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Autumn at Lake Powell

Coves and inlets dotted not long ago with people and watercraft gradually turn peaceful. Row upon row of houseboats and other floating vehicles - sometimes a traffic jam of them - find orderly refuge at the marinas.

Signs of fall have begun to manifest themselves at Lake Powell."It's just so much nicer out there, both because the weather is better and there are fewer people," says Gary Ladd, a professional photographer based in nearby Page, Ariz., who's just returned from an expedition. "That's really why I go out in the fall."

The first indications that the season is changing come as September and Labor Day roll around.

"As soon as school starts, that's when we see our first decline" in visitors, says Char Obergh, a management assistant with Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Many families call it a summer, withdrawing from the 186-mile-long lake along the Colorado River on the Utah-Arizona border. Sunny weekends can still be busy, though, on the most popular RV beaches. And retirees and busloads of short-term tourists from faraway lands take up much of the slack through September. The numbers really don't "start to drop off drastically until November," Obergh adds.

That's because the temperatures are usually fine, the water still warm and the desert-meets-water scenery outstanding - as it is year round, says Steve Ward, public relations manager for Aramark, the concessionaire that runs lodges, marinas and rental operations in the recreation area.

The Glen Canyon area is "at its best" in autumn, "especially in late September and in October," says Ladd, who moved to Page 16 years ago and has since become one of the region's most admired photographers, his work gracing postcards, magazines such as Arizona Highways and books like his 1994 portfolio "Lake Powell," with interpretive text by Anne Markward.

The book is a portable art gallery, with images of rock and water and sky from every month of the year. While many of Ladd's autumn photos capture qualities hard to pinpoint as fall-ish, others are seasonally specific: a rotund tumbleweed near Padre Bay in November, a vibrant yellow cottonwood in Chaol Canyon during October. He also finds flowers blooming in the fall, Ladd says - evening primrose, for instance, and the small yellow flowers of snakeweed.

But in the Colorado River's side canyons, many made accessible by fingers of Lake Powell, cottonwoods with an abundance of yellow leaves especially can flourish, "sometimes just beyond the highest reaches of the lake, and of course they extend miles beyond that if the drainage is long enough," he says. West Canyon, Nasja Canyon and the aptly named Cottonwood Canyon are among his favorite fall destinations, Ladd somewhat reluctantly confides.

TYPICALLY, JULY AND AUGUST are the busiest times at Glen Canyon National Recreation area, Obergh says, when up to 450,000 people visit in a month. This year the numbers dipped slightly. Records indicate 420,927 visitors dropped by in July, down from 447,417 in 1996, while 437,846 were tabulated in August, down from 442,180 last year.

Annual figures have actually been falling since 1993, when an impressive 3,615,024 people were counted. The National Park Service says improved record-keeping, not an actual tourist drop, may partially account for the decline the next year to 2,844,999. But in each calendar year since, the numbers have continued to scale back, to 2,538,684 in 1995 and 2,532,087 in 1996.

After the summer peak, the number of monthly visitors slides drastically, halving by October, and usually falling to fewer than 50,000 in the winter months of December and January, Obergh notes.

Unlike most Park Service-administered areas, Glen Canyon is a destination, she adds. Visits tend to last an average of 41/2 to five days. "They are coming here to spend their vacations, but at other national parks people are going to a variety of places and are just dropping by."

For Aramark - and its late-season customers - Oct. 15 is the true beginning of the fall season at Wahweap, the largest marina, says Shelly Waite, an administrative assistant. That's when prices for houseboats and other big-item rentals are virtually cut in half. It's a time for bargain hunters.

The concessionaire operates the recreation area's resorts, marinas and guided boat tours, including the popular half-day and full-day trips to Rainbow Bridge National Monument on the lake.

"Historically, people reserve summer houseboats a year in advance and book reservations several months ahead for off-season rentals," says Gib Johnson, the company's regional vice president. However, this year the Aramark fleet of 370 houseboats was expanded by 40 additional deluxe craft. That, and perhaps the slight decline in the number of visitors overall, seems to be making late reservations possible.

Aramark rents three types of houseboats, including 36-, 44- and 50-foot standard classes, which sleep six to 12, depending upon size; the better-equipped 52-foot Captain Class, which sleeps 12; and the top-of-the-line 59-foot Admiral Class, which sleeps 10. These are available for three to seven days or longer. (See accompanying chart.)

As examples, in the current rate structure a three-day rental in summer for the smallest, 36-foot standard is $815, plus a $350 deposit and an $18 liability waiver; the three-day rental drops to $611 in the fall and spring, and to $446 at the winter budget rate, from November through March. For the roomier and more luxurious Admiral, a three-day rental would be $2,073 in summer, dropping to $1,555 in spring and fall and to $1,215 in the winter, with a $600 deposit and a $21 liability waiver.

How about a full week? That would be $1,428 for seven days on the 36-foot standard in summer, which drops to $1,071 in spring and fall and to $857 in winter. For the Admiral the rate would be $4,095 for seven days in summer, $3,071 in fall and spring and $2,457 in winter.

"HOUSEBOAT" IS A MOST appropriate name for a craft like the Admiral.

"There are more appliances on this boat than I have at home," a young woman pointed out as Steve Ward showed a few people around.

The Admiral, powered by generators, is air-conditioned and heated. It has a refrigerator, a stove, a microwave, a coffeemaker, a blender - even a trash compactor. "All you have to bring is the food," Ward said. The main water source is the lake itself, but a separate tank provides drinking water. The boat also has a television and a VCR; an accompanying instructional video reviews the basics for operating and maintaining the craft and its equipment.

You'll often see a smaller power boat and perhaps a few personal watercraft trailing behind a houseboat on the lake. A power boat makes water skiing and extended touring possible, and other recreational crafts such as Jet Skis and Tigersharks add to the fun.

Many people find that renting a houseboat can be a viable and economic vacation option, especially when considered on a per capita basis, Ward said.

"The cost is about $45 per person per day," he said. "You get lodging and entertainment all in one package."

Until recently pets were not allowed; today, they can come along if their human families make a $200 non-refundable deposit.

Often extended families and groups of friends will rent multiple houseboats - two or three is common. Ward mentions the names of several celebrities who found Lake Powell a vacation escape, including Michael Douglas. And yes, members of college fraternities have been known to descend.

"We got one letter from a fraternity that said they were sorry. It said, `Thank you for making the boat nearly indestructible,' " Ward recalled.

BEGINNING IN HIS TEENS, Ward was a tour guide on Lake Powell, often accompanying groups on trips of five and more days.

"I'd ask, `Do you want to go to the same old places or see something new?' "

Lake Powell has several must-sees, he says. Rainbow Bridge - the world's largest natural bridge, which spans 275 feet and is 290 feet high - is among them. Another is Cathedral in the Desert; though the great alcove is partially swamped by the lake waters, boaters can now approach near the roof of it. Ward ticks off several more: Reflection Canyon, the Defiance House Anasazi ruins in Forgotten Canyon, Iceberg Canyon.

Certain coves are popular harbors. Some become houseboat villages, with camps strung along the sandy beaches, Jet Skis or similar crafts serving as both the family compact and steeds for solo adventures. You'll see people sunning themselves, reading in patio chairs, playing volleyball or horseshoes. Elsewhere are tributary canyons where vacationers can find quiet places of their very own.

A journey along the long lake is a visit to a near-alien landscape. V-and U-shaped passes - once chinks high on canyon walls - now allow passage from one bay to another. Sandstone takes all manner of shapes: beehive mounds; cracked checkerboards; gigantic walls decorated by desert varnish; islands with becoming blue-green pools; striated cliffs of orange and pink and vermilion. The rock is pocked with alcoves and potholes and occasional arches and windows. Tributaries with names like Face and Labyrinth canyons close down dramatically, until sheer walls tower over tiny intruding boats.

Although almost 3 million people visit today, as recent news reports have noted, many wish Lake Powell did not exist, that the Colorado River had never been dammed and that explorer John Wesley Powell's Glen Canyon could return.

"Glen Canyon is still there," in a broader sense, says Ward. "The recreation area is just 13 percent water, so the tributaries of Glen Canyon are still there."

Gary Ladd makes much the same observation.

For one thing, there is a 15-mile stretch of Glen Canyon downstream of the dam, the photographer says. "And there's a lot left in the side canyons. Above elevation 3,700 feet" - Lake Powell's highest level - "there are some beautiful places left."

He says in his book:

"New admirers, drawn by the unearthly, almost preternatural lake, inherited a transformed Glen Canyon. Broken beauty is beauty still. For those who view it today, Lake Powell is a jewel."

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Houseboat rental

Lake Powell - Fall

59' Admiral 50' Standard 36' Standard

Three-day rental $1555 $971 $611

Five-day rental $2494 $1447 $917

Capacity 12 12 8

Sleeps 10 12 6

*****

If you go

For more information or Aramark reservations, call Lake Powell Resorts & Mannas at 1-800-528-6154 or visit the Web site at (www.visitlakepowell.com).