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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Resurrection Of Glen Canyon


A photographer rediscovers a landscape that briefly reemerged in the wake of a prolonged Western drought

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glen canyon
Kayaking in Reflection Canyon beneath Lake Powell’s 140-foot-tall “bathtub ring.” At this level, the reservoir has lost nearly 70 percent of its water volume.
In the first half of the 20th century, the Bureau of Reclamation embarked on a program of massive public works projects to begin harnessing the water resources of the American West. In 1928, Congress authorized the first mega-project of this new era in the construction of Boulder (Hoover) Dam on the lower Colorado River. This enormous concrete structure was the first installment in a vast scheme by the Bureau to convert virtually every mile of the Colorado River into a series of stair-step lakes from its headwaters in the Rockies to its delta in the Sea of Cortez.

With the successful construction of Hoover Dam under its belt, the Bureau turned its attention to other potential dam sites along the Colorado River. Two massive dams were proposed for the Grand Canyon, but died due to public opposition. Licking its wounds, the Bureau soon found an exceptional location for its next dam just a few miles upriver from Grand Canyon’s Marble Canyon. The sheer Navajo sandstone walls of Glen Canyon were a dam-builder’s dream and would form an ideal foundation for the 10-million-ton concrete plug that soon rose from the drawing boards. Due to minimal public opposition and nonexistent environmental-review laws, the plans were fast-tracked and construction began in 1956. By the time the last bucket of concrete poured into Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, a nascent Lake Powell was already beginning to pool at its base. It took another 17 years before the reservoir finally topped off in 1980, flooding 186 miles of the Colorado River and countless miles of side canyons beneath hundreds of feet of water.

glen canyon
Willow Gulch, Escalante Canyons, Utah. When last at its “normal” full pool elevation in 1999, the waters of Lake Powell invaded the small side canyon and flooded this pothole to a depth of 10 feet above the water level here.
Beginning at Hite, Utah, and ending just above Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River, Glen Canyon was named by the Powell Expedition of 1869 due to the many deep, sinuous side canyons that branched off the Colorado River every few miles. Adorned with their hanging gardens of maidenhair fern, the sound of croaking frogs and the descending trill of canyon wrens, these hidden grottos teemed with life. Beavers dammed willow and cattail-lined streams to provide habitat for multitudes of creatures. Along the Colorado, large numbers of blue herons roosted in extensive groves of cottonwood trees as deer and coyotes left their tracks in the wet sand.

These narrow, life-supporting, river-edge riparian zones were the exception in this land of barren rock and windblown sand. The flooding of Glen Canyon extinguished all this life. Now, where the reservoir’s fluctuating waterline meets the land, it’s devoid of life, save for a few nonnative tamarisk shrubs clinging tenaciously to sun-blasted rocks.

Rediscovering A Lost Canyon

My first impressions of Glen Canyon and Lake Powell were from the deck of a houseboat in 1984. At that point in time, I had little knowledge of what lay beneath the waves. Fast-forward to the ’90s when I spent much of my time exploring the canyonlands all across Utah’s vast Colorado Plateau Province. By then, my shelves were stacked deep with books describing Glen Canyon as the most inspiring stretch of canyon country along the entire Colorado River. Compared with my first trip to Lake Powell, I now understood the magnitude of what had been lost with the flooding of Glen Canyon. So when the deep winter snowpack in the Rockies failed to materialize and recharge the waters of Lake Powell in the early years of this decade, I decided to embark on a project to explore and photograph these “lost” canyons as they began to emerge into the light of day. With the waters at historic lows, I wanted to see for myself and make a photographic record of the spectacular canyons for which Glen was so renowned.

As when prying open the cover of an ancient sarcophagus to reveal a desiccated, cobweb-covered occupant, I didn’t necessarily expect the experience to be a pretty one. As I organized gear for my first trip into a dewatered section of Davis Gulch in early 2003, I imagined myself floundering through boot-sucking mud beneath dead cottonwood trees with skeletal branches pointing skyward and a canyon bottom filled wall-to-wall with impenetrable groves of tamarisk.

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