Katie Lee, the Kick-Ass Folk Singer and Nude Environmentalist

To this day, environmental activist groups continue to fight against the Glen Canyon Dam, a large concrete dam built on the Colorado River in the 1950s and ’60s in northern Arizona. The dam created Lake Powell, flooding Glen Canyon and drastically altering the ecosystem of the river. The resistance to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s plan to dam the river was led by the Sierra Club and — perhaps less predictably — Katie Lee, a Hollywood actress and folk singer who had made a new life taking boat trips along the Colorado.

Lee would be 100 years old today (she died in 2017). The brassy, free-spirited performer and explorer was known for speaking her mind and doing it with curse words. She sang about the Colorado River (“My heart knows what the river knows/ I gotta go where the river goes”) and even about the cursed fates of government agency workers who would dam it (“For dam-builders come, but soon they’ll be gone/ To join the ghosts of old San Juan, the angry old ghosts of the river”).

In the burgeoning environmentalist movement, Katie Lee carved a space for kick-ass radicals to stand up — sometimes naked — to big money in the service of keeping America’s lands pristine.

As a newcomer to Hollywood in 1948, Lee had difficulty finding a niche for herself to get steady work. She was too old to be an ingénue and too young to be a character actress. She did work, though, playing small roles in film and television, and she recorded her first big album, Songs of Couch and Consultation, a folk pop record that satirized psychiatry. In the early ’50s, Lee received an offer to join some friends boating through the Grand Canyon, playing her guitar in the evenings. “I never went back to Hollywood,” she said, in the short documentary Kickass Katie Lee. “From then on, rivers were my lovers, and that’s what I did for the rest of my life.”

Though she loved the thrilling roughness of the Grand Canyon, Lee said she found her element in the calmer waters of Glen Canyon. Like an intimate Garden of Eden, Glen Canyon provided waterfalls, grottos, and more than one hundred side canyons for Lee and her fellow river runners to explore. They swam nude in its gorges by day and wrote folk songs around a campfire by night. The canyon was filled with Native American ruins and artifacts that hadn’t been touched for hundreds of years. Lee began accompanying tours with Mexican Hat Expeditions, bringing tourists up and down the Colorado.

“I remember being in the canyon on the ’57 trip, the day before President Eisenhower pushed the button and blasted the first blast off of the walls,” Lee said in a 1996 interview. “I heard the sound, and I remembered. It just brought me to my knees. I couldn’t handle it.” She noted a catch-22 of Glen Canyon’s secluded nature: the lack of crowds made it an idyllic spot to experience the West’s untouched natural beauty, but that also meant there were fewer people to speak out when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation started work on a giant dam.

As early as 1954, Lee was aware of plans for a dam in the area. She wrote her senator, Barry Goldwater, appealing to his own interest in nature photography:

If you had not personally seen this country, Barry … lived in it, served it and let it serve you, I could understand your support of the Glen Canyon Dam as I would most politicians for their place in posterity. As it is I am completely bewildered and astounded. Can you have forgotten that it contains some of the most awesome and beautiful-beyond-description country in all the world?

Though Lee didn’t consider herself or her canyon companions politically-minded, they felt they had to do all they could to save their rocky refuge. She petitioned, rallied, and protested against the Glen Canyon Dam, wrote letters and songs, and gave interviews throughout her folk tours. By this time, Lee was being booked at clubs around the country, with help from her friend Burl Ives. She was zipping around in a ’55 T-Bird and playing with the likes of Harry Belafonte at progressively bigger venues and wider-reaching radio and television shows. In the midst of her hectic life in show business, Glen Canyon remained a safe haven.

In All My Rivers Are Gone, Lee’s 1998 memoir, she describes her calling to speak out against the Bureau of “Wreck the Nation”: “My river was about to be unjustly dammed … politically damned … I’d never had a cause before, but now there was a place, almost a person, that needed my help — a very valuable place that couldn’t speak for itself. I could be a voice for it.”

Sierra Club executive director David Brower called the Glen Canyon Dam “a power project pure and simple, built to provide a bank account for the Colorado River Storage Project.” In 1963, the dam was completed and closed up, flooding Lee’s beloved grottos and side canyons with hundreds of feet of water.

Over the next several decades, public opposition to the dam persisted. The proposed Bridge Canyon dam project, further down the Colorado River, was stalled and eventually defeated. In 1974, Lee wrote to Arizona representative Sam Steiger: “I thought that after the last defeat of dams in the Grand Canyon, any sane person would be more shamed than honored to go down in politics as an instigator of more cement plugs on the already over-dammed, evaporating, near-dead, Colorado River. But here you are!”

The recent lawsuit put forth by Save the Colorado and others asks the court to invalidate the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s 20-year plan for Glen Canyon Dam and to order a new one that accounts for the effects of climate change, preferably by recommending dam removal.

Groups like Save the Colorado and Glen Canyon Institute have yet to take down “the dinosaur of the dam world,” but their mission to spread word about the short-sightedness of dams resonates to people who know and care for the Colorado River. It’s the same message that Katie Lee sang in her 1964 album, Folk Songs of the Colorado River. “We drink to thee, oh Colorado/ Mighty river full of wonder,” she sang, the year after a cement wall buried her treasured canyon in a watery grave.

A decade before she died, Lee initiated a relationship with Northern Arizona University. She donated photographs, letters, manuscripts, and recordings to the school’s library. Last Friday, NAU began a two-year-long exhibit to honor Katie Lee’s legacy that is open to the public. It features her pictures and documents as well as Lee’s monkey wrench sculpture (a reference to Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang) and her front door, carved by her mother with images reflecting “Old Delores,” one of Katie’s favorite folk songs.

The exhibit, curated by student intern Britney Bibeault, features hundreds of photographs available online at NAU’s digital archives. They show Glen Canyon as Lee experienced it before it was filled in with water. In some, she and the other river rats are stark naked, embracing the vastness of a giant valley. The striking colors of sunlit geological formations and overexposed, lazy days on the river illustrate the bygone era of a canyon that has become impossible to explore — except through the memories of the people, like Katie Lee, who loved Glen Canyon like a good friend.

Featured image: Northern Arizona University, Cline Library, Katie Lee Collection