Before my first raft trip last year, I couldn’t help wondering about the experience of being at the bottom of Grand Canyon. My mind’s eye visualized the canyon’s immensity, the experience of being dwarfed in the shadow of mile-high walls, a towering vertical tapestry of Earth’s history. I knew I’d be overwhelmed, but I also knew there’d be aspects I hadn’t expected, the surprises that make photography so rewarding—I just had no idea of the magnitude of those surprises.
I returned this year, and continued to be surprised by what we encountered. On both trips I most certainly got my share of the large scale, overwhelming awe I expected—the best comparable I can think of is the experience of reclining beneath a dark sky and trying to comprehend the age and distance traveled contained in each pinpoint of starlight. But as is usually the when we look more closely at something (or someone), I found complexity and intricacy far beyond what I’d imagined. And so it was inside the walls of Grand Canyon, a location known for its size, that I was most awed by the small stuff I found there.
Return to Grand Canyon over many years and from the rim you’ll see little change in the walls. From a distance it’s easy to perceive these walls as a permanent, impermeable fortress, and to picture the Colorado River as an uncut ribbon that starts in Marble Canyon and terminates in Lake Mead. Pretty simple.
But get down inside Grand Canyon and you’ll soon see that it’s all about change. Navigating around house-size rocks, rafters can look up to the scar where the rock separated from the wall above and plunged into the river (just picture that!). And it doesn’t take long to recognize that virtually every rapid is the river’s reaction to rocky debris washed down from a narrow side canyon—some of the rapids predating John Wesley Powell by unknown centuries, others forming or changing in our lifetime.
The majority of these side canyons are dry most of the year, coming to life only when monsoon rain falls faster than the rock can absorb it. But what happens to the rainfall that gets absorbed? It percolates downward into an immense aquifer, a natural underwater storage tank that slowly releases its contents as springs that contribute small tributary creeks that follow a circuitous path of least resistance to etch a route down to the Colorado River. Their moist path forms green oases that stand out in complementary contrast to the arid, red surroundings.
Elves Chasm, Matkamamiba Canyon, Deer Creek Fall, Blacktail Canyon, Stone Creek Fall: Each has its own look and feel depending on the amount of water, the distance and speed at which it traveled, and the underlying geology it must work around and through. Most of these features would have been easily overlooked by anyone floating downstream, but I soon came to realize that these little treats were just a sampler of the rewards to be bestowed on anyone taking the time to look more closely. I left the canyon with the distinct impression that for every exquisite location like these we explored, we left ten comparable locations untouched.
Elves Chasm, pictured here, requires a bit of rock scrambling to reach. There’s a trail of sorts, but in several places the trail is interrupted by an inconvenient rock or ledge. Fortunately, there’s plenty to photograph along the way (it’s only a couple of hundred yards from the river), so even those who can’t make it all the way to where the waterfall tumbles into an emerald pool will find plenty to see and photograph.
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