Rapid day

Gary Hart Photography: Nightfall, Colorado River, Grand Canyon

Nightfall, Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R II
Sony/Zeiss 16-35 f4
1.3 seconds
F/11
ISO 200

Every once in a while an image so perfectly captures my emotions at the moment of capture that I just can’t stop looking at it. This is one of those images.

After two relatively benign days of peaceful floating punctuated with occasional mild riffles and only a small handful of moderate-at-best rapids, the group was feeling pretty comfortable on the river. But our guides had made it pretty clear that we hadn’t really encountered anything serious yet, and most in the group were a little anxious about what was in store for day-three—”rapid day.”

Our second night’s camp was a few miles downstream from the Little Colorado River, just ten minutes upstream from Unkar, our first major rapid. I could tell people were getting a little anxious because, as the only person on the trip to have done it before (this was my third trip in three years), I spent much of the evening reassuring people that while the rapids were indeed an E Ticket ride (on that scale, we’d so far navigated no more than two C Tickets), they were more thrilling than threatening. Of course I had to qualify my reassurance with the disclaimer that last year Unkar, tomorrow’s very first rapid, had tossed me from the raft and into the Colorado.

My 2016 Grand Canyon raft trip group perched atop our two J-Rig rafts.

My 2016 Grand Canyon raft trip group perched atop our two J-Rig rafts. Each raft is comprised of five rubber tubes strapped together and attached to a frame that secures an amazing amount of storage space. (That’s Deer Creek Fall in the background.)

With 28 rafters and 4 guides, my group filled two J-Rig rafts— massive, motorize floating beasts with room for 15+ people and more than a week’s worth of supplies and equipment. When we’re just floating with the current, J-rig rafters can stand and stretch, and even wander around the rafts with relative ease. But when a rapid approaches, we have to hunker down and lock onto the designated hand-holds in one of the raft’s three three riding zones:

  1. The “chicken coup” is nestled in the middle of the raft, between storage areas. Here rafters can survive even the wildest rapids in relative peace and dryness. A few rafters make a permanent home in the chicken coup, but most ride back here for a breather, or to dry off, before returning to the more exposed positions.
  2. Farther toward the front are the boxes, elevated storage cabinets doubling as benches that provide rafters a great view, a thrilling ride, and a pretty good drenching. I was sitting on the boxes last year when I got launched into the river.
  3. Up front are the tubes, which flex and contort as they bear the brunt of each rapid. Riding a rapid on the tubes is akin to straddling a bucking bronco, complete with the front and back hand-holds and random g-force. The two most important things to remember up here to hold on for dear life, and to lean into the tube and “suck rubber!” when a rapid hinges the tubes back into your face. This is the wettest and wildest ride—definitely not for the faint of heart.

The next morning we pushed off a little before 8:00. I’d decided before the trip that, given our history, I wanted to be up front for Unkar. I was joined on the tubes by only one other rafter, while everyone else, uncertain about what was in store, crammed into the two back areas. (We called our other raft the “party raft”—their tubes were packed with rafters throughout the trip.)

Approaching Unkar, the guides’ moods changed: Wiley cut the engine, and we drifted toward the downstream roar while Lindsay  delivered a serious lecture about rapid survival. Adding to the tension, on her way back to her seat, for the first time Lindsay checked everyone’s lifejacket and hand holds. Then, before we had a chance panic, the engine fired, the river quickened, and the raft shot forward and plunged into the whitewater.

A major rapid assaults many senses at once. The larger rapids pummel you with a series of waves that toss you in multiple directions at once and barely give a chance to recover before the next rapid tosses you in directions you didn’t know existed. The largest rapids, like Unkar, have multiple stomach-swallowing drops and ascents; you soon learn that the largest are nearly vertical, horizon-swallowing, down/up cavities that run green and smooth with a garnish of churning whitewater dancing on top. Depending on how the raft hits a wave, we could ride over with barely a splash, or crash through in a full emersion baptismal experience.

The soundtrack to the rapid’s visual, tactile, and equilibrium experience is a locomotive roar mixed with screams. You know the ride’s over and you’ve survived when the screams turn to shouts, and finally laughter as everyone dares to take their eyes from the river to make eye contact with the other survivors.

Unkar turned out to be one of the bigger—but definitely not the biggest—rides of this year’s trip. When it spit our boat out the other end, I uncurled my fingers from the ropes and shook the water free, checked all my parts to ensure they were as they were when we entered, then scanned my fellow rafters for their reaction to their first major rapid. The euphoria was clear, and I think if it had been possible, the vote to do it all over would have been unanimous.

As I suspected might happen, surviving Unkar emboldened the group; by the end of the day and for the rest of the trip, we had far more people riding on the tubes, with the limiting factor not so much fear as it was the 47 degree river water with an uncanny ability to penetrate even the most robust “waterproof” rainwear.

That evening, thirty-plus major rapids (and at least as many lesser rapids) farther downstream, we pulled into camp soggy and sore, but far from beaten. The afternoon had turned showery, and the showers persisted as we set up camp, slowing our drying more than adding to our wetness. While the guides prepared dinner in a light drizzle, I wandered down to the river to survey the photo opportunities. I found pictures everywhere—upstream, downstream, across the river—but rather than dive right into my camera bag, I first took the time to savor my surroundings.

The canyon’s pulse, the river’s ubiquitous thrum echoing from rocks that predate the dinosaurs, is simultaneously exhilarating and meditative. Unable to bottle this exquisite balance to take back with me, I turned to my camera, hoping for the next best thing—an image that will bring me back.

Shortly before sunset the rain stopped and sunlight fringed openings in the thinning clouds. By this time several others in the group had joined me at the river’s edge, each camera pointing at a different scene. I’d found mine, I soon tired of the limited foreground options and set out across a field of river-rounded boulders, hopping in my flip-flops toward a promising formation of rocks protruding from the river about a hundred yards away.

It wasn’t until I was all the way there that I realized that the solitary plant I could see protruding from the river wasn’t going to be a distraction to deal with, it was going to be my subject. As the sky colored and darkened, I kept working on this one little plant, positioning and repositioning until the plant, surrounding rocks, and looming peak felt balanced. The final touch that tied the scene up came when I moved a little closer and raised my tripod to its apex so my plant was isolated entirely against the river.

After spending a little more time with this image, I better appreciate why the scene resonated with me then, and why I feel so drawn to it now. The river is rushing here, flaunting the power that tossed and drenched me and my fellow rafters all day, yet this small plant stands motionless for the duration of an exposure that exceeds one second. I admire its calm, the way it towers unfazed above the force that carved this magnificent chasm.

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7 Comments on “Rapid day

  1. Gary, all I can say is how much you inspire me to work on my “craft” and never get lazy. Your photos are remarkable in how you capture your subjects. I am so appreciative that I was able to learn from the greatest at your Yosemite workshops. Thank you!!-
    Brian

  2. “I was sitting on the boxes last year when I got launched into the river.” – How quickly did they recover you?

    • Immediately. I did an ass-over-teakettle cartwheel into the river, but never released the death grip I had on the rope with my right hand. I went in up to my chin, but they yanked me back in immediately.

  3. That little plant lives precariously. Your image is evocative and it takes me back to that place. Even though I was cold and wet, I mostly remember the magnificent scene and the feeling of awe.

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