The valiant hero jumped into the canoe and paddled with fast, hard strokes over to the silent objects bobbing on the dark water. With a desperate grasp, he hurled the waterlogged objects onboard.
He returned to the main vessel, where he was greeted as a champion by all aboard. This called for a lifeaffirming celebration: yet another beer in an endless series sipped while floating on an inner tube, contemplating the fact that vacations like this are truly the shining moments of life.
We’re not talking life or death here, but sleep or no sleep and the fate of a couple of errant air mattresses, a foam pad and several pillows. Such is the high adventure of houseboating aboard the low seas of Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border.
A gust of wind had blown our beds off the roof of our houseboat. But they dried in minutes, long before bedtime, for this is a parched desert - despite the enormous body of water on which we bobbed contentedly.
The contrast of arid and wet sums up the overriding experience of contradiction that makes a visit to this lake so memorable.
Lake Powell is one of the greatest unnatural wonders of the world, both a sanctuary of wild beauty and a manmade crime against nature created by the Glen Canyon Dam. Its creation was akin to having flooded the Grand Canyon, which is just downstream.
Houseboating is another experience of contradiction. It brings all the comforts of home out into a vast and savage landscape - with ice chests, refrigerator, full kitchen and shower. OK, there’s no TV (although some deluxe houseboats offer those), but it’s pretty darn civilized. Besides, who needs TV when you can catch a compelling show just bobbing on an inner tube, watching a blue heron take flight as the sunset light plays against a cliff that’s bigger than a drive-in movie screen and just as acutely angled.
It is a lake of boggling proportions: almost 200 miles long with nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline. The lake is like a long, wide river. Its magic resides in its 96 twisting side canyons, each one holding unique hidden treasures to be discovered and explored. While the main channel feels simply immense and unchanging - like a 15-lane stretch of superhighway - each turn into a side canyon opens onto a tableau of rock and sky and water that is breathtaking, and of seemingly unlimited variation and beauty.
Picture cliffs of rock stretching as high as 1,000 feet above you - some red and smooth, others laced with black and white markings, and yet others etched with small gouges that make one imagine a giant worked the surface with a chisel the way an artisan works a wood surface. In fact, these canyon walls were formed by the Colorado River scouring and carving ancient mountains of sandstone.
Besides the awesome works of nature, these canyons also hold human works of considerable mystery - petroglyphs and cliff dwellings left by the Anasazi, the ancient people who flourished here and then, for reasons much contemplated but ultimately unknown, left the area around A.D. 1300. (The Anasazi also built the much-visited cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde.)
Houseboating is the best way to explore this lake. We went for two nights and three days and saw just a fraction, perhaps a tenth of the length of the lake, and only six of its 96 major side canyons.
Some of the canyons have walls that conjure visions of sleeping dinosaurs, with rounded shoulders protruding above the water. Others are gentler giants with sloping orange-red beaches and redbud groves nestled in fertile crooks. Yet others are rubble-strewn, as though angry giants had tossed around great blocks. Through the clear water one can glimpse canyons below, treasures forever buried.
In addition to the fascinations of the landscape, houseboating offers the pleasure of playing captain. It’s easy to navigate in the calm, wide waters of the main channel, and traffic is sparse even in busy summer months. The kids in our party, 6 and 9 years old, took the wheel for a while (under adult supervision, of course). And just being aboard under motor feels delicious as the blazing heat is transformed into a balmy breeze.
Things are set up to make it an easy vacation for even the most unseaworthy. Before leaving the dock, the checkout includes a thorough overview of the boat and piloting. A very thorough manual and detailed map are also provided for the trip.
The living on board is truly easy. Plastic chairs are plentiful and comfortable, the ice chest enormous, the marine stores wellstocked and their staffs happy to discuss the merits of various baits for fishing.
The pattern of a houseboating day is quickly established. Motor down the channel for an hour or so, drinking coffee and thinking about what to grill for lunch on the propane barbecue on deck. Pull into a canyon and ooh! and aah! around each curve. Find a spot where the young animals in the party can scrabble onto shore.
Fill up the Supersoakers (squirt guns are a must here), blow up the inner tubes (we had taken out the valves), swim, splash and eat.
Motor on to another side canyon and find a nice place to spend the night. (If you stop before 3 p.m. or so, you can easily find a private nook where no other boat will be in view.) Hold some inner tube races, paddle about, maybe fish a little and maybe hike (many canyons are not hikeable; maps available at the marinas show where there are trails.)
When all the day’s splashing and eating are finished, you go to bed atop the houseboat where heaven is your only roof, and the Milky Way is so glitteringly distinct you understand why the ancient Greeks envisioned it as solid enough to serve as a pathway for the gods.
In addition to squirt guns, other handy equipment includes binoculars. One can spot blue heron, mule deer, bobcats, and gray and white California gulls. A canoe or other small auxiliary vessel allows the adventurous to explore little canyons too narrow for the houseboat. Many water toys, including inner tubes, water skis, knee boards and wave runners, can be rented.
Although there is no shortage of sights at Lake Powell, a couple stand out. One is Rainbow Bridge, a rock arch that rises some 290 feet high and 270 feet wide. It is the largest natural bridge in the world.
A site of human historic note is called Hole in the Rock. In 1880, some 250 Mormon men, women and children heading to southern Utah reached a rock rim 2,000 feet above the Colorado River. Instead of giving up or turning back, they hammered and blasted a notch down through the rim into the nearest side canyon. From there, they carved a crude road to the edge of the water. In places, the wagons had to be lowered on ropes.
The Mormons were not the first white visitors. In 1869, John Wesley Powell, a self-educated naturalist and Union Army hero who lost an arm in the Civil War, decided to explore and map unknown areas. He and nine companions set out on four tiny boats at Green River in Wyoming to investigate the gorges of the Green and Colorado rivers. Three boats and five of the original explorers survived the trip.
The Colorado River that Powell explored was changed forever by the Glen Canyon Dam. The dam gates closed in 1963. It took 17 years to fill Lake Powell.
Not everyone sees this human intrusion on the landscape as progress. The most eloquent condemnation comes from the late naturalist Edward Abbey. In his book “Desert Solitaire,” he writes: “To grasp the nature of the crime that was committed, imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remain visible.”
It’s hard to argue with Abbey. And one can’t help but wonder what unanticipated havoc with nature may yet result from the dam. Indeed, one ranger told us that fecal contamination from visitors may well mean the lake will one day be off-limits to tourists - a result that surely would have delighted Abbey.
One hopes that such a monumental dismantling of a natural wonder would not be allowed today.
But there is not much use in crying over spilled river water. Even though the adventures suburban houseboaters can enjoy here are tame, they are still thrilling. And even though what’s left may be merely the spires of a great cathedral of nature, they are still awe-inspiring to behold.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO What it costs: Houseboating is a relatively expensive vacation, especially since you shouldn’t fill the boat to the recommended capacity. Our 50-footer was supposed to accommodate 12, but I can’t imagine comfortably fitting any more than the eight humans and one dog in our party. Our boat cost $1,128 for three days; on top of that we had to pay more than $100 for gas. The boats get about a mile to the gallon. We went about 50 miles in three days. Standard houseboats at Lake Powell come in 36-, 44- and 50-foot lengths. The 36-foot model sleeps six and costs $675 for three days, $900 for four days and $1,241 for a week. A 50-foot standard model sleeps up to 12 and costs $1,128 for three days, $1,504 for four days and $1,998 for seven days. There are deluxe houseboats in 50-, 56- and 59-foot lengths. They include TV/VCRs, microwave ovens and top-deck canopy, as well as such standard-model accouterments as gas grill, shower and toilet, stove and refrigerator. The 50-foot deluxe model sleeps 12 and costs $1,405 for three days, $1,875 for four days and $2,500 for a week. The 59-foot model sleeps 10 and costs $1,965 for three days, $2,620 for four days and $3,495 for a week. For all boats, there are off-season discounts. From Nov. 1 to March 31, most marinas reduce prices by 40 percent; in April and October, there is a 25 percent discount on the prices listed here. When to go: Houseboats are booked months in advance for the high season (May through September), but you can try your luck with cancellations. Also, you should consider going during April or October. Not only are the prices discounted, but the average high temperatures are in the 70s. When we went in mid-July, it was very comfortable on board the boat but too hot to do much ashore, including much hiking. For more information on houseboating: Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas, P.O. Box 56909, Phoenix AZ 85079; (800) 528-6154 or (602) 278-8888. For general information about the area: National Park Service, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, P.O. Box 1507, Page AZ 86040. Other sights: While you’re in the neighborhood of Lake Powell, there are many surrounding wonders worth checking out. The lake is in the middle of what is called the Grand Circle of national and state parks, including Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park.
The author’s name is spelled correctly.
The author’s name is spelled correctly.