Lake Powell is big. I mean, incredibly big. Bigger, even, than the biggest thing you can imagine. It's rather large, is what I'm trying to say. To give you a rough idea of the scale of Lake Powell, I'd like to point you at the Western shoreline of the contiguous United States - you know, that wiggly bit of coast that stretches all the way from Tijuana on the Mexican border to Canada 1293 miles further North. In fact, let's throw in the entire coastline of Hawaii as well, just to make a point. Got that? Good. What you're now picturing in your mind is roughly the same length as the shore of Lake Powell. I'll just wait a moment while that sinks in - the shore of Lake Powell is longer than the entire Western coast of the United States. I'm not including Alaska in this, of course - because the size of Alaska just laughs at the rest of the country, being almost three times bigger than its nearest rival, Texas. Look at Alaska on a map, and what you essentially perceive is a small sticky-out bit on the edge of Canada known for it's large expanses of snow and ice, Grizzly Bears, Sarah Palin, and not much else. In reality, the coastline of Alaska is over 6600 miles long, making it the same length as the coast of all the other states combined. It's still full of snow and ice, and has the distinction of having a capital city - Juneau - that you can't actually get to unless you take a boat, but that's not the point. Stop me if I'm digressing.
Lake Powell is the second largest man-made lake in the United States, behind Lake Mead, down the road in Nevada. At least, it's the second largest as long as you do your calculations according to water capacity, since, in terms of size, Lake Mead doesn't even come close. Technically, Lake Powell is actually a reservoir, but when you've got a coastline longer than your own country, I think you've earned the right to call yourself a lake. It was formed as a result of the building of the Glen Canyon Dam and the subsequent flooding of Glen Canyon itself, a controversial move back in the mid-fifties which submerged rather a large area of natural beauty. Originally, the dam was to have been built in Colorado's Echo Park, but a small group of political objectors led by David Brower of the Sierra Club kicked up such a fuss that the government was forced to go back to the drawing board - unfortunately, when Brower eventually got around to taking time out of his busy moaning schedule to actually visit the now flooded Glen Canyon some time later, he found himself having to admit that what he'd actually done was force the government to move the Dam from somewhere of exquisite natural beauty to somewhere of even more exquisite natural beauty. Sometimes, a slap in the face just isn't enough.
Construction of the Glen Canyon Dam was begun on the 1st October 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower pressed a button at his desk in the White House which triggered an explosion that sealed the fate of thousands of unimaginably important Native American archeological sites forever. These days, of course, the President would probably have a quick word with his advisers and come to the conclusion that this might not be the best use of his time, and that he might actually piss more people off than he made happy, but times were simpler back then. According to the Lake Powell article on Wikipedia, which somehow manages to cite absolutely no references on the subject and is therefore very probably making it all up as it goes along as usual, Floyd Dominy - commissioner of the US Bureau of Reclamation and the man who ultimately gave the go ahead to flood Glen Canyon - was once quoted as saying "Now I admit that nature can't improve upon man - we are probably the supreme being." Now obviously, without references, this is a difficult quote to justify - but if, in fact, these words did somehow manage to tumble out of his mouth at any point, I think we can safely disregard Mr Dominy as one of the biggest idiots of all time. "Idiots", by the way, was not my first choice of word there - but the OffExploring swearbot doesn't like it when I actually use normal language in general use by the population at large.
On 22nd September 1966, almost ten years after the project began, the Dam was officially opened by First Lady of the United States Lady Bird Johnson, a woman whose name would clearly be so much funnier if it weren't for the fact that Americans insist on calling Ladybirds "Ladybugs" in a clear attempt at forcing the population to stop pointing at them and going "Ah, look, isn't that cute" rather than regarding them as vermin and pointing spray guns at them like normal people. This is sarcasm - I do not point spray guns at Ladybirds. But just for the record, they are not bugs, which I agree isn't much of an argument on the grounds that they clearly also aren't birds. I may be digressing again.
Much of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which is the rather grand name by which the United States National Parks Service refers to the region, is filled with delightful natural geological features and a good selection of those crazy rock formations that are so wildly improbable that people like to point at them at regular intervals while insisting they prove the existence of God. Especially in Utah, where most people seem to think that just about everything proves the existence of God, including war, famine and the unexpected demise of small children in traffic accidents. Not that this irritates me, or anything. Unfortunately, what with much of the county submerged under more water than it is possible to imagine, getting to these places often involves taking an organised boat tour or paying what amounts to a small fortune to hire a private launch. As you cruise around the lake, exploring the submerged network of canyons in a tour boat just wide enough to require the captain to slow to a crawl as he attempts to negotiate between sheer cliff faces which threaten to take the hull clean off, you are often surrounded by adventurous types in brightly coloured kayaks exploring the canyons in their own, unique way. They'll even wave to you as you go past, forcing themselves tightly against the rock face as you slip past at a snails pace in an attempt to avoid any unfortunate sucking into propellor accidents that might get you on the news. To be fair, when you're attempting to explore the canyon network in your Kayak and suddenly find a huge tour boat filling the entire width of the waterway and bearing down on you at a rate of knots, getting out of the way is probably pretty much your only option - come to think of it, all that friendly waving may well have actually been the furious waving of fists.
Occasionally, as often happens in the United States where many people don't take any notice of convention and just do whatever makes them happy even if it also makes people look at them funny - something for which I wholeheartedly take my hat off to them - you'll see things which make you do a double take. Nowhere else in the world would you expect to see a group of kids and their parents sitting in what amounts to nothing more than a large inflatable paddling pool drifting about a mile off the coast as though this is perfectly normal behaviour. Neither would you generally consider it conventional, while cruising at a leisurely pace through a National Park, to encounter a group of friends coming the other way on jet skis, racing each other at high speed through the narrow gorges as though trying to recreate their favourite level from Wave Race on the Nintendo 64. And yes, I realise how much that dates me - but Wave Race was a great game, goddammit, and slightly more realistic than attempting to outrun a bunch of gorillas, a toad and a dinosaur while driving around the desert in a go-kart and throwing bananas at the other competitors. Sorry, digressing.
Normally, I'm not a big fan of organised tours because you generally tend to get rushed from place to place without spending anywhere near enough time in the places you wanted to see and far too much in the places you didn't. On this occasion, however, I'm going to make an exception and say that booking a cruise of Lake Powell is not only the best way to explore the area, but probably the easiest as well, unless you happen to own your own helicopter, or are willing to spend most of the day paddling an inflatable dinghy across several miles of water in an attempt to reach the other side before nightfall. Providing you can put up with an over-excitable American tour guide screaming with almost orgasmic delight every time you pass an interestingly shaped piece of rock, or insisting that everybody on board waves manically at anyone passing in a kayak while shouting "Hi Guys" in their direction at a volume of several thousand decibels, you'll find a lake cruise to be by far the easiest way to get around Lake Powell in a limited amount of time. Be prepared, however, for quite a lot of walking - and I realise how illogical this sounds - because a lot of your time will be taken traipsing on and off the boat in order to study the features of the surrounding landscape. It's almost like being on a school field trip, except that now you're old enough to actually enjoy what you're looking at and you aren't expected to write a report afterwards or surprise the class in show and tell by producing a small furry disease-ridden rodent you really weren't supposed to have brought back with you.
As you may have begun to realise by now, Utah is quite easily one of the most stunningly beautiful places on Earth and really does have quite an unnerving habit of preventing you from walking more than a few hundred yards without coming across a piece of rock inexplicably carved into the shape of a cat chasing a pigeon, or a six thousand ton perfectly round boulder balanced impossibly on top of a stalagmite. If, as the locals insist, there really is some sort of supreme being up there making all of this a reality, he must've been going through some sort of experimental phase when he carved out Utah. Either that, or he was high on something. Rainbow Bridge National Monument is a perfect example of what I'm talking about, being exactly the sort of place you wouldn't mind walking miles out of your way to find just to take a photograph - which is lucky, because that's pretty much what you have to do. Known by American geologists with pointy beards as the world's highest natural bridge, Rainbow Bridge is second only in the length of its span to nearby Kolob and Landscape arches which are considered to be arches rather than bridges, allowing Rainbow Bridge to maintain the crown, at least to Americans. The largest natural bridge in the world would actually appear to be the Xianren Bridge in China, but tell an American that and they'll just stick their fingers in their ears and go "La La La" until you stop talking - they don't like to be outdone over here, you see. Oh, and if you want to know the difference between a bridge and an arch, geologically speaking, I would suggest you ask a geologist - although you might want to take a packed lunch and be prepared to lose the will to live.
About Simon and Burfords Travels:
Simon Burford is a UK based travel writer. He will be re-publishing his travel blogs, chapters from his books and other miscellaneous rantings on these pages over the coming weeks and months, and the entry on this page may not necessarily reflect todays date. You can check out his travel site at www.burfordstravels.co.uk.
Simon is also currently running a science fiction movie project to raise money for Cancer Research UK, following the loss of his parents. You can lend your support and read the script for free at www.rewindthemovie.net