Have you ever wondered what it would be like to paddle from the base of Glen Canyon Dam to Lees Ferry?
Did you know for the price of a kayak rental and a backhaul, one can paddle this 16 mile stretch of the Colorado River?
Would you be willing to spend a few days camping on the river so your morning stroll could look like this?
If so, paradise for peanuts does exist! All it takes is some careful planning, camping gear, and a kayak.
Two of my favorite wilderness areas in Arizona can be found along Highway 89A; Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and Lees Ferry. Lees Ferry marks the start of the Grand Canyon and lies within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Lees Ferry is an outdoor adventurer’s thoroughfare, where one adventure begins, another one ends. River rafting trips into the Grand Canyon are launched from Lees Ferry.
Paria Canyon backpackers will find themselves ending their five day hike here.
Fishermen and women come from all over the country to experience world class trout fishing along this 16 mile stretch of river.
For the nature lover, this three-day paddle is undoubtedly one of the most intimate ways to experience the Colorado River. If sharing experiences are the essence of intimacy and bond building, then I consider Glen Canyon to be a welcoming stranger.
I left Glen Canyon knowing it would be impossible to describe my journey based solely on the written word. Photographs may capture the moments of my journey, while the final video may place you in my kayak. With that said, the only way to truly understand Glen Canyon is to get out there and paddle!
My birthday adventure began at Lees Ferry Lodge. We grabbed a quick lunch before picking up our kayak rentals. Kayak Powell stores their kayaks at the lodge to save customers driving to their headquarters in Page, Arizona.
On a hot June summer’s day, we loaded our kayaks and headed down to Lees Ferry. While we were waiting for our backhaul boat ride, I was fortunate enough to chat with one of the park rangers. Her biggest tip for kayakers: stay out of the middle of the river! Boaters are simply unable to see kayakers. From a kayaker’s perspective, it’s not safe to find yourself in the middle of the river at the mercy of a fishing boat wake.
Our Colorado River Discovery guide Martin Stamat met us at the boat ramp at 2:30 pm. Originally from North Carolina, Martin moved to Page, Arizona after being laid off from his job at a boarding school. When Martin is not working on the river you will find him out pursuing his other passion, photography. The backhaul up the river is a journey in itself. Martin talked about the geology of the area and pointed out some of the better fishing and camp spots along the river.
I feel it’s almost impossible to live near the Colorado and not fall in love with this river. Over the years my love affair with the Colorado has continued to evolve. Until recently I never fully understood the southwest’s dependence on this river. The Colorado is undoubtedly the heart of the southwest, without it, many western states would flat line. Considering our current drought I hope the entire nation starts to understand this.
The final 6 miles of our backhaul was film and picture driven. My adventure buddy and videographer Min would be filming our entire trip, and I would be capturing stills.
I wondered if it was even possible to capture the beauty of the red sandstone canyons that rise up on both sides of the river. Would we be able to illustrate how deep and clear the water is? The reality may be that something’s can only be seen and experienced, we seldom truly capture them.
Our 45-minute backhaul excursion ended just below the base of Glen Canyon Dam. Glen Canyon is second only to Hoover Dam in both height and water reservoir capacity.
Having launched previously at the base of Hoover Dam I struggled to notice the difference in dam wall height. Sixteen feet is what separates Hoover Dam from Glen Canyon. I wonder how tempting it was for Glen Canyon Dam engineers not to add an extra foot. Maybe their ego was in check, and triumphing Hoover Dam was not on their list of priorities.
Our backhaul drop off point was Kayak Beach.
It seemed Kayak Beach was not simply a launching spot; it was also home to a family of ospreys.
For half an hour Min and I both watched the osprey mama demonstrate her fishing skills. Flying at full speed she plucked trout from the river and delivered dinner back to her nest. It’s these simple moments of magic that only mother nature can offer.
At 5 pm, we left Kayak Beach bound for the Ropes Trail Campsite. Within 30 minutes of floating and paddling, we reached our destination.
After securing our kayaks we carried our camping gear up a slight sandy hill.
Camping is primitive here, meaning you pack all your supplies in, and you carry your trash out.
Pit toilets were not far from camp. Considering the 100-degree summer temperature the latrines actually smelt rather clean.
The only other campers to be found at Ropes Trail were a friendly fishing family from Prescott, Arizona.
Fisherman Joe told me he felt it was important to spend TIME with his family, as opposed to dollar spending. His words were music to my ears! I feel TIME is a currency many of us can no longer afford. It seems mainstream society perceives time as something in the FUTURE as opposed to the NOW. The reality is we cannot borrow, refinance, or invest time. Money can be borrowed and invested, yet it still cannot replace the TIME spent.
Before dinner, Min and I ventured out from camp to explore the colored rock walls that have been carved by the wind, water and time. We both walked off in separate directions, perhaps hoping to discover something the other had not.
As the sun was beginning to set we returned to camp to find an unexpected surprise. Dinner!
Mother Nature’s alarm clock, the splashing sounds of jumping trout feeding on insects, woke me at 430am. Sleepy eyed, I crawled out of the tent, slipped on my trail shoes and headed for the beach.
Imagine starting your day with a view like this?
I am not sure what caught my eye first; Glen Canyon’s mirroring effect on the water or the very apparent lowered water level of the river.
On this morning I believe Mother Nature left a sign on her front door saying “Welcome Solitude Seekers”. SOUL-I-TUDE for me is that in-between state when you’re experiencing the planet by yourself, yet without the feeling of being alone. It’s like being excited yet calm at the same time.
Our original intention of leaving camp by 7 am was no longer a reality. I knew the forecasted afternoon temperature would exceed 100 degrees, yet I could not part with the masterpiece mother nature had created.
Glen Canyon can be blazing hot in the summer, while the water is hypothermia – inducing year round. A kayaker’s reality: 47-degree water and air temperatures exceeding one hundred. This paddle trip is one of extreme dualisms. Where else can one experience heatstroke and hypothermia on the same day? Imagine trying to keep your body cool in a desert heat, while wearing neoprene booties to keep your toes warm?
By 10 am, we were back in our kayaks. We had no set agenda for the day, outside of camping somewhere close to Horseshoe Bend (Mile 9 Camp)
Out first stop of the day was a beachy area on the left side of the river. The water was shallow enough for me to brave an ankle numbing stroll.
As we continued our paddle down the river, I noticed a familiar face float by. It was Fisherman Joe, the sweet man who treated us to freshly cooked trout at camp the night before.
As we passed several mini waterfalls I started to wonder why the water looked green in some areas of the canyon. A fishing guide would later explain to me that the green water color is due to the feathery algae called cladophora that thrive in the river.
Cladophora forms the building block of a highly productive food chain and is an important source of nutrients for many species living below Glen Canyon Dam.
With crystal clear water visibility and fish swimming past my kayak every few seconds, it was hard to believe I was paddling down the Colorado River. If the water wasn’t so frigid it would be a snorkeler’s paradise. Was I paddling through the tropics or was I really in the desert?
Min suggested our next stop; a stone covered tropical looking shoreline where we could honor the art of fly fishing.
I was fortunate enough to bump into my friend Mike Roth, who has been a fishing guide on the river for over 25 years.
I have always envied professions that required an outdoor office. I think many of us would trade our power suit for waders and a fishing hat on any given day of the week. I wished mainstream society and educational institutions encouraged us to seek employment opportunities that cater to our passions and personality. Imagine playing to your strengths and pursuing a career that enhances your happiness, as opposed to settling for a job that gives you a false sense of stability, not to mention a double dose of dissatisfaction.
After saying goodbye to Mike, we climbed back into our kayaks and continued down the river. Exposed sand bars and sandy beaches made for a long day on the water. We found ourselves stopping more than we were starting. Seriously, who could blame us!
As we stopped at this sand bar I found myself asking Min numerous questions.
How it is possible that an exposed sand bar in Glen Canyon looks more like an atoll in the South China Sea?
Why were we the only kayakers paddling through paradise?
Every year thousands of travelers drive past Lees Ferry on their way to the North Rim. Have we become so focused on visiting national parks that we have disregarded national recreations areas and monuments?
Do we consider national parks to be ‘the prettiest’ of the park system?
If so, why?
To the right of the sand bar, I found myself in a mini trout pond. There were many moments when I found myself simply sitting and being still.
We floated down the river for another half mile. With minimal shade along the river bank finding a shady lunch spot was not easy.
A local joined us for lunch and was keen to teach me the art of sunbathing.
Ferry Swell was our next planned stop. Prehistoric art was my main reason for pulling out the map. The petroglyphs were on the left side of the river, and only a mile away. For most of our journey we had been hugging the right side of the canyon. Kayakers should never be found paddling in the middle of the river, unless you are making a crossing to the other side of the canyon.
Please use extreme caution when crossing the river. In many ways, it’s like negotiating a busy freeway on a bicycle. Power boats run the middle of the river, you cannot out paddle them. It’s dangerous for powerboats to suddenly change their speed and direction.
Colorado River Discovery tour boats were already docked when we pulled into Ferry Swell. Foreign languages and a few British accents could be heard along the beach. Leave it to the Italians and the British to take the Polar Bear plunge into the Colorado.
A few tourists approached us and expressed their envy regarding our kayaking trip. Collectively they all agreed that one day on the river is not enough time in paradise.
Min and I waited until the tour boats left before hiking the half-mile pathway to the petroglyphs. The afternoon heat was extreme, to the point you could feel the heat steaming off the sand. Sunscreen was no longer adequate; my bandana became a sun shield for my face.
From 1 to 1300AD, the Anasazi thrived throughout canyon country. Petroglyphs enabled a culture and community to document their existence.
Imagine a sharp stone as your pencil and a rock wall as your notebook. What images would you draw that would be reflective of your way of life? What would your message be? What would you convey to future generations?
I have often toyed with the idea of burying coffee cans that hold descriptions and messages about living in the 21st century. Sadly, I think every message would contain some form of apology regarding the way we have mistreated the planet. If this petroglyph wall was modern day would we engrave images of laptops and cell phones, or would we attempt to draw images of climate change?
We left the petroglyphs around 5 pm, bound for 9 Mile Camp on Horseshoe Bend.
Looking down into Horseshoe Bend is far different than paddling around the 180-degree curve.
We decided not to stay at Mile 9 Camp. As beautiful as it was, several Boy Scout troops were camped there.
I wanted to spend my final night on the river in a quieter environment. 8 Mile Camp seemed to fit the bill perfectly!
While setting up camp I heard a faint buzzing sound. It seemed we were sharing our camp with a family of cicadas, well, a few thousand of them actually.
By 10 pm, the faint buzzing sound had evolved into a full-blown static orchestra. I guess cicadas are insomniacs; they serenaded our camp into the wee hours of the morning. I finally gave up on the idea of sleeping and committed myself to being on the water by 530am.
Packed up and ready to roll we hit the water a little before 6 am. The air was still, with a slight coolness coming from the water’s surface. The conditions on the water were pristine. It was surreal having this stretch of the river all to ourselves.
We floated the first two miles downstream. There was no need to paddle, as the current was moving us along nicely. There were no fishing boats, no tour rafts, and no wakes to negotiate. I was amazed by the number of fish I saw racing alongside my kayak.
Hal Boyle once said, “ What makes a river so restful to people is that it doesn’t have any doubt” – it is sure where it is going , and it doesn’t want to go anywhere else. On this day I felt restful and free of any doubt. I knew where I was going and I did not to be want to be anywhere else.
Around 8 am, our first boat of the day broke through the mirroring effect of the river.
Have you ever seen a canyon’s mirror turn into a water staircase?
On this day, a fishing boat left behind a masterpiece. It was undoubtedly a collaborative effort between machine and mother nature.
We continued our Monday morning commute down the river. The only traffic to negotiate was the trout swimming upstream. Imagine paddling this stretch of river as your daily commute to work?
I remember the countless hours I spent in southern Californian traffic during my 17-year stint in Los Angeles. Initially, spending an hour to drive twelve miles seemed absurd, however, within a year it became the new norm. At what point does crazy become the accepted normal? My paddle trip might appear insanely beautiful, however, after 3 days this type of scenery was becoming my new normal.
Within an hour we found ourselves paddling into the home stretch. Lees Ferry, our backhaul starting point was now coming into view.
I didn’t want my paddle trip to be over. With mother nature, I always feel like I’m living on borrowed time. Every day is different; reinforcing the fact that change is the only guarantee in life.
As we docked I wondered if Min had been able to capture the magic of the canyon. I will let you be the judge!