the shore some distance down the beach where the slope was greater. Our family climbed (or was hoisted) aboard, Dana handed out beer and sodas to our good samaritans and we were finally on our way. I started the powerboat and followed the houseboat out to deep water where we set up the tow.
In Cathedral Canyon Cathedral Canyon
So it was that, after a two hour delay, we were under way. It was a beautiful sunny day without a cloud in the sky and, mercifully, no wind. We motored serenely back to the main channel and turned upstream. The next couple of hours brought into view one marvellous vista after another. We passed Padre Butte and Gregory Butte and turned right through the narrow passage by Wild Horse Bar. Here the lake is contained in narrower and more dramatic canyons. Each side canyon we passed seemed more inviting than the last and we reeled off the names as we went, Wetherill Canyon, Mountain Sheep Canyon, Dangling Rope Canyon (with a marina entirely supplied from the lake). We were bound for Cathedral Canyon but its opening was so inconspicuous that we missed it the first time and only turned around when we passed buoy number 48. When we got back to what had to be the entrance, it looked so limited that I got in the powerboat and went in to take a look before attempting to enter with the houseboat. Though narrow in places the channel was plenty deep. I must have gone a couple of miles up into Cathedral - a truly spectacular gorge with towering red walls. There were only a handful of small spots where one could land (let alone moor) but I was reassured to find at least two houseboats in tiny inlets deep inside the canyon. I had my eye on one possible mooring place only a short way into the canyon and returned to tell the family about it, though with some doubt as to whether they would like this isolated place. Dana guided the houseboat into Cathedral while I went ashore to guide her in. Unlike the previous day, we came into shore very slowly and moored by placing the anchors behind large rocks. It was an ideal spot and everyone loved it. Next to the boat was a sloping rock "beach", a great place to swim. And the slide on the boat was now in play. We all enjoyed a relaxing afternoon swimming and chatting. Only the occasional speedboat would zoom by disturbing us with the waves of its wake. Soon it was time for gin and tonics followed by dinner. We all slept well through a gentle windless night.
Dawn sidled gently into this beautiful cathedral whose red and ochre walls walls were reflected again in the mirror-flat waters. It was hard to imagine a more glorious place and I gave thanks that I could share such a special place with all those I loved. We stirred lazily, enjoying the place, the moment and ourselves. Quinn, always the first to rise, joined us on the foredeck and chatted amiably. Gradually the houseboat filled with the buzz of whole family and we were ready for breakfast and for a day of exploration.
We decided to leave the houseboat where it was and explore the surrounding canyons using the powerboat. So, after our leisurely morning start, everyone was oufitted with a life-jacket and installed in the powerboat. First we drove back into Cathedral Canyon, a fantastic narrow channel between towering, angular cliffs. Then we turned around and went back out of Cathedral Canyon into the main channel where we turned upstream, heading for Forbidding Canyon and the Rainbow Bridge National Monument just a short distance upstream. This was easy to find and entered another spectacular canyon. On the way in the boat traffic was modest. We followed the signs where the canyon forked and arrived at the courtesy dock installed in the canyon by the Park Service. Only a few other boats were there so it was easy to locate a place to tie up. Then we walked several hundred yards along the floating walkway to the beach and the start of the short trail to Rainbow Bridge. I was surprised by the size of this natural wonder - much more impressive than I expected. We hiked to the end of the trail which stops short of the bridge itself out of respect for the native Americans who regard the site as sacred. The bridge is indeed impressive and a ranger gave a brief talk with all the details. By the time we walked back to the boat, the place was crowded with people from several tour boats and lots of small powerboats, even one houseboat like ours. And so as we headed back down the canyon there were boats going both ways, usually too fast. The waves kicked up by all this traffic between the vertical walls of the canyon made for a rough ride. I was glad that we did not happen to meet a large tour boat going the other way in one of the narrow sections. Out in the main channel, the water was smoother and we quickly made our way back to the serenity of our houseboat in Cathedral Canyon. It was time for lunch and a swim. For the first time the kids ventured onto the slide from the roof of the houseboat. It was Troy who plucked up the courage to go first.
We had underestimated the family consumption of Gatorade and since the Dangling Rope Marina was only about 25 minutes away, I decided on a Gatorade supply trip in the powerboat. The trip was uneventful. I had no trouble locating Dangling Rope Canyon and the marina hidden a short distance into it where I tied up without difficulty. Dangling Rope Marina has no land connection - it is supplied entirely from the water. As well as a gas station it has a small store, a snack bar and a ranger station. I brought back gallons of Gatorade.
Later in the afternoon we decided to explore more canyons in the powerboat and to stay a second night in the lovely spot in Cathedral Canyon. And so Dana, Kathy, the kids and I set off for some nearby canyons. First, we found the entrance to Cascade Canyon just a mile or so upstream from the mouth of Cathedral, though on the other side. Some distance inside this narrowed to a deep channel between vertical walls about 15ft apart - no room to even turn the boat - another boat ahead of us was allowing the wind to carry them further up this long channel and we did the same, until, eventually the other boat said it could go no further. Unfortunately we could not see the end they perceived. We devised our own method of retreat. With the outboard in reverse and Dana and Kathy each at a rear corner fending off the cliff with their feet we slowly backed up and out to broader waters. Next we explored Driftwood Canyon just downstream from Cascade. We were able to penetrate further into Driftwood, taking the left fork at a major junction. This, too, narrowed but we decided to turn around before it got too narrow. At this point the kids were tired and we headed back to the houseboat for dinner.
The adults were sitting around the foredeck while Dana and Kathy prepared dinner. The kids were playing all over the boat including the aft deck where, throughout the trip, we had piled all the suitcases and backpacks. Suddenly Gavin came rushing through the cabin to announce there was a rattlesnake on the aft deck. Each of us almost simultaneously recognized that the impossible had happened. That snake in the lake back in Gunsight Bay had somehow managed to slither aboard and had been an unseen passenger for a day and a half. Someone put the spade in my hand as I rushed forward to confront the situation. Dana came behind me with the broom. Fortunately all the other children had made a quick retreat from the aft deck where Gavin had heard the snake rattle. With remarkable perception and alacrity he had described exactly where the snake was hidden between a suitcase and the sliding glass cabin door (he was but inches from entering the cabin!). I spotted him instantly and lifted the suitcase away. He then retreated behind a second suitcase and I also removed that. He was now in an open corner with no further possible retreat. He coiled ready to strike though I was well out of his range. It was no contest. I sliced his head in half with one strike of the spade. He died instantly. Later there would be some thoughts of regret but at that moment the need for decisive action was overwhelming. Dana brushed the inert remains onto the spade blade and I flung them onto the rocks along the shore. We all retreated to the front patio to collect ourselves and to seek reassurance. Gavin had acted with decisiveness and uncommon good sense. We praised him deservedly and I promised to get him the rattle in the morning. Only slowly did the adrenalin subside. We helped ourselves to an extra gin and tonic and ate dinner wondering how barbequed rattlesnake would taste. After that it was a gentle and quiet night.
We awoke with the dawn for we had to make an early start to get back to Wahweap before the 2pm deadline. But before getting underway, I found my camping knife and made my way along the shore to where the snake remains had been thrown. Unfortunately a raven must have been there before me. Parts of the snake were already gone, including the tail. I was sad that Gavin would not get his rattle. But I promised him one that I had at home; it was the best I could do.
This time we had no trouble getting started. Dana had learnt how to start the houseboat engines without difficulty and we backed out of our mooring without trouble. We tied the powerboat alongside until we got out of Cathedral Canyon and then set it on the tow rope well behind the houseboat. There was little other traffic in the main channel this early in the morning so we made excellent and easy time averaging about 10mph on the way back to Wahweap.
We were nervous about manoevering the house boat around in the busy waters around the Wahweap Marina. I called Wahweap Boat Rentals over the ship to shore radio, asking for the check in procedure. We were informed that we should get both boats filled with gas before bringing them into T-dock to unload. Outside the breakwater we detached the powerboat and I drove it in separately. Dana did an excellent job of docking the houseboat at the gas station. The gas station attendant did the rest. As he went about his business we told him of our adventures. He had never before heard of a snake getting on board a houseboat.
After gassing up, Dana manoevered the houseboat back to the loading (or unloading) dock while I took the powerboat back to the main dock. We had returned without incident and in shorter time than we expected; we unloaded, checked out and were on the road shortly after noon.
It was the end of a great adventure. We had so little experience with boats that it had been a risk to plan such an adventurous holiday with four young grandchildren. And there had been risks: some were perhaps foreseeable such as the difficulty unbeaching the houseboat. But the greatest danger had been entirely unseen and unthinkable. That snake carried lethal venom. Other risks were richly outweighed by the rewards, the spectacular scenery and the opportunity to enjoy it with those we loved. But the snake was different. And yet such outlandish chances can occur anywhere at anytime. One cannot allow such unknowables to rule one's life.
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Last updated 8/20/02.
Christopher E. Brennen