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Spirits of Glen Canyon - Part 3

Mark Heckey is a retired city planner with a passion for writing.

Part 3 of a multi-part historical/creative non-fiction of the Colorado River. Continued from Part 2

Glen Canyon, 1953

In 1953, Katie Lee had just returned from another audition for a bit film role. Her excitement over acting had begun to fade a year ago. Her folk singing still held her passions. The incipient pretty girl roles had lost their shine. She no longer got the calls for the attractive companion. Her mentor, Burl Ives, urged her to write more songs. At age 34, she felt the Hollywood lights were dimming and her time in the limelight was over.

Around 10 p.m., the phone rang in her tiny apartment. Katie picked it up.

"Hello, who's this?" she said.

"Katie, it's Tad. I'm in Arizona. I want you to join me, I'm going to run the river."

"Tad, sounds great. Why are you asking me? I don't have the money to go on one of those trips. You know that."

The year before, she had joined Tad Nichols when he invited her on a photography expedition to the Glen Canyon. She loved the place but knew the new river excursions cost a bundle.

"Katie, you got to come. All you need is $50 per week for your food. They will let you sing to the guests. Bring your guitar, they need some campfire entertainment."

"Well, that's a deal I can't refuse. Yes…You bet. I'll get there as soon as I can."

Katie became a fixture on the guided river trips. The river transformed her. She would never go back to Hollywood. She blossomed into a singer, songwriter, guide, naturalist, and river protector.

In an interview for the 2015 film The River Woman, she reflected on her new life on the Colorado:

"The river picked me up and took me along. My ego rubbed off when I found the river. It's like life, the way it flows. First you see the eddies and pools. Then you hit the rapids that shake you up. Then when you least expect it, you hit the calm water. Glen Canyon has 125 side canyons, all different. In Glen Canyon, the breezes talk to you. There is such beauty, it makes you cry with joy."

Katie went to work for the Mexican Hat Tour Company. Ken Sleight led the company and he and Katie became fast friends. They took the city slickers deep into the side canyons and taught them the secrets of the river. She opened up their senses, taught them to look and listen to the river's quiet language. After a while, you could not separate Glen Canyon from Katie Lee. They had become one person, one place.

When the Bureau of Reclamation began plans to dam Echo Canyon in 1955, shock spread throughout the river running community. The river boat guides could not believe that this kind of misguided development had arrived on the Colorado. The Sierra Club came to the rescue when the beloved Dinosaur National Monument was threatened to be covered in hundreds of feet of water. Echo Canyon became a lightning rod for the debate over water control in the West. The Bureau argued that a dam protects the watershed from raging flood waters, that a precious resource would go untapped and flow unused into the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

The politically powerful and highly respected Bureau of Reclamation had many supporters—land developers, municipalities, and ranchers stood to benefit from the dispersion of Colorado River water rights. In 1955, there were no environmental reviews or public hearings. The Bureau would have its dam—it would be moved south to Glen Canyon. Water now became the new gold of the Western United States, a resource desired more than the precious metals within the nearby mountains.

Katie and her river rats mounted protests and marches. They looked to the Sierra Club to rescue the magical and majestic canyonlands. But the Sierra Club held back to keep the victory at Echo Canyon. They did not want to be too aggressive. They hoped to cement the saving of a national monument by giving the Bureau a sacrificial lamb—Glen Canyon.

In 1956, from his office in Washington, D.C., President Eisenhower threw an electronic switch from his desk. That signal relayed across thousands of miles to the work camp at Page, Arizona, and the dynamite blew an enormous chunk out of the canyon wall. Seven years later, in 1963, the diversion tunnels would close and Lake Powell would begin to fill.

Katie Lee and her protestors, referred to as the Monkey Wrench Gang, often inferred that they would bring the dam down if it was built. Katie even posed for a photo with a wrench in one hand and dynamite in the other. They blustered this threat but did not follow through, Katie admitted that "I wish I could blow up that damned dam, but I don't know how to set the charge!"

The creation of Lake Powell crushed Katie's spirit. But she rose up and continued her fight to save Glen Canyon. She and other environmentalists called for the dam to be removed or at least to opened to lower the lake waters. Katie called dams an aneurysm in the life blood of a river. She claimed they would bleed the Colorado to death. The developers and government agencies called it a victory for man over nature. They celebrated that the raging and unpredictable river could be tamed. Katie mourned the loss of a National Park, the destruction of the archeological relics of the ancient Anastasi people, the rare and unique geology of the glens.
2017, A Force of Nature

Katie retreated to the small town of Jerome, Arizona, and became a writer. She continued to be a political advocate for the restoration of Glen Canyon. Her position, once considered radical, has been endorsed by several organizations including the Sierra Club. As climate change advances, the multitude of dams on the Colorado have destroyed the river's ability to flow and discharge silt. As the waters recede, glimpses of the glory of Glen Canyon are re-emerging.

The heart of Katie, the Goddess of Glen Canyon, can best be heard in her song lyrics. Her "Song of the Boatman" captures the vision, the bold wildness, and determination of her character:

Last night I lay in a restless bed,
A humdrum life pounding in my head.
When out of the night, came a mighty roar,
The river calling me back once more.
Today I know your magic call,
Will lead me back to the canyon wall.
And the music in your rapids roar,
Make this boatman's song from his soul outpour.
Tonight, as on your banks I sleep,
Like a woman soft, you will sigh and weep.
And I will dream of a sweet warm kiss,
A moonlit stream and the love I miss.
My heart knows what the river knows,
I gotta go where the river goes.
Restless river, wild and free,
The lonely ones are you and me.

The Goddess ended her visit to earth in 2017. She had stayed for 98 years. Today her spirit walks Glen Canyon. In a misty opening in time, even Major Powell can see her now, the lovely maiden sleeping under the red rock arch, swimming in the turquoise pool, and standing under the shimmering waterfall.

~ Mark Heckey







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