Jeff Topping  /  Getty Images file
Boaters move up a side canyon on Lake Powell.
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updated 7/10/2006 2:48:39 PM ET 2006-07-10T18:48:39

Sapphire sky, pink stone, turquoise water. Three extravagances of nature — each one deep and intense and starkly beautiful in itself — intersect at Lake Powell, the West’s most provocative spectacle. A manmade 186-mile-long footprint spanning Utah and Arizona, the lake is often plied by houseboats in spring and summer, but there’s a much richer experience waiting for the active traveler.

I’m spending five days in this intersection, poking into tributary canyons by kayak and camping next to remote bays. The kayak is truly the ideal vessel for probing the lake — quiet, unobtrusive, and able to snick into slot canyons too narrow for pudgy powerboats. And wherever the water ends, we simply park, pop our spray skirts, and hike up a canyon through quivery red muck and sculpted slickrock.

Most Lake Powell kayak expeditions involve a mother ship, either a houseboat or a dedicated ferry such as Hidden Canyon Kayak’s pontoon boat, which has delivered six paddlers and half a ton of camping gear 40 miles up the lake from Wahweap Marina. Without the lift, we’d have faced two days of paddling in the relentless sun just to reach the more spectacular side canyons, and we wouldn’t have luxuries like cold drinks and folding chairs.

Floating through canyon country
The argument over Lake Powell — and there are organizations actively campaigning to drain it, more than 40 years after the Bureau of Reclamation built Glen Canyon Dam and began flooding Glen Canyon to form the lake — is always cast in environmental terms. The dam inundated a vast desert ecosystem upstream and tamed a wild river downstream.

But because of the lake, the landscape is accessible to anyone, and in relative comfort. Without the water, these would still be connoisseurs’ canyons, only available at the cost of days of desert hiking. Without the lake, a minuscule fraction of the approximately 2 million annual visitors would ever come here.

Paddling the canyons is, of course, a vastly different experience from hiking them. It’s like touring a huge sculpture park, one where otherworldly formations rise from a waterscape designed for the most dramatic contrast imaginable.

In Cathedral Canyon, a 3-mile-long channel that meanders south off the lake, a sheer sandstone cliff soars about 500 feet out of the water, its face carved as cleanly as a holiday ham. Twilight Canyon is a corkscrew of scoops and swirls, its wind-buffed walls narrowing until they squeeze the sky into a tortured blue ribbon over our heads. It’s like paddling through a cave, only with color and light. By official count there are 96 of these canyons (we probe just 10 in our five days), and their variety seems endless.

World’s most spectacular desert
At each day’s end, guide Les Hibbert, the admiral of our plastic flotilla, leads us to a campsite that he’s judged unsuitable for houseboat anchorage — the last thing we want is late-night revelry in the neighborhood. Hibbert has been leading tours either on Lake Powell or the Colorado River for 25 years, and he knows that the environment will provide ample entertainment by itself.

And on our second night, it does. After dinner we kill the camp lights and watch the moon rise over a ring of serrated bluffs behind our bay. The white lunar light turns the red mountains into silhouettes that glow with vague menace, like charcoal hoarding a secret fire. Then, unexpectedly, intimations of lightning begin flashing somewhere over the southern horizon. Soon, orange virgas scratch the sky, but the rain never finds the ground — a reminder that, despite being surrounded by more than 8 trillion gallons of water, we are in a desert.

Geologically, the Colorado Plateau sports the world’s most spectacular desert, furrowed with a startling variety of canyons and punctuated by spires, domes, cones, and buttes thrusting into the sky. In the last 500 million years on the geologic clock, it has entertained cycles of oceans, tidal flats, swampy lowlands, and arid deserts. The Navajo sandstone that forms most of Lake Powell’s rim is a heap of windblown Jurassic dunes, cemented into mounds and gnawed by streams and wind. Its natural history is one of constant change, but Glen Canyon Dam accelerated the pace of change beyond anything that nature could engineer.

One of my paddling companions, Howard Greene of Taos, New Mexico, counts himself as an environmentalist, and he’s seeing Lake Powell for the first time on this trip. “If this were natural,” he says, “you couldn’t help feeling it’s fabulous.”

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