Desert Paddling

Hugh and Kim Dobson

Hugh and Kim Dobson

One might expect a kayaking trip into the desert to have some odd turns. But having our kayaks mysteriously broken into in the middle of an empty desert was truly not on our radar. We were returning from a hike up Slickrock Canyon to see some Anasazi ruins, but as we approached our boats Kim noticed that the deck and seat of her kayak were covered in bits of ochre coloured sand and mud.  Her paddle was not where she had left it.  Strange we thought.

When I looked in the cockpit of my kayak, I noticed that the contents of my small storage bag, a glove compartment of sorts, were scattered all over the seat: compass, GPS, multitool, sunscreen and even the small pelican box that held my phone.  Our kayaks had been rifled through! We looked in the mud surrounding our boats and saw no footprints except our own.  The mystery deepened.

Earlier on in the hike we had commented on how absolutely quiet it is in the canyon; literally, we could hear the wind as it passed through the feathers of a passing raven’s wings. Realization hit. And sure enough, there he was, flying 30m overhead tracing the canyon wall back towards the water. The Trickster had struck! Our first lesson learned about kayaking in the desert: ravens are smart, and here in the desert, food is scarce.

Setting out to paddle the desert.

Setting out to paddle the desert.

The idea of kayaking in the desert came from an amalgam of wanting to do something completely different on my birthday and an article I had read about a couple who had spent a few nights on Lake Powell in Utah as a late season get away.  This was my first birthday as a retiree, so I had the freedom to celebrate wherever I wanted.  The idea of paddling in the warm weather of a desert environment, easily accessing some great canyon hikes and camping under the full moon ticked all the boxes.  As with all of my great ideas, I had to vet it through my wife.  

“Hey Kim, how about we load up the car with our boats and camping gear, drive 3300 km across the States and go for a paddle?”

Kim pointed out that I didn’t know the first thing about paddling in the desert.  

“Right, I’ll do some research.”

Lake Powell is the result of the Colorado river being backed up behind the Glen Canyon Dam, upstream of the Grand Canyon. The lake, long and sinuous as it is, stretches almost 300 km when it is full and has 96 major side canyons to explore. When we were there, the lake level was down a shocking 32m, leaving what the locals called the bathtub ring along the cliff faces and shorelines.

The air was so clear and the moonlight so bright, that I could easily make out the red and yellow colours of our kayaks. I could see the different colour layers of the mountain some 10 kms distant.

An internet search of kayaking Lake Powell did not yield a lot of information.  But, I did find a National Geographic Map on Glen Canyon and Boater’s Guide to Lake Powell, which showed where campsites and hikes could be found. Another quick search revealed that the temperatures at the beginning of November would average around 17 degrees Celsius during the day and 6 at night, with sun rise around 7:00am and set at 5:30pm. Warm short days, cool nights and lake temperatures that are swimmable for us hardy Canadians.

“Wanna go?” I asked, looking across the table at Kim.

Always the pragmatist, Kim replied, “You better call the park and find out if there is anything special we should know about tripping in the park.”  

The Ranger’s enthusiasm about his park was contagious: $25 for a 7-day pass. Yes, you can camp wherever you like. No trace camping - including all excrement. Hmmm. Good to know, I thought. Better run that one past Kim. “Ah Kim…. we are going to have to add something to our equipment list.”  

Another quick search on the internet, a trip to a plumbing store, an hour of assembly and we had our own homemade groover (river runner jargon for portable toilet, we called it our pooptube). We just had to pick up some Wagbags along the way and we were set to go. In more ways than one.


We pulled into Bullfrog, Utah four days after leaving Lakefield. For our first desert camp, we planned on staying at Stanton, a primitive campsite, and do a day paddle to get a feel for the area.  The word primitive is being kind. With the lake being so low, we had to drive on what was previously (and would be again) lake bed.  No trees, tiny bushes. No nicely laid out roads. No signposted campsites, just tracks through what looked like a red coloured gravel pit. This stark beauty was home for the next two nights.

Again, we were struck by the silence that first night on Lake Powell. There was simply no sounds except the ones we made.   As the sun started to go down, we rushed through making dinner and ate it watching the sunset.  It was a sunset that was as beautiful as, yet distinctive from, a Georgian Bay sunset.  

The diminishing light also brought about a decline in the temperature. With additional layers and toques on, we completed the dishes and sorted the campsite for the night.

“Right. Now what? Bed time?”  I asked.

“It’s 6:30! Don’t you think that’s a little early?” Kim responded.

Oh, right! Summer time activity and summertime mentality meets daylight hours similar to winter camping in February. So, we don’t have to have dinner wrapped up before sunset. Another lesson from kayaking in the desert: Nightfall does not necessarily equate to bedtime.

“Okay. It’s not bedtime yet. We can read our books.” I conceded

By 7:30 we were both asleep. Some desert lessons are learned more slowly than others. After all, it was 9:30pm back in Ontario.

Waking up in the middle of that first night, the inside of our tent was aglow with the light of the nearly full moon.  The air was so clear and the moonlight so bright, that I could easily make out the red and yellow colours of our kayaks. I could see the different colour layers of the mountain some 10 kms distant.  It was only in the very early morning, after the moon had gone down, that we saw the multitude of stars that filled the desert sky.  If you take a starry Kawartha night and double the number of stars you can see, it might come close to a starry night on the Colorado Plateau.

As the trip went on, we grew accustomed to the quiet and the moon became fuller.  We became better at staying up past 7:30, we even played bocce by moonlight one night.

Feeling comfortable with our first foray onto the lake, we decided to go for it and head out into the desert by kayak. Over the next six days we flipped between the familiarity of tripping and the unfamiliarity of desert travel.  

“Hey Kim. The guide book says there are good campsites along this stretch of the canyon. Do you see any? All I see is rock.”

“Yeah way up there.” She pointed to what looked like a flat area just above the high watermark.

First campsite in the canyon.

First campsite in the canyon.

“Way up there?! That can’t be right. What’s wrong with this guidebook?” I questioned.

Without any belaying equipment to get ourselves and boats up the cliff face, we decided to look someplace else.  Eventually, we found a beach that looked good, but to my Georgian Bay-protect-yourself-from-windstorm mindset, it looked a little exposed.

Kim, remember she is the pragmatist, pointed out the obvious: “Do you see any trees anywhere to hide behind? No. And why do we need to be sheltered from the wind anyway? There is no wind! The biggest wind we have seen in 3 days barely ruffled the surface of the water!”  

“Ok I guess we can camp out in the open.” I agreed

Kayaking in the desert lesson number three: embrace the wide open spaces.

Our first night out into the desert, we camped on Hall’s Creek Bay. At the end of the bay, we went looking for a described hike only to find that the water ran out way before the trail head because the water was so low. We did come across an old fence line, recently exposed, a reminder of the past when families would eke out a living here – now that history, like the fence post, is submerged most of the time.

Moki Canyon

Moki Canyon

We eventually found a trail that took us up onto the Waterpocket Fold, a vast sandstone syncline. Following well-spaced cairns we came to a natural bridge, a water formed desert feature that left us wondering about the role that water had played in this now very dry landscape.  We also thought how amazing it was to hike in a desert and not have to worry about carrying huge amounts of water as a vast source was always close at hand.

Hiking up Moki Canyon

Hiking up Moki Canyon

And so, our days on the lake settled into a rhythm: find a campsite; paddle into a canyon or two; try to find the hike as described in the guidebook based on very different water levels.

“From the head of the bay, hike up the canyon, past the second sandslide and look for a small trail that will take you up to the rim. The Kiva ruins will be on your right at the top.” Sandslide? There are sandslides everywhere. By the third day we were ready to throw the guidebook in the lake.  Instead, we would just go for a walk, cognizant of our turnaround times in order to get back to camp before dark. Then we’d make our meal, working hard not to add any sand to it, and enjoy the moon rise.

The oasis of life that we found at the end of each canyon seemed in stark contrast to the rest of the surrounding landscape. The canyon micro ecosystems, anchored by shrubs and trees, had multitudes of organisms not found on the plateau - just above.  In the smaller slot canyons, it was the carved curves of water worked sandstone that intrigued us.

This was one of the most serene trips we have ever been on. The lack of wind and the quiet of the desert wildness was stunning.  The incredible light of the sunrises, sunsets and emerging full moon, all added to the quietude. On our busiest day, we saw four boats and talked to two people. We saw lots of wildlife: a bald eagle trying to pick a grebe out of the flock, a family of otters that swam beside us snickering, a desert fox, along with beavers, loons, great blue herons, and even wild cows. Every place we stopped there were the ubiquitous coyote tracks. Although we did not see any coyotes we were, on more than one occasion, serenaded by them. On our final night, my birthday, the moon was full.  We celebrated with a cake baked over the stove (with a bit of Utah grit thrown in for extra texture) and discussed the fine balance of wanting to stay out longer to learn more lessons from the desert and knowing that it was time to head home.

Contributed by Hugh Dobson

Hugh Dobson is a retired high school teacher and vice principal. He is co-owner of the Canoe and Paddle in Lakefield, Ontario.  Hugh has spent much time on the water as a white water kayak instructor and is currently planning a solo kayak trip from the Lakehead (Thunder Bay), Ontario to Lakefield, Ontario.  Follow him via Instagram at #hughgoesthere150. A neat piece of safety gear Hugh is taking will allow us to follow his progress as his SPOT gps locator plots his position and progress every 30 minutes while he is on the water. Finally, keep an eye out for the welcome home flotilla on Katchewanooka Lake in late July as it greets Hugh on his arrival back in Lakefield.

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