The sun was on the verge of slipping behind red sandstone cliffs, a lone eagle soared lazily on gentle currents overhead, and barbecued chicken sizzled on the grill. We lounged on the deck, basking in the success of our first day roughing it aboard a houseboat on placid Lake Powell, a 186-mile stretch of water that rambles through rocky canyons and deep gorges along the Utah-Arizona border.
Suddenly, the breezes weren't so gentle and the lake wasn't so placid. The houseboat began pitching and heaving, trying to rip its anchors from their beach moorings. Cocktail hour ended with battle stations as all hands leaped ashore and began what was to be a nightlong tug of war between eight yuppies and nature untamed.
Admittedly, a healthy skepticism had run high from the very beginning of this adventure through the flooded gorges of the Glen Canyon: Eight city-dwelling friends venturing into a desert-lake wilderness aboard a house-boat with only rudimentary modern conveniences had all the ingredients for disaster. Eyebrows arched when one crew member arrived for the excursion equipped with seven sets of sheets, seven swimsuits and a gold Rolex watch. So much for roughing it.
We arrived at Halls Crossing Marina -- one of the four largest marinas serving the lake -- loaded with enough drinkables and edibles to stock a small convenience store. After a 45-minute guided tour of boat, engine and toilet pump, we chugged away from the pier into the main channel for a seven-day cruise, western style.
A vast expanse of desert that three decades ago was the subject of a bitter environmental controversy over damming and flooding one end of the Glen Canyon has evolved into one of the most spectacular wonders of the American landscape. With more shoreline than the U.S. Pacific Coast, Lake Powell is a labyrinth of secret waterways, mystical rock formations and hidden historical treasures. All along the lake -- more accurately a network of bays and rivers -- more than 90 twisted fingers of water with names like Dangling Rope Canyon and Hole-in-the-Rock beckon to be explored.
There is perhaps no better way to see this vast oasis than by houseboat -- big, clunky, comfortable vessels that even novice boaters can learn to operate in a short lesson from marina instructors.
After surviving our first sleepless night moored on an open beach where the winds were free to buffet our vessel mercilessly, we set out for serious river exploration. We puttered several miles along one of the most scenic segments of the lake, the Escalante River. The high cliffs that grow out of the deep clear waters still bear evidence of an earlier civilization, that of Indians who pressed petroglyph figures into the sandstone and carved footholds into the steep rocks. Determined not to repeat the previous night's mistake, we sent a scouting party ahead by ski boat to commandeer a sheltered campsite. (Even though the federal government regulates the number of boats allowed on the lake, the choice spots go quickly.)
By early afternoon, we scouts had stumbled into Davis Gulch, what would turn out to be the gem of the entire trip. We wound around curves as twisted as old European streets and canyons so narrow two boats could barely pass. Each bend in the gulch brought a new discovery -- a perfect arched window cut by nature through the rock, sheer cliffs plunging into glassy waters and, finally, the perfect campsite -- a natural rock amphitheater covering a tiny white sandy beach. We pounced. One crew member stood guard, warding off potential intruders (politely, of course), while the rest of the team raced back to guide the lumbering houseboat to its berth.
Later that night, as thunder ricocheted off the canyon walls, we clustered around a campfire inside our amphitheater. Flames threw ghostly shadows across walls that -- according to one guidebook -- once told the painted tales of Indian life in a bygone era. A brilliantly full, silver moon lured us to pull our mattresses to the roof deck of the houseboat. When the moon disappeared over the rim of the canyon cliffs, the sky blossomed with stars and the night silence was broken only by the occasional sound of a fish slapping the water's surface.
The next morning we set off for an inland hike to the shallow riverbed where the canyon waters ended. The map promised a spectacular rock arch a short distance up the canyon. The lush green of the valley floor was a sharp contrast to the dry, red sandstone cliffs that loomed above. The ground was littered with clumps of exotic flowers, from pale white wild moon vines to bushes of brilliant yellow and orange. A fat porcupine waddled into the scrub ahead and a regal buck peered down from a ledge above, gingerly rising to his feet and stretching as cameras clacked noisily.
After treading ledges, fording streams and clambering up and down gulch embankments for about 2 1/2 miles, we found the massive Bement Arch, which threw our shouts back at us. These canyons are full of ghosts from the past. The hiking path we were on crossed the old Davis Gulch Cattle Trail -- a major desert thoroughfare before the area was flooded. Here, old corral timbers remain from what is believed to be the last campsite of young naturalist Everette Ruess, who became a Utah legend when he disappeared without a trace decades ago, leaving only his pack mules behind.
Amid all this gushing over breathtaking scenery and wilderness adventure, perhaps it's time to mention the basics: feeding, showering and getting along with eight people on a floating home about the size of a small efficiency. We rented the largest model, with sleeping room for 12 -- fine for a pre-adolescent slumber party, but a bit cramped for 12 mature adults. Eight is about the maximum recommended allowance without undue bumping and bickering.
The galley-size kitchen -- complete with miniature stove, oven and refrigerator -- was big enough for 1 1/2 well-organized cooks. Most meals were cooked on the grill welded to the bow of the vessel. Our menus were planned, precooked and packed with the precision of a space mission. Each couple was required to take responsibility for two dinners. We plotted meals for weeks in advance, faxing menus between Washington, Boston and Denver -- steak, grilled lamb, shish kebabs.
Two couples descended on the Denver home of crew members Gwen and Alan two days before the trip and began to raid the local grocery and cook and freeze as many dishes as possible, from gazpacho to barbecue sauce. Once on board the boat, we crammed the food into the tiny refrigerator and the two oversize ice chests (provided on each boat). We quickly learned that the life span of the ice packed around those elaborately planned dinners was about two days. That of course necessitated periodic ice runs to the nearest marina -- sometimes a 45-minute ski boat ride away.
With a little creativity, a gourmet meal or two emerged from the ice chests and grill. Crew member Jane sipped wine on the aft deck one evening, oblivious to the frenzied balloon decorating and lamb grilling on the fore deck by her husband, Ralph, in preparation for her surprise birthday party.
Fortunately, we didn't base our menus on the fabulous fish catches we envisioned. After all, Bob Hirsch boasts in his guide, "Houseboating on Lake Powell," that his wife hooked a whopper while sitting on the toilet and tossing a line out the bathroom window. (This is the same author who declares that these houseboats are so easy to operate that "even the gals" can do it.)
The frustration of fishing on Lake Powell is that the waters are so clear the fish swarm just below the surface and sneer at you. As novices who didn't do quite enough homework on fishing techniques on the lake, we spent many a luckless morning rising with the sun and positioning our lines in likely fishing holes, only to face rejection.
Of course, that didn't stop the water cops from nabbing two crew members for casting their lines without a fishing license. Unwilling to fork over $15 at the marina for a five-day license, they each got a $65 ticket instead. Be forewarned, the authorities take the license rules seriously.
Each day on the lake brought dramatic new scenery and vistas -- from discoveries of seldom-visited Indian ruins on the backside of isolated cliffs to well-known tourist attractions such as the spectacular Rainbow Bridge, the largest rock span in the world, which arches 309 feet above the stream bed below. Once a sacred Indian site, it was not discovered by white men until 1909.
Gazing into the crevice of Hole-in-the-Rock, a U-shaped cleft high above the waterline of the Escalante River, you can envision the wagon train of 236 Mormons who blasted their way through the canyon in 1880. Some of the ruts from the wagon trains have been baked permanently into the rocky earth. The detailed maps that can be purchased at the marinas highlight hundreds of points of interest ranging from Moqui Indian steps on the cliff sides to waterfalls to abandoned mines.
The dawns in the canyons and on the lake were unforgettable moments as the sun rose over a canyon lip, chasing dark shadows with iridescent colors of orange, red and gold. The mornings were so still you could hear the whistling of the wind through the wings of a raven skimming along the rim of a nearby cliff wall.
Each afternoon, the group split up for sporting activities: The mountain goats would find a new trail or crevice to climb, the boat people would pull out the water skis, the sun worshipers would adjourn to the rooftop deck. As a result, there was no shortage of adventure tales come cocktail hour -- such as the time Alan killed a rattlesnake as two other hikers chatted obliviously on a nearby rock.
More than anything, however, we spent hours marveling at a landscape that is almost surreal in its detail -- rock formations that seem to defy gravity, vast networks of twisting waterways that stretch as far as the eye can see from trails high atop cliff ledges and moonrises straight out of an Ansel Adams photograph.
The trip ended up a major success even though the coffee ran out a day early and Darlene temporarily lost her Rolex watch and the men became a little too bossy when it was the women's turn to take the helm. In seven days, we had traversed barely a quarter of the waterway, leaving plenty of room for new explorations on the next trip.
We lounged on the stern of the houseboat the final evening, guzzling the last bottle of wine and watching -- with confidence -- as the purple clouds gathered over our secure and secluded little cove.
WAYS & MEANS
Houseboats are available for rent on Lake Powell year-round, although reservations often must be made up to 18 months in advance for June, July and August. Reservations are easier to get the rest of the year, and prices are less. Summer temperatures average 90 to 100 degrees during the day with jacket-cool nights; spring and fall days are warm, the nights cool; winter temperatures average 50 degrees during the day, 35 degrees at night. The atmosphere is desert dry year-round.
There are three sizes of houseboats available for rent: 36 feet, which sleeps up to six people; 44 feet, up to 10 people; and 50 feet, up to 12 people. In the summer, the smallest boat rents for $1,140 for seven nights, the largest for $1,835. In the spring and fall, the rates range from $855 to $1,377; in the winter, the cost ranges from $684 to $1,102. Power ski boats also are available for rent ($803 per week in summer, $482 in the winter) and add tremendously to your mobility.
Boats may be rented at four of the five Lake Powell marinas -- Bullfrog, Halls Crossing, Wahweap and Hite. All rentals are handled by ARA Leisure Services, 1-800-528-6154 (fax: 602-269-9408). GETTING THERE: The major airports closest to the four Lake Powell marinas where houseboats can be rented are Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Phoenix. A small regional airport is located at Page, Ariz., near the Wahweap Marina, the largest of the four marinas; there is year-round shuttle-bus service between the marina and the airport. Delta is quoting a fare from Washington to Page (with a stop in Phoenix) of $405 round-trip, with restrictions.
You can fly to the other three marinas by charter plane (all have small National Park Service airstrips), but they are most accessible by car. From Salt Lake City, take I-89 south to Bullfrog (about 296 miles). From Phoenix take I-17 north to Route 89 north to Wahweap (280 miles). From Las Vegas, take I-15 north to Route 9 east to Highway 89 to Wahweap (267 miles). WHERE TO STAY: If you want to spend the night before you board near the marina, there are hotel accommodations at Wahweap and Bullfrog marinas, and campgrounds at Wahweap, Bullfrog and Halls Crossing marinas. For more information: Wahweap Lodge and Marina, (602) 645-2433; Lake Powell Motel (near Wahweap), (602) 645-2477; Bullfrog Resort and Marina, (801) 684-2233; Halls Crossing Marina, (801) 684-2261; or Hite Marina, (801) 684-2278. PUBLICATIONS: Stan Jones's Boating and Exploring Map is a must and, like most of the other guides below, is available at the marinas. Also highly recommended is the Glen Canyon Natural History Association's "Lake Powell Boaters' Guide." The most helpful book we found was "Boater's Guide to Lake Powell," by Michael R. Kelsey, with the best detailed description of campsites, hiking trails and canyons. Also helpful (if you can ignore the constant references to gals in the kitchen) was Bob Hirsch's "Houseboating on Lake Powell." Also useful: "Dowler's Lake Powell Boat and Tour Guide," available from the Warren L. Dowlers, 526 Camillo, Sierra Madre, Calif. 91024, (818) 355-9707. WHAT TO TAKE:
Food. If it's remotely feasible, take your own and depend on the overpriced stock at the marinas as little as possible. Ice is available at all marinas. In preparing food ahead of time, remember to keep it simple; items that can be prepared on a grill are best. Equipment. The equipment you'll want to have along depends on your interests. Sturdy hiking shoes are recommended for even the most benign trails, heavier gear if you prefer serious hiking. For fishing, light test line is suggested because the water is so clear; the most common fish are largemouth, smallmouth and striped bass, walleye, catfish, crappie and northern pike. A five-day fishing license is $15 at the marinas -- cheaper than the $65 ticket each of our fishermen paid for not having one. For water skiing, take skis; life jackets are provided on the boats. Also consider taking shore camping equipment, including a tent and shovels, and extra rope.
Each boat is equipped with a gas grill, flatware, pots, pans, plates, cups, trash bags, bucket, mop, pillows and toilet tissue. Take your own bedding, linens, towels and cleaning supplies. We also recommend taking paper cups and plates (to cut down on dish washing), extra toilet paper and paper towels.
Boats are equipped with a 120-gallon sewage holding tank for the toilet and 40 gallons of drinking water. Non-drinking-water supplies for showers and washing dishes are unlimited. -- Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson