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The Mighty Colorado at a Glide

The Mighty Colorado at a Glide

The New York Times | May 16, 2010

By Kate Siber

THERE we sat, five paddlers in three canoes on the Colorado River in northern Arizona, simply observing. The setting sun washed the 1,500-foot canyon walls in hues of coral; cotton-puff clouds dotted the pink-tinged sky. The still surface of the river so perfectly mirrored the cliffs and sky that it was hard, at a glance, to know where the river ended and the cliffs began. Except for a few ducks dallying on the shoreline, we were alone.

Though in some ways this 15-mile stretch of river with its sandy beaches, rich archaeological history and unspoiled scenery is a dead ringer for parts of the Grand Canyon farther downriver, there are some key differences—most notably that it’s about 200 miles shorter than the Grand Canyon trip, requires no special permits and is significantly more tranquil, with none of the boat-tossing rapids that can occur downriver. So while a trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon takes at least a week to float (more in a boat with no engine), requires a permit that can take years to win and includes some fierce rapids, this leg only takes a day or two and is perfect for beginner boaters.

Yet sandwiched between Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon—two of the Southwest’s most popular boating destinations—this stretch of flat water is often forgotten by kayakers, rafters and canoeists. And it’s almost laughably easy to get to. Instead of heading downstream from Lee’s Ferry, where most river trips through the Grand Canyon begin, you go upstream instead. And while avid boaters might want to paddle themselves upriver, it’s far easier to get a lift to the Glen Canyon Dam, then paddle downstream with the current.

Kayak Powell, an outfitter based in nearby Page, Ariz., recently made it even easier to organize a trip. Its new shop, Adventure Center, rents canoes, kayaks and accouterments, like paddles, life jackets and waterproof sacks to keep clothes dry. Last year Kayak Powell also started arranging boat shuttles upriver with a local fishing guide or with Colorado River Discovery, a small sightseeing company.

On an unseasonably balmy fall weekend, four friends and I decided to test the waters. We picked up our boats from Kayak Powell, tied them to the roof of our truck, then drove to Lee’s Ferry, where the extent of our indulgent packing became embarrassingly clear as we transferred bundles of firewood, coolers filled with food and beer, folding chairs, books, flashlights and a handful of yoga mats from the truck onto two mint-green pontoon rafts.

A chipper college student named Rory Glover captained the boat I was on, and as we motored upstream and farther from civilization, the red walls of the canyon grew taller and steeper as if we were entering a kingdom of giants. Jagged sedan-sized boulders lay partway down grassy hillsides, multihued canyons twisted up from the river, and empty beaches beckoned from the banks. We passed an antique road built along a steep bank that was used by ferry passengers over 100 years ago when this was the only place westbound pioneers and traders could cross the river for 700 miles.

After what seemed like a dozen hairpin bends in the river, the Glen Canyon Dam appeared suddenly like a misplaced skyscraper. An imposing 710-foot-tall work of concrete, it is 300 feet wide at its base and stretches even wider as it spans two cliffs. Though the dam has sparked controversy in the past and has drastically changed the natural flow of the river, it does offer a few perks for river runners, ensuring year-round flows and filtering the water from the bottom of Lake Powell before pouring it into the river below. That translates to water so clear that trout are visible 15 feet below the surface and to water temperatures that are as bone-chilling as the Atlantic, even in the height of summer when the outside temperature often tops 100.

After Ms. Glover dropped us on a sandy beach just below the dam, and the drone of her motor waned in the distance, we set off downstream. The current was strong enough to whisk us along without much hard work, allowing the scenery to distract us.

Four miles and about 90 minutes later, we arrived at Ferry Swale, one of six sandy campsites, each with a composting toilet, maintained by the Park Service. With all of our many imported comforts, this was five-star camping. After setting up our tents and cooking dinner, there was blissfully little to do but watch hundreds of stars glimmer into view as night fell. Later the moon arrived, bathing the cliffs in a surreal silvery glow.

River trips on peaceful stretches like this invite laziness and lingering, so the next morning we lounged about and sipped coffee, did some cursory yoga and inspected the tracks of ringtails and centipedes circling our tents and the bushes. Finally we tossed our gear into the canoes and headed downstream again.

One of the remarkable things about the Colorado is that no matter how many people have traveled it and no matter how many have tried to plunder it, from railroad builders to miners and even Hollywood movie crews (parts of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Broken Arrow” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” were filmed here), it retains a palpable sense of wildness. Our relative solitude—during our two-day trip we saw only a handful of anglers and one group of kayakers—amplified our feeling of adventurousness.

On a particularly wide and inviting sandy beach, we pulled ashore and followed a path up toward the cliffs to a site our shuttle driver, Ms. Glover, had pointed out during the ride up. There, we discovered a series of petroglyphs probably etched about 800 to 1,300 years ago: a series of three bighorn sheep and what looked like deer or antelope strutting in lines of six and seven, and figures and zigzags, none of which archaeologists have fully deciphered.

Plenty of beaches and canyons vied for our attention as we drifted down the waterway, but we decided to spend our waning daylight on a short trek to a natural amphitheater Ms. Glover had recommended. After dragging our boats onto the sand in a small inlet, we tiptoed through prickly pear cactuses and huffed up a rocky hillside to arrive in a half-shell chamber that framed a view of the river and held an 1889 inscription by a member of one of the earliest Western expeditions down the river. Sitting there alone in the contemplative silence, it was easy for us to imagine, if erroneously, that we were some of the first to witness this bit of history.

Hours later, as we drove from Lee’s Ferry back to Page, I glanced over the multicolored cliffs set ablaze by the sunset across the flat valley. The Colorado River’s gorge cut through the desert like a thin wound from a sharp knife. From afar, one would never know that one of the West’s mightiest waterways flowed in that slim crack in the desert floor.


Kayak Powell (5 South Lake Powell Boulevard, Page, Ariz.; 888-854-7862; rents canoes for $65.85, kayaks for $49.39 a day—a price that also includes paddles, life jackets, dry bags and tax. Camping equipment is also available.

Colorado River Discovery (meet at Lee’s Ferry; 888-522-6644; offers shuttle service up the river for $23 a person and $20 a boat. Kayak Powell can also help arrange a shuttle with a local fishing guide, who often has a more flexible schedule.