Floating through canyon country
The argument over Lake Powell ― and there are organizations actively campaigning to drain it, more than 40 years after the Bureau of Reclamation built Glen Canyon Dam and began flooding Glen Canyon to form the lake ― is always cast in environmental terms. The dam inundated a vast desert ecosystem upstream and tamed a wild river downstream.
But because of the lake, the landscape is accessible to anyone, and in relative comfort. Without the water, these would still be connoisseurs' canyons, only available at the cost of days of desert hiking. Without the lake, a minuscule fraction of the approximately 2 million annual visitors would ever come here.
Paddling the canyons is, of course, a vastly different experience from hiking them. It's like touring a huge sculpture park, one where otherworldly formations rise from a waterscape designed for the most dramatic contrast imaginable.
In Cathedral Canyon, a 3-mile-long channel that meanders south off the lake, a sheer sandstone cliff soars about 500 feet out of the water, its face carved as cleanly as a holiday ham. Twilight Canyon is a corkscrew of scoops and swirls, its wind-buffed walls narrowing until they squeeze the sky into a tortured blue ribbon over our heads. It's like paddling through a cave, only with color and light. By official count there are 96 of these canyons (we probe just 10 in our five days), and their variety seems endless.