Photo Rematching Glen Canyon, North Wash to Bullfrog, October 10-15, 2021
To be clear, my knowledge of Glen Canyon and what it looked like before Glen Canyon Dam is all book learning. For a dozen years I’ve been listening to oral histories about the place, reading river trip journals, and looking at pre-dam photos. Given this year’s historically low water level in the reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam, a few of us thought to look at the first 50 miles of Glen Canyon, bringing along a few dozen historic photos.
Three weeks earlier, my wife Hazel Clark and I boated 6.5 miles downstream from the North Wash Boat Ramp to the location of Hite Ferry. We rematched a few photos and then turned around and came back upriver. Now we were headed back to do it again, this time going downriver about 50 miles to Bullfrog Bay.
We navigated on this trip using the 1922 USGS Plan of the Colorado River and used the 1922 river mileage. Friends helped a lot, like Gus Scott, Leslie Nielsen and Dan Young. Leslie worked long into the night looking for photos for us just before we left town.
The North Wash “Ramp” is just downriver from the confluence of the Colorado River and the Dirty Devil River. That’s where Glen Canyon starts. The Ramp is a near 45-degree slope. That may not seem like much but is too steep for a normal 4-wheel drive truck.
Lowering Dan Young’s sport boat down the North Wash Ramp is a challenge for two old folks like Hazel and me. Three weeks ago we used a lot of climbing rope to lower Dan’s boat to the river. This week we used 100 feet of ¼” steel cable. We also added a trailer wheel to the nose of Dan’s trailer, replacing the frying pan we used to keep the trailer tongue from dragging in the dirt. The nose wheel worked much better.
A group of the next generation of river runners takes out. It’s so good to see these young women and men boating. They were nice enough to let us know they’d passed a group of old people like us. Hazel and I looked at each other. Yes, we are the old people now.
Susette and John Weisheit come in with Nancy, Lara, Chris, and Judy. They have been 5 days running Cat in three rafts. John’s raft has a 5 HP 4 stroke motor. We head on downriver with them, joining in with Dan’s 13 ft Achilles sport boat with a 25 HP Mercury 2 stroke. It smells of half burned hydrocarbons until it warms up.
We stopped at Fort Moqui at River Mile 162.9 on the left and double checked the complete devastation of this once amazing archeological treasure. Then we pondered the White Canyon Uranium Mill tailings, the tops of which are under 60 feet of thick snot-like sediment just upstream and below us. Someday that will have to be cleaned up somehow.
Below here, the Colorado River narrows into a fast channel with class III riffles and heads right into a 6-foot-high island made of that same snot-like sediment. Hazel and I are leading and have to choose quickly either the right or left channel. We go right. Rumor has it a commercial deadhead trip postage stamped on the nose of the island. What a mess to contemplate. The Achilles runs cleanly to the right and the rafts make the run, two to the right and one left.
The river sweeps around counterclockwise in a large arc past Two Mile and Four Mile canyons. It then heads for The Horn, a two mile long hairpin turn. As we pass the mouth of Four Mile Canyon at River Mile 158, a 200 yard expanse of silt, flat as a pancake and only a foot above the river, generates plumes of dust in the strong up-canyon wind. An angry river with class III riffles and sand waves chews at the sticky river sediment in a confusion of many river channels. We follow the middle channel and are suddenly in sickening light green tinged water with masses of floating driftwood. It’s the reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam.
I motor ahead to the upstream start of The Horn, a U shaped bend. Leslie has provided me with a photo her grandmother Beth took of Castle Butte from somewhere on the Horn. It’s late in the day and I quickly leave the boat and scramble up a 200 foot high hill to the flat land making up the top of the Horn. The 1922 map showed a trail crossing the Horn. I find it on the far west side of the Horn. The trail was bulldozed into a real road at one point. No one has driven it in over 60 years and much of it is washed out. Then I realize the photo location I want to rematch is a mile or so further downriver.
The smart thing to do is to retreat as a storm front rolls in. Hazel and I join the others at a postage sized camp on the other side of the reservoir about River Mile 156.5. There is little flat land in camp, and the kitchen sits on what flat ground there is. We’ll be sleeping on sloping ground for the rest of the trip.
A wind driven cold rain moves in and pounds our camp for most of the night. There are three loud noises that work us over all night long. They are the wind, the rain, and the pounding waves beating against what must have been a hillside above the Colorado River. This storm-driven wave action has transformed the once beautiful Glen Canyon’s hillsides into a battered landscape sculpted by dead water blown to bits by a ferocious wind. The result is a totally artificial landscape.
The storm front keeps us tent bound all morning but breaks around mid afternoon. I cross the reservoir to rematch a photo taken by Phil Pennington in 1961. Fresh snow blankets the Henry Mountains upstream of us. The rematch doesn’t work exactly but sort of. It’ll have to do.
After a calm cold night, we are away in two groups. Susette uses the 5 Horse to steer the three rafts to a few photos midway through the Horn. John and I go down to where the Castle Butte photo ought to be. I scramble up the reservoir beaten hillside, climbing over massive cottonwood tree trunks and through the quagga line. This is a 20 foot high band of quagga shells coating everything.
Conditions were ideal when this invasive mussel showed up, but then the reservoir started dropping faster than the mussels could grow. Their empty shells crunch under my shoes. On reaching the abandoned road I was on two days ago, a small clearing catches my eye. That same clearing caught Beth Nielsen’s eye 60 years ago. The rematch photo is good, the same foreground rocks still in place.
From here we go to Red Canyon where Bert Loper rented a log cabin and planted an acre of corn. It’s all under water now. We try to rematch two photos here, one looking upriver and one downriver, but at today’s water level in the reservoir, we are too high.
On downriver we stop at Ticaboo Creek, where Cass Hite had his place in the late 1800s. Our attempt to match a Gus Scott photo from the 1950s fails for the same reason, we are still too high. We get the Achilles behind the rafts and use it to push the other boats, doubling our down reservoir speed. Along the way we pass our first houseboat where it is moored at the Rincon at River Mile 145.8. In this area, great slabs of sandstone cliffs and hillsides have slid down into the reservoir in a confused jumble. Camp for the night is on an island of this jumbled mess. Hazel and I count four rockfalls before we fall asleep. As the reservoir drops, Glen Canyon is collapsing in this area.
We all are away from camp early and motor the barge down to Tapestry Wall. The pre-dam photos of this wall remind me of the black and whites Ansel Adams did of Half-Dome or El Capitan. When we first see it, it takes my breath away. We motor past the Wall and stop. The others head on to Forgotten Canyon where they want to hike to a Puebloan structure known as Defiance House. Judy and I break away in the Achilles.
After a false start, we find a way to head into the slickrock country west of the reservoir. We then turn north and hike up to the top of Tapestry Wall. Otis “Dock” Marston took two photos here having climbed up from the river below. On that river trip back in 1962, Harry Aleson and Dorothy Keyes were married in a small side canyon they called The Chapel at River Mile 118. The day before their wedding, Marston made his hike to the top of the Wall. By luck, I locate one photo station. The other is right on the edge of the 700-foot drop. Given the wind, I only rough in the photo.
Judy and I hike back to the boat in a cold pelting rain that matches my mood. We meet the others at the mouth of Forgotten Canyon and head on downcanyon to Moki Bar at River Mile 128 for camp. A houseboat passes us. We wave. It toot-toots its horn.
Away again early, the Achilles pushes the other three rafts and we ponder returning with more photos. There are a number of substantial collections yet to mine. We slow down about River Mile 121.5 for one more image. This one is from 1930. In that photo, a young woman, Sarah Fraser, squats in the foreground at the edge of a cliff. Far below her and out in the River sits the hulk of the Hoskanini Dredge. Susette and I look and look but can’t line the photo up. Then, I turn around and look upriver. There it is.
We take the shot, way too high for a good match, and head on to Bullfrog Marina. The ramp can accommodate 10 launches/take-outs at a time. It’s busy, but not that busy. Lines of houseboats sit docked in Bullfrog Bay. Every day they get a little closer to the small stream that once was flowing in Bullfrog Creek.
Folks I respect and admire are thrilled that Glen Canyon is reemerging when they hike in the narrow side canyons. I don’t see it. This place reminds me of Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon where once upon a time a large dam of lava blocked the Colorado River.
Today, a few 100 thousand years later, we still see remnants of that event. Restoring Glen Canyon is going to take much time. Maybe not as long as Lava Falls, but the destruction of Glen Canyon will take many tens of thousands of years to heal.