“Imagine throwing a handful of random coins onto your front yard, blindfolding yourself, and then trying to find exactly fifty cents…Sometimes, that’s basically what you’ll be doing out here.” A veteran member of the Glen Canyon Underwater Recovery Unit offered me this advice as I eagerly prepared for my first real dive of this internship. Now that I’ve spent one week completing strenuous dives in visibilities that ranged from six feet to six centimeters, I can confidently say that he was telling the truth!
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is located just east of the Grand Canyon and includes Lake Powell, parts of the Colorado River, and huge expanses of desert wilderness. It’s a very popular vacation spot for boaters, as people come from all around to world to take advantage of the southwest sunshine, the warm waters, and the beautiful red rock canyons that the region has to offer. Unfortunately, a high concentration of so many boaters in one unfamiliar location often leads to accidents and boat fires. If just one of the many rental houseboats goes down, acid-leaking batteries, gallons of gasoline, and tons of debris are suddenly added to the beautiful lake. One of the Glen Canyon dive team’s many duties is to help keep these waters safe by scouring the lake for these hazardous materials.
After a busy week in Denver, I flew to Page, Arizona with all the clothing and equipment that I would need for the next three or four months. I felt very prepared in terms of my dive gear – for every t-shirt I stuffed into a small suitcase, I must have packed three pieces of awesome SCUBA equipment! After taking a minute to get accustomed to the Arizona heat, I met Pat Horning, the Park Dive Officer and leader of the Dive Team, who showed me to the dive locker and helped me prepare for the week ahead. I returned the next morning and met the rest of the team: Chris Weaver, the lead diver and former Navy Chief Diver, Matt Graden, Joe Dallemolle, and Dan Hovanec, who are all Law Enforcement Rangers in the area, Elias Jasso, a maintenance worker/diver, and Jeff Wilson, an electrician/firefighter/diver. As I’m sure you can already see, this is a dive team with an incredibly diverse and useful skill set. With that cast of characters, we could be fully prepared to encounter law-breakers, fires, electrical problems, or tricky dives (we ended up dealing with three of the four!).
We packed up our gear and piled onto the dive team’s 45 foot boat for a four-hour ride up Lake Powell to Bullfrog, Utah. At my first sight of Lake Powell, I was actually very confused. The area surrounding the lake is as arid as I could possibly imagine (picture tumbleweed, cactuses, and giant red rocks), yet somehow there is a giant, 560-foot-deep lake defiantly located in the desert. By talking with the dive team, who patiently answered at least a thousand of my questions throughout the trip, I was able to pick up on the clues that the surrounding lands hide. As Pat pointed out landmarks along the way, it seemed like every single rock, canyon, or plateau had some incredible geological or cultural significance. Pat pointed out vertical rows of depressions in the rock faces, which I overlooked as another natural feature of the bizarre landscape. It turns out that they’re actually Moki steps, which were carved thousands of years ago by Native Americans in order to climb the steep rock faces! I also saw ancient rock art and even a dinosaur footprint!
We spent a quick night in a local lodge and headed out at sunrise the next morning to begin diving. Using forklifts, pickup trucks, and lots of elbow grease, we loaded the boat with stacks of giant metal baskets that the divers would be filling with trash from the lake floor. In order to cope with the low visibility of the lake, the Glen Canyon Underwater Recovery Unit came up with a pretty creative dive plan. First, giant metal baskets are pushed overboard with a surface buoy signaling their location. Then, divers descend along that buoy line, tie a rope of their own to the metal basket, and search the surrounding area for hazardous materials while holding that personal search line in order to find their way back to the basket. In trash-filled areas it’s common for a diver to make many trips back to the basket to unload debris, though divers might not be able to find a single soda can in other areas. Once the basket is full of trash or the divers clear the area, the boat’s crane is used to haul the basket up from the lake floor.
After learning this procedure and receiving lots of advice from the team, it was time for me to finally get wet! Although air temperatures were well over a hundred degrees, the water temperatures dipped into the 40s at the bottom of the lake, so we had to wiggle into thick wetsuits under the harsh sun. I was very relieved when I first jumped into the water… but that’s probably because I still didn’t fully understand that I was about to complete one of the most challenging dives of my life! As Pat and I descended along the buoy line with our personal search lines in hand, all was still going smoothly. My gear was working great, my ears had no problems adjusting to the changing pressure, and overall I was very comfortable. As we reached a depth of fifty feet, I felt like someone had suddenly blindfolded me! In a matter of seconds, visibility decreased from five feet to a just couple of inches and the water suddenly became pitch black. I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face when I shined my light directly on it, so I had no idea how I was going to find any trash in those dark, murky waters! The dive team warned me that their hands were their only way of searching on some dives, so I clumsily tied off my search line, left the relative security of the basket, and swam off into the black abyss that surrounded me.
I spent a few minutes searching in absolute darkness before I felt a strong tug on my search line – this meant that Pat was back at the basket and signaling for me to return. I met him at the basket and happily ascended on his command– I was ready for some sunlight again! We returned to the boat and laughed about how terrible the conditions were. Apparently, those first few dives were completed in some of the worst conditions possible at Lake Powell – seasoned members of the dive team were calling it the worst dives of their lives! Most people didn’t find much trash, although one pair of divers found the remnants of a burnt houseboat.
After the first day of diving, we settled into a routine of each diver completing three or four dives a day in slightly better conditions. We would still occasionally dive in zero visibility conditions, but I became accustomed to using my hands instead of my eyes as my primary search organs. We found all sorts of unusual and dangerous materials, including a rifle, many old batteries, unopened bottles of beer, and a complete barbeque set. We worked every day from sunrise to sunset and were able to remove thousands of pounds of trash from Lake Powell!
Throughout the trip, the wide range of backgrounds of the group (which, as I mentioned, includes firefighters, maintenance workers, LE rangers, electricians, and ex-Navy divers) benefited the dive team time and time again. I was really impressed with how they seemed ready to handle any random challenge that Lake Powell could throw our way. When the wiring for a critical part of the boat started to fail, Jeff was able to rewire the device in no time. As we would observe park visitors doing blatantly dangerous things like speeding through narrow canyons, the rangers would take control and stop the reckless behavior (which meant my inner seven-year-old was able to get a thrill as the rangers turned on our boat’s sirens and chased down other boats!). I was able to pick up a bunch of different skills by learning from each member of the dive team. I owe Elias a special thanks for spending hours teaching me a bunch of useful new knots – thanks a lot!
All in all, I left Glen Canyon National Recreation area with some great experiences, a lot of new knowledge, and ton of respect for the Glen Canyon Underwater Recovery Unit. Even in tropical waters with great visibility, a good Recovery Unit requires a skilled dive team with lots of dedication, but this dive team does something really special. Thanks so much to Pat for letting me join the group, and thanks to every member of the team for teaching me so much throughout the trip!