Katie Lee was one of the early desert defenders, a brash, fearless woman known for her activism and foul mouth who fought against the Glen Canyon Dam until her death on November 1, at 98. The actress-turned-folk singer-turned filmmaker, writer, and activist has been called the “Grand Dame of Dam Busting” and the “Desert Goddess,” and Burl Ives called her “the best cowboy singer I know.” Having picked up a thing or two from a former husband who drove racecars, she was apparently a force to be reckoned with on winding desert roads, to boot.
Lee traveled the country as a performer in her early adulthood before returning home in the 1950s to the American Southwest and the desert’s siren call. A river-running friend invited her to join a trip down the Colorado, literally, for a song: if she covered her food and sang folk songs for the guests at night, she could come along for free.
“That’s how I got to the river. But then the river became part of me. And still is,” said Lee in a 2015 interview.
It was a tumultuous time: the Bureau of Reclamation, led by Floyd Dominy, was gunning for the now-infamous Glen Canyon Dam. Meanwhile, archaeologists and river lovers were scrambling to gather up the goodness of Glen Canyon before it was lost beneath the sediment-filled waters of Lake Powell, which Lee referred to as Loch Latrine or Rez Foul.
Glen Canyon was home to 250 significant historical sites, and while archaeologists rushed to complete the single largest salvage in the United States to date (a term used when sites need to be rapidly excavated before a dam is built), Lee was chasing something more ephemeral: the spirit of the place.
Lee and two friends, a photographer and a river-runner, took a journey down the canyon and its 125 side canyons. Rich with traces of long-gone inhabitants, it had been left largely undisturbed since those ancient residents’ departure.
“There’s something queer about this place…I think there’s something here that’s just supposed to be a part of me,” said Lee of her reaction to Glen Canyon. “It was utterly and incredibly beautiful…All the colors were perfect. All the senses just came flashing out. I could hear better, I could feel better, I could speak better. Everything just…amplified.”
They documented their trip extensively. A handful of nude photos of Lee, climbing canyon walls, basking in the sun like a lizard, or triumphantly mooning the camera, became, in some way, her calling cards. She was unapologetically feminine and uninhibited in a time when independent, outspoken women were looked down upon, as were women comfortable in their own skin and matter-of-fact about their sexuality.
Raucous and passionate, Lee began her life as an activist after that trip, fighting against the dam that would be completed in 1963. She wrote songs, articles, and three books about it, working to bring down the “damn dam” as she called it (she immortalized the nickname on her license plate). Of Floyd Dominy, head of the Bureau of Reclamation during the Glen Canyon Dam project, Lee said, “I’d have cut his balls off if I’d have met him. Or I’d have somebody else do it.”
She never gave up fighting against the Glen Canyon dam, saying in interviews into her 90s that, if she knew how, she’d blow the thing up herself.
“You know I never dream about it? It’s because it’s on my mind all day long, every day. I don’t need to dream about it,” Lee said in a National Geographic interview in 2014. “What was lost? Eden. I don’t think Eden could have touched Glen Canyon.”