July 29 - August 5, 1989: Lake Powell, Utah, 3678'

One of many trip reports by Alan Silverstein.
Last update: March 12, 2008

I spent a week visiting Heaven aboard the Houseboat to Hell...

Lake Powell in southeast Utah is an incredible place I didn't know much about. Living on a houseboat for a week, largely cut off from civilization, was quite different from my normal life. Unfortunately, engine problems and other Murphyisms caused some of our crew to end up a lot less than jolly. By the end of the week two people left by helicopter ambulance, two by their ski bike, and two on a Park Service boat.

It was almost comical to me how many little things went wrong in Paradise, and how people let it affect them. Nonetheless, I had a lot of fun swimming, diving, hiking, exploring, snorkeling, photographing, rock collecting, eating (real well), giving back and foot rubs, playing with the radios, and learning to drive the houseboat (the Wildwind) and the ski boat (the Baja). I'll skip most of the negative stuff that happened and focus on the lake and vicinity, though piecing together our string of misfortunes might be quite amusing in itself. I'll just skim through a lot of other potential stories too; it was a very full week.

This was the fourth summer The Alternative, a Fort Collins singles group, arranged a week long houseboat trip to Lake Powell. I didn't have much idea what to expect, but paid up for it along with twelve other crewmembers. In addition, our captain was HPite Doug Baskins, one of the partner-owners of Houseboat Wildwind, and our organizer was Lynne Block, who runs the Alternative.

It was a long drive, about 550 miles, from Fort Collins to the Bullfrog Marina. I caught a ride with two HPites Friday afternoon (July 28). We were on the road about six hours including a long dinner break. We spent a (too short) night at a motel in Grand Junction, left at 0715, and arrived (too early) at Bullfrog just before 1100 Saturday.

The scenery got more and more interesting in the last several hours approaching the lake from the north. The lake itself is about 160 miles long (when full) and only a mile or two wide in places, with many turns and sinuous side canyons. It occupies the course of the Colorado River down to Glen Canyon Dam. I didn't realize it had only finished filling less than ten years ago. What a fascinating place! The surrounding terrain is gently rolling sandstone desert with occasional high peaks (7000-10000'). The lake generally hides far below sandstone cliffs which continue to plunge deep into the calm, dark blue-green water.

As you approach Bullfrog you can see an arm of the lake to the right, but most of it is hidden. The marina itself is a zoo, crowded with rental houseboats. Due to one engine already having blown out the previous Thursday, we were slow getting loaded and didn't depart (on the remaining engine) until fairly late in the day. Leaving the area behind was a welcome relief. The rest of the lake was very much a contrast to the few busy areas.

I put away my watch and hardly looked at it the rest of the week. There was seldom any reason to know the time. We had no real news of the outside world, though we could (with difficulty and patience) make phone calls over the radio through the marine operator. The whole week I wore: One swimsuit; sometimes, a light shirt (usually wet); occasionally, hiking boots, a small daypack, and a hat.

Reality on the lake is...

...and much, much more.

Bullfrog was at about mile marker 94. Saturday we moored at the shallow, muddy end of Slick Rock Canyon, off marker 81. I took a short hike up the right wall to a natural cave, as high as I could go below the cliffs. That night I was too tired to stay awake but too elated to sleep. The next morning, with Yvonne Von, I explored the left wall and found Anasazi ruins in remarkable condition, straw and charred timbers still on their roofs. It was a bit of a scramble up the last 20', so perhaps they were not frequently visited.

Sunday we moved the boat to Iceberg Canyon at about marker 78, and found a marvelous dead-end side canyon off it. We stayed there two nights, moored at the only short stretch of sandy beach in the finger. Towering cliffs circled around us. There were five bands of cliffs, seeping water between them, each piled impossibly high upon the next. Easier to examine them flat on your back on the top deck, than with your head craned back. The forces that formed that canyon were literally inconceivable.

The front of the pontoons were aground but the rear deck floated above water so deep I could not see bottom, even diving (with a mask) to my limit, about 25'. There was a water slide on the top deck of the Wildwind, the bottom about 12' above the water -- wow. Our side canyon ended just a bit past us, flush at the cliff walls, a deep dark pool always in shadow, several hundred feet across and unknowably deep. On one side, golden reflections cast a dazzling, bewitching light show onto overhanging rocks, visible only by floating to them on a raft and laying below them.

While we were camped in this area I...

I tried to reach the top of either of two of the white rock knobs high on the ridge, but found them intractably cliffy at every point; still, the view from this height was awesome.

One of the weird attributes of the Lake Powell area is that the rocks are what I would call "anti-fractal". Most of the time mountaineering, the closer you get to the terrain, the more complicated it turns out to be. You can almost always find a person-sized route through it. At Powell, when you get close to the rock, it is bigger and simpler than it appears from a distance. Small potholes that look like easy scrambling turn out to be two foot indentations on a fifteen foot wall of otherwise smooth, crumbly sandstone. It's hard to judge sizes or distances.

However, there are many places reminiscent of the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, but with even more fantastic shapes, and various routes to take up, through, or around them. Exploring is a lot of fun, very sensual.

Tuesday I went ahead with Yvonne in the Baja to scout a camp spot for the night at a "sound cave" up the Escalante River, several miles from marker 68B. We found the spot available and marked it. Unfortunately, the Wildwind lost its remaining engine and wound up tied to a buoy (marker 72) in the main channel. So we never did get to spend the night there. After we returned in the Baja to the Wildwind, Doug used the former to tow the latter to another, similar cave just off the main channel at the downriver side of the Escalante entrance.

Wednesday morning we towed the houseboat across the main channel to an interesting set of sandy coves, exposed by the lower water level. I thought it was a pretty nice area for having to find something nearby. I did a lot of fun hiking there, up to high ledges overlooking the main channel. I discovered a "marble quarry" -- a place where nearly spherical, marble-sized sandstone accretions had gathered in small cracks after weathering out of the cliffs above.

Later Wednesday, two boatloads of people shuttled over to Hole in the Rock, at about marker 66, and we did a hike there. It's a narrow, V-shaped crack that goes off and up from the main channel. I decided to push hard since it was short -- about 600' vertical? I reached the rolling plateau above the river in 17 minutes. It's a fun scramble up sand and boulders to the barren, rocky desert at the top. There were some historical markers and a dirt road ended there. It seems a bunch of Mormons lowered their wagons down the crack to cross the Colorado River (on the way to establishing the town of Bluff).

I continued alone about 15 minutes further back toward the main channel along the right wall, strolling above spectacular cliffs to an incredible vantage point. There really are no words to describe the panorama. And, in the midst of this solitude, I was able to call the Wildwind on Doug's handheld radio to keep in touch.

Meanwhile a mechanic made a $331 house(boat) call from Dangling Rope and allegedly fixed the engine. We were going to continue downriver to the San Juan. Some of us took a side trip in the Baja up to Davis Gulch, a marvelous, deep, narrow, serpentine finger of the lake off the Escalante. There is an arch in one projecting ridge that the river winds around. Several of us were dropped on one side, scrambled up 30-40', and jumped or dived off the cliff into the water on the other side, to be picked up by the boat.

On returning to the main channel we found the Wildwind under tow by a passing powerboat. It seems they'd gone a couple minutes and the engine died again. With the Baja, Doug towed the Wildwind another mile downriver to a new spot for the night, also in a sandy cove. I had more fun exploring this area the next day while the mechanic visited again. I also did some repairs to the lake water inlet pipe, using an inner tube as a dolly to cruise around between the pontoons. Unfortunately, the two people I rode out with left by ambulance helicopter because one of them developed a severe bladder infection...

After the engine was fixed again, late on Thursday, we decided to head upriver for Longs, Bowns, or Annies Canyons. Two ladies went out scouting in the Baja. Unfortunately, they didn't check the gas level. Out of radio range, short of Annies, they ran dry, and hitched a ride back downriver on an elegant houseboat. Out of contact, we passed by Longs and Bowns in the Wildwind, then heard from Lowry's Luck. We met them later in mid-channel to transfer the Baja and the damsels back to us. Unfortunately, this took so much time that we didn't make it to Annies before dark. I found a small beach off the channel across and upriver from Slick Rock, which sufficed.

Friday afternoon we visited Halls Crossing, near Bullfrog but on the south side of the lake, to attend to fresh water, sewage, gas, etc. and avoid the long Saturday lines. We continued upriver to about marker 104, Hansen Creek, and spent our last night out moored up that side canyon. In this area the lake is only about a hundred feet below the surrounding terrain. It's easy to hike out to Sonoran (?) desert. There are even sand dunes in some of the coves. While we were there, I did some hiking, rock hounding, ski boat driving, and nude diving and swimming (ahh...).

Saturday we returned to Bullfrog and disembarked. Four of us crowded into one small car and drove home at around 1430. I reached my house at about 0130 Sunday morning, dead tired. I continued to feel the boat's rocking motion for two days. I am in love with the lake and I want to go back, soon. Next time, with a healthier boat and happier crew, I hope.