As Lake Powell falls, artists in Moab explore the rise of Glen Canyon

A Q&A with a writer and a photographer coming to Moab to celebrate the return of the Colorado River canyon.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Peterson, artist and former director of the Glen Canyon Institute, hikes in lower Fifty Mile Canyon on May 6, 2022. This slot was completely packed with sediment until monsoon storms cleared it in recent years.

What goes up must come down — perhaps even for things as massive as Lake Powell.

That’s the topic of the Glen Canyon Institute’s March 15 event, “Glen Canyon Rises.” Featuring artists, musicians and writers, the event celebrates the re-emergence of the legendary canyon as the water table keeps dropping in the massive reservoir shrouding the canyon, Lake Powell.

The Moab Times-Independent spoke with two of the event’s participants, writer (and former Salt Lake Tribune reporter) Zak Podmore and photographer Dawn Kish, about their work to document the return of the southern Utah canyon sometimes called America’s lost national park.

Times-Independent: Zak, you’ll be at “Glen Canyon Rises” discussing your new book, “Life After Dead Pool,” which comes out in August. What is it about?

Podmore: There are so many histories of the loss of Glen Canyon under Lake Powell. But I was trying to look at what’s happened in the last 20 years with the millennium drought and the way that Glen Canyon has started to come back to life in incredible ways. The book focuses on different aspects of that recovery.

Times-Independent: There’s a central tension to this topic — I’m thinking of the juxtaposition of “life” and “dead” in your book title, and many people could interpret “Glen Canyon Rises” as “Lake Powell falls.” Can you talk a little more about how you sought to tell a positive story about something often seen as negative?

Podmore: I’ve been thinking about the book, in a strange way, as a positive climate change story. The megadrought we’re experiencing in the Southwest is a disaster, of course. It’s causing a crisis for the 40 million people in the Colorado River Basin who rely on Colorado River water. But I think in Glen Canyon specifically, the drought does have a distinct positive side.

Glen Canyon was an environmentalist rallying cry in the 1960s after it was flooded by Lake Powell. It was considered to be one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, canyons on the Colorado River, rivaling the Grand Canyon.

It was thought to be lost kind of indefinitely, but as it’s declined, Glen Canyon turns out is still there. It’s still alive and it’s recovering without any active human management.

The ecology is really dominated by native species, which is not what anyone expected. Wildflowers and native grasses and cottonwoods have all come back. There are 50-foot-tall cottonwood trees growing now in the former bed of Lake Powell.

Then there are archaeological sites that have come back and still have a lot of scientific and cultural value — there are numerous tribes across the Southwest that have ancestral ties to the landscape in Glen Canyon. There are also so many opportunities for scientific research to get a sense for what’s already happened and different ways the landscape could be managed to protect it.

(Dawn Kish) Writer Zak Podmore, author of “Life After Dead Pool,” will be one of the artists appearing at an event, “Glen Canyon Rises,” set for March 15, 2024, at Star Hall in Moab.

Times-Independent: What was your process in writing the book? I heard you set out to paddle Lake Powell in a sea kayak.

Podmore: That was the original idea. It was a little too hard to meet with the researchers from a kayak, so I ended up doing a lot of motor trips.

I visited more than 80 tributary canyons to Lake Powell with different experts — water policy experts, Indigenous activists, geologists, archaeologists, ecologists, even an economist. I tried to tell the story of what’s happening in Glen Canyon right now from as many different angles as possible.

One of the last trips I did was with a group of artists in April 2023. This tour kind of came out of that artist trip. I’m really excited to be able to share the stage with [Kish] and to have an hour of music with Peter McLaughlin, who has Katie Lee’s guitar, and Jackson Emmer, who wrote a bunch of songs while we were out there. I think it’ll be a great event.

(Cierra Murrietta) Photographer Dawn Kish changes lenses on a 4×5 large format camera overlooking Hite Marina, Oct. 30 2021.

Times-Independent: Dawn — you returned to Glen Canyon with legendary photographer Tad Nichols’ large-format film camera, which documented the canyon before it was flooded by Lake Powell. How the heck did you get ahold of that?

Kish: I had started a photography project and was working with a master printmaker. He said, ‘Hey, I have this other camera if you would be interested in using it. It’s Tad Nichols’ camera.’ And I said ‘What? I can’t borrow Tad Nichols’ camera! What if I break it? This should be in a museum.’

Then COVID came and the other project fell through. Lake Powell levels dropped so suddenly that I knew little glimpses of Glen Canyon were coming out and I was like, ‘I have to go document that.’

I was just going to go with my 35 mm camera. Then, in the middle of the night, it came to me. I said, ‘I’m going to ask Richard if I can borrow Tad’s camera.’ I called him the next day and he was all over it. I documented seven trips to Glen Canyon from September 2021 to April 2023.

Times-Independent: Photography has been immensely important to the recent history of Glen Canyon. What do you hope to contribute to this lineage?

Kish: So many people don’t even know what Glen Canyon is. I feel like I need to teach people about the canyon and document the beauty so people get more inspired to do things like saving lands.

It inspires you to save these beautiful places before they get buried underneath a giant reservoir. Glen Canyon is just so beautiful, the little glimpses I saw, and Tad’s book [Glen Canyon: Images of a Lost World] really inspired me a long time ago. I want to inspire people to protect these beautiful places. The natural world needs our help.

“Glen Canyon Rises” takes place at 6 p.m., Friday, March 15, at Star Hall, 159 E. Center St., Moab.

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