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Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam — Irresistible Fun, Undeniable Conflict

It's a stark, striking landscape born of tension among the elements, including the influence of man. Water and land are in a perpetual standoff, the lake's shores lapping away at a waterline it took 17 years to reach, once the dam was complete.

Massive sandstone formations jut defiantly out of the middle of the water, and fingers of the lake probe indiscreetly into the depths of canyons, where weird sandstone sculptures are endlessly carved by the wind. The blue of the sky is aggressively vivid in the limited palette of reds and browns. It's the harsh beauty of a supermodel in minimalist haute couture, not the girl next door in a gingham dress.

Lake Powell was formed in 1963 by the Glen Canyon Dam, which is part of a system that delivers water and electricity to an estimated 27 million people all over the West. The lake currently holds about 11.5 million acre-feet of water, at 47% of its capacity, which has decreased dramatically in the last five years due to the recent drought in the Southwest.

The dam's existence was challenged from the very beginning by naturalists and other concerned citizens who worried about the effect on wildlife all along the Colorado River and the destruction of important geological and archaeological structures now submerged in Glen Canyon. Ecologists point to indications that the dam has significantly changed the make-up of aquatic and riparian life not just in the immediate vicinity of the dam and Lake Powell, but as far away as the Grand Canyon portion of the Colorado River. Other opponents of the dam's existence cite the inefficiency of the water containment system and the projected difficulty in generating power should the current drought continue. There are those who go so far as to propose the decommissioning of the dam, and an equally avid group of activists who want to protect the economic value of the dam and lake both as water and power sources as well as recreational and tourist attractions for Arizona and Utah.

Lake Powell That said, it's all about fun when you're leaping off the deck of a houseboat in summer, plunging into the 80 degree water for a brisk escape from the desert heat. The swimming, boating, waterskiing, fishing, hiking and camping in and around Lake Powell is what attracts 3.5 million visitors a year to America's second-largest man-made lake (the largest is Lake Mead along the Arizona/Nevada border) Spanning about 187 miles along the Arizona/Utah border, Lake Powell's coastline is wrinkled by 96 major canyons (and countless little inlets and peninsulas), a coastline that's longer than the U.S. West Coast from Seattle to San Diego. Dehydrated Southwest residents and international visitors alike flock to Powell year-round to fish, drift lazily along in houseboats and explore the inlets and canyons in small boats and jet skis.

Lake Powell provides opportunities for anglers to fish for introduced species including striped bass, walleye, trout, bluegill sunfish and crappie (Hey, that's pronounced "croppie." Please.) Before the Colorado was dammed, none of these species could live in the silty, murky river waters. A few native species are endangered and off-limits to fishermen, including the Colorado River squawfish, razorback sucker and the humpback chub.

While the Lake is the star of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, there's plenty to do on land as well. Mountain biking, camping and hiking along the many miles of trails offers opportunities to discover the natural wonders and historical intrigues of Glen Canyon. There are amazing rock formations like Rainbow Bridge National Monument, hundreds of bird, mammal and reptile species throughout the recreation area's 1.2 million acres, and fascinating archaeological sites.
Those interested in ancient native history will want to visit Defiance House, a cliff dwelling from the late 13th century, most likely inhabited by the Anasazi, the surmised ancestors of the modern Hopi and Pueblo tribes.

Archaeologists discovered Defiance House (named for the dramatic pictographs painted into the nearby cliff face) in 1959, before the river was dammed.

They climbed up one of the breathtaking toe-and-handhold trails chiseled into the sandstone cliffs and found a small cliff dwelling, mostly intact, down to "two perfect red bowls [that] still had scraps of food in them." This image turns the imagination to the mysterious and contested cause for the exodus of the Anasazi from the area in the 14th century. Drought, food shortages and warfare are the most common explanations. But it would seem the folks living in Defiance house left in a hurry.

Another fascinating example of man coming to grips with this harsh landscape is Hole-in-the-Rock, where late 19th century Mormons stopped on their way to founding a Mormon settlement east of the Colorado. Thwarted by the steep 2000-foot drop from the canyon ridge to the river, the pioneers began hacking away an existing crack in the cliff, (with minimal help from explosives) finally creating a harrowing passage all the way down. About 2/3 of this trail is now under water, but you can access and hike through the Hole-in-the-Rock trail by water or land.

As long as it exists, Lake Powell will surely continue to attract millions of people each year to enjoy the unique landscape and pleasures of the cold, clear water.

A great way to get to know the lake and help preserve the integrity of the landscape is to join the National Parks Service's Trash Tracker program. Volunteers get to spend a week exploring every nook and cranny of the lake by houseboat, working daily 8-hour shifts collecting trash from the trails, beaches and water, leaving plenty of time for R&R. In 2005 Trash Tracker volunteers filled no less than 1187 bags with refuse, and most cite it as one of the most pleasurable and satisfying vacations possible.

Lake Powell is a day trip from Sedona. For more information on Lake Powell and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, visit www.nps.gov/glca.

Article by Sarah Horton

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