Memories of the ‘goddess of Glen Canyon’

Our readers share their thoughts and encounters of Western icon, Katie Lee.


In memory of Katie Lee, who passed away Nov. 1, we asked the High Country News community to share their memories of the Western icon. A staunch wilderness advocate, writer, folksinger and adventurer, Lee wrote hundreds of songs and numerous books during her long career. Infamously, when she was 37 years old, she posed nude in Glen Canyon before it was drowned by what she scornfully called “Lake Foul.”

Katie Lee in Glen Canyon before the construction of the dam.
Martin D. Cligan photo courtesy of

Some of those responses have been shared here, edited for length and clarity. Here’s what some folks had to say:

David Dilman
I had the pleasure of finally meeting Katie Lee at a panel discussion at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival in May 2016. Her spirit was so strong to keep wild places wild and to advocate for Powell Reservoir (her name for Lake Powell) to be drained. She held up a copy of a Denver Post article discussing the merits of opening up the spillways and sending all Powell's water downstream to the Hoover Dam. I was struck by her passion and determination and her unbridled enthusiasm of Glen Canyon. I’ll never forget my brief one-on-one conversation with her about a story she had written decades ago. She had gotten stuck in a Glen Canyon pot hole pond after taking a cool swim, and, suffering from pre-hypothermia, she used a scarf to lasso sneakers, put them on her hands, and climbed out. Help arrived after dark as she was stumbling her way back to camp, shivering in the cold Utah night. I told her I was impressed with her story and read it to my small children on a long road trip. She replied: “You bet your ass that was the dumbest thing I ever did. Fucking lucky I made it out alive.” I told my kids I spoke with Katie, but I edited her response for their ears! Rest in peace, Katie Lee. When they built you, they broke the mold.

Katie Lee, on a visit to the High Country News office in the late-1990s.
Betsy Marston

Veronica Egan
I have many memories of Katie, one of the Greatest of Great Old Broads, but maybe my favorite is of working alongside her at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival. She was tabling for the Center for Biological Diversity, which had just come out with its Endangered Species Condoms, which were packaged in colorful little boxes with illustrations of endangered critters, and featured slogans like “Wrap with Care — Save the Polar Bear” and “Hump Smarter — Save the Snail Darter.” Whenever a couple of child-bearing age passed by, Katie would grab a handful of these, rush out from behind the table and thrust them into the gent’s hand. “Here, you’re going to need some of these!”

Tim Smith

While never having met Katie Lee personally, it’s almost impossible to not know her and experience the wonders of the canyonlands of southern Utah and northern Arizona where she spent so much of her life. Her descriptions of Glen Canyon prior to being engulfed by Lake Powell are to be cherished and forever remembered for their clarity and compassion. What an incredibly unbridled free spirit she was throughout her long and accomplished life. She is a compelling link to a time and geography unseen by most of us.

Mary Grant
Unless there’s a surprise massive reverse geo-engineering feat in the near future, most of us will never see the Glen Canyon Katie Lee adventured through. But she kept this place vibrantly, beautifully alive in her writing. I often read her stories aloud in front of a campfire. What an interesting life she led, and what a personality. I really, really wish I could have met her.

Katie Lee.
M.L. Lincoln

Bruce Hamilton
The Sierra Club published a eulogy for Glen Canyon titled “The Place No One Knew” to celebrate its beauty before it was submerged by Lake Powell (Lake Foul). In fact, Katie and others knew Glen Canyon well and rightly felt betrayed by those who were complicit in the canyon’s demise. I was first inspired by her songs challenging the dam-building forces. Then I got to know her feisty, vulgar, and irreverent spirit in person. What a marvelous and inspirational, true Western character. She knew how to speak truth to power whether it was Floyd Dominy, Stuart Udall or the Sierra Club. I would usually say rest in peace, but I know she is raising hell in any afterlife there is, just as she did in this world.

Naseem Rakha
I did not know Katie Lee. I never met her and had never seen her in anything but pictures and films. But I wanted to know her. More than that, I wanted to be her.

I wanted to be the woman who explored Glen Canyon before the blood flow of the Colorado was stanched by the tourniquet of a dam. I wanted to be the one who wrote odes to that chasm, songs, poetry. I wanted to author books about my desperate love for a place, and the raw anger that comes from seeing the sacred desecrated by those who feed on greed: white-faced savages willing to devour anyone or anything that may try to step between themselves and a buck. I wanted to be the woman whose face was bronzed by desert sun and chiseled by desert wind. Eyes wide open to the vastness of desert skies. I wanted to be the one with a passion so deep, so thorough, so complete, that it propelled my movement from one day to the next, fiercely fighting for all I know to be pure and right and beautiful.

Kathleen Williamson
Katie and I were close friends since 1975, when as a 21-year-old groupie, I knocked on her door and became her protégé in folk music. I perform many of the songs she taught me to this day, most recently her folk opera, “Maude, Billy, and Mr. D.” I’ve always thought that environmental issues were far and away more pressing than civil rights, though they are obviously in the same thread of unhealthy exploitation of earth and creatures. And, beauty — how we can learn so deeply by looking at the sky and rivers instead of electronic screens and viewfinders. While I did not share river trips with Katie, we did hike all over the area around Jerome, Arizona. She often climbed faster and better than my goats who went on these adventures with us. Katie’s love of Earth has deepened mine profoundly and though I’ve considered myself an environmental activist in my own way, Katie’s passing has left a hole that I believe we need to fill. I’m ready to step up and do a lot more. Thank you my darling Katie Lee. You were a warrior and a worshipper of Earth. Your influence will make us strong, committed, and wise.

If you’d like to share your memories of Katie Lee, see our tip form.

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