Images from the Film Archives 2000
One of the most exhilarating hikes to take anywhere in the country, is through the Virgin River Narrows in Utah’s Zion National Park. There is no proper trail, but rather hiking is done mostly in the river itself because the canyon walls rise several hundred feet directly from the river bed, and only occasionally is there a bit of dry land where you can walk and possibly rest. This is not a hike to take lightly either. Flash floods are always a danger, slipping on the rocks throughout the riverbed is always a challenge, and twisting an ankle a real possibility. Proper preparation is essential to enjoying the hike and avoiding the many pitfalls in the way that can make for a very bad day, and is especially important if you’re carrying expensive camera gear.
One thing I bought for this hike was a pair of river walkers (which I still have today); shoes specifically designed to be in water and for this type of hike, with better gripping soles and large openings for drainage. To keep the gear from getting wet should I slip and fall completely in the water (a distinct possibility), was to pack it properly. The camera and lenses were in their usual camera bag which always went inside a backpack when I hiked. But the camera bag for this hike was first placed into two, tightly tied garbage bags before it was put in the backpack, which provided four layers of protection. Food, snacks, water and a fleece jacket were packed as well. And the tripod was used at all times to steady myself while in the moving, thigh-high, cold water. Even though air temperatures were relatively mild in late Sept. and Oct. when I did these hikes, the cold water and lack of sunlight in the canyon could easily lead to hypothermia! So I wore a heavy, long-sleeve fleece first layer and a long-sleeve heavier shirt to keep the core warm.
Since it was a chore to unpack and repack the camera for each photograph, they were only undertaken when absolutely warranted. The image at the top was taken from one of the “land crossings” used when available to make progress much faster, rather than inching along in the river. The pastel of the leaves of these slender, young trees were at peak autumn color, and along with the sandstone walls, made for a harmonious palette. The normal lens was used for a more narrow field of view, making the canyon walls appear closer than would a wider angle lens, keeping the image more abstract rather than leaning toward a scenic, while at the same time, keeping the sky out of the frame. The blue from the sky is clearly evident though in the tonality since the canyon here is completely in shade. But it was the balanced “design” of the dark trunks and pastel leaves accentuated by the blue tones near the bottom, that caused me to stop in the first place.
The second photo of the river was a “slap in the face” photo in that when it was initially seen, all the elements were already in place for a photo. The two trees provided the focal point, while the moving water was a line on which to travel through the scene. A longer shutter speed blurred the flow of water, rather than freezing it with a shorter one. Pretty sure I used a mild wide-angle lens of 45mm (28mm on a full frame), to provide an angle of view to cover the entire scene from the bend in the river and beginning of the cascade beyond the trees, to the end of it in the lower right. Having the flowing water cut by the frame would have sent the viewer directly out of the frame!
I’ve been fortunate to have made this hike several times, the first being in 1979 when it was more the experience rather than photography. Years later, I found these young trees twice during hikes in successive years. On one of the earliest hikes, I ran into a large format photographer with the unusual first name Carr. It turned out to be Carr Clifton, another of my early photographic heroes, and I would run into him again years later, across the country in New Hampshire’s White Mountains along the Swift River. It’s worth remembering that if you are able to take these photo trips, they increase your opportunities for both photography, and meeting some famous photographers. And with so many photo tours and workshops, it now happens pretty often.