The Evolution of White Canyon - 1999, 2001 and 2008

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Keeper of San Juan Secrets
September 2, 1999
Lake Elevation: 3693’

The Boater’s Guide to Lake Powell (2nd Edition) describes White Canyon as one with a spectacular gorge, suitable for hiking in all but inclement weather. That is the chief reason we are camped here, in the wide northern fork of White Canyon. It’s a spot similar to last night’s, against a low rubble ridge jutting into a narrow bay. This part of White Canyon is not memorable, just sunny by day, starry and breezy by night. Like tonight, with the Summer Triangle once again at the top of a crowded sky. Two meteors shoot past the North Star, while Jupiter casts a shine on the lake as it crests the eastern horizon, like a moonrise, so powerful is its light on a black Utah night.

Late this afternoon, Chuck and I checked out the end of the canyon, in anticipation of a longer hike in the morning. Its charms were not obvious from the shallow and muddy end of the end of the lake, where the land finally—and ironically--reclaimed the canyon from the Bureau of Reclamation. We limped the motorboat to shore, carefully avoiding submerged trees and silty prop-choking mudflats as best we could.

Once ashore, we headed upstream, across the silt deposits deeply incised in places by short perpendicular drainages descending from the ridge to the west. About ½-mile distant is a red dirt road meandering down from the mountains to the east, shown on the AAA Indian Country map as joining with Route 95 a few miles away. This was one old route to the Hite ferry crossing before Lake Powell, when the dirt road would have continued down to the Colorado, to be greeted by the small community of Hite, which more or less consisted of a ferry and a place for the ferryboat operator to live. It was about 5 miles south of the modern Hite Marina. The place was called “Dandy Crossing” because it was a fine place to cross the lethargic river, in fact the best place to cross the Colorado north of Lee’s Ferry in Arizona. Now it’s a little less dandy, the ferry site now 120 feet under the lake. Instead, motorists must now deviate northward on Route 95 to jump the river, crossing three bridges built in conjunction with the rising lake waters (over White Canyon, Colorado River/Lake Powell, and Dirty Devil River) when none were needed before. Whatever boon the lake may have been to the Bureau of Reclamation, it also turned out to be a nice windfall for the Utah Department of Highways.

Normally, the canyon is almost dry, but today it flows with about a foot of water—in places 2 or 3—muddy and thick. No doubt the remnant of a flash flood from the day before, as rain fell over the distant headwaters, about 25 miles away in Natural Bridges National Monument to the northeast. Grasses are flattened in parallel sheets several yards away from the running water, a sure sign this was a serious flood, the kind that looks more inviting on a Discovery Channel special.

Our reconnaissance hike reveals that the greatest obstacle besides high water is quicksand. Never actually seen it in action before, but there it was, waiting in the form of innocent mudflats that moved like Jell-O underfoot. Stand too long in the wrong place, and the feet soon disappear. Chuck nearly lost his shoes giving a demonstration for videotape posterity. It’s a real danger, not to be ignored, but its most likely consequence is to strip us of our shoes rather than our lives. Still, we move quickly, not wishing to test this theory. Ironically, the ground underlying the streamflow tends to be generally more solid and reliable than the banks, swollen with water, thick suspended silt, hiding a powerful pull. Drowning is unlikely—the stuff is just liquefied soil that can’t really support your weight. As you sink, at some point your weight above the ground decreases to the point where you “float”; i.e., the ground can support your reduced weight. Unfortunately, sometimes you can be stuck pretty good before equilibrium occurs. A rope can help you out, but sometimes the cost can be a shoe or a pair of pants.

The guidebooks focus on the narrows of White Canyon, but none mention how spectacular the wider downstream portions are above the lake. It’s a few miles to the narrows, which are just above the spot where the Route 95 bridge crosses high over the slot canyon 100 feet below. It was this bridge that the Monkey Wrench Gang tried to blow up with a thermite bomb, only causing minor (and fictional) damage to the structure. In a car, you barely even notice the bridge, except that you are passing over a black bottomless crevice in the rockbed. That crevice is our goal for tomorrow.

September 3, 1999
Lake Elevation: 3693’

The morning grew hot and dry, lizards immediately scurrying for shade. Our campsite at White Canyon was chosen with a purpose in mind, that being a half-day hike up one of the best narrow canyons in this part of the lake. Last evening’s reconnaissance was to be followed up by the real deal this morning. Surprisingly, Nayyer opted out of the hike, and just as remarkably Khawer did not. The four of us took off on foot up White Canyon by 9 AM, before the sun really had a chance to take hold.

The muddy stream that seemed so formidable yesterday had lost some of its roar today. This was a good thing too, because we knew we were going to get wet, the only question being just how wet. The ground had become firmer too, a disappointment to Khawer, who came only to achieve two specific goals: 1) to see the canyon’s narrows; and 2) to experience quicksand. Incredulous by nature, Khawer was soon convinced by the firm sand that we had been exaggerating about the quicksand….

Until, without warning, he dropped nearly to his waist in what looked to be an innocent mudflat. It surprised everyone; this was much worse than anything Chuck and I had seen the day before. And very deceptive as well: it appeared on a non-descript outer edge of a turn in the stream, just below a 4-foot bank. The ground appeared dark brown, moist but firm. Almost by accident, Chuck and I had walked wide around it, high on the dry bank above. But Khawer, always looking for a shortcut took two steps, and down he went, like Agent 86 in the phone booth during the opening credits to Get Smart. It wasn’t a slow drop, just a sudden gooey thump, and there was the top half of Khawer protruding from the mud, legs buried, eyes a little wider than usual. Shubby helped pull him out, lucky to recover his shoes, which somehow resisted the suck of the sand.

We continued. Khawer quieted considerably from that point, wet muddy goo still clinging to his shorts. We would all be more careful.

It’s a good thing we hadn’t heard the story, later told to us by a young employee at Hite Marina, of the 14 tourists killed in a flash flood higher up White Canyon in 1993. While I paid for a Snickers bar, he continued, whispering conspiratorially, that just last year the unidentifiable body of a woman was discovered, dismembered badly, 30 feet (!) above the normal water line. Hmm. I hadn’t read this in the tourist brochures. But the weather was crystal blue today, no apparent threat from above. Just the oozing quicksand below.


The trail continued on generally dry land, until the canyon walls closed in, to the point where we had to stop, and ponder the muddy water flowing between two steep walls. The trail was submerged in there somewhere. We could not tell the depth of the water, nor the distance we would be required to slog through the stream, as the canyon turned from view about 150 feet upriver. We considered and reconsidered, throwing rocks in, testing the depth and current with the few small sticks available, ultimately deciding to move forward, through what we dubbed “Quicksand Canyon.”

Khawer actually lasted through Quicksand Canyon, with its 20-foot high vertical walls and chocolate rust-colored streamflow. Because the water was opaque, it was impossible to gauge its depth. Later we would find long walking sticks—excellent probes, critical in these situations—but for now we weren’t sure if we would sink to our ankles, knees or waist. Or deeper. After a while, we learned to read the water flow and terrain, generally avoiding the worst parts with decent accuracy. Nobody volunteered to lead the way, though. Khawer, sensing the need to read a magazine, turned back.

The canyon was as deceptive as it was beautiful. Colorful strata, jumbo boulders, overhanging limestone shelves threaded the narrow ribbon of silt-choked water. Wildflowers grew among the cactus, and cottonwoods hung precariously to undercut banks, their green leaves shimmering defiantly against the red rock, as if they didn’t sense the danger of their situation.

The beauty drew the eye, and sometimes led to complacency. Usually the mind is sharp in these conditions: constant decisionmaking tends to provide the needed focus. Usually we made the right choices, at times determining the direct approach through the water was best.

Sometimes we were wrong.

At a wide bend in the canyon, the river flowed swiftly, riffling as if shallow. Chuck and I moved slowly forward side-by-side, with walking sticks probing for depth. At one point, Chuck sank to his thighs, and I chided him for straying too far from the canyon wall, where the water appeared shallower. I spoke too soon. The next step, I went from ankle deep to fully submerged, with only the top half of my hat above water! At least it was just water, not quicksand, so scrambling out was simple enough. Surprise, and its close friend the Adrenaline Rush, followed me through that little dip. Soaking wet, covered with mud. However, the contents of my backpack remained dry, as I had taken the precaution of packing everything in Ziploc bags. Like the pop-tarts, peanut butter sandwiches and cameras. Actually, I hadn’t brought my own camera, fearing this sort of thing could happen.

We continued, still heading upstream toward the obvious landmark presented by the Route 95 bridge, which spans the narrow chasm of White Canyon. From the top, motorists could pass in hermetically sealed RVs, unaware of hikers potentially being swept away in a flash flood among the boulders at the bottom.


Several twists and turns later, more wading, occasional quicksand and the usual spectacular beauty, we stopped for lunch by a muddy pool of water. One place was as good as another far up this impressive canyon.

It was Shubby’s idea to take a mud bath. In New York, you’d pay $50 for a jar of this mud, clean and fine, smooth and gooey. The consistency of melted chocolate. But here, you can scoop it up from the bottom by the bucket load. We all applied the mud, head to waist, and let it dry baking in the sun. No doubt the Anasazi maintained their fine complexions with this stuff. Silt is the true gold of the river. Gold—you’d be lucky to pan for $20 a day. But silt—you could fill $1,000 of cosmetic containers in a few minutes.

We emerged from the canyon by 2 PM, our ride (Nayyer) having grounded the motorboat in a shallow mudflat 100 feet offshore, where we had to free him with a rope.


August 19, 2001
Lake Elevation: 3668’

Tonight we are aboard the only houseboat lodged in White Canyon, and I write this from the roof in a lightning storm. It looks dangerously angry up there, but I take some statistical comfort in knowing that electrocution is not among the Top 4 Ways to Die at Lake Powell. But great white forks sizzle in the southeast far away, later closer, eventually clapping overhead.

I move inside. A steady, light, but surprisingly persistent rain begins, and lasts all night. But the lightning fades, eventually moving north and away toward Hite and the Dirty Devil River. There are no stars tonight. Just Chicken Tikka Masala, prepared by Khawer. He improvises with Masala sauce from a jar, substituting heated tortillas for naan bread.

As we approached White Canyon, it was about 2 PM. The dilemma was whether to begin the long hike upcanyon then or in the morning. Thunderheads were brewing in the northeast over its headwaters, but no rain here—yet. Marine band radio seemed to confirm the accuracy of the long-range forecast. If so, better to go now or wait until morning, hoping for clear weather and an inaccurate forecast?

White Canyon in a flash flood is a sure and proven way to die. Khawer notes that, even if all five of us were taken out in one great surge of white water, we would still be one short of the Lake’s annual toll. Go? Or stay and wait another day?

Executive Decision: Wait. Instead, we would hike upward from our campsite. Tomorrow we would play by ear.

Our camp is about two miles inside the inlet of White Canyon, here still very wide and not particularly indicative of the spectacular narrows that lie upstream. A large mesa protects the southern exposure, but it may be possible to gain the summit by following a small drainage from our location upward to the south. Khawer offers $20 to anyone who can do it.

Shubber, Chuck and I go.

Amid brewing clouds, drinking pre-mixed double-strength Gatorade, the trail (such as it is) rises to a saddle point roughly 500 feet above the lake, this year at the relatively low surface level of 3660 feet above sea level—about 40 feet below full pool. From there, the views and choices are revealing. To the north lies the entire length of White Canyon, not a boat in sight. To the south not a half-mile away stands The Horn, a prominent narrow peninsula that caused the Colorado River—and now Lake Powell—to switchback on itself. Far in the distance is Castle Butte and beyond, Good Hope Bay. We can see the entire length of lake that it took 3 hours today to cover by boat.

To the east stands an impressive mesa some 800 feet above our elevation, its walls vertical and difficult. To the west another, but this one might be summited. We try and come close, but ultimately turn around because of threatening weather. We’ll try to collect at least $15 from Khawer.


August 21, 2001
Lake Elevation: 3667’

The White Canyon hike was entirely different in character than in 1999. We had expected the worst with the recent storms, flash floods, flowing water at least. But the lower part of the canyon was largely dry, just cobbles and occasional quicksand. Much easier than two years ago, when we spent much of the time either trying to find a route around the mad little rust-colored river, or slug through it directly, taking the chance that beneath the murky water no danger lurked. Like quicksand, potholes or swift currents. Not until farther up was there standing water, but in such places it presented a formidable obstacle.

The depth ranged up to neck high, making the waterproof camera bag the best purchase of the trip, apart from the extra (soft) toilet paper. At two points, there was no choice but to dive right in.

It is instructive to see how such places are best approached. With two or more people, the process is greatly simplified. The first acts as a scout, taking nothing with him. This is usually Chuck. There are at least two routes in such situations, and the obvious one is usually best. But not always, and when it isn’t it’s usually because of an unseen pothole, or rocks that are too slick for ordinary feet. Once beyond, the scout comes to a point where one can hand the stuff up over the ledge. Then everyone follows the path. The best route, no matter the difficulty, is invariably the one that has already been tested.

The goal of the hike, accomplished, was to reach the Highway 95 bridge over White Canyon. It stands a good 100 feet above the water, and looks something like this:



August 4, 2008
Lake Elevation: 3633’

Third straight night without rain. But the wind! A desiccating blast howled out of the south, and at some point it was enough to drive Chuck inside. The remarkable thing was that he actually managed to stow his mattress under the covered nose of the boat, which meant he somehow lifted it over me while I was sleeping, since I would have been in the way. This he did quietly in the dark, and I only found out later when I reached for my water bottle, and grabbed a mattress instead. Where was the bottle? I couldn’t find it—he must have knocked it over. And my glasses too. He must have been desperate to get off the roof, and yet in only the way Chuck can be, as polite as possible about it.

I was a little annoyed about the water and glasses—especially the glasses—but I didn’t need them till now anyway. I’m up more or less with the sun, the only one up except the canon wrens, who ring loud and clear in White Canyon. Here in 2008, this is about as far as you can safely go in a boat on Lake Powell, since jus a couple miles north of White’s mouth, the lake terminates in a muddy slime of silt, logs, and unidentified ooze. Hite Marina is not open, and remains high and dry. It is not really that the lake levels are that low—they’re the highest since 2002 at 3,633 feet—it’s just that they’ve been so low for so long that the Colorado River has been playing some tricks upstream as it will do on occasion.

A check of Google Earth before the trip showed it clearly enough. In the low years since 2003 or so, the river has been reclaiming the area just north of Farley Canyon, all the way up past North Wash, Hite, and beyond. But the river deposits copious amounts of silt wherever it goes, and with the edge of the low lake slowing the flow where it met the river, the Colorado has been busy forming a new delta. Only this delta is constricted by the walls of Glen Canyon. The result is a mish-mash of huge sand bars, silt dams, entrenched backwater pools, and general estuarine chaos. North Wash, for example, is full of deep water, but completely cut off from the lake by a silt dam that must be of considerable height, left along the banks of the returning Colorado River. The plain in front of Hite is comical, and potentially dangerous to anyway trying to traverse it. It’s a series of pools, bars, deep drops, and mudflats, stretching for a couple miles at least. The marina is completely unusable, and will likely remain so for years.

But the river is nothing if not dynamic, and whenever somebody like the Glen Canyon Institute comes along to say the lake will never return, or the rainfall will always be less than in the past, you know this is wishful thinking. The river does what it wants, aided and abetted by the fickle weather patterns, the geology, and whatever else it feels like using. It is a great scouring brush, and it what it leaves it also eventually takes away. The mess at Hite will one day be gone, and then just as surely it will also be back. And people will fret, wonder, and pay money to try to change this dynamic. Best just to accept it, and see where it takes you.
Which today is to White Canyon. There is no boat traffic at all here in White, save a fishing boat or two that came trolling, and one adventurous wakeboarder yesterday after we arrived, around 1:00. The adventure is not because of the distance to a working marina—maybe 35 miles—but because of the obstacles in the lake. Logs, some as large the downed cottonwood trees they came from, float menacingly at random, in some cases just below the surface. Where we are camped, the driftwood has piled on the shore, driven by prevailing winds. But in the more exposed entrance to White, where the walls are low and the wind swirls, the logs move like sunken gators, trolling for prey. They eat boats. And wakeboarders they love. So we had to be careful negotiating the minefield at the entrance, not a all sure it was a good idea at all to come to White this year.

Chuck and I took the motorboat ahead to scout. First, could we get through the asteroid field of logs? Were there decent houseboat spots? And third—and this was the whole point—was it possible to reach the navigable end of the canyon in such a way to allow us to continue hiking later on? White Canyon, if accessible, is an outstanding and challenging hike through quicksand, boulder scrambles, occasional deep pools, and a continuously narrowing path. We had last been here in 1999 and 2001, when the lake was much higher than today.

We were successful on all fronts. The logs ceased after a couple for twists upstream—apparently they must have come primarily from a tributary branch. In the Cedar Mesa Sandstone, all broken red layers, which results in steep, choppy walls, like those in Cataract Canyon upstream of the lake, do not lend themselves well to houseboat sites. Indeed, there are no houseboats at all in this part of the lake. In fact, the last one we saw was parked just inside the mouth of Fourmile Canyon, about 12 miles from where we are now.

But Chuck spotted a decent site, the only decent site we found. Not ideal, but somewhat protected, with a very small strip of pulverized rock that could pass for a landing site, hardly a beach at all. But once we cleared the beached driftwood and a few rocks, it was usable. And there would be no shortage of anchor points, in this boulder strewn geology, which is a lot more sinister than the Navajo Sandstone seen so often in Glen Canyon.

A few raindrops fall, along with the canyon wren’s descending call. The first drops of the trip, and they are gone as quickly as they came. But the sky is overcast, and if I recall, there were predictions of thunderstorms on Monday, today. We’ll take what can get.

There were clouds yesterday too, and I was glad there were. Because Chuck and I did find a viable way to the end of the canyon, a place to tie of the motorboat for a hike. In fact, the lower waters of this year compared to say 1999 actually made it easier to get to the end. During high water, the lake spills across fields of tamarisk, creating a huge tree-choked bay, nearly impossible to pick your way through in a boat, let alone find a place to land. Nayyer learned this the hard way years ago when he got the motorboat stuck in the muck, and the prop tangled in the trees.

But now the path is clear, since it is confined to the entrenched channel itself, which is shallow, but can be navigated by avoiding the few wispy tamarisk tops (and occasional driftwood) that can destroy a well-intended prop. The tamarisk fields, which in the past were in the water, now form harmless thickets on the benches above the channel. They are easily avoided till you finally get out of the boat, and have to bushwhack to get through. But this is quick work, and the hike up the canyon is unobstructed from there.

Four of us began the hike around 2:15 PM, Sunday, goal uncertain, though reaching the Highway 95 bridge was the idea. See if it was still there. Only Khawer remained behind. Chuck was very enthusiastic about the hike, calling it his favorite place to hike of all time. So naturally, I think he was somewhat disappointed this time. I could see why he liked it before. In 1999, we arrived just after a scouring flash flood, and the water ran high and silty. Lots of wading, crossing, route finding, uncertain depths. A real challenge. And this is where Khawer once fell in quicksand up to his waist, which is enough to put it on my all-time list as well.

But today, the canyon is mostly water-free, which isn’t to say dry. On the contrary, it remains slick and muddy, like chocolate pudding. You have to skate across mudflats to avoid falling in places, a layer of clay ooze that rides over the dry soil below. The clay layer also holds enough water to allow rivulets in places, and sometimes, in its narrower parts, deep muddy pools, some very cold. But for the most part, these pools were avoidable. But benign as the dry riverbed appeared, especially in its more open parts at the beginning, there remained hidden quicksand pools, and Jell-O footing of all kinds. Farther in, the canyon narrowed as the Cedar Mesa gave way to harder Wingate sandstone. The effect was to create benches, 20-30 feet above a twisting inner gorge full of murky water, often choked by boulders. Again, most of this interior was avoidable, but not all of it. And this was the disappointing thing for Chuck, who wanted nothing more than to dive right in.

And so he did at one point. He took the swim out of spite, and got Shubber to come along. It wasn’t necessary, and probably not wise, but in they went, ignoring downstream evidence of cows, and plunged into the sinuous watery trail upstream.

They didn’t last long, and soon we turned around. We never reached the highway bridge, since a gigantic boulder field and attendant pools became difficult—not impossible—to pass. These were not here before, when it was an easy walk over sandy cobbles in a narrow canyon, but now they are here, and attest to the power of floods in this canyon. Anything that can pile house-sized boulders wall to wall, and cement them together with full-sized trees, is something best not trifled with. We return to the boat, humbled with the knowledge that hiking guidebooks in this region are unreliable the minute they hit the bookshelves.

According to Shubber’s GPS unit, we covered just short of 8 miles, aided greatly by considerable afternoon cloud cover, but no real threat of rain. The hike took about 5 hours, with all the stops we made.
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