Home is where the houseboat is: a week on Lake Powell, 2009 – Alex

My interest in Red Rock Country has shifted from Moab and all of its crowds and development to the Glen Canyon region. The history and geology is just as fascinating but it doesn’t feel quite as much like multitudes have preceded me. There is also the added element of a huge desert lake, offering nearly 2000 miles of shoreline. I have visited the few miles that are accessible by the rare handful of roads penetrating its labyrinth of canyons and have come to the conclusion that I would need some kind of boat to visit any more. Now, before I jump into buying a boat, I’ll definitely have to check out pontoonboatsreview.com‘s guide on when the right time is to purchase.

I am well aware of the small number of highly vocal people who see the creation of Lake Powell as an ecological calamity and want it drained. I have even read a lot of what has been written by them. Glen Canyon as they see it ceased to exist before most of them or I were even born. The version I saw on my trip was the most beautiful place I have visited in the entire Colorado Plateau. There are now hundreds of miles of canyons accessible to anybody who can hire a boat and I suspect that this ease of access is what they really want to end. There is no shortage of otherworldly scenery in Glen Canyon in its current state, that is for sure!

My wife Maria and I have tossed around the idea of houseboating Lake Powell, this year we finally decided to go for it. We rented the smallest houseboat available from Lake Powell Resorts and Marinas- the 46 foot Expedition. It has one bedroom, ¾ bath, a full kitchen including a refrigerator and a generator with an inverter. Propulsion is via a single in/outboard Mercruiser engine with a 110 gallon fuel tank. The boat had a top speed of 8mph, most of the time we cruised at 7mph and got 1.5mpg out of it. Whatever advantage my Cherokee has in speed and fuel economy, the boat trumps with comfort and convenience. Not to mention the fact a Jeep can’t handle water more than a couple of feet deep!

We set aside the week before Memorial Day for our trip for several reasons. The days are getting pretty long but lack the blazing heat of summer. Monsoon season and its wild weather is still a month away. The crowds don’t really pick up until after the holiday. Since it is an off-peak period, houseboat rental rates are lower. Gas prices are still below their summer peak. The water level is rising for the two month period centered around this date. The lake’s water level has not been this high since 2002.

While the houseboat would provide basic transportation and a comfortable home base, we would need some way to get around in the many small canyons that make this lake so special. I am a confirmed landlubber and my wife can’t even swim but we settled on the aquatic version of hiking: kayaking. We took lessons at a local pool and much to my surprise Maria loved it! In order to procure the boats we liked most in time for our trip, I had to rent one and buy the other. We barely got the kayaks and associated gear together in time for departure.

Packing for a houseboating/kayaking trip was quite a bit different than for the self-supported backcountry driving and camping trips we usually do with our Cherokee. I have always hated carrying stuff on the roof but that was the only place I could put the 2 kayaks so I mounted a Thule Stacker to the factory rack. Then there was the matter of bringing along enough good food for two people to eat on a 9 day trip with zero possibility of “running into town”. That meant getting a bigger cooler since we would have a fridge in which to keep perishables. I ended up removing the spare tire, jack and much of the camping gear that is a permanent fixture of the interior of my Cherokee in order for it all to fit. While I was at it I removed the winch to deter thieves since the vehicle would be sitting at the marina for a week.

Our adventure began with a 1am departure from Albuquerque, in order to catch the 8am ferry out of Halls Crossing. We were renting the houseboat from Bullfrog Marina.

The reliable traveling companion turned beast of burden on the ferry crossing.

Fortunately I packed everything in clear plastic totes, which were easy to load and unload. We were expected to haul all of our luggage on handcarts from the parking lot to the boat. It took several trips and about 45 minutes to transfer everything, all the while being thankful that we made the conscious effort to pack light.

Once we had everything aboard we were greeted by Aaron, our houseboat instructor. Having done nothing but tent camping my whole life it was good to have someone to show me how the RV style generator and propane powered amenities worked. He also went over some of the basics of houseboat handling and navigation but to be honest I leaned more by researching the internet beforehand. A few of the things learned on the web came in handy before we even left the dock. I noticed that the boat lacked a shovel- the accepted way of securing a houseboat on Lake Powell is to dig a hole on a sandy beach to bury each anchor. Also, the boat was only supplied with 2 anchors. If you want to sleep through the night, 4 anchors are really necessary, especially while the lake is on the rise. I brought these items up and a shovel and 2 more anchors were doled out, along with the admonition that a maximum of 4 anchors were permitted on a boat our size.

After a couple of hours with Aaron he ran out of things to tell us and we ran out of things to ask him. Suddenly we came to the realization that we were now expected to motor this big, expensive houseboat away from its safe mooring in a calm harbor out into this huge lake where for the next 9 days we would be responsible for its safely and ours, while under way and at anchor, no matter what the weather had in store for us. Between the two of us our sum nautical experience consisted of a couple of hours paddling kayaks around an indoor swimming pool. I did what I am sure any man in my position would do: I turned to my wife and said, “why don’t you drive it first, honey!” Aaron actually offered that he could pilot boats in and out of the harbor but I suggested that he just come along and offer pointers as Maria drove it out. She did a fine job of getting us out of the harbor and Aaron hopped into the pilot boat, bidding us “bon voyage!”

Maria at the helm. For some reason this boat is right hand drive, I have no idea if that is typical.

After a while I took over the helm. Driving a houseboat has similarities to the experience of driving a car, but there are also significant differences. The fist one I noticed was the steering. The houseboat has a big steering wheel that takes more effort to turn as the boat goes (relatively) faster. It also does not have any “centering” feel. You can let it go at any time and the boat continues turning at whatever rate you set. This makes it hard to go anywhere in a straight line as you have to look at the horizon or the compass to tell if you are going straight. Consequently we headed downlake in a zigzag manner. I told Maria this was to deter U boat attacks. She was happy to take a seat on the front deck, free from worries of torpedos and watch the scenery of Glen Canyon unfold.

Here we come, Annies Canyon! This was my first opportunity to find out what happens when you take a 46 foot houseboat into a box canyon. I wanted to learn for myself as those little canyons were what we came to Lake Powell to see.

The boat turned out to be pretty maneuverable, using short bursts of WOT while cranking the wheel hard one way or the other made 3 point turns a leisurely but doable affair. While in Annies we looked for our first night’s mooring site but didn’t find anything. We met success further down the lake at Iceberg Canyon. There were quite a few boats parked in here already but it was getting late and we found room for one more so we made our first camp.

We were both pooped so we called it a vacation and remained here for the next 2 nights. It was really hot, in the high 90’s. Luckily I packed the reflectorized tarps that I use to cool my tent, as well as some light rope to hang them over the windows. This brought down the interior temperature by a good 5 degrees. We actually resorted to running the air conditioner one evening, which we wanted to avoid as the generator needs to be on, making noise and burning our limited supply of gasoline.

My wife wasn’t ready to try kayaking just yet so I headed out by myself to explore… and seek cooler weather. It was quite hot on the houseboat but it was sure cool traveling low and slow in the lake!

Our houseboat stayed in the sun most of the day

My first stop was Dougs Cathedral. It was spectacular, as billed! The hike was a study in contrasts. First a blazingly hot, dry wash. Then came the trickling creek with jungle-like vegetation to push through.

The little lake above the rockfall dam was next. I parked the kayak in the trees on the left side of the canyon as there was the self proclaimed “houseboat from hell” anchored on the beach to the right with the sound system cranked to ROCK CONCERT levels. I don’t know if the volume knob was stuck or what, it was just as loud the day before when we motored up that finger hoping to moor there.

Anyways, I hiked up and over the rockfall to have a look at the lake. It was eerily beautiful, with its drowned forest and calm, rockbound waters. I couldn’t muster the energy to drag the kayak up and over to explore further, it will remain for another trip.

I recently got Nikon’s new 50mm f/1.4 lens and have been eager to try it out on the night sky. I put it to use in Iceberg and loooooved it! The stars look like points, not lines and I don’t have to wonder is that noise or is it a star?
This is at ISO 800, 10 sec @ F/1.8. The moon, still below the horizon at 2:50am, is illuminating some thin clouds.

We called the Escalante River home for most of the rest of our time at the lake. This tributary canyon was every bit as big and impressive as Glen Canyon. We found the only place in Fiftymile Creek where a boat our size would fit. We were parked underneath a huge, majestic alcove and across from where the submerged Gregory Natural Bridge is located. There was very little traffic here, maybe 10 boats a day. This was a good thing as the wakes would bounce back-n-forth off the vertical sandstone walls for a good half hour before calming down again. Thank you to those few who slowed down as you passed!

Fiftymile Creek begged exploration by kayak.
I got my wife into her boat for the first time outside a swimming pool. She had asked me beforehand, “what if I am scared”? I gave her some bs about the canyon being sooo beautiful that all thoughts of claustrophobia or drowning would evaporate.

To be honest, I was a little creeped out at first myself. I have never been dropped down a well before. Kayaking in a bottomless, green lake with sheer vertical canyon walls rising straight out of the water, where the course curves out of sight forward and behind gave me an idea of what it might feel like… for about 2 minutes.

Kayaking Fiftymile Creek, Escalante River

We soon felt the urge all true canyon rats feel: “what is around the next corner?”

All thoughts of claustrophobia and drowning evaporated.

It was like the earth held a secret, just for us. She beckoned us forward, revealing a little at a time.

The only sound was the splishing from the hulls of the boats as we paddled forward.

The only witnesses were red lizards watching us pass at eye level, spaced at even intervals like sentries.

We carried onwards, pausing to absorb each new marvel.

Experience says that the scenery around the next bend should look like whatever was around the last one. Not so in Fiftymile.

It was in Fiftymile where I took what has become my favorite pic of the entire trip.
I introduce to you: my new Happy Place.

Like awakening from a dream, our exploration came to an end, where the canyon bottom rose up to 3620 feet above sea level, bringing our kayaks to a halt.

To Willow Gulch

A parting shot before leaving our Fiftymile anchorage. The reflection suggests an arch, in fact Gregory Natural Bridge is located somewhere on that very sandstone rib, some 75 feet below the waters. Look in Stan Jones’ book for a photo of it, pre-lake.

After 2 pleasant nights in Fiftymile we took a short trip over to the next canyon up the Escalante, Willow Gulch. To say our anchorage was beautiful is an understatement. We found a perfect little notch in the shoreline, almost like a dock for the houseboat. I had a jolly time shouting at the rock face off our stern, just to hear the echos.

We hopped in the kayaks again to explore the neighborhood. Much to our surprise there was another houseboat anchored in a huge alcove around the bend! They had an abundance of shade, but I would be too worried about rockfall to sleep well. We did the reflectorized tarp over the window thing again as it was still in the high 90’s. Maria is cooling off a hand in the lake.

Our trip up Willow Gulch turned out to be short. The rising waters of the lake were reclaiming what had been dry since 2002 and the vegetation soon got too dense for passage.

We were intrigued by the slot canyon hike up Bishop Creek shown in Michael Kelsy’s book so we set off with the intention of doing a combination kayak/hike. Besides, Maria was eager to go paddling again!

The view from inside an alcove along the way.

This spooky looking tree has probably stood dead for 40 years!

Kelsy mentioned floating logs at the end of navigation, what we encountered was a LOGJAM!

I tired to force my way over it, then pick and prod my way through it. I was rewarded with one kayak’s length progress after 5 minute’s labor. The way the logs were packed in there was almost like a deliberate blockade. It was sure effective! Maybe the occasional flash flood pushes them out?

After lamenting the heat for the first half of the trip we got the change in weather we had been wishing for. It rained HARD, pretty much all Thursday night. At daybreak on Friday we were greeted by this out the window of our stateroom:

Hunting waterfalls

I am a sissy about camping in the rain. We had been jeepin and camping with Jared during the week of huge rainstorms in October, 2006. We dealt with flash floods coming out of the Maze District of Canyonlands NP. At that point I was ready for a hotel but he convinced me to stay our planned course. Then I got stuck in quicksand between floods in Red Canyon. Later that week the Blue Hills Road was washing out from under us as we tried to reach the highway in Moab during a sudden downpour. It was a spectacular time to be outside, but kind of a pain to camp and drive in.

With a houseboat to call home, the misery of tent camping and the risk of backcountry driving were gone! We were staying dry inside the boat… except for anchoring. The winds were very light considering the severity of the rain. Flash floods? So what! I am on a boat, I’ll just float a little higher! Other than wind and lightning, which this storm lacked, the only thing to watch out for was the sediment and debris buildup where the flood waters entered the lake. We had planned to move on that morning anyways, having spent 2 nights at that site in Willow Gulch. It was raining like crazy, it had been all night and showed no intention of letting up. Upon arrival at our Willow Gulch campsite I had stacked a small cairn to mark the shoreline. By now it was well below the surface of the lake, I’m guessing the water raised by nearly 2 feet in 2 days. The boat was floating again, despite running it up as high on shore as it would go the night before. I was going to get wet, either retightening the anchor ropes or pulling them onboard. There were several waterfalls of various sizes all around us but I wanted to see MORE!

We cast off in search of that most ephemeral of Canyon Country sights- the flash flood waterfall.

Strange tiger stripes in Willow Gulch before we left. Probably little runoff rivulets floating on the surface of the lake undisturbed due to the utter lack of wind and boating activity.

We set out in search of bigger and better waterfalls and whatever spectacles Mother Nature brings out for these occasions. Just around the corner, our neighbors in the shady alcove were now staying dry thanks to their stone roof, although the ruckus from the nearby waterfall was pretty loud.

A couple of big falls on the Escalante:

“Oh look honey, ANOTHER waterfall!”
Hunting waterfalls by houseboat on Lake Powell during a gully washer is like looking for sand on the beach!

The waterfall hunter in his natural element:

Davis Gulch. I guess the water has been so low in recent years you have had to hike to LaGorce Arch. We took the houseboat, to both sides. The upstream side:

Maria was nervous because of the close quarters maneuvering it took to get to the back of LaGorce. Having to squeeze by a cabin cruiser in that space didn’t make her feel any better about the situation. I was having a ball, having always enjoyed a tight, technical jeep or mountain bike trail. Don’t tell my wife though! The houseboat was surprisingly maneuverable once I realized that things happen slowly and short bursts of WOT really gets it to turn. Coming back out:

The rain kept most boaters off the lake. Here’s a couple of parties sheltering in a perfect little alcove near LaGorce Arch.

Clear Creek Canyon, Cathedral in the Desert is up the slot to the left. We didn’t go over for a closer look as I figured Maria had enough of houseboating the tight canyons.

Leaving the Escalante we were heading towards Hole in the Rock to spend the night and maybe hike up one side or the other. We passed Eureka Canyon so we detoured to have a look. Nobody was home and there was a nice, protected mooring site in there so we parked the boat early.

Is it just me or does the pattern in the spall and desert varnish on the opposite side of the river channel look a little like Bob Marley holding a microphone?

I took a leisurely hike to the alcove at the end of the canyon in a light drizzle. There is nothing more peaceful and private than being outdoors in a beautiful place while it is raining. If you can stay warm, that is. At the time of my visit the hard rains had passed and there was the sparest version of a waterfall coming off the rim. It consisted of a spray of large water droplets that were invisible, until I looked really hard for them. I could hear them spattering into the underbrush, it took a while to find the landing zone. There were some trees ringing the backside of the alcove, the impact set them to dancing. Watching the spray of drops making their graceful 6 second fall (yes, I counted) was the ultimate in relaxation.

To Lake Canyon, then home

Our vacation time was coming to an end so we started heading uplake, hoping to find a mooring somewhat near to Bullfrog. It took our slow boat nearly 5 hours to go from Eureka Canyon to Lake Canyon. It had been raining for over 2 days now and we were seeing a lot more boaters out enjoying the waterfalls. I don’t know if this was because we were on the cusp of Memorial Day weekend, were getting closer to the marinas or if the other boaters were more inclined to get out in the weather.

The weather was deteriorating again by the time we got to Lake Canyon. There was a lot more traffic on this end of the lake, as well as some wind making the water rough so we really wanted a site protected from the waves. The pickings looked slim as this canyon was either water or bare sandstone. A combination of desperation and creativity went into the choice of this site. The approach was guarded by some very shallow rocks, I left some aluminum on them during my first attempt. The boulders on shore made setting anchors easy and this turned out to be the most secure mooring job of the whole week. The rain passed as soon as we finished anchoring the boat so we went for a short hike, exploring the nearby area.

One pontoon on shore and the other floating. With tiiiight anchor ropes, we were in the exact same position the next morning.

The fronts of the pontoons were reinforced and could handle being up on shore pretty hard. This thing was the lake-bound version of a jeep! People with the big, fiberglass hulled cabin cruisers would anchor their boats so they didn’t touch the shore.

Here’s a better look at one when we ran the boat up on shore at full throttle and got it completely dry:

ONLY do this in the spring when the lake is rising rapidly, the rest of the year you will be stuck.

We were disappointed in the lakeside wildflower display all week, wandering around Lake Canyon we found a few. Here’s sand penstemon:

I don’t know if it was the wind the next day, or the heavy Memorial Day traffic on the lake, but the ride from Lake Canyon to Bullfrog was the roughest of the whole trip. I swear the boat came out of the water on some of those waves! It was impossible to avoid them as the surface was a big, chaotic mess of whitecaps. We kept re-latching the gates on the railing around the boat until we figured out that the boat was flexing so much that the gates were simply pulling far enough away from the railing to let them swing free!
By the time we got fueled up and back to the rental marina we were actually glad to be leaving.

I will definitely be back, but for sure not in the peak season. I had a taste of the heat and the crowds of summer and want to avoid them on the next trip. I could easily see complimenting my 4 wheeled explorations with a Lake Powell trip every year. In one week we got a good look at maybe 5% of the lake so there is a lot more to see.

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