Trail Cafe: Trip report - The Storm of a Millennium


Title: The Storm of a Millennium
Trip type: seakayaking
Summary: Multi day 'sea' kayak trip on Lake Powell, with big storm.
Author: Scott Baxter
Country: USA
Province: Utah
Location Route: Lake Powell
Distance: 60 miles (roughly)
Directions to Set in or Trail head: On this trip we launched from Bullfrog Marina across from Hall's Crossing both on highway 276.
Directions to Set in or Trail head: loop
Author's Experience level: Experienced - guide

Editors note/update: Scott has provided the following link to pictures from the trip:
Link to pictures

Trail Description:

Lake Powell is a big body of water with three primary launch and landing spots. On the South is Wahweap located near Page Arizona and accessed on highway 89 (There is also an undeveloped campground on the West side of the dam with water access). On this trip we launched from Bullfrog Marina across from Hall's Crossing both on highway 276. This is a good old fashioned ferry crossing between these two points. Further to the North and at the top of the lake is Hite on Highway 95. All three locations have campgrounds and marinas. Hite is a little on the quiet and dusty side, the other two are busy with all kinds of craft with throttles. Car shuttles are awkward at best due to the long drives between landings. Lake Powell is a national recreation area (Glen Can yon National Recreation Area). Many paddlers will arrange to have the concessionaire on the lake ferry them and their equipment from one of the marinas to certain place on the lake. The entire lake is scenic and we prefer to paddle so we have never opted for this method.

This is a big body of water that is subject to high winds and suitable landing areas can be a mile or more away due to the steep sides (sometimes several miles). Other than wind the lake is all flat water allowing for enjoyable paddling. Like all desert paddles come prepared to protect yourself from the sun. Lake Powell is best suited for long paddles, 100 miles is not a long paddle on this lake.

The Trip Report:

In sea kayaking terms it was the equivalent of a five star hotel – camping luxury like none of us had ever known. The only problem was this all too right campsite was in the all too wrong location. It was mid- afternoon, if we kept moving as planned we could explore new canyons and probably see all the major side canyons in Lake Powell’s Escalante Arm. If we camped now some canyons would have to wait for a future trip that may never happen. We sat in our kayaks staring at the large cave. If one were to generalize about characteristics of sea kayakers the desire to explore and the allure of the unknown are common traits. Our natural instinct was to forgo luxury and continue to explore. We looked up at the sliver of cloudy sky between the canyon walls and felt the cooling air on our face. Our skin was damp under our Gore-Tex jackets. The constant rain and high humidity made us feel like we were in the Pacific Northwest not the Utah desert. The last canyon we had explored had no campsites and in our minds each of us wondered what if the next two canyons are the same. We were in a world of vertical rock and horizontal water with little in between. Finding a campsite in the dark on a windy and rainy night is generally a good thing to avoid. Comfort seldom trumps exploration but safety does. The decision was to stay.

Minutes later wet clothes were spread out on boulders, wet tents were erected on dry sand, and damp bodies dried in the sheltered air of our protected area. The decision to stay started to feel right. One more time serendipity had been our friend. My SLR camera was stuffed into a dry bag with a dry fleece jacket, a trick that we used several times to draw out the humidity to make it function again. Waterproof point and shoot cameras have many limitations but one proved priceless on this trip. With our safety needs met, hunger could be satisfied with trail mix and the desire to explore grew. We paddled out of the narrow canyon discussing the potential destinations for an evening paddle. Planning had lagged behind paddling the entire trip. The day before we set out we received news the shuttle driver was no longer available. The end-to-end journey on Lake Powell that we had planned for months was discarded. The few and final details of an out-and-back trip from Bullfrog Marina to the Escalante Arm were worked out as we drove towards the lake. So far, the trip had been better than even our most optimistic expectations and the evening’s out-and-back trip would be the same.

We reached the main Escalante channel intent on exploring the next large canyon and putting on several more miles before night but a smaller and closer canyon caught our eye. We entered the canyon in a downpour so strong it seemed to give the option of paddling left, right, or up. Waterfalls fell on all sides, not just one, or three, but sixteen. Some cascaded down the rock while others fell freely through the air. Some plunged into the lake and others crashed on boulders. We paddled towards a large fall at the end of the canyon. Wind and mist from the fall mixed with the rain making it hard to see or paddle as we approached the fall. Someone cheerfully yelled over the roar “I wonder what the poor people are doing”. This had become the slogan of our trip. It was not an attack on the rich or the poor although visions of houseboats often came to mind when it was repeated. It was an expression that celebrated our leaving our normal comforts and security to renew or senses. The discomforts of clammy clothing, hunger, and the muscle fatigue faded and for the first time on the trip we stood still.

As we paddled back towards our campsite lightning strikes grew closer and more frequent. What earlier had been a small waterfall had become two waterfalls. We had paddled through this fall earlier in the day, but now it came down with enough force to plunge us to the bottom of the lake. A few bends later we approached our cave which had large waterfalls on either side and a small one dropping in the middle. Streams of water followed stained lines on the roof of the cave creating falls near our tents. We gained new understanding of the dark stains on the rock above us and moved our tents deeper into the cave. We had noticed that waterfalls formed above caves and arches giving us a hint to the dynamics that have carved this canyon landscape. Was it the brute force of occasional waterfalls and historic rivers or a more quite freeze thaw action from water seeping down low areas that made the arches and caves, or both? There was a pile of angular boulders sitting on the floor of the cave about 40 feet below where they had once rested and they were surrounded by fine grained blow sand. It was obvious that wind, water, and gravity all played their part in creating our campsite. We were staring at a small experiment in one of the biggest debates in geology. Uniformitarianism is the theory of small geological changes accumulating over long periods of time, a concept that solidified into a scientific standard about the time of Darwin. In the early 1920’s a scientist by the name of J Harlen Bretz tried to literally wash this theory away when he suggested massive floods had created the landscape of the scablands, a desert in Washington state. His theory sounded more like Moses than Darwin and he was ridiculed for about 20 years and his theory was not accepted for almost 50 years. Our cave had room for both Darwin and Bretz. Regardless of the geology the boulders made great tables, the fine blow sand created comfort, and the cave offered shelter.

Anyone that has experienced Lake Powell spends the first day in awe of the red rocks, blue sky, and dark water, and that pretty well defined our first day. The next morning we packed our kayaks as we watched a storm blowing up the lake straight at us. The storm hit just before we launched so we quickly grabbed a tarp and all huddled under it protected from the wind and rain. After the storm had calmed we crawled out only to realize the world had changed. Waterfalls thundered over the cliff a mile in front of us while behind us a long narrow band of water cascaded down a rock face of over 300 feet. We jumped in our kayaks and rapidly paddled towards the falls. By the time we reached them, they had faded into small torrents. It became easier to understand how water over time had excavated this canyon. It was also becoming easier to envision the fast and massive change that Bretz had spent his life studying. His research demonstrated that ancient Lake Missoula broke it’s ice dam multiple times releasing 500 cubic miles of water making a wave 2,000 feet high that moved at about 50 miles mph forming the scablands. We were experiencing something that many geologists would trade their rock collection to see. Dave prepared dinner in the shelter of the cave while lightning strikes gave glimpses of the worsening weather outside.

We became more conscious of the worsening storm outside the cave and wondered if our kayaks were still six feet above the waterline. The waterfalls on all sides had grown. The heavy rain dimmed our flashlight beams and lightning gave only small glimpses as we tried to determine the status of our kayaks from the comfort of the cave. The rain that was falling on the slick rock was channeling into our canyon turning the calm lake water into a small river. We could see foam and chunks of various sizes swirling in a back eddy in front of the cave. The vision of paddling 60 miles on air mattresses overcame our reluctance to climb out of our dry warm fleece and into damp rain gear to retrieve our kayaks up to the cave as an extra precaution.

Morning finally came and we awoke to more cloudy skies. We tried to convince ourselves that what little sky we could see did not represent the blue that dominated the sky behind the cold wet cliffs. Much of the sand dune at the entrance of the cave had eroded into the lake while we slept leaving a vertical sand cliff. Eroded gullies of various sizes cut into the cliff of sand indicating the amount of water that had dripped down from points above. As we loaded the boats some columns of sand calved off explaining the thudding and splashing sounds that had woken us the night before. The first hundred yards of paddling melted the morning cold and replaced it with a sweaty forehead. The channel was choked with debris. An up canyon paradise had been destroyed by the rain leaving a mix of organic materials both fresh and dehydrated floating in front of the cave. The high walls of the canyon left us no choice but to struggle through it. We tried to pry the biggest hunks out of the way and push through the more mobile flotsam. The second kayak had an easier time following the path of the first.

Some days you will always remember and others you will never forget, this day would be the later. Every day the wind seemed to blow into our faces and on this day, it did it with enthusiasm. We were on our way home and the day’s destination was Annie’s Canyon but first we had to make it to the main channel and then cut through 10 miles of wind and rainfall with nowhere to land until we reached the Rincon. After a couple hours of easy paddling we approached the main canyon, a place where we had enjoyed a swim in the sun just a few days earlier. While we were swimming a combination of canoe, sprinkler pipe, and various other farming implements floated towards us. All of us have studied boat design and have made kayaks so our curiosity was high. The proud captain and crew were from Idaho. The measure of a well designed and crafted vessel is not the prismatic coefficient but the pleasure it brings to its owner, and this was a masterpiece. Both the sun and the canoe had vanished in the few days since we had last visited this place and one more time we paddled into the wind and rain as the weather deteriorated. One advantage of being in the front of a tandem kayak is that when the wind and rain gets so strong you cannot see, you can just look down and paddle while the rudder man gets a face peel from Mother Nature as he picks the course. About when we were out of readily digestible calories, we spotted a small cove sheltered from the wind with an overhanging cliff just large enough for one tandem kayak. The lead boat quickly seized the protected area and two grinning faces looked out from the shelter as the second boat paddled up next to a vertical cliff with the rain dripping off the ends of their noses content just to be out of the wind. We heard the roar of a distant motor and wondered if it was a large houseboat or a helicopter, neither of which seemed logical in the storm. The sound grew louder and we waited in anticipation to see what would come into view. We turned to see a river rushing into the lake behind us. Above the river were two large waterfalls that plummeted off the cliff. The moment was recorded with a waterproof point-and-shoot camera which was the only camera that was still working. Seven miles later, exhausted and chilled, we finally reached a wet mucky ridge of clay. With the elegance and dignity of a sloth, we plopped down in the middle of a tarp and pulled it over our heads. The tarp broke the wind and eased the chill. We no longer wondered what the poor people were doing. We dinned on what was remaining in our lunch bags after five days of paddling and soon found that water bottles fastened to the top edge of our flapping roof added a small degree of comfort. Water falling from the sky that had been the pixie dust of our trip no longer held its’ magic. A few days earlier we had approached a trickle of a water fall that dropped from an overhang high above. The small clear stream broke into large drops as it fell through the air and almost made music as it pattered on the lakes surface and echoed against the cliff walls. We created a John Muir moment by paddling through the fall. We had no idea what to expect and were surprised when the drops felt soft and relaxing. Time changes everything and we now sat under the tarp eating our lunch just wishing the pixie dust would stop falling.

For months we had talked of this ideal campsite in a small cove sheltered from the wind and perfectly angled to catch the afternoon sun. It was complete with pools of water for lounging. After miles of paddling our cold, tired, wet, bodies made it to Annie’s Canyon. We left the choppy confused water of the main channel behind and traded it for almost glassy water. We also experienced something new falling from the sky, it was sun beams. We eagerly paddled to experience the campsite that was the highlight of a trip a few years earlier only to find it about twenty feet below the surface. With a few handfuls of trail mix and some chocolate covered almonds that had been saved for a time when both spirits and energy needed a lift we prepared to enter the main channel again.

After 28 miles of rain and stiff headwinds, the fun factor was gone. Vertical cliffs lined both sides of the lake and the view was void of campsites. As we paddled we discussed the potential of making the day exceptionally miserable by paddling 12 more miles into the night to get to the marina. Finally after several false leads some petrified sand dunes offered hope. A small flat area on a sandstone dome about 50 yards from the water and protected from the down channel wind would be our last borrowed bedroom on the lake. We had paddled 33 miles since our last camp and almost 120 since the first day. Just as we thought the lake had decided to be kind it played its’ last card, a joker. The wind shifted direction and intensity and one last gale lashed us. Two of us quickly threw all our gear and ourselves in the tent we had just set. We listened to the others struggling to get their tent pitched in the storm and grinned, they were experiencing a lack of comfort but safety was not a concern.

That night Dave prepared our last feast in the shelter of the vestibule. The storm broke and we emerged in dry fleece, basking in the light of a full moon. The night was calm as the clouds gave way to stars. The cliff on the far side of the lake reflected the moonlight. With just a few miles ahead of us we thought of the miles behind us.

Each canyon had shared with us a unique experience. Bishops Canyon was a narrow canyon with numerous caves that we were able to paddle into for shelter. Fifty-mile canyon was a canyon of grandeur complete with a stadium-sized cave. Davis Gulch provided our dream campsite and favorite waterfall. Another canyon was a graveyard of weathered and grayed tree tops that reached up from the depths below. Two day’s earlier we had hiked Explorer Canyon. The canyon was full of green trees, green grass, and green frogs. Green was a color we had not seen since our paddles first hit the water. Birds sang in the trees, which was a significant change from the Turkey Vultures, Ravens, and Great Blue Heron that had accompanied our trip so far. We looked high on the canyon rim in hopes to see a California Condor, a species that dates back to the ice age and which is often seen in this area. The Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning ancient ones, had established a great empire in the region about 2,000 years ago. The civilization mysteriously disappeared. If only we had observed what the Condors had observed we might understand the ancient civilization that once thrived here. We followed a trail up the canyon through trees, across a stream, over red rock, and under a blue sky. In an erosion path that cut through an area of vegetated sand dunes we discovered our first clue of an earlier civilization. Five feet below ground level protruding out of a gully wall was a collection of plastic plates and cups. Although we were almost a mile from the lakeshore, where we were standing had been near the shoreline when the lake was higher. Years of drought had taken its toll.

Scott spotted some petroglyphs that the rest of us would have easily walked past without noticing. One thing became clear as we studied a smaller image chipped in the rock. It seemed to be of more recent origin, yes mindless jerks haunt even remote areas. Further up the canyon we found Zane Grey Arch and in an alcove above the arch one more sign of the past, a granary and a small cob of maize. The cob was a little shorter than my little finger and bent like a banana, corn has changed significantly since someone cultivated this small morsel. The canyon ended in a horseshoe shaped alcove. A plunge pool marked the impact site of water that had fallen a day earlier from the high overhanging cliff above. Long grass had been laid over flat radiating out from the center of the pool and rocks worn smooth from the years of waterfalls surrounded it. Laying on our backs looking at the sky the canyon seemed to close in on all sides. Hanging gardens decorated the rock wall where natural seeps provided them with the elixir of life. Canyon Wren sang from the cliffs above while Hopi chipmunks jumped from rock to rock, and below Poison Ivy and ferns added to the scene. What happened to the ancients that once called this place home? In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond speculates that climate change, deforestation, erosion caused by agricultural practices, over consumption from a power elite, and occupancy of marginal zones all led to a societal collapse and the downfall of the Anasazi. The desert that is often rugged and ruthless is also fragile. The society that vanished actually lasted for more than 1,000 years on this land, much longer than our current Anglo-Saxon culture. Were they a success or were they a failure; and what will we become?

Our last night we sat on the edge of the large main canyon staring at the full moon enjoying our last night of the trip. There is a Hindu saying that when you can see the moon you no longer need the finger. We had gotten what we had come for. Our minds were clear of daily distractions and one more time we could see clearly. We did not need a finger to point the direction.

The last morning was sunny and the short paddle to the marina was relaxing. T-shirts had replaced gore-tex and sunscreen became a necessity for the first time. It was a Saturday and the vroom vroom of the weekend crowd filled the air. We paddled through the confusion and exhaust and quietly loaded our gear on the trailer. A short walk to the restroom rewarded us with running water and a chance to wash and put on a fresh change of clothes. It felt unnatural as the car started to move without requiring any effort. A few hours later we would be eating hamburgers and drinking soft drinks. As we drove home we learned that the storm had taken houses off their foundations and destroyed sections of highway. Lake Powell, the 8.5 trillion gallon lake with 1960 miles of shoreline had risen over 4 feet. A few weeks later we learned from a civil engineer that monitors that part of the country that gages that had been built to withstand a 100-year event had been destroyed, it was a 1,000 year event. An event that was minor compared to what Bretz had studied but for us it was the one week out of 52,000 to be on the lake.

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Content Copyright Scott Baxter 2008

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