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
My forays into the canyons soon evolved into a five-year project culminating in a book, The Resurrection of Glen Canyon: A New Vision for Living in the American West. When I first embarked on this project, I was primarily motivated by my desire to explore places I thought were forever out of my reach; to search for magic light in canyons few people had ever seen before. But as the project evolved, it took on additional meaning as I realized it was about more than beautiful, glowing sandstone chambers; it was about witnessing the transformation of these canyons as life reclaimed the barren ground.
Willow Gulch provided the most remarkable example of this transformation process. Located several miles north of Davis Gulch, Willow has carved a deep groove into the Navajo sandstone on its short journey to the Escalante River. For my first trip into Willow in 2005 to photograph its dewatered section, I dropped in near its headwaters and wound my way deeper and deeper into its labyrinth until I encountered the old high-water mark of the reservoir. I always feel as if I’m walking into a time machine as I descend into these formerly reservoir-flooded canyons. As I wandered down Willow, I was dismayed to discover a mile-long devastation zone of crumbling sediment banks, oozing mud, windblown tumbleweeds and swirling clouds of dust. Not a pretty picture. Other than a few shots of the apocalyptic scene, I saved a lot of money on film that day.
In what I came to refer to as “The Dead Zone,” that place where the reservoir meets the land, bubbles rose through the oozing muck at the reservoir’s edge while dead cottonwood logs floated on the scum-covered water. All greenery had vanished and the canyon was dead silent except for the sound of an idling powerboat around the next bend. Anxious to return to the living world of the canyon above the reservoir, a profound feeling swept over me as soon as I retreated upstream around the first bend. As though a line had been drawn in the sand, I was immediately out of the Dead Zone and surrounded again by willows, cattails, cottonwoods and the sounds of life. It was like flipping a switch. Down canyon was an example of how we manage our world, and here was an example of how the forces of nature manage things.
The water level of Lake Powell dropped to an all-time low of 145 feet below its full-pool capacity in April 2005. Last winter’s above-average snowpack raised the water level to its highest point since 2002. As I write this, it laps at the dam, 71 feet down the face. Much of what I saw has once again slipped beneath the waves. It’s difficult to say where things are headed. As we continue to conduct a vast global experiment by dumping CO2 into the air, we will undoubtedly affect the precipitation patterns in the West. Scientists suggest that our planet’s wet places will get wetter and the dry places dryer. If this assumption is correct, we can look forward to more prolonged and severe droughts in the West with all their ramifications, including their effect on the lost canyons of Glen Canyon.
See more of James Kay’s explorations in Glen Canyon in the forthcoming book The Resurrection of Glen Canyon: A New Vision for Living in the American West by Annette McGivney; Photographs by James Kay. Go to www.BraidedRiverBooks.org for more information.
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