2015 Grand Canyon Raft Trip: Unexpected gems

Gary Hart Photography: Emerald Pool, Elves Chasm, Grand Canyon

Emerald Pool, Elves Chasm, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 24-70
.4 seconds
ISO 50

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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Inside out at Grand Canyon

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2015 Grand Canyon raft trip: Getting started

Gary Hart Photography: Marble Canyon Rapids, Grand Canyon

Marble Canyon Rapids, Grand Canyon
Sony a7R
Sony/Zeiss 16-35
1/6 second
ISO 50

Rafting Grand Canyon last year was a bucket list item, a one-time opportunity to do something I’d dreamed about my entire life. I came into that trip with ridiculously high expectations, all of which were exceeded enough that I scheduled another, then waited a year to find out whether the first one was just lightning in a bottle.

After departing our Las Vegas hotel at 4:45 a.m. and flying to a small airstrip near Lee’s Ferry, we met our guides, absorbed a thorough orientation from Wiley, our experienced, knowledgable, talented, hard working lead guide (this would describe all of our guides), and were on the water before 10:00. We were 2 rafts packed with 28 rafters, 4 guides, equipment, camera gear, and food to sustain the entire operation for six days.

Most in the group were first-timers, excited for sure, but also a little anxious about what lay ahead. Fortunately, starting from Lee’s Ferry, the first day on the river is relatively benign, a gentle float that allows neophyte rafters to ease into the experience and get to know each other. Bobbing downstream at a leisurely pace, we were sprinkled by a few riffles (mini-rapids, unworthy of a name), enjoyed a delicious lunch in the shadow of Navajo Bridge, listened to a couple more brief, on-raft orientation talks, before pulling onshore for the day at around 4:00 p.m.

Our first campsite was at Upper North Canyon in the Marble Canyon section of Grand Canyon (yes, that’s a lot of Canyons). We stumbled through our first “fire-line”—the raft trip equivalent of a bucket-brigade (you know, for when you’re barn’s on fire) that unloads pretty much the entire contents of the raft in about 5 minutes. (By the end of the trip we’d become a well oiled, fire line machine.) After claiming a campsite (picture a 19th century style land rush) and setting up my camp (basically picking a campsite, assembling a cot, and tossing out my sleeping bag), I grabbed my camera and went down to the river in search of an image that would do the view justice.

Though our campsite was chosen for its convenience (location, size, topography), its beauty was pretty representative of Grand Canyon’s entire length. Regrettably, pictures and words cannot display the relentless, humbling awe that engulfs all who venture between the Grand Canyon’s vertical walls. But of course that won’t prevent me from trying.

In this scene I was most struck by the color: the white-on-blue sky, red sandstone walls, and deep green of the Colorado River. Bisecting all this color was a set of white, rock-wrapping rapids. I dropped low and compose wide with my 16-35 to emphasize the foreground rocks and rapids; a vertical orientation included the sky and created the sense that the river was flowing into my frame (and eliminated our campsite, which was just out of the frame to the left).

In refreshing contrast to last year’s trip, the clouds cooperated wonderfully, defusing the late afternoon light to subdue the potentially extreme dynamic range. To convey the water’s motion, I experimented with different shutter speeds, ultimately dropping to ISO 50 to maximize the blur.

The clouds gracing this scene were a harbinger of exciting weather ahead. And while that weather made a good deal more discomfort than the previous year’s trip, it also gave us a corresponding increase in the number of photo opportunities. Stay tuned….

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Looking up at Grand Canyon

Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.

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