THE ONLY THING hotter than Lake Powell’s red sandstone walls and canyons in July 1998 was the houseboat shooting flames into southern Utah’s blue sky.
Brothers Larry and Gene Florence watched from a fishing boat that minutes earlier had been moored to their family’s “Sweet Retreat” houseboat. That afternoon, the Florence brothers and their guest family of five were lucky – or blessed – to have made a swift retreat.
As they watched from a safe distance, the brothers thought of their belongings on the boat. They began to remember 13 years of long trips from Salt Lake City to the marina at Bullfrog Bay, Utah, to sand, seal, weld and paint to construct a queen for making memories.
When the fire finally burned itself out, all that remained were ashes on the lake and two 50-foot steel pontoons bobbing in the water. Their houseboat was gone, but these brothers would be back – the red sand of Lake Powell was in their blood.
ELDEST BROTHER GENE was serving the U.S. Army in Germany in 1954 when Larry and the second-oldest brother, Val, first cranked their heads toward the giant sandstone walls above the Colorado River. That was a decade before the Glen Canyon Dam backed up three rivers, including the Colorado, to turn Glen Canyon into the mighty 186-milelong Lake Powell.
As teenagers, Val and Larry were eager for their trip to Glen Canyon with the Salt Lake City South Cottonwood Ward church youth group. Bishop Merlin Shaw was leading their excursion along with desert river rat Merrill Maxfield, who had bought two World War II Navy-surplus inflatable boats that would carry the boys and their supplies.
They spent a week camping and exploring the Colorado River and its tributaries. They hiked up red rock side-canyons, where they discovered ancient Ancestral Pueblo petroglyphs and ruins.
Val and Larry returned home to the city after their first river trip transformed by an infusion of red river sand into their blood stream. The group enjoyed the trip so much that Shaw and Maxfield started leading other trips through, and they enlisted Larry as an expedition leader. Like Maxfield, the boys from the city soon became river rats of the desert.
THE OVAL DINNER table in the Florence house in Salt Lake City rarely had an empty chair. Descended from founding stock of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, their parents created a large family – five brothers and seven sisters, plus 98 foster children by the end of their mother’s life.
As with many members of the Church, their parents aimed to raise children who had lifelong connections with one another. While a big family has advantages, 25 years distanced the eldest and youngest, and no more than eight siblings lived under the same roof at the same time.
While the oldest Florence brothers were out of the house on their adventures, the youngest boys, Tom and George, were back at home in Salt Lake City. They missed out on those early river trips with their brothers, but one day the brothers would find a way to include them and the rest of the family.
The Glen Canyon Dam project ended the Colorado River that Val and Larry Florence had known so well. Not long after the dam created Lake Powell, houseboats soon became the most popular method to play and stay on the lake. Families own or rent boats outfitted with beds, a kitchen, a bathroom, showers, food and drinks, to create a veritable hotel on pontoons. With 2,000 miles of shoreline to explore, some houseboaters stay out on the lake weeks at a time, returning to a marina only to stock up on fuel and provisions.
In the 1980s, the Florence brothers were beginning to realize that the connected family their parents had desired for them was becoming fragmented: The brothers and sisters were busy with careers and raising their own families. The brothers realized the families needed something else to unite them, or their families risked knowing each other only from weddings and funerals.
In 1985, Gene, Larry and wife Shirley decided to join with some of their old river-running buddies and buy a used houseboat at Bullfrog Marina named Sweet Retreat.
A former bishop, Larry was well-practiced at giving assignments. He enlisted the help of the new owners to fix up the vessel and make it their own.
Before long, they were scheduling trips among the brothers, wives, children and grandchildren. When the grandchildren had a choice between going to Disneyland or Lake Powell, they chose Lake Powell. It worked: The cousins began to build relationships with one another. When the family wasn’t using the houseboat, the brothers helped pay for its upkeep through guided trips for friends – planned and piloted by Gene and Larry.
And on one of those trips, on July 23, 1998, Gene and Larry were hosting a family on the lake. A five-gallon plastic gas can had been moved to the roof of the houseboat. The bottom of the fuel can was worn thin, and in direct sunlight at a temperature of 108 degrees that day, the plastic split and dripped gasoline onto the standing pilot light on the water heater below.
After the marina towed the wreckage to Bullfrog Bay, Gene and Larry were faced with a hard choice: Quit house boating or replace Sweet Retreat. They realized houseboating was too important for their family. Rather than buying, they decided they had enough collective knowledge and resources among family and the owners of Sweet Retreat to build their own boat.
They opted to build the new boat’s 60-foot pontoons with heavy 1/8-inch steel plate instead of thinner steel that commercial builders used. They designed and constructed their own tanks for waste, potable water and fuel. They ordered curved windows for a professional finish. They wired 16 6-volt golf cart batteries to make a 12-volt system, recharged by roof-mounted solar panels. They researched, purchased and fit a stove, propane refrigerators and a water heater with no standing pilot light.
Gene – an expert welder who retired from a career jet-setting to Mexico, Argentina and Venezuela for high-end welding jobs – assembled the jigsaw puzzle of their houseboat. He added 50,000 miles to his pickup truck odometer driving between his home in Heber City and the assembly yard in Draper. In 2001, after three years of planning and construction, the Florence brothers’ second boat was finished and ready for the lake.
They hired a semi-truck from Hanksville to haul the 20-ton houseboat 300 miles to Bullfrog Bay. When he backed into the water, the driver said he’d stick around long enough to haul the boat back to Draper. Most home-built houseboats don’t float the first time, he said.
The Florence brothers unstrapped their houseboat from the trailer and waited as the driver let off the brakes and lowered the boat into the lake.
The houseboat not only floated, but floated level – not an inch of deviation from bow to stern.
They christened their new houseboat the “Phoenix” and celebrated with a lap around the buoys at Bullfrog Bay.
THE FLORENCE BROTHERS have two rules on the Phoenix. First: No hats on the kitchen table. Second: The oldest guest gets his or her pick of bunkbeds at the back of the cabin, followed by the next-oldest on the portable beds at the front of the cabin, followed by everyone else outside on the top deck under the stars, with foam-filled mattresses for all.
Going on three decades of scheduling Lake Powell houseboating trips, some weeks of the year have emerged as special annual outings. The first trip of the season is always the men’s fishing trip at the end of April.
At this trip, the brothers, their sons, sons-in-law and grandsons 18 years and older are invited. In some cases, longtime friends of the brothers can come, too. Boaters practically have the run of the lake in late April. The water is cold (63 degrees), and the sky is prone to hurl stinging rain, followed by sunny skies.
The group set sail at mid-afternoon Sunday from Bullfrog Marina with a kitchen and pantry stocked for five days, three meals a day for 14 hungry men. Among the Florence brothers on this trip are Gene, 92, Val, 81, Larry, 80, and George, 77. Also along are two sons, two sons-in-law, three grandsons and three family friends.
With a sharp gaze of his blue eyes forward past the bow, Gene is confident and comfortable behind the wheel of the Phoenix. He powers away from the floating dock and guides the Phoenix through Bullfrog Bay, past the Haystacks rock formation and toward the open channel. Larry points out where he and Val – a lifetime ago – explored a skuttled Stanton gold dredge. It was launched in 1900 and ran aground shortly after on a sandbar in the middle of the Colorado River, long-since submerged by the lake.
There is no radio, air conditioner or television on the Phoenix. Gene says the brothers built this boat for “outdoor living.” An hour down the river, Gene and Larry start looking for a campsite – somewhere protected from the wind but safe from tumbling boulders. Gene pokes the boat into one cove but motors on downriver until he and Larry agree on a wide ridge of sandstone sloping gently into the lake.
It’s all-hands on deck as men and younger men make way to the bow to watch for submerged rocks.
A little forward throttle, a little back throttle, Gene nudges the Phoenix into the cove. A younger man jumps overboard and pulls the gangplank ashore, while others toss coils of rope toward land. Yet others jump over and run the ropes up the hillside.
A fit grandson pounds a metal spike into the sandstone with a 5-pound sledge for the starboard rope, while a son-in-law wraps the port rope around a sandstone boulder.
Larry directs the finesse of the mooring work – shouting for men on the starboard to loosen their rope, while the port tightens. The stern swings 10 feet port-side until the boat is perpendicular to the shoreline with ropes taut.
When the time comes to tie the knots, Larry climbs up the hill and demonstrates for the younger men how it is to be done next time.
After a supper of Salisbury steak and vegetables, the men share stories and initiate the newer members with ribbing and joking. The greenhorns apparently pass the tests.
By 11 p.m., the brothers begin to indicate it might be time for bed. Faithful to house rules, the young men pick up their hats from the floor and head up the back deck stairs to unfurl their sleeping bags under the Milky Way and satellites.
WATER FROM A passing boat at 5 a.m. slaps against the sides of the Phoenix. Clouds roll in, and the young men roll out of their sleeping bags. A few diehard young fishermen walk ashore and cast for striped bass from the bank. One pair fires up a fishing boat and takes off downstream.
After the brothers awake, the young men begin returning from their early- morning fishing jaunts. They are cold and hungry, but happy. They look to Larry.
“I need someone to make pancakes. I need someone to make muffins. I need a volunteer to cook bacon,” Larry said.
Volunteers fell in line. Soon, the meal was underway and on the table.
With no particular schedule, pressing timetable or cell phone reception, breakfast stretches on with the stories about waves swamping houseboats, rocks penetrating fishing boats and a teenage son who impulsively leapt overboard to retrieve his favorite cap – later plucked from the lake only because of his ability to whistle across long distances.
Like the time Larry caught 50 striped bass in an hour, the veterans of the spring trip told fishing stories – the next besting the last, until George added his insightful truism: “Lots of people like to fish. Everyone likes to eat. Sometimes you have to choose between the two.”
The brothers decide to pull stakes and take the camp 20 miles downriver. Sandstone walls towering 1,000 feet line sections of the lake. They are jagged and fragmented, crumbling and broken. One section on the east side is 500 feet long and juts outward a full 25 feet deep in a recent clear break.
A son-in-law points to a long sloping sandstone hill half a mile away across open water on the opposite side of the lake. A houseboat was moored on the shoreline there a few years back when the section of wall broke loose and came crashing into the water – sending a wave across the lake that marooned the houseboat on top of the hill.
As the Phoenix motors south, a wide canyon on the left side comes into view: Lake Canyon, named so for Lake Pagahrit, which ceased to exist in 1915 when a natural dam forming the canyon lake failed.
Val recalls paddling a canoe through the canyon when he was a boy, before Lake Powell existed. He saw deer running in the canyon. He discovered Ancestral Pueblo pottery, cliff dwellings and 1,300-year-old handprints on the canyon walls. “That was a pretty place,” Val said.
Gene remembers Lake Canyon for another reason. Here, in the main channel, is where they lost Sweet Retreat in 1998. A wave of memories. “That was a tough day,” Gene said.
The lake bends from south to west then north in a slow, arcing curve. Eons ago, long before the mighty Colorado River cut a deep canyon channel, it meandered across the desert and created an oxbow here. Spanish for “corner” or “nook,” the Rincon is a major geologic feature along Lake Powell. An apostrophe mark on the back of a snake, it is home to an Ancestral Pueblo map of the Colorado and nearby San Juan rivers chiseled into the rock.
Larry and Gene have a landing spot in mind and point to the shore opposite the Rincon. With barely a whisper of an order given, the crew falls in line to dock the boat and make camp for the next three days.
LATE APRIL ON Lake Powell is no tank-top-and-bikini weather. Purifying the spring fishing pilgrims, the weather alternates between rain and sun. The men spend the days patrolling the shorelines for pockets of walleye, striped bass, and large and small mouth bass. They duck back into Iceberg Canyon to find warmth from the chilly breeze.
Back at shore, the brothers hang behind to tend to the business of the boat. They pick up conversations from days before and complete one another’s stories. There is a tender care that comes with a lifetime of rivalry and intimate knowledge.
At 10 a.m. one morning, the brothers are hungry for breakfast. This time, Larry is the cook. Standing at the stove with crisp bacon already on the kitchen counter, he cracks two eggs into the bacon grease and asks Val, “How do you like your eggs?”
Val: “I’ll take one fried and one scrambled.”
Larry: “I’ll get you a fried today and a scrambled tomorrow.”
Val: “Just as good; you’ll probably scramble the wrong egg.”
Ever the gentle observer, George tells about the period in their lives when Val and Larry did not associate with one another. Though they spent their childhood together as best friends, the progression of life, relationships, careers and recreational hobbies kept them apart in adulthood.
Then, one houseboat trip brought them together.
“They brought their own music – CDs,” George said, “And they realized they liked the same kind of music. They liked the same food. They had the same stories.”
“That was a renaissance, an awakening,” George said. Now Val and Larry have an “ironclad bond.”
As life marches forward, the family members naturally pass away. Of the 15 original Florence siblings, two boys died in infancy, and the baby of the family, Tom, died of cancer two years prior to the spring fishing trip. He had always been a regular on both houseboats, but his presence was being missed.
His son, Chad, was on the lake when Tom died. He had no idea his dad was as sick as he was. Tom’s final wishes to Chad: “Go, have a good time.”
As talk of Tom rounds the supper table on the fourth night, the brothers pause in silence, cast eyes downward for a moment, then change the subject.
They talk about driving dirt roads to get to Glen Canyon, wading across the Colorado River in August and advising greenhorn mariners how not to destroy their houseboats. To the young men around the table who look out to the Rincon, time stands still on Lake Powell. To the brothers on the Phoenix, it never stops changing.
Val Florence died on Dec. 27, 2020 at age 83. The brothers will celebrate his life this summer on Lake Powell.
This story first appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Utah Life Magazine.