A Curious Ensemble

December 18, 2006
Filed under Travel

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After 20 minutes of tugging, cajoling, yanking and praying, I felt I had no choice but to wade in after whatever monster was on the end of my fishing line. I had propped the rod up between rocks on the bank of an offshoot of the San Juan River, one of the tributaries that feeds Lake Powell, the seemingly endless expanse of liquid recreation that sprawls through southern Utah and northern Arizona.

After I’d retrieved a Diet Coke from the moored houseboat, I had returned to my fishing spot, lifted my rod and determined that my line was snagged. I walked back and forth along the bank, lifting the rod, then dipping it — and made exactly zero headway. As I pulled out the clippers to cut the line, the line jumped out of cutting range, and I was suddenly grateful that my snag-assessment had been wrong. The battle was on.

The day before, I’d tooled around the calm water in my inflatable canoe, tossing plastic worms among the weeds, between the red iron-rich boulders and around submerged tumbleweeds. The easy-to-maneuver craft allowed me to paddle without mishap into water that was only inches deep, and I managed to catch an unimpressive large mouth bass and an OK-sized sunfish. When I returned to the houseboat, one of the members of the multi-generational clan my father and I were traveling with suggested that I try to catch catfish instead. Since I wasn’t armed with bait tailored to the whiskered creatures — but knowing that the scavengers will eat most anything — I decided to load up a treble hook with a giant gob of rainbow powerbait, hoping the catfish wouldn’t mind the fact that the bait is made for trout.

One thing I was sure of — as I lifted and dipped, heaving and pulling in every conceivable direction, asking myself if I was really thinking about wading in after the tugger of my line — was that whatever was on the other end was definitely not a trout. And since we were in fresh water, and there were various dams between here and the sea, I thought I could safely rule out a shark. A turtle? An eel? Poseidon? I flung my hat toward higher ground, then slipped out of my shirt. The angle of the bank seemed to indicate that the water would get deep in a hurry, and I wondered if I should set the rod down and get a lifejacket.

But I feared that letting the line go slack by putting the rod down might give my quarry the opportunity it was waiting for, so I decided to grab the foam backpacking chair that was within reach and wedge it under my arm for buoyancy. I had on river sandals and a bathing suit, and I felt the hot sun beating down on me, as well as an overwhelming sense of incredulity, shame and amusement. “What the heck,” I thought. I grabbed a small net and tucked it under my left arm with the chair, held the rod high in my right hand, then followed the line into the water, letting the eight-pound monofilament run through the fingers on my left hand.

Within six steps I was treading water — and giggling. I struggled my way deeper, inching more line between my fingers, carefully kicking and trying to keep my head above water, answering every tug with a tug of my own. “Come to Poppa, you whiskered brute.” By then I’d concluded that it must be a catfish on my line. And I also knew Edward Abbey was mistaken. Yes, I understand that to disagree with such a revered figure — the presumptive father of environmentalism — is to risk the wrath of angry outdoorsy types everywhere. Yet I, as an intrepid outdoorsy type myself, am willing to endure the monkey-wrench brandishing and the shunning around campfires that such dissent will undoubtedly generate.

“Bring it on,” I say, since writer Edward Abbey’s condemnation of Glen Canyon Dam was … what’s the word … wrong. In 1962, when the flow of the mighty Colorado River became halted by Glen Canyon Dam, creating Lake Powell and submerging geologic and historic features that some people deemed sacrosanct, a war of words was launched that still rages today. The protesters are not entirely incorrect, of course — all lakes change the landscape; otherwise, what would be the point of creating them? Hydro-electricity is one reason, of course, but so is recreation. The petroglyphs and slot canyons that Lake Powell has covered in what is today known as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area are still plentiful, and visitors willing to expend some effort can still explore them.

In fact, most of what John Wesley Powell described in 1869 as “A curious ensemble of wonderful features …” still exists in abundance in Glen Canyon. The area so beautifully brings together salmon-colored rock walls, inviting water and sky-blue vistas that to wake up in this environment is to start one’s day perfectly. What Abbey’s literary indictments — The Monkey Wrench Gang and Hayduke Lives — fail to acknowledge is how much fun the 2 million annual visitors to Lake Powell have on the hundreds of miles of water held back by Glen Canyon Dam.

Water-skiers hang on behind powerboats that weave around houseboats on their way through the main channel in search of campsites in secluded coves. Personal watercraft buzz across the surface of the glassy morning water, exploring slot canyons too narrow for large craft. Or, you might find these motorized water bugs tempting fate as they jump the wakes of larger boats. Visitors can enjoy Glen Canyon in many ways, including exploring the lake on day trips while spending evenings in campgrounds at thefour major marinas.

I was currently enjoying the lake by hand-over-handing the line upward, eventually forcing the fish to break cover. I reached out with the net, surrounded the big, beautiful beast, hoisted the net above the water, then let out a scream. My vocalized joy echoed off the crimson canyon walls. The trick then was to make it back to shore. Which I did. Barely. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, http://nps.gov/glca

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