Katie Lee speaks at Western State College
There is an old black and white photograph of a woman standing high atop a boulder pinned between the walls of a fluted canyon. She is looking up at the water and silt-sculpted walls above her—perhaps as one would gaze upon the love of her life. But that lover is gone, drowned by the 710-foot Glen Canyon dam.
Now 88, the enchanting Katie Lee still carries the torch for her old flame, and on October 25 she was at Western State College in Gunnison, ready to "throw" that torch to a new generation of river advocates.
Appearing in Gunnison at the behest of Western State professor Pete Lavigne and his Colorado River honors seminar, Lee described her affection for the then-wild Colorado River, affection that grew into a full-fledged love affair.
"I was so lucky to be there before it was dammed," she says.
Lee’s Colorado river-running career began in 1953 when she was invited to run the Grand Canyon with her friend Bill Rigg, who was half-owner of Mexican Hat Expeditions.
In those days, such expeditions were undertaken in small wooden dories—significantly more difficult to pilot than today’s rubber rafts. With Mexican Hat Expeditions, Lee became just the third woman to run the length of the Grand Canyon.
Already an established folk singer and actress, Lee paid for her river trips by entertaining Wright’s guests with her voice and guitar around the evening’s campfire. Lee quickly grew tired of shepherding tourists down the river, however, because she felt the experience was too special to be cluttered with the demands of needy guests.
"I felt that the river had something to say to me," she says.
So for the next decade, Lee and a few friends made intimate trips of their own through the spectacular chasms carved by the mighty river—cementing her life-long relationship with the wild river before it was dammed.
"Mother Nature will speak to you, if you let her, she says.
Although running the Grand Canyon was thrilling, Lee says, it was the Glen Canyon, just upstream, that especially captured her affections. According to Lee, the lazy splendor of Glen Canyon was the perfect antidote to the raging excitement of the Grand Canyon.
"Coming from the Grand to the Glen was like being dropped from a high-flying trapeze into a deep feather bed," Lee relates in the movie Love Song to Glen Canyon, which Lee showed during her presentation.
Over 10 years, Lee and her friends explored the Glen Canyon in 16 trips and brought back a wealth of stunning photographs. The photographs are the only evidence left of many of the places that Lee and her friends explored, because in 1963 Glen Canyon was flooded by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to create Powell Reservoir.
The flooding of Glen Canyon was the result of a compromise in which Sierra Club’s opposition to the dam was dropped in exchange for allowing an upper reach of the Colorado River through Dinosaur National Monument to remain free-running. The Bureau of Reclamation wished to dam both sections of the Colorado.
Sierra Club founder David Brower, a friend and contemporary of Lee’s, was instrumental in organizing the quid pro quo that sacrificed the Glen. However, realizing that a national treasure was about to be decimated, Brower declared the flooding of the Glen would be "America’s greatest environmental mistake."
Unfortunately, by then it was too late.
But the deal that resulted in the flooding of the Glen radicalized Brower, making him less prone to compromise and steeling him for later battles to keep the Bureau of Reclamation from damming the Grand Canyon.
Lee was devastated by the destruction of her beloved canyon by the agency she has renamed the "Bureau of Wreck-the-Nation," but she says she holds no rancor toward her friend Brower, who she credits with saving other reaches of the Colorado from destructive dams.
"He was amazing," she says.
Still, Lee never got over the destruction of the Glen and she has spent the last four decades advocating the forceful removal of its dam.
"You get very possessive about a place you really love," she says.
It was her friend Edward Abbey who encouraged Lee to document her relationship with the Colorado and the result was her book, All My Rivers are Gone: A Journey of Discovery though Glen Canyon, published in 1998.
Lee clearly has a lot of affection for Abbey, whose book The Monkey Wrench Gang is a fictional account of a plot by environmental activists to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam.
"He was just a human, a guy who spoke his mind," Lee says of Abbey, who died in 1989. "There aren’t many of us hanging around anymore," she says.
Lee certainly counts as one who speaks her mind, riffing between the outrageous and ribald.
On blocking the proposed Lucky Jack molybdenum mine on Mt. Emmons, Lee laments "There isn’t even a mine to blow up yet." But she says it is local advocacy that is the most important political tool in stopping such projects.
"If you get enough grassroots really screaming you can make something happen," she says. But Lee says that absolute focus on the goal is requisite. Too often, she says, grassroots groups are distracted by competing personalities.
"They’re not focusing on the object," she says.
Lee says no matter what the outcome, the most important thing is to try. "If (the mine) happens and you didn’t try to stop it, you’re guilty," she says.
Lee returned to the Glen a few times as it was being filled, but she hasn’t been there since.
"The minute I couldn’t hike the Glen anymore, I wouldn’t go back," she says. "I had the best—I won’t take seconds," she adds.
The same is true for the Grand Canyon. Although she allows that the canyon is still spectacular, she says she has no desire to run it in its current form.
"It’s not a river anymore—it’s a faucet," she says of the river’s flow, which is tightly regulated by releases from Glen Canyon dam.
But despite her nearly nine decades, she ran Cataract Canyon (on the Colorado River, near Moab) last year.
Lee says she is still waiting for the day when the Glen Canyon dam tumbles into the spillway. She says it is only a matter of time before the river reclaims its rightful place.
"I’ll be there cheering," she says.