Colorado Plateau Trip: Day 9

Monday May 10, 2010

I awoke well before sunrise, and drove west, away from Zion National Park. Today was my return visit to subway, a surreal little canyon on the west end of Zion. I have been there twice, and have yet to walk away with a shot that I am happy with. From a technical standpoint, it is a very difficult place to shoot with large format. Because of the long exposures, high contrast, and depth of field challenges, my two previous attempts have failed.

The purpose of this hike was to shoot some Kodak Ektar 100 on my 4×5 camera. I was curious how it would react to long exposures, and the high contrast of this location. Compared to my 8×10 camera, the 4×5 is small, and fast to setup. This allows me to experiment with different compositions, and exposures. With the knowledge I gain from this trip, I can return in October or November, and capture the “real” image on my 8×10 camera.

I was the first one to arrive at the trail head.  I packed my gear, had some breakfast, then hit the trail.

I followed the meandering trail through the maze of junipers atop the mesa. The trail cuts sharply to the left, skirting a cliff with an impressive view of the valley.

Several hundred feet below, the Left Fork of the Virgin River came into view.

My heart sank.

Rather than seeing a small, clear, gurgling creek — I saw a murky, swift moving river. I had serious reservations about this hike. Even if I could make it to subway, the conditions would not be ideal for photography. The calm, emerald pools would be replaced by a murky torrent of water. With this amount of water, the slippery sandstone in subway would become impassible.

I had a decision to make.

If I continued this hike, I faced with an 8 mile hike over rugged terrain, frequent stream river crossings, and limited photographic potential. My other option was to turn around and pretend this never happened.

I stood in silence, my eyes fixed on the river.

I came to the realization that I would not be taking any photos today. Strangely enough, I was okay with it.  Often times a trip is about the journey, not the destination. Today, my destination was unknown, but I was willing to continue the hike.

Having made my decision, I descended down the loose trail toward the bottom of the canyon. The sound of the river grew louder as I approached. The rate of flow seemed to be on par with the Virgin River during the dry months. Stream crossings often required trekking poles for secure footing.

I worked my way upstream, carefully plotting my path. I avoided stream crossings, as opposed to my previous attempts where I walked right up the creek.

Several hours later, I arrived at the wonderful cascading waterfall that flows over deep red sandstone. This time, however, no red sandstone was visible. The rock was completely draped in fast moving white water.

Not long after the falls, I arrived at the famous crack. This is where I took the following photo last November.

The Serpentine Ghost (November 2009)

In this photo, most of the creek’s flow is funneled through a 6 inch wide crack in the sandstone. Today however, the water was flowing with such intensity that the crack was barely visible. At this point, the trail ends, and you must walk up the slick red sandstone. Several inches of water jetted across the rock with impressive power. Just around the corner, hidden from view, is subway proper — my final destination.

It said that a car can be swept downstream by a flash flood when driving through mere inches of water. This makes perfect sense based on what I saw here. I was reminded of the water park attractions where a jet of fast moving water is propelled over a curved surface, creating a permanent wave. Thrill seekers can ride this wave on a boogie board.

I removed my backpack, and stepped out into the flow of water. My feet disappeared as the water was deflected as high as my knees. I took a few more steps, then quickly retreated to the riverbank. I peered out over the flow of water, trying to find its weakest spot. I tried once more, but was turned back a second time. Even if I could make it to the middle of the river where the water was less intense, I would be faced with a bottleneck of faster water 20 yards up-stream. This was also an area with very slippery rocks.

I like to listen to the little voice in the back of my head. In this situation, the voice was telling me “Don’t be an idiot Martha.” Slightly demeaning, yes, but a very poignant nonetheless.

It was time to turn around.

On the return hike, a grove of maple trees caught my attention not far from the falls. Their fresh green leaves were backlit by soft reflected light. They glowed against the red stained cliffs that towered above them. I studied the scene for a while, but couldn’t find a composition I was satisfied with.

Not long after that, I came across another hiker named Steve  who was also on his way to subway. I told him that I turned back due to the high water, and we chatted a little while. As it turns out, we are both part of the same photographic community at For the second time in a row, I have met photographers from the FM community while hiking to Subway — small world. Steve joined me for the hike back to the trailhead. Thanks for the company Steve!

Several hours later, I returned to camp with 6 sheets of unexposed Kodak Ektar 100, muddy shoes, and very tired legs. Some might see this as a failure, but not me. Today, the journey was my destination.

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