From our camp in lower Last Chance Creek, we hiked about four miles to an enormous bathtub ring on the muddy fringes of Lake Powell.
Now that the lake is down a hundred feet, expansive mud flats stretch for miles in canyons once inundated with impounded water.
When Lake Powell drowned Glen Canyon 40 years ago it covered what some consider one of the wonders of the world, a canyon held more sacred and more glorious yet because of its tragic submersion.
Today, Glen Canyon is slowly rising from Lake Powell, resurrected as the reservoir shrinks like a desert pothole retreating in the midday sun. Surrounding the lake is a moonscape of cracked mud and flaked silt. The earth looks like elephant skin.
New vegetation chokes the barren, silt-filled meanders of canyons once lush with native grasses, willows and cottonwoods. Two primary species are reclaiming what Lake Powell has relinquished – tamarisk and tumbleweed.
Tamarisk is one of the staunchest of the desert’s foreign plant invaders. Tammies are the first things to take root and flourish in the now-arable canyons, covering the raw earth like a thick, green scab, guzzling water, and crowding out indigenous species.
“What would Edward Abbey have thought?” posed one of my friends. Seeing the damage done from 40 years of saturation and the residue of four decades of silt, Abbey would have thought what we thought: What a pitiful mess!
Abbey died 15 years ago last week. How fitting to remember his scorching indictments of Western industrial civilization as we surveyed firsthand its impacts on the face of his beloved American West.
Abbey reviled Lake Powell. He and that damnable lake constituted severely opposing icons of desert land ethics. As we hiked across mud flats stinking in the noon sun, the lake was shrinking into oblivion in the aura of Abbey’s ghostly presence.
While radical conservationists have long advocated dismantling the dam, draining Lake Powell and restoring Glen Canyon through political means, the job is being done today by nature. A prolonged drought has reduced streamflows in the Colorado River, putting Lake Powell on a starvation diet that is shrinking its enormous girth.
Calls on senior water rights in California are forcing water managers to channel most of the Colorado River on to the West Coast. Predictions call for Glen Canyon Dam to be pretty much inoperable by 2008.
Abbey would have been gleeful. He would have cheered the unspoiling of Glen Canyon as the ultimate defiance of the beaverlike dam builders from the Bureau of Reclamation. He would have been there, toothbrush in hand, to help scrub the bathtub ring from cathedral canyon walls.
When I met Abbey several times in Crested Butte during the early 1980s, he was quiet and self-effacing. On the written page, however, he was a lion whose roar echoed through every canyon in the Southwest.
In one of his screeds, Abbey urged activists to get outdoors and immerse themselves in the wilds, to fight the good fight for conservation, but not to the point of burnout. Above all, he said, it is important to take the time to feel the essence of the land.
He ended with this proclamation: “I promise you this one sweet victory over your enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards.”
Abbey outlived some of them. His memory may soon outlive the dam he vilified and the lake he cursed. Thinking about Abbey on the sun-cracked mud flats of a dying lake is one way of fulfilling his prophecy.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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