The brief but wonderful return of Cathedral in the Desert

  • Cathedral in the desert

    James Kay
 

It looked almost exactly like Phil Hyde’s photograph taken in 1964, a year after Glen Canyon Dam began backing up the Colorado River in a process that would take seven years.

Hyde’s photo revealed a stunning waterfall in a giant amphitheater with a narrow, almost slot-like opening at the top, perfectly named "Cathedral in the Desert." Eventually, the cathedral disappeared, drowned in 150 feet of a brand-new reservoir coyly named Lake Powell. But drought can perform miracles, and we had Ed Abbey’s words to remind us that the cathedral and the rest of the inundated Glen Canyon had not disappeared, after all; they were, he insisted, only in "liquid storage."

He was more right than he knew. Two years ago, when the drought had already pulled the reservoir level down by 90 feet, I traveled to Lake Powell with Rich Ingebretsen, the president of the Glen Canyon Institute, which wants to breach Glen Canyon Dam. We went by boat from Hall’s Crossing to the "Escalante Arm" of Lake Powell, then turned left up a narrow side canyon to the place we thought the cathedral should be. We guessed right.

It was difficult to gauge our location from the old photos, because we were floating 60 feet above the old canyon floor where they were taken. But as we made a tight turn to the left, we spotted the top of the waterfall that had once marked the upstream terminus of the cathedral, now just four or five feet beneath us, still submerged. We were that tantalizingly close. We wondered, as we reluctantly departed later that day, if that was as close as we’d ever come.

This spring, drought brought us an answer. Lake Powell had dropped another 60 feet, and in April, Ingebretsen and I traveled again to the cathedral by motorboat, the very form of transportation that will become obsolete if the reservoir ever runs dry. So there we were, in a $20,000 rented motorboat, in search of one of the most stunning sights on Earth, one that no one had viewed in almost 40 years.

It took an hour to go from Hall’s Crossing to the mouth of the Escalante River, and then up Clear Creek to a point where the canyon appeared to close in. This time, there was a slot at the back of the chamber, and there it was above us, the waterfall, flowing freely as spring runoff cascaded over the sculptured lip of the drop-off and spattered into a pool, 50 feet below. We parked the boat and walked in.

The dark desert varnish around the waterfall had not faded in 40 years. The striations so clearly visible in Hyde’s 1964 images were just as sharply defined for us today. We looked at each other, almost in disbelief, and we found ourselves speaking in whispered tones.

Ingebretsen said softly, "This is where Hyde stood ... this is where (David) Brower stood." And everything was still there, just waiting for Nature to expose the rock, and for us to return to witness it.

We noted the seeps oozing from the canyon walls and a hint of green around those wet places in the Navajo sandstone. Nature was already at work. From time to time, we came upon an old beer can or piece of rope or lost thermos cup, detritus of motorized recreation, left in the holy chamber. But what surprised us was how little garbage there was.

The Cathedral in the Desert, without any help from us, was, in the most tranquil way imaginable, restoring itself. All it needed from us was time. And there’s the rub.

If this year’s heavy snowpack in the Rocky Mountains turns out to be an aberration, and if, as a result, the reservoir continues to shrink, today’s fierce economic and environmental arguments about the dam will become irrelevant. The cathedral will re-emerge without any help from anyone.

But as we motored away from the cathedral, we were already aware that this year’s spring runoff will be massive, and that the reservoir will rise at least 30 feet, perhaps even 50 feet, or more. If the scientists are wrong, or the timing is off by many years, 2005 may have been Cathedral in the Desert’s one brief moment to revisit the light of day.

Already, in early May, houseboats floated above it as the reservoir steadily rose. For now, I take comfort in knowing that a cathedral really is down there, "in liquid storage," waiting for an enlightened future to let her shine again.

Jim Stiles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr, published six times a year in Moab, Utah.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org