When I saw the title for this week’s photo challenge, I immediately thought of some of the canyons I’ve visited. The canyons of the southwestern US are great places to hike because there is often shade. Because of the shade, light reaching the bottom is often reflected off higher sunlit walls, resulting in a warm glow. In those canyons where water is present, the effect is magnified.
My photo comes from Zion National Park, Utah. As sunrise lit up the high cliffs on a morning with clear blue skies, the North Fork of the Virgin River glowed from the light being cast onto it.
A couple days ago, The US National Park Service celebrated its 100th year. Although many parks receive significant traffic, there are still parts of those parks where one can stretch out a little. The east side of Zion NP is one of those spots.
Most visitors to Zion want to see the main canyon and places like Angel’s Landing and The Narrows. As they head up the winding road and through the spectacular tunnels on the way out the east exit, many are on their way to either Bryce or Grand Canyon. There are a couple pullouts along this stretch of road, but few spend time here. Here’s a sample of the features on the upper east side.
This is what we faced one morning a few years ago when we planned a trip into the Paiute Wilderness in northwestern Arizona. During the majority of the year, the water of the Virgin River would be mostly clear and about ankle to calf deep here. In the parts where the river channel narrows to the length of your average rental car, it is still only knee to thigh deep. At this point, you can certainly feel the pull of the water, yet it is not dangerous.
Upon our arrival, we knew we had to scrap our plans. One single thunderstorm had dumped upon the headwaters of the river, about thirty miles away, during the course of the night. We could kick up dust here.
On Monday, hikers died in a narrow slot canyon in Zion National Park, Utah. Rangers had given them a warning about potential flooding, but they can’t stop people from going unless flooding is imminent or occurring. It is up to the discretion of the visitors to proceed, and once this has happened, there is no way to warn them of changing weather. In canyon country, you have no way of knowing unless it’s directly above you.
On August 14, 1997, eleven hikers perished in a flood in Antelope Canyon. A photographer friend of mine was there that day, and was one of several people pleading with the tourists not to proceed into the canyon. The tourists had already discussed the conditions, and voted to continue, but they weren’t from around here. Besides, it wasn’t raining there, either.
I get it. People plan a trip and try to see as much as they can, and end up on a tight schedule. A little rain shouldn’t interfere with that, right?
This is the desert, and a little rain goes a long way. Literally. Many, many miles sometimes.
To see an example of what not to do in a flood, watch this video on Youtube. These are the stupidest people, and because they survived, the luckiest people you might ever come across. I wanted to give them credit for making a wise decision when they seek higher ground in the earlier portion of the video, but then they resume when the rain seems to let up. Tell me you’re not scratching your head by the end of this video thinking what are these people doing?
I’m certain this week’s news about hikers in a flood will not be the last of its kind. I just know there’s no photograph in the world that justifies going into a narrow canyon when there’s rain nearby. Other links to flash floods will show up when you watch this video. I don’t want my last words to be “Should I keep filming this?”
As an old friend used to say, “Every day above ground is a good day!” Some days stand out more than others, and here’s one that I still remember.
My friend Dave asked me to join him checking out a hike he had read about. It was the Taylor Creek hike in the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park in Utah. The National Park Service lists this as a 5 mile roundtrip hike that only gains 450 feet. Dave and I both have extensive hiking experience, including the Zion Narrows and many Grand Canyon hikes, so this sounded like something we would knock out in about 2 hours. The official trail ends at Double Arch Alcove, but he had read that going further up canyon was worth investigating. Even then, we both had the feeling we would be done early, and maybe that would leave time to hike another trail in the park.
We left Las Vegas about 8 am on a late April day. The forecast for Zion was sunny skies and about 80 degrees F. This placed us on the trail about 11 am, just in time for mid-day light. Neither one of us was expecting any great photographs, but it was a beautiful day, and any day hiking is a good day!
The trail started out in relatively open country and we could see higher canyon walls ahead. The easiness of the trail soon had us at an old cabin along the way. It didn’t seem like it was much longer when we arrived at Double Arch Alcove. This was an impressive sight and the depth of this beautiful canyon had become obvious. As we continued further up, there was a physically demanding spot or two, enough to keep the average tourist back. Then, our first unexpected sight came up. It was a large snowbank at the base of the canyon where water was trickling down. The cool air announced its presence before we had sight of it, and the snow was a bit on the mushy side, as one would expect in 80 degree air. We continued upward, and as we neared the end of our route we encountered another snowbank. This one, however, was completely different. It was several feet thick and rock hard. We referred to it as the desert glacier, and were estimating that it was still going to be there in June when the temps hit 100. It was shaded by steep walls of the final narrow box canyon. At the end of this box canyon were colors and textures that neither one of us had ever seen, and in a canyon so dark we needed a flash to capture it properly.
As we headed back, we couldn’t help but notice that there was a cloud or two floating above. The weathermen rarely get it right, and this day was no exception. By the time we got back to Double Arch Alcove, there was more cloud than open sky, and the light was becoming great for photography. Usually I’m the one who holds other hikers back under these circumstances, but Dave was fascinated with the changing light as much as I was. A hike which we should have finished in another 45 minutes took us almost 3 hours. Most of these photographs are along the official trail.
As we got back to the car, we knew we only had about a half hour before sunset, and we couldn’t leave just yet. We drove into the park about another mile and found a couple great spots to get more photos as the sun was going down. Afterwards, we headed down to St. George and filled up on a healthy dose of comfort food. What better way to finish out a very good day?
I’ve hiked many miles, and early on I discovered I preferred canyon hikes over those on a mountaintop or ridgeline. It’s not just about having shade or water, but more of the adventure of coming around a corner and being amazed with something unexpected. And while canyon exploring tops my list, some canyons are more memorable. Those are the ones where the skies disappear and I might have to take off the pack and step sideways for a moment or two. At that point, it’s hard not to feel enveloped in the land. Sometimes it’s challenging to find an angle to photograph these spots, because there’s no moving around for a better angle, and looking up just yields a washed out image. Whether it’s a slot canyon or just another thin slit in the earth’s crust, sunlight rarely penetrates to the bottom. If it does, the contrast is too much, so the best light is often reflected sunlight.
Here are some of my favorite places to become enveloped:
Top: small side canyon in Zion National Park, Utah
Second: Antelope Canyon, near Page, Arizona
Third: Cathedral Gorge State Park, Nevada
Fourth: unnamed canyon in Navajo Indian Reservation, Arizona
In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Enveloped.”
April 22nd is Earth Day, an idea originally started in 1970. It also marks the day that Ansel Adams passed away in 1984. Adams was one of the greatest advocates for the environment and our role as stewards, so this post is a tribute to him. The town of Kanab, Utah uses the slogan “Greatest Earth On Show”, which is hard to refute given its proximity to Zion, Bryce, and many other unique locations. In keeping with Adams’ style my black and white photo comes from Zion National Park, Utah.
On the 45th anniversary of this day, I can’t help but think that we haven’t made very good progress as stewards of the earth. Our rapidly growing population can only place more stress on resources that are already being pushed to their limits. News stories abound about overfishing, forests being cleared or rapidly dying, greenhouse gas emissions, water shortages, etc. I’m not sure if there is a more blatant example of our mismanagement of natural resources than China’s current water situation. In their rush to industrialization, they have depleted thousands of rivers, and are now in an effort to channel water from the southern part of the country northward to the civilization centers. Having lived in a desert for the better part of my life, the message has always been out there for water conservation. I hope this crisis instills the same message to the Chinese.
It has taken many years for the problems facing us and our planet to build, and they won’t be going away overnight. Perhaps a reminder like Earth Day will make us think about our daily decisions and any long-term ramifications.