Five. That’s the number of photos I captured last year on my trip to Zion National Park. With my style of shooting, five photos from one trip is almost unheard of. This year to date, I only have 2 portfolio grade shots from two separate trips.
How’d I manage 5 photos? Simple, it took planning. I scouted the park with several shots in mind, determined the best time to shoot them, then systematically tackled these shots one by one.
This year at Zion was certainly a magical experience. I was treated to some very unique conditions, and enjoyed the company of several great photographers along the way.
This is the Story of my trip to Zion National Park during the Fall of 2011.
Monday, October 31, 2011
My alarm sounded early. and I found myself in one of my favorite places on Earth — Zion National Park. It was no coincidence that I chose October 31st for my first full day in Zion. This is the first day that cars are allowed in the canyon. Though the shuttle system is quite effective, it is not well suited for break of dawn starts.
On my first day, I was joined by a fellow large format photographer: Shane Dignum. You might remember the Day 9 video of my wildly unsuccessful trip to the Colorado Plateau last June. In that video, I was shooting two 8×10 cameras at the same time — well, now you know where the other camera came from.
It was a chance meeting between us last June, but we joined forces on this trip to capture the best possible images on big film.
Our plan today was to scout the Narrows, figure out the best time for several shots in particular, then return in the coming days to take the shots. Just in case we were in the right place at the right time, I elected to bring my full 8×10 setup. I don’t often do this. Without a specific shot planned, I am essentially hiking with 75lbs of deadweight on my back.
Even so, it was exciting to load my pack, put on my dry pants, and lace up my boots. This was day one, and I was elated to be in Zion during peak fall color.
We were — of course — the first in the parking lot that morning. Guided by the light of our headlamps, we walked one mile to the edge of the river. It’s a very scenic hike along the cement path during daylight. With an hour remaining until sunrise, the silhouetted cliffs looming thousands of feet overhead created a somewhat unsettled feeling.
Last December, Zion received record rainfall. An unrelenting band of storms surged over this region, resulting in massive flooding. On average this time of year, the Virgin river flows at 65 to 75 cubic feet per second. This is a nice safe level. With frequent river crossings, the hike becomes hazardous above 120 cubic feet per second. At this flow rate, the National Park Service closes the narrows. Keep that number in mind — 120 cubic feet per second.
The unusually high rain fall last December caused the virgin river to swell to 9000 cubic feet per second. This forced the NPS to close Zion for fear of damage to the infrastructure. There was also fear of a dam failure just south of Springdale, and much of Rockville was evacuated.
Many questions loomed in my mind that morning. What exactly does 9000 cubic feet per second do to the course of the river within the narrows? Will the trees be affected? What will the sand levels be in the river this year? These are all important questions — not just for photography, but for safe travel up the narrows.
This was my third annual trip to Zion. Having spent many weeks in the Narrows I can easially draw a map of each bend, recite the best places to cross the river, and know what parts of the river should be avoided.
We made our way to the end of the paved path. A thin veil of high clouds was lightly illuminated by the first signs of dawn. The canyon was dark, but I knew morning was near.
Last year, there was a lot of sand within the narrows — likely a result of flash flooding in the months before my visit. The usual deep spots were only shin deep, and it was nice to be able to walk over long stretches of sand — as opposed to slippery bowling ball sized rocks.
How would the narrows be affected by last year’s flood?
I set foot in the water, and made my way across the first river crossing. The water was only 6 inches deep here. After a dozen steps, water finally entered my boots.
I wear neoprene socks to keep my feet warm, and Kokatat drypants to keep my legs dry. Under the Kokatats, I wear fleece thermals to keep my legs warm. This is especially important when kneeling in the water for extended periods of time. The moment you stop moving, the cold sets in.
In years past, I’ve moved some rocks within the river to provide a more appealing foreground. Dipping my hands in the water just long enough to move a rock left my hands numb and painful. With the drypants, fleece thermals, and neoprene socks — the cold tinge of the water was now quite refreshing.
Just a little ways up canyon, we encountered our first potential obstacle. At this gentle left turn, the canyon narrows, and the river flows from wall to wall. In years past, this area has been as much as waist deep. Last year, it was only up to my knees. What impact did last years flooding have on this stretch?
We proceeded with caution, slowly feeling our way through. A diagonal path from the outer edge to the inner bend often provides the best route. I watched as Shane’s pack got lower and lower — now just an inch above the water level. He was only a quarter of the way across the river.
This wasn’t going to work. My lenses were stored in the bottom of my bag — The padded case they’re stored in is too large for my biggest dry bag. The only way past this stretch would be to port our bags overhead.
With a 75lbs bag, this is easier said than done. It’s not necessarily the weight of the pack that’s the problem — it’s the awkward bulk. After struggling a bit, I found it was best to lower my head, and carry it across my shoulders. With one hand firmly grasping the handle, and the other holding the bottom of the pack, I slowly made my way across the river.
I hiked my drypants as high as they would go (à la Steve Urkle), and managed to stay dry despite the water level rising well above waist level.
By now, a headlamp was no longer necessary. The canyon was filled with a soft, welcoming light. I took a moment to soak in the scenery.
We made our way up river — and I pointed out several of my favorite locations along the way. Though still several days from peak color, it was exciting to see that most of the trees within the canyon survived the flood. There were some casualties along the way, but nothing that spoiled the overall charm of each location.
Our goal was to reach wall street — a narrow section of the canyon with stone walls that tower hundreds of feet overhead. Two years ago — on my first trip to Zion with the 8×10, I shot a photo in this stretch of canyon. The composition was solid, but the photo suffered from technical issues. I hoped to capture that shot once more — this time on color negative film.
The light was ideal when we arrived at wall street. A glow deep within the canyon sent reflected light skirting amongst the sandstone outcroppings on the right wall. It was a magical sort of light — especially when combined with the wonderful texture of the submerged rocks at my feet.
I assembled my camera on dry ground, and ported it to the shooting location. With a specific composition in mind, I diligently went to work. I selected my wide angle lens, used a polarizer, and locked everything in place. Now, all I needed was to fetch a film holder, and —
I looked up, and noticed a shaft of direct light hitting the right wall, just within the upper bounds of my composition. The shot was gone.
There was only one thing to do — get an even earlier start tomorrow morning, and return to setup for the same shot. I now knew what time the light was best, and how long the glow lasted.
This is the reality of shooting large format in this situation. Within the dark confines of a slot canyon, it is very difficult to even see the ground glass. This makes it difficult to find a composition, let alone shoot a fast moving glow. The only solution is to properly scout your shot, know when the light is best, then get there well ahead of time.
Oh, and did I mention the half naked Austrians in cowboy hats? No? That part of the story must have slipped my mind.
While setting up for the shot that didn’t happen, I heard a voice behind me. These were the first voices we heard in the canyon that morning. Who else could be crazy enough to get such an early start in the Narrows?
I turned my head, and saw two men in their mid 20’s — wearing nothing but t-shirts, boxers, and cowboy hats. They had their boxers hiked up in a thong configuration to avoid getting them wet. I was dangerously close to seeing their Austrian junk.
“Where are you guys from?” I asked.
“Austria,” they replied.
“That’s….” I wasn’t sure of the proper response. “That’s cool.”
“The scenery here is amazing!” commented one of the half naked Austrian cowboys.
“Yes. It’s certainly unique.” I replied — wondering how on earth they made it that far up the narrows.
They took a few snapshots, then headed back down stream.
We spent the rest of the day scouting the canyon, and found 3 other potential shots — all of which depended on clear skies. We made plans for an even earlier start the next morning. I was excited at the prospect of taking my first shot of the trip on Day 2 in Zion National Park.