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Saturday, October 1, 2005

The Lost World Of Glen Canyon

Dry years in the West have lowered the level of Lake Powell and revealed long-submerged canyons

lost world of glen canyon

I feel as though I'm traveling back through time as I round yet another bend in Davis Gulch, a tributary of the Escalante River in southern Utah. I'm descending deeper and deeper into a red-rock labyrinth, which hasn't seen the light of day for more than 30 years. Each new twist in the canyon walls reveals a succession of plant communities quickly reclaiming the newly exposed ground. Submerged beneath 60 feet of Lake Powell water just five years ago, the small clear stream at my feet now gurgles beneath a profusion of willows and eight-foot-tall cottonwood trees swaying in the breeze. Before making this trip, I had visions of a muddy slog through silt-clogged, tamarisk-choked canyon bottoms.

But now, my main impression is one of amazement as I witness this canyon quickly recovering its former natural diversity and beauty as the waters of Lake Powell drain away.

Lake Powell was created by the construction of Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River just across the Utah border in Arizona in the early '60s. As the roiling waters of the Colorado River began to pool at the base of the cofferdam, they began to back up into the magnificent water-sculpted tributaries of Glen Canyon.

When the Bureau of Reclamation announced its plans in the early '50s to install a 10-million-ton concrete plug across the river, everyone who knew the hidden secrets of the place was shocked, horrified and unable to comprehend the fact that this marvelous landscape they had come to love was about to be lost "forever." Photographers such as Phillip Hyde, Eliot Porter and Tad Nichols worked feverishly to record the canyons on film before they were inundated by the new reservoir. My first impressions of Lake Powell came from the deck of a houseboat in the early '80s. Sheer red sandstone walls rose vertically out of the impossibly blue water. At that point in time, I had very little knowledge of the wonders that lay beneath our boat as we chugged along. I had first arrived in Utah back in 1972 while the reservoir was still filling, and infatuated with the high country of the West, I didn't discover the canyons of the Colorado Plateau until several years later when the reservoir was nearly full.


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