Lake Powell on the rise, expecting big boating summer

To the Perez family, newly arrived from Miami, this raw, red-rock landscape is so foreign, it might as well be the moon. Or, perhaps, the Holy Land (which it stood in for in the movie The Greatest Story Ever Told). Or post-apocalyptic America (see Planet of the Apes). Or maybe just a place that enables temporary refuge from the daily hustle.

William Perez, 33, his wife, Gisell, 34, and their two sons, Casey, 6, and Matthew, 2, are about to motor off on a houseboat for four days of R&R on the emerald waters of this vast man-made lake. But as with most things in life, houseboating is not without rules and caveats. An instructor has Perez inspect the propellers for damage, confirm that the 170-gallon gas tanks are full, and check the propane levels and hot-water tank. There are insurance papers to sign. And warnings to heed — a single long beep and a flashing light from the control panel is a bad thing. Oh, and if they spot any mouse droppings, don't touch them. They could carry the hantavirus, a rare but nasty disease.

When the "not responsible for lost or stolen items" spiel is over, the wife and kids settle in and Perez takes the helm, declaring, "We're going to find a nice beach, and fish and enjoy."

The Perezes are early comers in what both national parks and commercial interests here believe will be a robust boating summer, following nine years of drought that drained the lake 100-plus feet below its high-water mark. Thanks to record winter snowfall in the Rockies, the waters of Lake Powell are expected to rise 50 feet this summer, Bureau of Reclamation officials predict.

Most significantly, the higher lake levels mean a popular route known as the Castle Rock Cut will reopen, lopping 12 miles off the journey from Wahweap Marina, Lake Powell's main put-in, to up-lake destinations such as Rainbow Bridge National Monument. At 290 feet tall (and broad enough to span the White House), the sandstone marvel is the world's largest natural bridge and an iconic giant in a land teeming with the gargantuan.

Deep and wide

Indeed, dimensions in this wide-open country boggle the mind. Lake Powell itself constitutes only 13% of the 1.2-million-acre Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The lake began forming in 1963 when Glen Canyon Dam corralled waters of the Colorado River, which eventually backed up 186 miles. Its shoreline, zigzagging through 96 major canyons, totals 1,960 miles when the lake is full — more than the straight-line distance between Mexico and Canada. High-water marks in the mid-1980s reached 3,700 feet above sea level and a depth of more than 500 feet.

But in recent years, news of diminishing lake levels (a white bathtub ring etched on the red canyon walls records where the water once reached) has contributed to a dip in visitation — from about 3 million annually in the late 1990s to about 2 million last year.

"Still, it's a deep lake," says Steve Carothers, general manager of Antelope Point Marina, one of two commercial operators here. "It's 500 feet in parts. So if you think of the water drop as knocking 10 stories off a 50-story building, it's not so dire."

In fact, as levels diminished in recent years, some took a the-lake-is-half-full attitude, pointing to long-submerged attributes of Glen Canyon that once again became visible.

"Petroglyphs reappeared. You could walk into canyons instead of boating in," says Steve Ward, spokesman for Aramark, the national parks concessionaire that runs most of the commercial entities in the recreation area.

Edward Norris, 74, a veteran Lake Powell houseboater who is escorting a family group of 11 on a three-day tour, agrees. "It's prettier like this," says the Albuquerque construction company owner. "You can see the walled canyons. But no matter what the (water) level, it's a little bit of heaven."

For many, though, the creation of Lake Powell was an ecological desecration. It took 17 years for the lake to fill, submerging the regal formations of Glen Canyon. Writer Edward Abbey called it a crime: "Imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remain visible."

Forty-five years after the dam's construction, protests against it persist among groups such as Moab, Utah-based Living Rivers.

"Most people don't see the part I see," says John Weisheit, the group's conservation director. As a river guide, he enters the lake from the north via the Colorado River. "I have to deal with the effects of a drawn-down reservoir, which includes exposed sediment that is muddy and full of obnoxious weeds and smells bad. And that's the future of Lake Powell."

Floating houses

The lake is named for Maj. John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran who in 1869 led a 1,000-mile expedition down the wild Colorado River into some of the West's last unexplored territory. His party made the harrowing journey in open wooden boats, which couldn't be considered even distant relatives of the predominant craft plying the lake today.

Houseboats, ranging from 44 feet to 75 feet, are the current vehicle of choice. Top-of-the-line models (which rent for up to $14,000 a week) are tricked out with hot tubs, wet bars, 46-inch flat-screen TVs, gas fireplaces, granite countertops and queen-size beds.

Aramark has introduced an on-board catering program for customers who don't want to bother cooking, a concierge service to "take the fear out of houseboat rental," and a porter service to stock provisions on the boats.

At Wahweap Marina recently, Alan Fulton is one of a group of eight fifty- and sixtysomethings boarding a 59-foot, four-bedroom, two-bath Discovery model houseboat for a week on the lake. As the women stow pans of frozen lasagna, bottles of wine and other essentials, most of the men get briefed on the finer points of houseboat operation while Fulton relaxes on the back deck.

"My job is to drink beer and smile," says the Butte, Mont., investment counselor on a post-tax-season getaway.

Yes, the boat has a television, and members of the party are packing cellphones, "but the TV will not be turned on, and if a cellphone rings, it's going overboard," he declares.

With gas costing $4.82 a gallon here, Fulton figures the final tab for the rental will be about $6,000. "But that's a cheap week. You can't do anything nicer for less," he says.

Out on Lake Powell, the Perez family has anchored its 46-foot houseboat on a secluded beach in Warm Creek Bay — a misnomer this early in the season, since the water is still too chilly for swimming. They've been fishing and exploring remote canyons via power boat. Happily, Gisell has yet to spot any mice — or their droppings. Wildlife has been limited to ravens, lizards and a couple of needy mallards looking for handouts.

"It's just so peaceful, so relaxing," says Perez, who works for the Spanish-language media company Univision. "And the cost (about $2,250 for four days) is cheaper than a weekend at Disney World staying inside the park."

"Disney's for kids," Casey interjects. "This is nature. And it's beautiful."