Custom Search
   boat plans
   gift certificates
Join Duckworks
Get free newsletter
on this site
by Kim Apel - San Clemente, California - USA

For many years, Jim Thayer's report of the annual "Kokopelli" cruise was a recurring feature in MAIB. He was a prolific contributor to MAIB of articles on boats and boatbuilding. Sadly, Jim passed away a few years ago. He is missed by those who knew him, or followed his writings, which had a distinctive "voice," in a manner similar to Robb White's, another great writer that MAIB readers still miss. Though it's not the same without Jim, the Kokopelli lives on, and I accept the solemn duty this year of reporting in his place.

The Kokopelli began about 30 years ago with Jim taking his family on summer sailing and camping vacations to Lake Powell in southern Utah, the nearest big lake to his home in western Colorado. Jim was actually a native of the Chesapeake Bay area, and when he moved west, he brought his love of sailing with him, to a region with not much water and even fewer sailboats. Over time, the group expanded to include friends, who invited other friends. They began to call the annual Lake Powell week of camp-cruising "The Kokopelli," named for the iconic, quasi-human figure, with a curved back, playing a flute, painted by the ancient native people on canyon walls across the desert southwest. The whimsical tone continued with calling those who participated "Kokonauts." For a while, the word was spread through a newsletter, the old-fashioned paper kind, which Jim mailed out in the days before universal email. Jim's approach to the Kokopelli was an open invitation to all, with a minimum of organization. If you showed up, you were assumed to know what you were doing, which helped me, and others, I presume, prepare appropriately. This made rules and fixed agendas unnecessary and allowed adventure and spontaneity to flourish. It shouldn't have worked, but it did. Outboard motors, for example, were not encouraged, but they were tolerated. Jim never used one, but he may have accepted a tow once or twice. The timing generally settled on the week of the first full moon after the autumnal equinox. This was for the practical reason of scheduling it after the summer heat and crowds had somewhat dissipated, but still comfortable weather. It was nevertheless a summer ritual for anxious, would-be participants to ask Jim to confirm the dates of the upcoming event. He would promise to "consult Kokopelli," as though he would need to visit a Holy Man or a demigod to receive instructions, and then he would "return" and announce the dates.

Lake Powell is a reservoir of the Colorado River, extending 150 miles across Utah and Arizona. The lake and its environs are also known as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, managed by the National Park Service, but with less strict protections than those afforded to the National Parks. The lake is named for Major John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran who in 1869 led the first party to descend the Colorado River through what was then the last "terra incognita" in America. Part of his path down the river is now dammed, forming Lake Powell. The lake still lies at the center of a vast area of sparsely populated desert, canyons, and mountains. It's not on the way to anywhere. It's a day's travel from Phoenix, Las Vegas or Salt Lake City. You have to really want to go there to get there. Over the lake's broad expanse, there are only three widespread points of public access. The rest is a rocky, canyon-carved wilderness. To some, this kind of landscape is unlovable, and the last place they would choose to go cruising. Yet many love Lake Powell for its raw, primitive character.

In 2014, the Kokopelli shifted to June to allow the participation of a number of high-school-age young men and women, for whom missing a week of school in the fall would be unwise. Traveling significant distances, 12 people gathered from five states on Sunday June 21 in a cove near the Bullfrog Bay marina for the start of Kokopelli 2014. Some were veterans of many Kokopellis ; some were rookies. It wasn't discussed until the first night's campfire, a short distance from the Bullfrog Bay launch point, where our cruising destination might be. The winding, linear geography of the lake means that you have to choose to go upstream or down. We chose upstream. The plan was for two days travel upstream to Good Hope Bay, have a lay day, and then two days to return, about a 50 mile round trip.

Day 2. I was in my fiberglass canoe, driven by a sliding-seat rowing rig, with just enough cockpit space for my camping gear, plus a complete sail rig, which, alas, I never deployed. It was some years since I had last used the rowing rig, and while the equipment worked perfectly, it was harder on my body than I remembered. I got where I needed to go, but since my last such outing, apparently my age has gone up and my fitness level down, ... ouch. Regular doses of anti-inflammatory drugs mitigated my back distress, and tape covered my fingers to mitigate blisters.

The Leinweber family were in three homebuilt Michalak kayaks, well-suited to the task. Hal Link was in a very sleek Kevlar sea kayak. Dad and daughter Paul and Cathy Cook were in a canoe. Long-time Kokopelli veteran Tom Gale was there with four teenagers, two of his own, plus two friends to keep them company. They came all the way from Washington State with a small fleet in tow: an 18 foot pocket cruiser sailboat plus a tandem kayak and one of Jim Thayer's line of small sailboats.

Blue skies and sunshine rule the desert in June, though we wouldn't have minded some clouds for relief from the relentless sun. Wind is the great variable in Lake Powell travel. Paul asked at the start what the wind conditions would be like. I said, "This is Lake Powell. The wind will do whatever it likes, 24/7." Other places have daily or seasonal wind patterns; not here, except for the observation that the wind is usually too much or too little for good sailing. That said, we had what passes for decent sailing conditions the first two days, so Tom actually sailed, while the rest of us paddled or rowed. While I have been to Lake Powell a number of times, this particular leg of the lake was new to me, so it was particularly rewarding to explore it.

Our second night's campsite was rejected on the first pass, but then we found only worse options beyond, so we returned and made the best of a rocky, sloped site. I found what seemed like the only near-flat place in the area to pitch my small tent, at the price of a steep, uphill walk from the water's edge. As evening drew near, Hal entertained us, by claiming he could build a sail rig for his kayak with a few bits of wood, a piece of a plastic tarp, and a roll of duct tape, which he had brought along. We were skeptical. Then, in a matter of minutes, he did it, he installed it on the kayak and he pushed off for a test. With barely any breeze, and only a tiny sail area, the results were modest, but it worked, sort of, and the skeptics were silenced.

Drawing on his experience as former army cook, Tom provided a lavish evening meal for all, at least by the standards of Lake Powell camp-cruising. Breakfast and lunch were typically organized by individual or family groups, and the duty of providing the evening meal for all rotated among members of the party. I provided the accompanying cabbage salad, with variations each day. Cabbage can last awhile without refrigeration, so it's the practical choice for such an outing. Unaccustomed to the heat and exertion of a day of rowing, I was exhausted and retired early.

Day 3. Distances are deceiving in the western desert. Hal and I sometimes traveled separately from the rest of the group, and agreed to be a team and stay in contact with each other for safety reasons. What sounds simple turned out to be difficult, as we repeatedly lost track of each other, because our boats faded out of view in the vast lake and landscape. The whole party made steady progress and, with considerable effort, reached our third camp on Good Hope Bay.

I was hoping to use our scheduled lay day to leave my camping gear and rowing rig ashore, and rig the canoe for some sailing. Instead of a lay day, however, someone listened to the radio for the marine weather forecast, and our plan changed. High winds were expected for the next day and perhaps multiple days, which would be potential headwinds for our return trip. It doesn't take much of a headwind to make paddling a losing proposition. We decided to head back the following morning, allowing three days for our return, should that become necessary. While high winds can come any time, they tend to build in the afternoons, making mornings better for travel.

Day 4. The canyon walls that surround Lake Powell sometimes come to the water's edge, meaning that suitable campsites can be a challenge to find, particularly for a party of 12. When the main channel of the lake has no campsites to offer, side canyons may have better options. This day the main channel passed through five miles of steep, meandering canyon with no side canyons, no campsites, and no refuge should the wind get strong. The prevailing breeze was from the south, but no matter which direction the channel turned, the wind was always "on the nose." Fortunately the breeze remained moderate. We put the sheer canyon section behind us, and turned off the main channel into Cedar Canyon for a lunch stop and some shade. The heat, the wind forecast, and the attractive location turned our lunch stop into an overnight campsite.

In contrast with the past Kokopellis scheduled to coincide with the full moon, this Kokopelli ended up, unintentionally during a week of no moon. Instead of dramatic moonlight on the canyon walls and the lake surface, these were utterly black at night. The stars were especially bright, however, in the high, dry desert air, far from city lights. It was a different Kokopelli experience, based on the phase of the moon.

Day 5. We continued our return trip and the headwinds arrived as forecast, moderate at first, but enough to make progress slow, so we reluctantly made camp early in the day, hoping for a better day tomorrow. The wind continued to build, generating whitecaps on the lake, making clear that it was the correct decision. I was not happy, because my scheduled trip home now appeared in jeopardy.

Then something unexpected happened. With nothing else to do for awhile, I put on hiking shoes instead of my usual sandals, and went for a walk up the canyon which emptied into the lake. After only a short distance, I spotted something that didn't belong there: a kayak paddle, standing upright on a rock outcropping, with a strip of cloth attached, waving in the breeze, like a marker or beacon. I approached it for a closer look, and heard a voice speaking to me from a rock shelter nearby. It was a guy who had been marooned there for about a week without food. He said he was paddling a kayak south, like us, and had come ashore, like us, to wait out a headwind. He walked up the canyon to explore, and when he returned, his kayak was gone. We fed him and used the VHF radio to summon help, including Park Service rangers, to get him out via power boat, since we were wind bound. Perhaps it's not fashionable to say such things anymore, but I feel certain that we were led to him by Divine Providence.

The wind continued through the day and into the evening. We planned a pre-dawn departure the next day, on the theory that the wind would drop overnight. My boat was packed and ready to go, except for minimal overnight needs; no tent, for example. Having experienced sand blowing on me the previous night, I found a suitable, sand-free spot to sleep on a soccer-field-sized dome of sold stone. Waking at midnight and then at 2:30 AM, the wind was still blowing. Waking again at 4:00, it was finally calm, a great relief.

Day 6. We arose in the dark about 4:30 am, with no hint of dawn yet in the east. I was determined to be the first away. I said my farewells to my companions about 5:00, with just enough light to get pointed down the middle of the lake, knowing that the light would be increasing by the minute. Rather than sticking together as usual, I was determined to be on the road home by mid-day, so I struck out on my own. The first part of the journey was a rare, straight, eight mile section of the lake, which enabled me to steer a course, looking astern at the silhouette of rocky peaks against the pre-dawn glow. Five days at the oars seemed to have toughened up my back a bit, because the discomfort was gone. Instead of the expected ordeal, the early morning row was cool, peaceful and quiet, except for the gentle "thunk" of the oarlocks and splash of the blades. It was beautiful and inspiring. I rowed for about two hours before the sun finally cleared the canyon walls, and put me back in the unwelcome heat again, by which time I was well out of sight of our group. Power boat traffic reappeared, and the magic spell was broken. In another hour and a half, I was unloading my gear at the launching beach, just as most of Lake Powell was beginning to stir. Later in the day, on my homeward drive, I felt the fatigue of an early start and a near-nonstop row of 15 miles, but at that moment, all I felt was satisfaction at the close of another chapter in my unfinished book of Lake Powell experiences. Thanks again, Jim.

To comment on Duckworks articles, please visit one of the following:

our Yahoo forum our Facebook page