In 1963, the floodgates closed on the newly constructed Glen Canyon Dam near the Arizona-Utah border, locking the waters of the Colorado River behind its concrete face. The water pooled behind the dam, slowly filling in the vast canyon—and the maze of slot canyons and grottoes feathering around its edges. Only a few years later, Glen Canyon was transformed from the sandstone cradle of the tumbling Colorado River into the deep, still, ~250-square mile Lake Powell.
Environmentalists and native communities mourned the loss of the gorgeous and culturally significant places drowned under the new lake. Over the years, Glen Canyon’s lost splendor took on a nearly mythical status, and river acolytes held out hope that they would one day see the waters recede.
In the 2000s, as the West sank into a drought, the water levels behind the Glen Canyon Dam started dropping. Bathtub rings showing the high-water marks hovered stories above the heads of boaters and water skiers. And as the water level dropped, some of the old majesty of the side canyons and tributaries started being exposed once again.
In 2017, water levels in the lake were predicted to drop to their lowest point ever. For Taylor Graham, a filmmaker and kayaker who grew up hearing stories about the beauty of the drowned side canyons, the opportunity was clear: This was his moment to see the fabled lost beauty of Glen Canyon. So he rounded up a bevy of friends and colleagues, packed up a fleet of kayaks, and set out on a 42-day-long paddle down the Colorado River, ending at the Glen Canyon Dam itself.
Graham’s short film about the experience, “Glen Canyon Rediscovered,” was released today. National Geographic called him on the phone to ask him about the trip, making the film, and what Glen Canyon means for the American West.
When and why did Glen Canyon first capture your imagination?
Growing up in the Southwest, I spent a lot of time with my family and friends on rivers, kayaking and rafting. You always hear the story of this place, how it's this lost world that we can no longer venture to because it's covered by the waters of Lake Powell.
And then recently, because of climate change and the fact that we've overallocated the Colorado River and used it to such a degree, the lake has started retreating. The level has dropped enough that all these side canyons I'd heard all these stories about are starting to re-emerge.
So there's this question: what is happening to these canyons that I thought I'd never see in my lifetime? What do they look like now that the lake is retreating from them? This trip was really an opportunity to go and explore some of these stories and these places and see what they're like, as they are resurrected from the reservoir.
Why is Glen Canyon important?
Because it was so beautiful, and also because so few folks had the opportunity to experience it before it was submerged. It's also the place that really jump-started the modern environmental movement as we know it. People like David Brower [ed: the first director of the Sierra Club] and Katie Lee [ed: an activist who focused her attention on Glen Canyon]—these big environmental names in the West—fought to protect this canyon from being dammed. When they lost that battle and the Glen Canyon Dam was built, it really launched this modern consciousness of protecting our wild places in the West.
The last time the reservoir was full was in the 1990s, after a couple of big snow years. Since then, it has been on a downward trajectory, since the Colorado River is used completely and because now we're seeing the impacts of climate change dwindling the flow of all the rivers in the West.
There's been a growing discussion about whether there is an opportunity to remove the dam and see this place come back to its original splendor. That idea began as a bit of a hope and dream for environmentalists and people like me who wanted to see the river alive again, but as the realities of climate change have become more pressing, there's a lot of talk about this actually being something good for the Colorado River and good for our water management in the West.
Why did you want to take this particular trip? Why now?
It felt like a really important time to return to this place, because the lake levels were dropping and these canyons reemerging.
For the expedition, we thought we could get to know those canyons in the best way possible by spending time in sea kayaks, moving along through the canyons at a much slower pace than people usually do when they’re going along in speedboats on Lake Powell.
And also, we decided to start up in Moab, higher up on the Colorado River, and then paddle down through Cataract Canyon, one of the wildest and most rapid-filled stretches of the Colorado, to where the river meets Lake Powell. We were looking forward to the opportunity to see this massive river, this undammed stretch of the Colorado, turn into the reservoir, and to see what that transition looked like.
Were there any places along your route that you were particularly interested in seeing?
[One place] I was most keen on exploring is called Cathedral in the Desert. It was written about by Katie Lee and Edward Abbey and explored by John Wesley Powell in his initial voyage down the Colorado in the late 1800s. It's this wonderful, beautiful place that is submerged by water now—but not completely. When the reservoir is at its lowest extent, the floor of this place comes out, and the plants start growing again. It epitomizes the transition that Lake Powell is going through now.
Was there anything you saw on this trip that surprised you in some way?
One of the biggest surprises for me was the fact that, contrary to a lot of the discussion around the building of Glen Canyon Dam, there were actually communities of people who lived and worked along the river in the area that was submerged. Floyd Dominy, who was the head of the Bureau of Reclamation at the time the dam was built, famously said it was a great place for a reservoir because we didn't have to move any towns and didn’t have to submerge any dwellings: other than a couple of beavers there was nothing there. But we spent time on the Navajo Nation and Southern Paiute lands and spoke with people whose orchards and family lands and summer dwellings had been submerged by the reservoir, often without any compensation—or even notification—by the government.
Tell me about some of the emotional moments of the trip.
One of the things we all noticed as we we were working our way down the reservoir was that there's this wonderful transition you go through as you leave the lake. First, you walk into the muddy, squelchy side canyon. Then, as you hike further up, it turns into this wonderful recovered canyon with a trickling stream. All the plants are growing again and the birds are singing: It's this wonderful experience.
But then, after seeing that, you really realize how unnatural the reservoir is. It's hard to say that Lake Powell isn't beautiful, with its blue waters abutting the red sandstone. But when you spend time in the side canyons, as they are in their natural state, and then go back down to the reservoir, you realize how silent it is—how eerie and unnatural that setting really is. That feeling built as we went through the expedition.
What did it feel like when you finally saw the dam, on the last day of your trip?
Actually seeing the dam, putting a face to it, made me realize its impermanence. Dams have a finite lifespan. So seeing it gave me hope that, at some point in the future, these canyons are all going to recover. Try as we might, humankind can't permanently alter the landscapes around us.
That's the reality that climate change is showing us: at some point, there’s just not enough water to keep all these dams full. So maybe someday, the Colorado will run free through Glen Canyon again.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.