Last week I read an article reporting that Lake Mead has dropped to its lowest levels since the reservoir was filled upon completion of the Hoover Dam in the 1930’s. This present drought has been going on for over 14 years with waters dropping over 130 feet since the last high-water mark was posted in 2000. One of the visual results of this precipitous water level drop is the appearance of a “bathtub ring” of calcite mineral deposits left when waters were at a higher level. Here is what Lake Mead’s bathtub ring looks like, courtesy of Getty images:
There are 40 million people who rely on Lake Mead’s water, so this drought has severe implications – I hope that weather conditions, which are often cyclical will soon turn around this impending catastrophe.
I have seen this bathtub ring phenomenon during my travels through the Canyonlands of the United States. At that time, back in 2003, Lake Powell was under a similar onslaught, and its waters had dropped to a record 144 feet from its high of 560 feet. A little background history: Lake Powell was named for Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell and the lake is 186 miles long. It is the second largest man-made lake in the United States after the above-mentioned Lake Mead and it took over 17 years to originally fill up with 9 trillion gallons of water once the Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1966. The lands were originally inhabited by prehistoric ancestors of the Anasazi Pueblo Indigenous Tribes going as far back as 9-11,000 years ago. Then, in 1869, Major John Powell Wesley mounted the first of two Colorado RIver explorations where he mapped, explored and kept detailed journals of this 1,000 mile journey. In Powell’s footsteps, the Mormon pioneers entered the area beginning in 1871 and under their direction the first ferryboat service (Lees Ferry) was established across the Colorado River. The area was also known as one of the preferred hideouts of Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch. The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, encompasses lands in Utah and Arizona across over 1.2 million acres of mostly desert :
To give you an idea of the immense scope of the Canyonlands – Glen Canyon is only a tiny part of the ESCALANTE NATIONAL MONUMENT (GRAND STAIRCASE) – you’ll see it below right by the Colorado River and to the left of Jacob Lake – click on the map to enlarge it). One amazing factoid about the Grand Staircase: the bottom layer of rock at BRYCE CANYON is the top layer of rock at ZION, and the bottom layer at ZION is the top layer of THE GRAND CANYON. And of course the Colorado River is at the very bottom of it all:
This is a land of humbling beauty and with the exceptiond of Lake Powell (Glen Canyon Dam) it is all nature. Let;s explore a few of the most spectacular sites, starting with Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell:
GLEN CANYON DAM AND LAKE POWELL
The Glen Canyon Dam, constructed between 1936 and 1966, was built amidst great controversy think many dams can claim this. The dam was built to provide hydroelectricity and flow regulation from the upper Colorado River Basin to the lower, but in its “wake” Native American artifacts were lost under the water. There is also much debate that says the dam is actually causing water to be siphoned off into the porous sandstone, rather than help regulate the levels particularly during drought. Fights rage back and forth over potentially draining Lake Powell completely, but knowing how these political battles ensue – I doubt any change will happen soon. While it is here, there are wondrous vistas to behold – as seen in these pictures taken during our rafting down the Colorado from the Glen Canyon Dam to Lees Ferry and Last Chance Bay.
As mentioned above, at the time of my visit Lake Powell was in the midst of a severe drought and as such much of our meander down the Colorado River unfortunately showed how deeply the water had receded: The good news is that today Lake Powell’s water levels are back up:
ANTELOPE SLOT CANYON
When Lake Powell was filled many gorges and canyons were submerged – in fact there is one famous underwater structure, called the CATHEDRAL IN THE DESERT which is only seen when the Lake is severely parched during drought. The Cathedral has colorful sandstone walls that arch upward to form a huge amphitheater with a narrow slit at the top. Hanging gardens grow from seeps in the stone walls and a small stream falls down the cliff face at one end. Depending on the angle and strength of the sunlight streaming in through the ceiling’s sots – a myriad of colorful landscapes can be formed. When a drought cycle is concluded, this magnificent place is once again hidden underwater:
Above ground, however, there are still some powerfully beautiful slots that provide not only feast for the eyes, but also a frisson of danger to add some additional adrenaline to your system. There was one particular slot canyon that we visited which had been discovered in 1931 when a local Navajo girl searched for one of her lost sheep. The slot started at 125 feet high; however a flash flood that occurred a week before our visit had carved out another 9 feet – I am certainly glad we weren’t there then! When a flash flood hits, whirlpools of water carve swirling gouts into the soft sandstone. As it was, the guide took particular care watching the skies and radioing into base to make sure a storm wasn’t headed our way as these come swiftly and often without much warning. As I said, “high adrenaline pump” as we made our way into the slot. The smooth swirling eroded walls touched here and there by sunlight peaking through cracks and the open ceiling created an otherworldly effect – and my pictures frankly do not do justice – you need to see this up close and personal:
As we said goodbye to Glen Canyon, nature provided an awesome desert sunset that emphasized the point that it can provide peaceful beauty as well as swift destruction:
I leave you now with a wish for Happy Trails until we meet again, sung by my childhood crush, Roy Rogers.