Colorado Plateau 2011: Day 1

Behind every photo expedition, there is a story. On a photography blog, one might expect a story about images. Though certainly true, this story is also about the people I met along the way. This is the story of my trip to one of the most rugged, inhospitable, and extremely photogenic areas in the United States. Spending time in the Colorado Plateau builds tremendous respect for the land, the people, and the critters that call it home. In the winter, temps drop well below freezing. During summer, triple digit temperatures dominate. It is critically important to be prepared for this extreme climate.

As usual, I brought along a video camera to record my journey as a video journal. This is a learning tool for myself, as well as those who follow my blog. It helps me remember my own thought process, and learn from my own success and failures.

Welcome to Day One.  This is the Colorado Plateau 2011.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The past week was spent planning. What should I take? What do I need? I am now very comfortable with my 8×10, so that will serve as my primary camera. One cannot truly appreciate this format until you examine a properly exposed transparency on a light table. It’s addictive. Every click of the shutter is the result of hours and even days of scouting to find just the right location — just the right moment.

My journey to large format began with a 4×5 camera. I still bring it along, though it is not frequently used. This camera works well in windy conditions, and I am very fast with it. Compared to my 8×10 camera, the diminutive size of my 4×5 becomes a novelty.

I also bring along my “chaos cam.” When photographing a chaotic environment, my 6×17 panoramic camera helps give a sense of order. I don’t plan on using my panoramic camera on this trip, but it too has a place in my truck.

All my camera equipment is stored in a large Tamrac rolling case in the back of my 4Runner. Organization is key when carrying so much gear.

One very valid concern on this trip is heat. I have been tracking the weather in both Kanab Utah, and Page Arizona. Page is often 10 degrees hotter than Kanab, and my location is somewhere in between. With highs in the mid 80’s for the first couple days, I’ll soon see 100+ degree weather.

Professional film is perishable, and must be protected from excessive heat. I have several strategies to keep my film cool. More on that later.

I’m carrying 7 gallons of water, roughly a one week supply, enough food for two weeks, camping supplies, and deep sand recovery gear.

A glance at my truck would have most people believe that I am traveling with several friends. Nope, just me. I am the photographer, videographer, producer, and also the guy that’s just along for the ride.

My alarm sounded at 2:30AM. I jumped in the shower, then hit the road by 3AM.

Why such an early start? I want to make the most of my first day. Leaving this early allows a half day of scouting. I’ll arrive by 2PM, and hit the canyon to observe the afternoon light.

At 3AM on a Sunday morning, I was surprised by the number of cars on the road. Who could possibly need to driving the 15 North at 3AM? Most sane people are at home in bed. Unlike these other crazy people, I have a valid reason. I’m driving solo to Utah for a week and a half of hiking with an 8×10 mahogany end-table in my backpack — This is clearly rational. Perhaps I should take a lamp as well… to place on the end table — and the lampshade on my head.

I was delighted to pass through the Los Angeles inland empire under the veil of darkness. The less I see, the better. This is where I encounter the worst drivers, and I’m often forced to hit the recirculate button on my A/C.

I rounded a gentle bend in the freeway, then ascended the Cajon Pass. The air became thick — my headlights struggled to penetrate a thick curtain of fog. My visibility was reduced to 20 feet. Lanes were difficult to see, and all freeway traffic slowed to 15mph. I engaged my emergency flashers, and felt my way up the pass.

I peered over my steering wheel, trying to make sense of the road. In an instant, I emerged from the fog. The curtain was lifted, revealing miles of open road — It was a half hour before sunrise.

The foggy beast loomed in my rear-view mirror. It crouched low on the horizon, with outstretched arms grasping the nearby hills. Southbound traffic was swallowed whole.

The morning sky ahead of me exploded with color as I made my way east.

Southwestern Zen -- February 2009

The first few days of my trip will be spent in Buckskin Gulch, a slot canyon located in Southern Utah. This is a location where I have taken several excellent images, including Southwestern Zen (above) in 2009, and Luminosity (below) just over a year ago in May 2010. It is a challenging canyon to photograph because of the scale, and the fleeting glows.

Unlike Antelope Canyon which fires all day long, Buckskin Gulch is finicky at best. If you are not standing in the right place at the right time, it’s difficult to walk away with a tremendous glow shot. I learned this first hand with “Luminosity.”  The glow that produced this photo lasted mere minutes. I missed my opportunity on the first day, but returned on my second day to capture the light.

Luminosity: Photographed May of 2010 -- Velvia 50 4x5 | 30s @ f/45

This year, my plan is to venture further into the canyon, and spend time scouting for elusive Buckskin glows. With enough patience and perseverance, I’m sure I’ll be able to find the shot that I’m looking for.

I want my images to depict depth, dimension, and give a sense of connection to the natural environment. Much of this can be accomplished with ideal lighting, and an effective composition. All of this must be found over the coming days.

After 9 hours of driving, I arrived at the excellent (and free!) Stateline Campground on BLM land. This campground is only a mile from the trailhead, and each site includes a cement picnic with a shade structure. This is great for loading film, and enjoying dinner under the stars.

I setup camp under looming dark clouds. The forecast did not call for rain, but it sure looked that way. I decided against heading into Buckskin for scouting. If a thunder storm developed, Buckskin Gulch could turn deadly. It serves as drainage for the entire region. Runoff from a heavy storm several miles away would eventually make its way through Buckskin as a flash flood. Past evidence of high water marks on the canyon walls, and logs wedged between the narrow walls some 50 feet overhead are testament to the danger that exists in this canyon when weather threatens.

If you refer to the lower left corner of my photo “Southwestern Zen,” you will see a silty brown high water line. This is the high water level from one of the last flash floods that raged through the canyon. That photo was shot from an elevated position, and those stains are 15 feet above the canyon floor. A flash flood of that size would be considered modest at best.

I spent the afternoon scouting nearby BLM roads that traversed the east and west rims of the valley. Many of the roads were quite tame, but one in particular became too rough for my own comfort. Without someone else to guide me over a nearly 2 foot rock ledge, I decided it was best to turn around (8 point turn), and head back to the main road. It’s a shame because this road provides a great shortcut to a nearby plateau I was hoping to scout.

While heading back down this road, I smelt a faint wisp of gasoline.

Fearing I had somehow ruptured my fuel tank, I stopped and carefully inspected my vehicle.  No damage.

There was only one other option. I touched metal to discharge any static electricity, then carefully opened the Thule rack on top of my 4Runner.

I carry extra fuel up top just in case. This provides me with an additional 6 gallons, which equates to a quarter tank.

The gas cans are stored facing up, and they are strapped in place by the handles, as well as a second strap around the circumference of the three containers. As it turns out, one of the straps was not properly secured, causing a single fuel can to fall on its side. This alone should not be a problem. The fuel cans are completely sealed. Somehow  the safety switch was stuck in the “pour” position. The switch is spring loaded and should default to “store,” but not in this case.

A small amount of fuel poured into the bottom of my Thule rack. It was limited to the rear of the cargo carrier, but my Lowepro Rover AW II bag (a mere mention of this bag always brings a lot of google hits) was so kind as to mop up this hazardous spill.  Lovely.

I secured the gas cans in bomb-proof fashion, then let the spilled fuel evaporate. Only when I was sure that the gas and fumes were gone did I close the cargo carrier, and return to camp. Crisis Averted.

As night fell, I made dinner, and prepared for my first full day of scouting. I was excited to be in Utah, and anxious to find my first shot.

21 Responses to “Colorado Plateau 2011: Day 1”

  1. Jonny Taulen Says:

    Love reading the recaps from your trips !
    And always keeping the best for the end,the video, thats next for me 😀
    Looking forward to day2 =)

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Jonny. I’ve tried to kick the video up a notch on this trip. I have a new stunt camera in my arsenal — Panasonic TS3. Later in this trip, the indestructibility of this camera was put to the test. It will make for a great video though. 🙂

  2. Mac Says:

    Awesome Ben! I dropped what I was doing to read the day one episode. Can’t wait for the rest of the trip. So, three things struck me… the static discharge – I would never thought of that so good safety move. 2., the video shot of the truck rolling over head on the road – great movie presence – your getting more and more like the real Hollywood and 3, your hat. how the heck do put up with that hat when it’s in the 90’s? Great work here, anxious to see some photography!

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Mac. I have a blast with the video. It never takes anything away from my still shooting — which is my priority. All video is done during down-time, and I definitely admit to staging some scenes where I’m shooting images on the view camera. Sometimes it’s difficult to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. With regard to the hat, that was to keep the bugs out. 🙂 It provided precious ear coverage.

  3. Jeff Welker Says:

    Well done Ben. The video really expands upon your written narrative into the realm of story telling at the highest level. Looking forward to each new report with anticipation. Can’t wait for you to get back into Buckskin. For an old guy, I am somewhat of a slot canyon aficionado so your canyon exploits really keep me glued to the monitor. Your travails on these photo safaris are becoming the stuff of legend.

    • Ben Horne Says:


      There sure is an irresistible, and universal draw to slot canyons. Their twisted walls, and cool recesses always give me a sense of awe. Plus, it’s fun to shoot them. 🙂

  4. David Patterson Says:

    So… there are two things I have been eagerly awaiting… Season Two of “The Walking Dead” and your latest adventure! As always, excellent storytelling… I am hooked again already 🙂

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks David. Writing about this trip sure makes me wish I was out there again camping under the stars.

  5. bob Says:

    Great job, I’m looking forward to seeing the photos , be safe

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks Bob. I definitely take the safe thing very seriously when venturing in these canyons. If there is a chance of rain greater than 0%, I stay out of the canyons.

  6. slavomir dzieciatkowski Says:

    Great read, Ben, and enjoyed the humor. Looking forward to more on the trip.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks for the kind words Slavomir. I enjoyed viewing the photos on your blog. I’ll be heading up to the Pacific Northwest in August (more of a fun trip — not a lot of shooting), so seeing your work got me really excited for the trip.

  7. John B. Says:

    I can’t wait to see the results. You’re really stepping up your game with the video production. VERY well done!

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks John. The video is fun to do. In a way, I hope not to be too professional with the quality. There’s something about poor camera technique that provides a greater sense of authenticity. 😀

  8. Andreas Resch Says:

    Hey, Ben!

    Can’t wait to see the next videos from your trip. I love your new camera ideas and the extra work you put into the new camera angles – makes it look even more professional.
    I hope many people appreciate what you do here and I will try my best to put the word out for you.

    Thanks for the inspiration,

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Thanks for the kind words Andreas. Later in the trip, I used some — shall I say — “challenging and dramatically unsuccessful” camera angles. But hey, so long as the camera keeps recording, that’s all that counts.

  9. Michael Lordi Says:

    Here we go!

    I agree with Mac, your video work is outstanding. The below ground level shot of the truck was sweet! That video sensor has pretty good low light capabilities. The whole underside of the truck, spinning drive shaft and all, is easily visible.

    • Ben Horne Says:

      Not bad for a one man operation eh? My priority on these trips is always the still photography, but I have a lot of time to play with the video. I used a Panasonic TS3 for my stunt footage (driving over camera, suction cupping to the outside of my truck, etc). It doesn’t have fully manual control, but my Panasonic TM700 does. Between the two cameras, I have a nice range of tools available.

      I’m really looking forward to putting my TS3’s underwater abilities to use this fall in Zion.

  10. Laura Says:

    Watching you drive down House Rock Valley Road while chained to my desk was both torturous and escapist fun. Can’t wait for the next episode almost as much as I can’t wait to get back out there!

    • Ben Horne Says:

      I can honestly say that I get the same feeling from that video — even after just coming back from that area. It’s so sad to drive down that road, then hit the highway with the knowledge that I won’t be returning for months or even years.

  11. Nicolas Belokurov Says:

    Great to read about your new adventures Ben and the video keeps getting better. Keep posting 🙂

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