Last winter, Goal Zero Ambassadors Forest Woodward and Kalen Thorien, along with adventure storytellers Brendan Leonard, Hilary Oliver, and Sinjin Eberle set out to paddle 90 miles across Lake Powell. While the desert resivior has been at the center or controversey since it began to fill in the early 60's, it is still home to one of the most unique landscapes in the American West. During their journey Forest Woodward kept a journal, below he shares some of his experiences.
Excerpts from a winter paddle across the deserted reservoir that is Lake Powell (formerly known as Glen Canyon)_
Photos and words by Forest Woodward
Stillwater I || Page, Arizona || Arriving in the night, we wake at the foot of lake Powell to the ever present hum of the Navajo Generating Station. With smoke stacks towering some 800 feet above the desert, the perpetually groaning monolith munches through some 22,000 tons of coal each day, supplying energy to a host of southwestern cities in CA, NV and AZ, while simultaneously providing the energy necessary for piping approximately ten percent of the Colorado River out of the Havasu reservoir and up to Phoenix. Despite its looming presence and reverberating impacts on the Colorado Watershed, the power plant plays but an auxiliary role in our reason for being here. Drawn together by a collective curiosity to explore what was once Glen Canyon, we load kayaks and provisions, point out rigs East and breathe easier as the power plant quickly fades into the rear view.
Stillwater II // The Rancher // Somewhere outside Mexican Hat we pass a friendly woman on a 4wheeler who waves us down and asks us to go slow - they’re moving cattle up ahead. From the looks of it, it’s a small scale family affair - a few dozen head of cattle with an older man on horseback and a woman on foot herding them through the scrub brush. As we continue north with our trailer of boats, heading for a reservoir whose contested waters (or lack there of) irrigate and sustain farming and ranching operations across the west, I wonder at the way in which this family's livelihood is tied to the waters of the Colorado River. Influenced by the archaic “use it or lose it” clauses (most of which were written into law during the gold rush) many ranchers and farmers are compelled to drain far more water from the river than they might otherwise need - for fear of losing their water rights.
Stillwater III // Halls Crossing, Utah // December 1. We wake to frozen water jugs and frost coated sleeping bags. Steaming vessels of dark liquid, a heated campground bathroom, and the easy warmth of the desert sun soon have group moral on the rise. Duffels explode and our boats find themselves quickly stuffed to the gills and adorned with hood ornaments of all shapes and sizes as we prepare to spend the next 8 days exploring the lower 90 miles of America’s second largest man made water feature - Lake Powell. Considered by some to be “the ultimate houseboating and RV camping destination in America” we set out equipped with a somewhat different set of tools from the typical user demographic; kayaks, bivy bags, wag bags, dinners to eat out of bags, and a surface-deep interest in the current water levels of the lake coupled with an even deeper interest in the underlying geology of the reservoir.
Stillwater IV // Halls Crossing - Mile 93 // Last time I was in a sea kayak I only made it three quarters of the way off of land before capsizing. Hoping for better luck this time #KnockOnWoodward
Stillwater IV // Xtreme eating // 6 hours of paddling, 14 hours of darkness, freezing temps, and lots of carrying capacity for food make a Lake Powell winter sea kayak trip the dream vacation for Xtreme adventure eaters like Brendan Leonard (@semi_rad )
Stillwater V // Miles of musings // With the long days of monotonous paddling on Lake Powell requiring little thought, the unrecruited factions of my mind are left to wander at will.
The following are a few excerpts from a mile by mile rambling stream of conscious log I kept // Mile 91 This is madness // Mile 89 Somebody told me once that what is not alive can never die. But that person had never been to lake Powell. Water sustains life. But here, in this flooded desert landscape something strange is happening - and I'm not talking about the mystery of us paddling in circles trying to figure out how to drop our rudders. No, it is an absence of life, a strangeness amplified by the silence. Haunting in its omnipresence // Mile 85 Water streaks. Long black tendrils, whimsical in their descent from the rim above. A skittish winter sun dips across Navajo sandstone. Time to make camp.
Stillwater VI // The Bathtub Ring // Normally I like bathtub rings because they are a sign that I am in a bathtub - which for many a manly man like myself, is the ultimate way to relax and unwind after a hard day of not being in a bath. But Lake Powell, is not a bathtub, and thus the fact that it has a "bathtub" ring 100 feet tall is somewhat alarming. Though the recent drought in the West bears the brunt of the blame, the current “draining of the tub” is also closely tied to the issue of over allocation - the roots of which can be traced back to 1922 when government officials calculated the annual flow of the Colorado River to be 18 million acre-feet. Over the coming years they, and now “we”, have come to realize the average flow is millions of acre feet shy of that original estimate (in recent years it has dropped to aproximately 12 million acre-feet). Unfortunately, as the bathtub ring clearly delineates, that retrospective realization does not offer up any easy solutions, and has done little or nothing to influence usage on either the institutional or individual level. If you’re interested in learning more I’ve linked to an @npr podcast - http://www.npr.org/2015/06/25/417430662/how-a-historical-blunder-helped-create-the-water-crisis-in-the-west
Stillwater VIII // Wish You Were Here // To see the stars above tilting, twirling, whirling ad occasionally shooting through the clear desert air. To feel the slowness of breaths breathed deep and languidly alongside the monotonous rhythm of paddle strokes, slow sandstone bluffs creeping peripherally and disappearing quietly into yesterday and the day before...and what day is is it now anyhow? Water and sand and stone. Boats and friends and fires. The plurality of writing them in quick succession implying a fullness that is not really there when stretched across the long hours of motion and flatness. The fat pack rat that blinks hungrily from his crumbling red throne, the raven laughing as it ducks and weaves through a flight of sparrows, the carp, lazy and drunk in water that is too deep for him. The slot canyon that dead ends too soon, the petrified wood I left behind to scramble higher, the mysterious pitons, and the store with no ice cream. Yes, I wish you were here for all of it. To experience it for yourself; to write your own words and think your own thoughts.
Stillwater X // Mileage musings // Mile 60 -Instagram, Facebook, narcissism, nature. One of these things is not like the other //Mile 59 - a big horn watches from high on the ridge above, a welcome reminder that we are not the only living things in this land // Mile 58 - we break for lunch at the mouth of the San Juan. Black bananas and spicy thai tuna. Navajo mountain looms over the confluence. Frozen shoulders shimmer and shrug, melting into the sandstone spiderweb of slot canyons below
Stillwater XI // Tombstone // At three of our first four camps we find dead animals. A carp with a black growth on its head, a pair of dead mice, and a mummified big horn sheep. At this point I think we have seen as many dead animals here as living. Perhaps it is just coincidence, but that doesn't stop my mind from drifting through an increasingly macabre list of parallels as we float over the reemerging body of Glen Canyon.
Stillwater XII // A Haunted Landscape // Three for four. Wondering what day five will bring. Running out of things to die.
Stillwater XIII // Cathedral in the Desert // Looking down
Stillwater XIV // Cathedral in the Desert // Looking up
Stillwater XV // A Window in Time // We make camp early. Grabbing my running shoes and a headlamp I head out of camp at a trot, soon slowing to lateral shuffles as I pick my way around dead and dying tamarisks and across the dry pocketed moonscape that was, for a geological nanosecond, a lake bed. Moving upwards, clusters of abandoned fire rings serve as testament to spring breaks come and gone, and to the unapologetic. downward march of the shoreline. A mile or so from camp I pass a few names and the year '1986' scratched into soft red stone. High water relics from Powell's glory days and the year I was born. Pushing upwards, the last of the fire rings disappear and the pristine folds and layered lines of the landscape trace an inviting path to a window in time long before (or after) we were here.
Stillwater XVI // Explorations // Our side canyon detours typically lead to dead ends and ten point turns a'la Austin Powers.
Stillwater XVII // Hidden Falls // every once in awhile though, the constricting canyons surprise us by providing a pretty neat spot to turn around.
Stillwater XVIII // Mileage Musings // Mile 34 - The Navajo coal plant has reappeared, growling and huffing at the outer edge of the horizon. We are quick to judge the trespasses of others, past and present, far slower to acknowledge the extent to which our own actions shape a collective future, present, and past. Tread gently. // Mile 12 the miles blend together towards the end, no longer separated by the anticipation of exploration, the wonder of what comes next. We can see it, hear it, feel it. The outside world looming, nostrils huffing and puffing through the night, the heavy breathing of the beast that does not sleep
Stillwater XIX // Compromised // A passing houseboat leads to our first interaction with other humans in 7 days. I quickly push aside my prejudices towards motorized craft and shamelessly jeopardize our claim to being a self supported mission...#freebeer
Stillwater XX // The Marina // The final strokes of our trip take us past a long row of yachts and houseboats. Strange as the chrome trappings and mirrored windows are to our water weary eyes, stranger still are the names of the boats: Equanimity, Evolution, Well Earned, Big Dog, Mandatory Family Joy (#mfj), Portfolio, Apollo. If the names we choose are any indicators, the focus of Powell's current recreators seems to reflect a shifting, as places like Rainbow Arch, Hanging Grotto, and Twilight Canyon are traded in for AC units and water slides.
Stillwater XXI // In my optimistic naïveté I realized too late that I had come to bear witness to something we could not see. Something which could be whispered of around campfires and felt deep in the side canyons of my soul, yet whose image eluded me. A distorted reflection rippling through a landscape of flooded idealism and parched reality. This is a place that belonged to another time; the death of a Canyon, the birth of the conservation movement, the excitement of innovation, the pride of a nation, the shortsightedness of greed.