A ‘legend’ remembers the Colorado’s vanished canyon
MOAB — It’s not often that a person gets featured in a museum while they’re still alive.
But when that person is already a legend like river runner Ken Sleight, the rules are a little different.
On May 4, “Glen Canyon: A River Guide Remembers,” an exhibit of Sleight’s memories of a vanished place, opens at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River.
Sleight is now retired and living out his days on the Pack Creek Ranch in the foothills of the majestic La Sal Mountains near Moab. Now 88 years old, Sleight recently tossed a bale of hay to some hungry goats and acknowledged that his river-running days are long gone.
“Just goofin’ off now,” he said, “raising hay and taking care of these goats.”
Fifty-five miles to the northwest at the museum alongside the Green River, Sleight is already in the hall of fame; he was one of the pioneers in the early years of the river-running business on the Green and Colorado rivers. Now, as the centerpiece of the upcoming exhibit, Sleight is headed for even more attention.
“It was a no-brainer,” said Tim Glenn, director of the John Wesley Powell River History Museum. “He’s kind of a legend around these parts.”
In the museum basement, Ryann Savino is part of a team that’s turning Sleight’s experiences and his artifacts into a public exhibit. Looking over one of Sleight’s old river-running ads, she was surprised by the low price.
“Fifty dollars!” she exclaimed, “for seven days down in Glen Canyon!”
“Or less,” Sleight clarified during a later planning session at the ranch. “Some of them was 35 bucks. I lost $10,000 on my first two years.”
“Certainly changed my life, just seeing all these things,” Sleight said in an interview.
To him, Glen Canyon was a very special place before the Glen Canyon Dam submerged it under the waters of Lake Powell. He first laid eyes on that stretch of the Colorado River in 1947 on a visit to Lees Ferry, Arizona. He decided then that Glen Canyon was “a paradise” and he returned for his first float trip in the early 1950s.
“It was just stupendous what we saw,” he said, recalling those early river trips that featured less whitewater than other canyons. “There were very few rapids. The rapids were small. But you went down because of the beauty of that canyon, the sublimity of it all.”
But even 60 years ago he worried about what was coming.
“Why do they want to put a dam here?” he recalled asking himself back in the ’50s. “It had already been approved and everything. But I kept wondering, ‘You can’t do this. They can’t do this.’”
After the Glen Canyon Dam blocked the Colorado River and submerged his beloved canyon in the 1960s, Sleight switched to guiding with horses. He led many pack trips and, some say, he learned more about southeastern Utah backcountry than almost anyone else.
His experiences turned Sleight into something of an environmental activist. When the late Edward Abbey wrote “The Monkey Wrench Gang” — a novel about a plot to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam — he modeled the character Seldom Seen Smith after Ken Sleight. The fictional connection is memorialized at the ranch in street signs; one is labeled “Abbey Road” and another is “Seldom Seen Road.”
“Ken and Ed were very good friends so, clearly, he was the inspiration,” said Ken Sanders, owner of Ken Sanders Rare Books. He’s delighted that Sleight will be featured in the upcoming exhibit.
“It couldn’t be more fitting,” Sanders said. “They almost ought to call it the Ken Sleight River Museum.”
But the designers of the exhibit say it’s not intended as environmental activism or political propaganda.
“We’re really trying to make it a celebration of Glen Canyon,” Savino said.
“The exhibit itself is a river trip,” said exhibit team member Meghan Hicks. Museum visitors will follow the sequence of a float trip through Glen Canyon with images, texts and artifacts.
“The idea is to experience Glen Canyon as it once was,” she said.
Perhaps some visitors will experience the vision Ken Sleight had in the 1950s.
“It was kind of uh, ‘This is where I want to live,’ ” Sleight said. “This is where I actually want to be buried. If I can live here all my life, then I would do it.”
It’s a dream he now knows will never happen.
The designers are still looking for donors to fund the exhibit, which will run through March 30, 2019. Details are at GlenCanyonExhibit.com.
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