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Kayaking Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon

The hidden side of a watery Utah playground.

Little-Known Fact: The Escalante River, which feeds into Lake Powell, was the last river in the continental United States to be named.

Some 280 million years ago, the spot I’m standing on would have been at the far eastern edge of an extensive ancient sea. A while later (we’re talking in geologic terms here), the sea receded and scorching winds shifted the remaining sands into dunes, some reaching 1,200 feet high. After more time, the sand compressed into stone and the earth heaved and tilted, creating the bedrock uplift of the Colorado Plateau.

Down through the sandstone poured snowmelt from the young Rocky Mountains, and grain by grain the porous sandstone washed away. Left behind was a magnificent canyon, which Major John Wesley Powell named “Glen” when he first traveled its length in 1869.

Major Powell wouldn’t recognize it now. Whereas he could have stood on this spot and looked down into that muddy brown river surging nearly 600 feet below, I am cooling my toes in the brilliant blue-jewel water of Lake Powell. The lake began forming in 1963 after completion of the Glen Canyon Dam, and didn’t reach its 186-mile zenith until 1980.

My tent, tied to buff boulders, sits below an endless low sweep of faded ruby-red Navajo sandstone and flaps idly in the wind that April so often brings. My lakefront spread occupies only a few feet of approximately 2,000 miles of shoreline (including 96 side canyons) within the 1.1 million-acre Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

An enchilada pie warms on the stove and a bottle of cabernet sauvignon stands open, oxidizing in the desert air. Chalk up another benefit of this excursion; weight is not a concern for the paddler of a kayak.

On this, our fourth trip to Lake Powell, we paddled south from Halls Crossing, one of five marinas, exploring and camping on isolated shelves and underneath fabulous shadowy overhangs. We build small driftwood fires after dinner and watch the light dance in ghostly patterns on the sandstone walls. Most of our time has been spent in slim side corridors sometimes barely wider than our boats.

To avoid the afternoon winds we’ve shoved off early each day, paddling on a morning mirror that reflects the painted precipices hundreds of feet into the flat water. Last night the weather took a turn as dense clouds formed darkly from the west and in a heartbeat blew into a torrential storm that sent us flying into the tent.

Here is an infinity of peace, gentleness, and raging beauty. We break from our reverie only long enough to make plans for another visit.

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