Adventures in a houseboat on Lake Powell

Ever dreamed of being your own cruise ship captain? Of navigating your vessel where you want to, when you want to? Of picking that perfect starlit beach spot to anchor for the night - giving orders to your crew like, "Secure the starboard anchor!"

If your fantasy lends itself to some combination of "The Love Boat" and "Gilligan's Island," with maybe a touch of "Captain Bligh" or "Moby Dick," then a week on Lake Powell in a houseboat the size of a tractor trailer could be for you. For sure, it's a unique experience.

Straddling the Utah-Arizona border, Lake Powell is - thanks to Glen Canyon Dam - actually a reservoir along the Colorado River. In all its spectacular desert beauty, Glen Canyon is rivaled only by the Grand Canyon just downstream - the difference being that this one is half-full of placid water, so it can be explored by boat.

To be blunt, Lake Powell - 186 miles long and with 1,960 miles of shoreline and 96 major side canyons - is one of the largest examples of man's manipulation of nature for pleasure and profit. Conservation guru David Brower says his biggest regret was acquiescing to the building of Glen Canyon Dam in the 1950s. Some environmentalists still long to pull the plug and return the Colorado to a more natural state.

And yet this canyon reservoir also provides a way for those not up to the rigors of backpacking to enjoy and appreciate at close range one of the natural and cultural wonders of the American Southwest, and in the process perhaps gain a greater respect for the environment.

Bringing it all with us

With a dozen family members and friends, I recently spent a week house-boating on Lake Powell.

A low-impact wilderness experience this was not. Our 59-foot Admiral houseboat was equipped with central heating and air-conditioning, a fully-equipped kitchen (including microwave and trash compactor), a stereo and VCR, a barbecue, and a water slide off the top deck. And of course, hundreds of gallons of gas to fuel the two powerful motors and electrical generators necessary to carry out our mission.

In addition, we towed a large motor boat for water skiing and a smaller power boat for fishing. Even with a flotilla of this size, we were out-numbered by many other houseboats on the lake -most of which seemed to be accompanied by a squadron of what are generically called "personal watercraft" (Jet Skis and the like), those noisy devices whose approach brings to mind a visit by the Hell's Angels.

At first I was uncomfortable with all this gear. Rather than "getting away from it all," we seemed to be bringing it all with us. (By my count there were at least five cell phones aboard as well.)

But then I realized that this was really a most valuable lesson in recognizing and taking care of our little corner of spaceship Earth.

In other words, we were - for a short period, anyway - a self-contained unit, responsible for our own supplies of food and energy and (more important) for our own waste. And we were learning lessons as well about living cooperatively in close quarters.

Having gotten through that moral dilemma rather neatly, I then could see how really beautiful the whole experience was. With just a subtle shift of light, the scene on canyon walls, lake surface, and sky could transform from spectacular to serene in a matter of seconds, from awe-inspiring to a bit scary when the afternoon thunderstorms came up.

One could hardly have imagined how full a palette nature could create with just the browns and reds and grays. The extraordinary emerald-green water next to sheer red walls towering hundreds of feet straight up seemed to satisfy some deep aesthetic thirst - especially in the presence of a blazing desert sun. And at night, the skies over our carefully selected private beach spots really were star-drenched.

Thirteen adults on a houseboat - even on the biggest one available here - might seem to be a tad crowded. But among friends, and with a spirit of adventure, this was not a problem. We just wore bathing suits all the time and cozied up. The sleeping quarters were cubbyhole-size and never did cool off the nights we were on the lake. So most of us just hauled our mattresses and bedding topside (where it was much cooler) like a large slumber party.

This was fine until the wind came up several times in the middle of the night and large, inflated toys battered the snoozers. More exciting, the anchors threatened to give way, sending the boat toward canyon walls. That set us all scrambling about like sailors in a gale, trying to secure ropes as our captain hollered orders.

Swimming, hiking, and fishing

Our typical daily routine was to hoist the four anchors after breakfast and motor up another side canyon. Having secured our vessel, we then had to make the tough choice between swimming in pleasantly warm water, being towed on skis or inflatable devices behind the speed boat, or heading out with rod and tackle to challenge the numerous striped bass (which are terrific filleted and barbecued).

Several times on the trip we ventured up the narrowest canyons - first by small boat, then swimming until we continued on foot along hiking paths.

The wonders of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell (named for 19th-century explorer John Wesley Powell) include Anasazi and early Mormon sites. Petroglyphs and pictographs, the work of ancient pueblo-dwelling peoples, still are visible in places like Forgotten Canyon.

Solitude not hard to find

Since our week included Independence Day weekend, I had expected Lake Powell to be crowded with noisy boats. But once away from the marinas, you're pretty much alone.

When it's anchored, the houseboat is virtually silent, and even when under way it hums along quietly. Even though there were four US Navy veterans aboard, we left the navigation and driving to Cliff Foerster, our young friend who'd done this several times before. At the helm in the forward part of the cabin, he ably steered our craft through narrow canyons and into the marinas for refueling - a feat not unlike parallel parking a Greyhound bus.

At week's end, we came away with beautiful images, but also with a new affection for companions whose mutual helpfulness and good humor in relatively tight quarters had made our voyage a memorable team effort.

The fall months are ideal

If you're tempted, you don't have to wait until next year. The fall months - with less blistering temperatures and fewer houseboats on the reservoir (for which markedly lower off-season rates are charged) - can be the best time of year to enjoy Lake Powell.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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