The river community is mourning the loss of Katie Lee, the spitfire poet, folk-singer, rabble rouser, river runner and iconic desert activist best known for her fierce and decades-long battle against the Glen Canyon Dam. Lee passed away at her home in Jerome, Ariz., on Nov. 1. She was 98.
Hers was a long and colorful life filled with desert exploration, songs, river trips, writing and activism. Petite, luminous and possessing of a mellifluous voice, she swore like a sailor, was known to bike naked through Jerome and was never one to repress an opinion, no matter how incendiary. She was outrageous, mischievous, feisty, graceful, fearless and determined.
But nothing defined Lee more than her beef with Glen Canyon Dam, which fueled her work and defined her life for a staggering six decades. She was spitting mad about it until the end, and her unrelenting campaign made her an icon of modern Western activism.
“I haven’t quit, I’m still moaning and groaning about it,” she told me in a 2013 interview for Patagonia. “What else am I going to do? I know who I am, I know what I’m supposed to do and I do it. And until I drop, that’s what I’ll do.”
Lee was born in 1919 in Arizona. She grew up in Tucson, spending most of her time exploring the desert. Following college, she went to Hollywood to pursue stage and screen acting, getting bit parts and singing gigs.
Her trajectory changed on a trip home to Arizona, when she watched a film by her friend Tad Nichols about running the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. It looked like an awful lot of fun. So when he called later to offer her a gig as a troubadour for a raft trip through Glen and San Juan Canyons, she jumped at the chance. It was 1953.
“That’s how I got to the river. But then the river became part of me, and still is,” she told Arizona Public Media in 2015.
Thus began Lee’s love affair with desert rivers. Over the next several years, she rafted and floated sections of the Colorado, Green and San Juan dozens of times, exploring side-canyons, running the rapids, singing around campfires, sleeping under the stars and becoming an outsized character of Colorado River lore. She spent whole months floating the Grand Canyon and San Juan Rivers, and was reportedly just the third woman to run all of the Grand Canyon’s rapids.
Of all the river canyons, it was Glen that seized her by the heart and didn’t let go. Lee described it as a place of indescribable beauty filled with canyon wrens and soaring Wingate walls, ancient ruins, a maze of sinuous side canyons and little arches everywhere. Glen Canyon was magic, she said. It whispered to her.
When news arrived that a dam was coming to Glen Canyon, Lee ignored it at first. She considered it too implausible, too dunderheaded to happen. But happen it did. Despite later forceful protests of Lee and others, construction commenced in 1956. The dam was completed in 1963, burying Lee’s beloved Glen Canyon under Lake Powell, which she forever dubbed “Rez Foul.”
Lee was both broken-hearted and enraged. Livid, she poured her anger into protest songs, activism and story-telling, emerging as one of the most colorful and sharp-tongued advocates for preservation of wild places in the Southwest. Over the course of her career, Lee published five books, recorded 14 albums, made a television documentary, sat on the advisory board of the Glen Canyon Institute and spoke across the West. Her uncensored opinions made her a sought-after resource, and she was featured in scores of articles along with documentaries like “DamNation,” “Wrenched” and “Troubled Water.”
Lee’s outspoken nature delighted audiences throughout her life. She led crowds in sing-a-longs of inflammatory protest songs about the “Wreck-The-Nation” Bureau, openly insulted government officials and was never shy about her fantasy of seeing Glen Canyon Dam blown to smithereens.
But under her fiery facade was a sensitive heart. She openly wept at film screenings and public gathering, and would get so riled up she’d tremble. She was incredibly warm and generous to her loved ones, said filmmaker and longtime friend Beth Gage.
“She could be completely, embarrassingly outrageous, but she could also be warm and sweet and loving,” said Gage, who made a short film called “Kick-Ass Katie Lee” in 2016. Gage remembers a woman of intense determination and little modesty who lived out her passions and never backed down on her beliefs.
“She was out there, she was outrageous. And that was what was so great about her,” Gage said. “She just was a real true original.”
My heart knows what the river knows
I gotta go where the river goes
Restless river wild and free
The lonely ones are you and me
~Katie Lee, Song of the Boatman
Photos: Katie Lee, desert goddess – photos courtesy of katydoodit.com; Katie Lee speaking out against Glen Canyon Dam – photo courtesy of Beth and George Gage; Katie Lee rowing on the Green River – photo courtesy of katydoodit.com; A young Katie Lee singing protest songs – photo courtesy of Beth and George Gage