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The first ever all solar powered trip across Lake Powell

See the movie trailer

See the currents flim web site for more information about release times

Read the story about the Solar Cataraft across Lake Powell on the 2nd expetition from Hite to Page

By jack Kloepfer

President of JPW

I know that it seems impossible, but it really did happen.  We did not even touch our oars after we put the motor in the water, for about 85 miles. 

This solar powered experiment was the final leg of an expedition that was undertaken by 4 friends who are making a film  http://www.thecurrentfilm.org.    This is the story of an expedition from the top of the San Juan Mountains down the Animas River to the Confluence of the San Juan River, then all the way to Lake Powell and to Page AZ and Glen Canyon Dam where the trip ends.   It was a 10,000 foot drop in elevation.  The entire trip took 5 weeks to complete.  JPW was a major sponsor of the film.   I was invited to join the river crew for any of the river sections, but I opted to join them for the trip across Lake Powell, and the Portage of the 30 ft. water fall at the top of the reservoir.   These are my observations of the experience.  They include my feelings about the reservoir, the beauty of the desert, the usefulness of the craft and the solar system that we used. 

I joined the group after they had been on the water for more than 1 month.  They had negotiated bad rapids, and portaged around un-runnable bolder sieves, they had endured portages on low head dams, during dust storms, and they said that they felt blessed to be able to meet and interact with so many nice people.  They told me the community support was awesome.   Everyone they met were anxious to help the project move along.  It seems we are all interested in maintaining our life styles, and the main artery of that life style is the San Juan and Animas Rivers that flow through the middle of our part of the Southwestern US.   I extend a heart felt thanks for being included on this part of the adventure with Greg, Jesse, Steven, and Brandon.  To learn more about these young men, please see The Current Film when it is available.    

My experience begins at Clay Hills Crossing where most river trips end.  We loaded some of our gear on the truck, and we attached the solar panels, and the 6 hp Torqeedo electric motor on the same cataraft that made the trip down from Silverton Colorado at 9200 feet elevation.  I brought the solar panels the Torqueedo motor, and one of the smaller cats.  The other small cat (JPW cutthroat) made the trip from Durango to page.   We were not pushing off into unknown territory.   I had talked to Tom Martin, well known river map author, about portaging the water fall at the top of Lake Powell, and had an idea of where to go and where it was.  I had been down to Piute Farms take out before when the lake was much higher in 1989, but there was no waterfall then.  There was only one descent drop before the waterfall, and that was still there.    We portaged within 2 hours.  Removing everything from the cats, and rolling the big cat down the side of the falls on drift wood longs rather than carry it through the dying tamarisk further out.  We rowed off down the river on a low flow of 650 CFS.       We did not want to mess up our motor, so we rowed along for an estimated   4 or 5 miles until there was little current, and the average depth of the water was well over 5 feet.   We put the motor in the water, and off we went.  

The only rapid sorry about the focus, I did not have much time.

A 30 ft fall? perhaps, See my shadow

After the portage is done we are ready to shove off.

When we put the motor in the water the battery had been charging for many hours, and we really could zip along.   We were careful, but we did churn some mud on occasion.  Inspection of the prop told us there was no damage, and we continued to use the motor at higher and higher wattage.  It was not until about 4 in the afternoon after using the motor at about twice the wattage that the panels can put in did we realize that we had drained the battery and needed to go a little slower.  That is when we started looking for a sunny camp.    We also had a 12 volt cooler on board, and that was using a considerable amount of power that we were producing.    So at around 5:30 pm we put in for camp at a little used bay.   We decided that camping in the sunlight would help the batteries recharge.   We were still using the cooler. 

Our first camp was remote.  There were few signs of people.  We noticed that this was an area where Ospreys and Eagles have gathered to feed on fresh fish that they caught in the Lake.  There were wild burros;   we found whole petrified trees along the shore.   We had a nice fire from the abundant drift wood at this end of the lake. 

First nite on the lake- wild burros, Ospreys, Petrified forest

In the morning we took off again about 8 am, and after some time adjusting our two little boats to track properly, we were moving along nicely again.  As a group we debated what the readouts on the motor were telling us.   The motor has a GPS so it tells us how fast we were going, and it would tell us how many watts we used, and how many volts were at the motor.  Our panels could produce 705 watts under prime conditions, but that was direct sunlight at mid-day.  The panels were flat on the top of the boat and morning and evening there were losses because of the angle of sunlight.  Once the motor has used up too much battery, it automatically shuts down, and this forces the operator to use less battery power to make it to where ever he is going.   The motor will also warn the operator when the battery is getting low, with a warning, to power down.  It does not matter what wattage is going through the motor, it will give that message when the voltage drops below 22 volts.  So we tried to obey.  My observation is that we can run the motor at about 23.8 volts, and that is about the full amount of power available to the motor through the solar panels only if the battery is fully charged.  If the battery is extremely low, some of that voltage is being used to charge the battery.  One can tell the battery charge state from the voltage of the battery when the motor is not running.  We determined that 26.5 volts was close to full charge.   It really was amazing how much power we could get by resting in the middle of the day, even for as little as one half hour.  During lunch one day, we gained a lot of power for use against the wind going down lake, while resting.  Unfortunately, it was consumed fast because while we were trying to make mileage against the wind, using up extra wattage and it was later in the day, with a lower sun angle.    

Our second day on the lake brought us into a canyon.  There we found a number of striper boils.  These are places where the large striper bass are pushing up the smaller Shad minnows to the top and eating them.  I have seen this kind of thing in the ocean, but all the times I was on Lake Powell, I had not seen this before.  About this same time we saw our first jet ski.  It was another 3 hours before we saw anyone else with a larger boat.   The people in this part of the lake were very friendly.  Apparently they feel that they are well away from the main hub bub, and are very curious about what we are doing up there.  We told them we came from Silverton Colorado, and most were genuinely impressed, while others had no idea what we were talking about.  As we neared Wahweap, people tended to be more concerned about just getting away from the marina.  Our second night camp was beautiful.  We were tucked into a tiny cove surrounded by cliffs with a little ledge to camp on.   I took a little swim in the crystal clear cool water to the opposite side of the cove.  The crew threw out their pads in the rocks, and made lounge chairs.  That morning was bacon and egg burritos with more sour cream.   We ate just like on any other river trip.  I worried about gaining weight.

Paco pads make great recliners in the rocks. This is where we slept.

Breakfast on day 3

By Day 3 we realized that the 12 v cooler was taking too much electricity, and we had enough ice to keep our food, so we disconnected it.  We also realized that our strategy of draining the battery a bit in the afternoon, while motoring, and camping in the sun was a fairly good way to make as many miles as possible.  We did not realize the full potential of our 6 hp motor, because it did not take long to drain the battery, and if we needed the extra power to push down stream in the wind, it would not do to have low batteries.  We were quickly adopting a strategy of low power until about 10 am.  Our batteries were charging when we could raise the voltage over 24 (we had two 12 v batteries).  It was a cat and mouse game with the sun, trying to get as much power in the batteries while trying to get as much speed out of the motor while the sun was gaining strength.   After Mid-day, we expected to have wind.   Sometimes the wind would come up, and sometimes it would not.  One day we had wind in the morning, but not in the afternoon. 

We had a great Father’s Day present.  Dave, Jesse’s dad, came down from Telluride to Join us and spend the day and evening before Father’s Day with us.  He brought some fishing equipment, and we had fresh fish tacos for dinner, with sour cream of course.   He also brought beer.   What a dad!

Father's Day on Lake Powell!

By the time we reached the larger bays of Gunsight and Padre towards the dam, the wind was very consistent in the afternoon, and we were losing power in our batteries well before we would have liked to stop.  Still on the second to last day we made 30 miles!  On our last evening camp, we finally had Phone service, and we got a weather report that said we would have 30 mph winds in the afternoon.  By now we knew that wind was the enemy, so we decided to get under way before the sun came up. That did not stop the crew from having a little guitar and banjo fun.

  Pickin and Grinning at last camp

It was absolutely beautiful in the morning, and we did not mind making slow mileage because it was dead calm, we were fishing, and the sun our benefactor was coming up.  We could make better mileage using 100 watts of power in calm weather than we could using 500 watts in the wind, and with the sun coming up we knew that our tank (batteries) would be filled, and that we would have some power to use when the wind did come.  

Early Morning Small Mouth Bass with our fuel source comming up

We made it almost all the way to Wahweap Marina before the wind hit with a vengeance, and our progress the last mile was extremely tedious.  That tended to drain the batteries.  However we untied all of the gear on the boat, and unloaded, while the batteries charged again.  We pulled our two little boats to shore, and the 4 original team members went down lake the last couple of miles to see the dam, and to film the final part of the Journey. 

Off to the dam to finish the trip

There were no mileage signs or buoys up the San Juan arm of Lake Powell.  I estimate our trip was 95 miles in 5 days.  5 miles of river before the falls,  5 miles after the falls, and 85 miles of motoring with only the sun as our fuel source.   One day we made 30 miles and much of the day was with head wind.  The strongest winds were on the last 3 days on the big bays of Wahweap, Padre, and Gunsight.   The motor can produce 6 hp at 2400 watts, and that is more than 3 times the generating capacity of the panels.  We could make 6 km per hour at 690 watts if there was no wind.  We never found out what we could do in a tail wind, we never had one.  We can consume a lot of power in a head wind.  In a good stiff breeze of 20 mph, our little motor would push us along at 3 km per hour but we had to use up battery power and run at about 800 to 900 watts.  Even if we had a full battery when we started at noon, this would bring the voltage down to 22 in just a few hours.  Sometimes it was worth powering through the wind, because we could tell we were in a gooseneck, and the wind would be less on the other side, other times we just had to accept the slower speed. 

The use of the electric motor was far more pleasant that I thought it would be.  There is little sound produced by the electric motor, and it is quite a contrast to the big blasting engines that are on the lake.  We saw and heard wildlife.  We had our Paco Pads spread out on all the boats, with a sun bathing deck on the small boats being towed in back, and the shady spot up front under the power supply.  The fold out wings on the frame gave us more room to move around, and spread out.  It was comfortable to dip my long sleeve shirt in the water and wear it in the breeze until cool enough that I actually wanted to get on the sunny side of the deck.  I slept a lot.  I watched the cliffs.  I joked and read stories, and had a very nice and comfortable time on the water. 

The future VS the past, Quiet peacefull motoring on Lake Powell with free solar power: Our little boat solar pannels producing clean energy, and the Salt River Coal Power Plant in the background, We are hoping that others will follow, and use solar power for their recreation more often.

See how far the solar boat idea has come so far, by having a look at this article on the solar powered Yacht that has completed a trip around the world


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