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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Havasupai Reborn


After a number of massive weather-related changes reshaped this iconic location, Kerrick James reflects on the past and the future of Havasupai

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This image was shot in the mid-1990s, after a flash flood but before the 2008 and 2010 floods that changed the falls slightly and lowered the pool underneath Havasu Falls. All images: Havasupai Reservation, Grand Canyon, Arizona.

The landscape of the Colorado Plateau is ephemeral, a changeling, although to beings with short life spans, this land seems immutable, a constant. But in canyon country, stunning changes can occur in a single afternoon, altering the course of a stream, stranding a waterfall, even creating a new unheralded cascade. Thus, it has always been in Havasupai, named for the people of the blue-green water.

Havasupai, the mythic side canyon hidden well to the west of the South Rim summer mayhem and adjoining Grand Canyon National Park, has always been near the top of my favorite locations to photograph. I've been lucky to shoot this desert Shangri-la a dozen times since the late 1970s, with a progression of cameras from a large-format 4x5 to a Pentax 6x7 to a variety of DSLRs. For years, I blithely assumed that the interwoven terraces of travertine below each of the three great falls, Havasu, Navajo and Mooney, would always be there to compose as one of the most artistic foregrounds imaginable.

Left and middle: Rock Falls and Havasu Falls. Right: Kayaking below Havasu Falls.

In the mid-'90s, a major flash flood swept the canyon, ripping out the majestic travertine, and though they grew again over the years, they never regained their prior perfection. In August 2008, a nearly catastrophic flood changed the course of Havasu Creek, turning secluded Navajo Falls to dust. But the perennial waters are yet lovely beyond belief, turquoise except during storms, and paradise has slowly been reborn.

My Spring 2013 hike to Havasupai was a desire to see how the fabled canyon had recovered, how the familiar waterfalls had fared and to explore the two new falls gifted us by that epic event, five years past. What I found was still pure magic, with scenes both grand and intimate, and wondrous beauty to photograph everywhere you turn. Of course, being an adventure shooter, I had to spice it up, so I brought a kayak. Really.

We all grow as photographers over the years, seeing more acutely and sharpening our technique. But Havasupai seems somehow to offer the gift of extra time. Here, the hours feel slower, richer and allow for reflection. In several languid days, you can shoot the falls from dawn shadow light throughout the long day into starlight, as I did. And then you can do it again and again, doing variations of exposure to fine-tune the action and detail of the flowing waters, discover new compositions and so much more.

For example, I had always dreamed of shooting Havasu Falls under the stars lit by moonlight. But on this trip, the tight canyon walls blocked the half moon, so I combined my warm LED light with a standard cool LED wielded by a friend, and over three nights finally made the images that had haunted my dreams. Patience is key with light painting. I liken it to burning and dodging in the darkroom, adding to and withholding light from your canvas of pixels, only you're playing in real time and space. The exposure equation is complicated by fast-diminishing light in the twilight sky above the falls, and by the constant adjustment of both ISO and actual exposure time.

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