Farewell Katie Lee, Glen Canyon’s Original Champion
On November 1st, 2017, Glen Canyon Institute and the river community lost a friend, muse, and river-running icon, the legendary Katie Lee. Katie passed away in her sleep just a few weeks after celebrating her 98th birthday at her home in Jerome, Arizona. Katie was an integral part of the movement to restore Glen Canyon, becoming an outspoken opponent of the dam, and later helping with the formation of GCI in 1996.
In the 1950’s, Katie was pursuing a career as a singer and actress in Hollywood when she was invited on a Grand Canyon trip with friend and river guide Tad Nichols. She immediately fell in love with the Colorado River, beginning a lifelong obsession with the Grand Canyon and Glen Canyon. She was one of the first women to work for river guide companies, and made it a personal mission to explore as many of the side canyons and grottoes in Glen as she could.
Katie found deep emotional connection and artistic inspiration in Glen Canyon, making as many trips possible down the river. She would write songs, stories, and poetry, taking pictures and video — famously wandering throughout the canyons in the most humanly natural way, bare naked. Glen Canyon became a part of who she was, describing it as heaven on earth. A place by which no one could help but be inspired if they made the journey.
When it was announced that a dam would be constructed in Glen Canyon in 1956, Katie’s passion for the river turned into a fiery opposition against it and the Bureau of Reclamation who would build it. She became one of the most outspoken opponents of the dam, writing songs and books that would epitomize the fight against Glen Canyon Dam’s ecological destruction. After Glen Canyon was flooded, her works became the underpinnings of the Glen Canyon restoration movement. It became her life’s work to fight for a free-flowing river in Glen Canyon. She was a driving force that galvanized Glen Canyon as a nationally recognized issue among an emerging national environmental movement.
When GCI’s president and founder Rich Ingebretsen set out to organize a non-profit with a mission to restore the river in the 1990’s, he knew he had to call Katie Lee. Ingebretsen recalls, “When we started to organize, I wanted to get everyone that had ever floated Glen Canyon to come to our first meeting. Katie was vital to GCI’s formation, bringing with her a huge following of the most vocal and passionate restoration advocates.”
In a visceral and fervent way, Katie captured the emotional loss of Glen Canyon like no other artist or author could. She shared this experience with the masses in her books Glen Canyon Betrayed and All My Rivers Are Gone, as well as her unforgettable folk music albums Glen Canyon River Journeys and Colorado River Songs. These works of art would become centerpieces in the collective memory of Glen Canyon before it was dammed.
While her body began to age in her later years, Katie’s intellect and passion never faded. She became a nationally-recognized icon of environmentalism, inspiring thousands of young people across the country to be loud, speak their minds, and fight for flowing rivers and wild places. She was prominently featured in the award-winning 2014 film Damnation, once again winning the hearts of audiences with her unforgiving love for Glen Canyon.
GCI hosted a number of events with Katie over the years, usually culminating with audiences succumbing to tears. Katie would swear, crack jokes, and spontaneously break into song, provoking emotions for the river many didn’t know they had. This was her magic: she was so transformed by her connection to Glen Canyon, and was able to convey that connection to everyone else through her words and music. No one else could capture the emotional and spiritual significance of the Glen like she did.
In her later years, Katie stayed in close touch with GCI, regularly checking in to see what we were up to and always sending eager young activists our way. On phone calls, she would regularly joke about the fact that she was still alive and kicking, “I’m still here damn it!”
We hosted our last event with Katie in the fall of 2016, premiering the documentary Kick Ass Katie Lee by George and Beth Gage. After the film, there was a Q&A session with Katie fielding questions over the phone. Despite an imperfect form of communication, she brought the audience to tears with her passion, authenticity, and sheer love for the canyons. In classic form, Katie ensured there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
In one of our last conversations with Katie, we left her with a promise. That we would never stop fighting for the river and for Glen Canyon. Katie’s passion now lives in all of us, and it is our job to keep fighting. We’ll keep her in our hearts and minds anytime we float down a river, wander through a slot canyon, or bury our toes in the desert sand. Cheers to you Katie!