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Goddess of the Canyon

Descent! Dropping off the western edge of the Colorado Plateau. Just outside Hurricane, Utah.

“Rivers are the lifeblood of our planet and they need to flow.”

Katie Lee, 2016

A few weeks ago, in early April, I got a call from a good friend. “Did you know it’s been two years since we were in Kanab (Utah)?”

That call took me back to our time together on the Colorado Plateau – slot canyons, sunrise at Bryce Canyon and Coral Pink Sand Dunes, a quick side trip into Zion, and a stop at the Colorado River put-in at Lee’s Ferry. Thinking about that trip, I wanted to share just a few images in this post.

Losing the Light! Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona.

Since my friend is a fellow photographer, a river runner, and a no-holds barred advocate for wild rivers, his call took me back even further, to my time working on river conservation across the country and the formation of my love for rivers, gradient, and wild waters.

Overlook. Bryce Canyon. Utah.

My friend has also been down the Grand Canyon some seventeen times – which always reminds me that I have never paddled in the Canyon. I have kayaked and worked on so many rivers, from tiny Moxie Stream in Northern Maine, surfing at Rocky on the Potomac, trips to the Emory-Obed system in the Southeast, to dynamic, high water runs on British Columbia’s Thompson and Idaho’s Hells Canyon. I worked on Gore Canyon (way beyond my skills to paddle), ran the Pumphouse Run with family, playboated on the Shoshone section, and had a few trips through Westwater Canyon, all on the Upper Colorado. But a trip through the Canyon has thus far eluded me.

Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado. Arizona.

But I have met so many people, who, like my friend, have spent quality time there. In some cases, a lifetime paddling, protecting the river, and fighting for access to this national treasure. One of those was Katie Lee, sometimes referred to as the Goddess of the Canyon (and the Grand-Dame-of-Dam-Busting) because of her undying advocacy for wilderness and rivers, and her time spent in Glen Canyon and on the waters of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. For me, and anyone who loves rivers (or a specific river) Katie was and remains an inspiration. Never demure, feisty, and impassioned, and usually profane in her passion and defense of the Colorado and San Juan rivers. Especially the drowning of Glen Canyon, and Katie’s continued efforts to restore that Canyon. Whenever faced with daunting conservation challenges, I would often query “what would Katie do – what would she do to protect this river?”

“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.”

Katie Lee, Song of the Boatman

Driving through America's Southwest.

I met Katie many years ago at a dam removal presentation at the Aspen Opera House. We both presented and then had time to talk after the show. It was the only time we met, but I never forgot that discussion, that evening, or Katie!

Desert Colors! Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona.

I figured that she had forgotten about me after that, but years later I switched jobs in conservation, and ended a weekly update that I sent out to a wide audience of river lovers and those who saw dams as killing and drowning the rivers we loved. Katie called me one morning, asking how I was and how she would find out what was going on without the update? After that call, I spent a long time thinking about Katie, and how my work might affect and assist others, the value of partnerships, and how Katie Lee took the time to call and tell me that I (and my work) was valuable. It was a special highlight of my life in conservation.

Drive through the Desert! Valley of the Gods. Mexican Hat, Utah.

In 2014, I and my coalition partners were in the process of removing a number of unwanted and uneconomic dams in the Pacific Northwest. We worked with Patagonia staff early on with their Damnation Documentary that chronicled the history of dams in the US, and that showed that removal can be a strategy for restoring rivers. Of course, if you are talking about removing dams, you would interview river runner and desert advocate Katie. If you watch the documentary, hang in there for the final credits which is where Katie is at her best, shows you exactly who she was and what she thinks, and (for many river advocates including me) steals the show!

Sand, Water & Ice! Wire Pass, Utah.

Katie passed away in 2017 at the age of ninety-eight. She remains today one of my strongest reminders of the power of grass-roots activism and the value, beauty, and fragility of rivers. I know she has never left the river she loved, and I envision Katie still rowing the rapids at high flows and hiking Glen Canyon under a full desert moon. I think of her every time I paddle or sit beside a river, and any time I visit the Southwest. When I finally get my shot at paddling the Grand Canyon, I hope her spirit will be sitting beside me and whispering her knowledge and passion as we work our way downstream.

“Eden couldn’t have touched this place…some of the vistas were so beautiful, we just stood there and cried.”

Katie Lee, The River Woman


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