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Utah's Rainbow Bridge: Between heaven and earth

Because rain seems inevitable, Ruth and Mark Arnett of Fishers, Ind., seriously consider canceling their boat-trip reservations for the day to Rainbow Bridge National Monument. Early on, cotton puffs had hovered above Lake Powell and its bordering sandstone buttes; by midmorning the clouds have coalesced into a low gray blanket.

The forecast is not promising. A marina advisory reads: "Today - Flash-flood watch. 70 percent chance of thundershowers and thunderstorms. . . . Wind: could be very strong when storms approach."But, as Mark Twain once said, "One can enjoy a rainbow without necessarily forgetting the forces that made it."

And when you're chasing rainbows, that's as true of those carved from stone as those created by refracted light.

So the Arnetts bundle up and head for the excursion boat at Wahweap. Dozens of others have made the same decision.

`Welcome aboard the Desert Reflection in soon-to-be-sunbaked Arizona," announces the captain, Roland Muenzen. "Pretty soon you'll be basking in the sun. . . .

"I've already started with a lie," he adds, to a round of chuckles. "No, this is Arizona, and it changes pretty quickly."

But by this point it has indeed started to sprinkle. Lightning flashes off to the west.

"This is our second time here," says Ruth Arnett. The first was in the same season, 12 or 15 years ago, "and last time it was sunny."

Muenzen's craft, with room for 50-plus people inside and open-air seating available on the upper deck when the weather's cooperative, is headed 50 miles up-lake from Wahweap, the resort near Glen Canyon Dam. Something like 95 percent of Lake Powell - the impounded Colorado River, which backs up 135 miles behind the dam - is in Utah, not Arizona, so the Desert Reflection soon crosses into the Beehive State. The captain has begun a running commentary on the passing scenery, sprinkling it with rib-ticklers and, as he calls them, "lies." Mostly, however, he sticks to the colorful facts.

"Wahweap," he says, "gets its name from the Paiutes. It means bitter water - but that was before Lake Powell.

"This is a relatively navigable lake - the second largest man-made lake in the United States. No. 1 is . . .?"

"Lake Mead," chant several of his passengers.

Castle Rock, he says upon approaching the formation, was used as a setting in "The Greatest Story Ever Told," the biblical epic filmed in 1961-62. "They didn't start filling the lake until 1963." The Desert Reflection passes below Tower Butte, crosses Padre Bay ("Escalante and Dominguez, along with 10 other guys, crossed the Colorado here" in 1776, Muenzen notes) and heads by Gunsight Butte, which earned its name "because it looked like a gunsight on a cowboy's rifle," Muenzen says.

"Someone had a good imagination," a tourist adds.

The captain points out a cloud-shrouded monolith. Its shape is reminiscent of the great table-topped rock that drove Richard Dreyfuss bananas in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

"That's not it, though," Muenzen says. Devil's Tower was the landmark used in the movie. "That one's in Wyoming."

He turns the Desert Reflection into a side canyon for a stop at Dangling Rope Marina, a water-locked harbor in a side canyon. "They have 30 employees here in summer," Muenzen says, but only four or five in winter.

"The book `The Shining' is very popular there," he jokes.

The captain recommends the ice cream, and most of the passengers line up for a cone. Others head into the little general store. Carp, too, have discovered Dangling Rope - they gather fin to fin in dockside schools, maws open for handouts of Fritos and other snacks. The curious visitors happily oblige. The fish find the tidbits human-finger-licking good.

As noon approaches, the skies noticeably improve, clouds lifting. Since the weather is less threatening, three dozen passengers head topside as the Desert Reflection continues on its way, passing formations like "The Little Girl Eating One Scoop of Rocky Road" - at least, that's what Muenzen calls it - and heading into Forbidding Canyon, the route to Rainbow Bridge.

Rainbow is the largest natural bridge in the world, arching some 290 feet above the entrenched canyon below. Many references point out that the U.S. Capitol would fit beneath the span. Of course, you'd have to slice off the congressional wings, but many citizens probably wouldn't mind that.

An informational board at the back of the boat outlines some of the sandstone bridge's modern history:

Undoubtedly known by prehistoric people, . . . the bridge was probably first seen by white people in the 1880s during a gold rush in Glen Canyon. Miners swarmed over the area seeking the precious metal and without a doubt ventured up the canyon. None of them, however, seemed compelled to share the news of this startling geologic oddity with the rest of the country.

Rainbow Bridge, brochures and Park Service studies note, was more permanently "discovered" on Aug. 14, 1909. Byron Cummings, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Utah, and W.B. Douglass, a government surveyor, had heard rumors of a great stone arch and set out from Kayenta, Ariz., at the same time, leading separate exploration parties. Eventually they combined forces and were led to the landmark by Jim Mike (then known as Mike's Boy), a Paiute, and Nasja-Begay, variously described as a Paiute and a Navajo. Jim Mike - who lived over a century, passing away in 1977 - is now generally credited with finding the massive bridge in about 1900 while seeking pasture for a herd of horses.

Publicity following the Douglass-Cummings expedition gave Rainbow Bridge, tucked away in an obscure canyon below Navajo Mountain in the midst of the desolate Colorado Plateau, international renown. With remarkable speed by modern standards, President William Howard Taft proclaimed the wonder a national monument, setting aside a 160-acre tract on May 30, 1910.

Writer Zane Grey and former president and sometime-adventurer Theodore Roosevelt visited the remote span separately in 1913. Other expeditions, often led by Four Corners guide John Wetherill, followed over the years.

Roland Muenzen's Desert Reflection delicately threads its way through Forbidding Canyon.

"All of these canyons have one thing in common," he says. "One way in and one way out."

He points out the mineral-based tapestries on the sandstone walls, desert varnish created by red iron oxides and dark-blue manganese. Flickering lights play along certain walls; they are reflections off the water. Prospectors and miners, long before Lake Powell existed, would look for these as a sign of fresh water, Muenzen says.

The excursion boat pauses at one point so box lunches and drinks could be passed out, then the captain turns into Bridge Canyon.

"OK," he says. "Here it comes; just like in the brochure! Rainbow Bridge!"

Cut from the stone in large part by water flowing below and through it, the great bridge is actually a half-mile away, visible just around a bend. A quarter-mile docking area and water walkway lead to a waterside trail that is also a quarter-mile long.

Then you're beside the immense natural arch itself.

One of the early witnesses to this scene was Charles L. Bernheimer, a self-described "tenderfoot and cliff dweller from Manhattan," who wrote about his amateur explorations of "Rainbow Bridge country" in a 1926 book named for the span. As with the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, he considered it futile to compare this scenic landmark with any other marvel. He did, however, offer a description:

The dimensions of the Rainbow Bridge, its symmetry, its graceful sweep, its delicate balance, its daintiness, despite its bulk, its picturesque setting and colouring, make it an unique and stupendous monument. It is beau-tiful from whatever angle it is seen. How has this gem in high relief, carved as by a divine hand, withstood destruction by the very forces which reared it? Imagine a structure the evolutions of the ages have merely brought to the surface its muscular structure, divesting it of weak and useless particles. Where the strain is greatest, its contour suggests the arm and shoulders of a trained athlete. Where the weight rests on abutments, the latter suggest the virile forms of fluted, supporting Gothic pillars.

Indeed, Rainbow Bridge is a sight to behold. As Desert Reflection passengers and people from other smaller craft mill about, craning necks and snapping photographs, Appad Lazar, an interpretive park ranger, points out dino-saur tracks in Kayenta sandstone regularly swept by an occasionally flowing creek.

And he explains why placards request that visitors not walk under the bridge.

The region's Indians, including the San Juan Paiutes and White Mesa Paiutes, but especially the Navajos, consider Rainbow Bridge to be sacred. "They want people to understand that this is to them a place of worship and want people to treat it as they would their own places of worship," Lazar says.

To the Navajos, he says, Navajo Mountain nearby is the head of the Earth Mother; the sun is the father. Two other holy figures also play key roles.

"Monster Slayer and Child Born of the Water, children of Changing Woman, never met their father, the sun," Lazar explains. "They held a ceremony, building a rainbow of many materials between the Material World and the Spirit World."

The description fits Rainbow Bridge.

As the Desert Reflection leaves the national monument, droplets splatter the buoyant walkway. Wisps of cloud frill Navajo Mountain. Thunder rumbles a long time somewhere to the west.

"Well, that was pretty good timing everyone," said Muenzen. "Hope you enjoyed it. And I hope everybody got back!"

Like a biblical promise, the weather was restrained during the visit to Rainbow Bridge. Now the skies appeared ready to let loose.

"I just want you to know how lucky you are," the captain says. "Most people come here when it's hot and sunny and they don't get to see the waterfalls you're going to see."

He earns a chorus of doubting "ahhhs."

"OK, that's the 13th lie," he quips.

But he was not kidding. The skies part and a deluge descends. Water pours from the canyon walls. Muenzen takes the now delicate-seeming craft into tight places like Cathedral Canyon. Though there are waterfalls galore - near and far, high and low, white water and red - many of his daytrippers venture out of the main cabin onto the back platform and onto the top to get closer looks at the spectacle.

"Aren't we lucky?" one woman in rain gear sputtered in the downpour.

"OK," Muenzen says while maneuvering through one narrow stretch. "This is as far as I'm going. I like it when you're quiet like this. It means you're nervous."

The Desert Reflection turns back, heading into the main channel and toward Wahweap Marina as the sun suddenly breaks through. As the captain had said at the journey's start, weather changes quickly on Lake Powell.

Asked what she thinks of it all, Betty Burette, a retired Swiss teacher touring the West with her two sisters, finds it challenging to put the panorama into words.

"Many things we can say," she notes happily, "because it's too much beautiful!"

Ruth Arnett is pleased as well. Yes, it was bright and clear the first time she and her husband visited Lake Powell and Rainbow Bridge, but this excursion was something else.

"The storm was brief," she says. "If it had been longer it would have been annoying." But the gentle trip out, the graceful bridge and the sudden rain left an indelible impression.

"You could not describe that," she says. "That was probably a once in a lifetime experience."