It was nearly 60 years ago when Katie Lee first floated into the red-rock labyrinth of Glen Canyon. But her memory of that place, which was long ago drowned by the creation of Glen Canyon Dam, hasn’t faded a bit.
Lee sharply recalls a desert eden of soaring Wingate walls, ancient ruins, maidenhair fern, canyon wrens, and little arches everywhere.
“It took me by the throat and it’s had me ever since,” said Lee, who is now in her 90s. “There’s no way to describe it, it was just absolutely heaven. I mean, it was another world.”
Lee, then a petite starlet and luminous folk-singer who entertained raft trips with songs, fell headlong for Glen Canyon. Over the next couple years, she rafted and floated the Colorado and San Juan rivers dozens of times, exploring and naming the mazelike system of side-canyons, swimming in the canyon’s pools, running the rapids, and becoming one of the most enduring characters of Colorado River lore.
She and her friends mostly ignored early rumblings that a dam was coming, she said, because it seemed too implausible, too stupid to happen. And despite their fervent, forceful protests later on, construction commenced in 1956. The 710-foot-high concrete arch dam was completed in 1963, 15 miles upstream of Lee’s Ferry. In what has become a well-told narrative, the dam, which was built to create hydroelectricity, store water and provide flow regulation, then inundated one of the most breathtaking canyon systems in the country, leaving Lee both deeply broken-hearted and spitting mad.
In the six decades since, fueled by that outrage, Lee has emerged as one of the most colorful, vocal, and sharp-tongued advocates for preservation of wild places in the Southwest. She is outrageous, mischievous, feisty, graceful, fearless, and determined. She’s not afraid to call a shithead a shithead, sing an incendiary protest song, or ride her bicycle naked through town. She calls Lake Powell “Rez Foul” and has openly insulted Bureau of Reclamation officials. And she’s not shy about her dreams for the future of Glen Canyon Dam.
“I would like the dam to blow up completely all in one fell swoop, clean out the grand canyon, get rid of all that crap that’s in there now and be a river again,” said Lee, who is featured in “DamNation,” a documentary being produced by Patagonia and Stoecker Ecological in conjunction with Felt Soul Media.
Lee, who has penned protest songs and authored books about Glen Canyon, the dam and the Southwest over the years, isn’t slowing down. She is just wrapping up her latest book, “Dandy Crossing,” which tells the story of the handful of people who once lived at Hite, a river crossing that was drowned by Lake Powell, and what happened to them after they were forced from their homes. She serves on the advisory board of the Glen Canyon Institute, a non-profit that advocates the draining of Lake Powell and the restoration of the Colorado River, and she still performs and speaks for educational and non-profit organizations.
“I haven’t quit, I’m still moaning and groaning about it,” Lee said recently from her home in Jerome, Arizona. “What else am I going to do? I know who I am, I know what I’m supposed to do and I do it. And until I drop, that’s what I’ll do.”
Lee is among many activists over the years who have protested the dam, which has drastically changed the Colorado River watershed by decreasing sediment loads, threatening native fish, taming a wild river and drowning a world of grottoes, spires, canyons, and cliffs under the second largest man-made reservoir in the United States. Lake Powell, which sits beneath breathtaking red-rock walls, has a storage capacity of 27 million acre-feet and stretches 186 miles when it is full.
The Glen Canyon Institute, which was founded in 1996, has for years worked to protect and restore Glen Canyon with a campaign that has entailed completing scientific studies of the dam’s impacts, winning a lawsuit to force the Bureau of Reclamation to re-evaluate how dam operations affect endangered species, and initiating a GIS mapping project.
But right now, there are no plans to decommission the dam and drain the reservoir.
And that’s good news to many people. The hugely popular recreation area draws roughly three million boaters, water skiers, campers, and fishermen to its shores each year.
But to Lee, it’s an ugly reminder of one of America’s biggest mistakes.
And though it may not happen in her lifetime, Lee is confident that if people don’t get rid of the dam, Mother Nature will with time.
With recent large-scale dam removal projects unfolding in places like the Northwest, Lee says the awareness is starting to grow about the harm that can be caused by dams. But her advice for people goes beyond dams: Protect what you love, or you may lose it.
“You better get off your butts and get out and protect what you love, because if you don’t make a noise people won’t know what’s there, and if you make too much noise you’ll ruin it too,” she said. “I was so lucky to see [Glen Canyon], just so fortunate. That’s a gift that I will never be able to repay.”
Katie Klingsporn is a writer and editor of the Telluride Daily Planet. Photos courtesy Katie Lee (top) and by Ben Knight. Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.