The Engulfed Shrine of the Ages: Glen Canyon’s ‘Cathedral in the Desert’ is the sequel to the longer Glen Canyon Before Lake Powell: Beauty Lost in the Southwest (respectively, books 4 and 3 in the Colorado Plateau series). The Cathedral, as it was popularly referred to in those days (and still is) was inundated by Lake Powell not too long after the Glen Canyon Dam was built and in place (around 1967). By the early 1980s, that sprawling lake backed-up to nearly 200 miles (321 km), and some 125 side canyons and their respective scenic attractions (backcountry idyllic haunts) were covered by hundreds of feet of water. That compelling story is outlined in the original text published last year, depicting the before, during, and after phases relative to building the dam. In the sequel, the focus was entirely set on the most revered scenic icons of the Glen and meant to inform the reader what was sacrificed when the Bureau of Reclamation targeted Glen Canyon for the first large dam to be built in the upper basin of the Colorado River. Unfortunately, and some fifty years later, Lake Powell’s environmental problems with continuing and unstoppable aggradation (i.e., sediment in-flow) has severely diminished the originally predicted lifespan of its basin (around 700 years), and likely this second largest artificial basin in America (next to Lake Mead being the first largest by volume) will last sixty or seventy years. The reason is that there is no feasible or economical way to remove the accumulating grayish gunk on the bottom of the lake. Again, that story is revealed in its entirety in Glen Canyon Before Lake Powell. Incidentally, Lake Mead’s basin has already failed, and the fervor of the Bureau of Reclamation is to increase the basin’s seriously diminished levels. Then again, Lake Powell showed similar signs by the early 1990s. Hence, the lake level is well over one hundred feet below the so-called full pool level of 1982.

The Engulfed Shrine of the Ages relates the essentials of what happened here, including human and natural history. Mostly, the text describes the incomparable beauty of this canyon niche’s environs. The text also describes the before and after phases, including The Cathedral’s unexpected appearance when the lake level dropped some 145 feet (44 m). That rare and serendipitous event happened in April 2005, and for a couple of weeks visitors, like myself got to see The Cathedral fully revealed. Hence, a complete view of its magisterial setting from the floor to the upper reaches hundreds of feet above this veritable shrine of the ages. Toward the middle of the month, the water level of the lake slowly elevated and toward the end of the month The Cathedral was, once again, engulfed by cold, clear water.  

Here is a sample of the text’s opening that provides a bit more insight about The Engulfed Shrine of the Ages:

Prologue: From today’s Glen Canyon Dam, the lake milage marker is buoy no. 68. With one exception since Lake Powell’s forming in the early 1980s, boaters launching from the Hall’s Crossing Marina (buoy no. 95) could also motor or float down the lake some 23 miles (37 km), then make a right turn toward the upper parapets of the Cathedral in the Desert’s ensconced hideaway at the far end of Clear Creek Canyon. Some of those visitors visited here because someone told them about this scenic treasure or else they had seen pictures of Cathedral in the Desert’s (hereafter, “The Cathedral”) magisterial beauty. Still, unless seen and experienced, most visitors had no idea what the fitting designation, Cathedral in the Desert was another inundated facet of Glen Canyon’s remains of its days––B.D. (Before the Dam). 

FYI: Lake Powell is only 13% of the National Recreation Area, but one of the largest man-made lakes in North America. At full pool (3,700 feet/1,127 m) elevation) it is 186 miles (299 km) long, has 1,960 miles (3161 km) of shoreline (which is about half as long as the West Coast), over 96 major side canyons, and a capacity of 27 million acre-feet (32 million cubic meters). Buoy numbers represent miles/kilometers headed up-lake from the dam. For instance, buoy no. 68 indicates that many miles from the dam. There are five marinas  (and not all of them may be in operation due to lake levels. For instance, in recent years, the Hite Marina (buoy no. 148) in the upper sector of the lake has been closed for this reason. Red No. buoys (or “nun”) mark the starboard (right) and green “can” buoys are port (left). White “No” buoys mark areas that have restrictions (i.e., wake zones around marinas and sectors of the lake and canyon where boat traffic is restricted. White “stick” buoys with a red diamond mark underwater obstructions or mark restricted zones. 

Because the featured destination in this text is the Cathedral in the Desert scenic haunt, the GPS Lake Powell waypoints taken from the mouth of Clear Creek Canyon are N 37º 18.050 W 110º 54.464 and for the Cathedral in the Desert’s the waypoints are N 37º 17.410’W 110º 54.860. Like most pathways leading into the interior of the canyon, the route to The Cathedral’s dry environs in its heyday––dry––was easy to follow and easy to hike. What follows in this narrative is a juxtaposition of the before and after modifications to Glen Canyon (often referred to as “the Glen”). Naturally, the focus of the text is the Cathedral in the Desert’s before and after phases. Thus, the native, dry, and original habitat before Lake Powell, and the Engulfed Cathedral in the Desert. Moreover, the comparison of the two is more akin to a sobering contrast.

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