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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Grand Canyon From Within

Be adventurous and get away from the hordes of tourists who crowd the plateau to see this natural wonder from a completely different perspective

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Star tracks over the Colorado River, Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Downstream the next day, you’ll encounter the confluence of the Little Colorado River with its much larger namesake. If late snowmelt from the White Mountains over 200 miles southeast or runoff from monsoon storms is absent, you’ll be treated to as lovely a stretch of water as can be conjured, especially at dawn. I used a two-stop neutral grad filter to balance a brightly lit buttress and preserve its reflection in the calcium-carbonate-laden waters of “the LC,” as river guides call it. The best time to reliably see the water this rich turquoise hue and clear of silt is from early June to maybe mid-July, or in the winter. And, yes, you can reach this place by foot, using the old Hopi Salt Trail across Navajo lands, which requires a permit and serious route-finding skills. Trust me, a river trip is the best way to glimpse the Little Colorado confluence.

Every day that you drop deeper into Riverworld, wonders continually delight. In truth, no one trip can exhaust all the possibilities. Some river guides will take you where others won’t, and vice versa, and some spots have very limited access to tie up the large rafts. You may miss Elves Chasm on one trip and see it the next time. In nine trips, I’ve seen Elves Chasm three times, but only once did it have clean open shade with no hot spots. Luck favors the prepared, so be sure to carry your wide zoom and tripod. A DSLR works beautifully here. Its sensor can hold the highlights of the yellow limestone far better than most films [which Kerrick used in the late-1990s shot shown in the opening spread].

Getting wet with Arizona River Runners
Even more rare is the chance to do the loping, rigorous hike to Thunder River, reputedly the shortest river in the world. The round-trip hike from the Colorado River is roughly seven miles, much less than the taxing, three-day backpacking excursion in from the North Rim.

Another incredible spot to shoot is majestic Deer Creek Falls. It drops 80 feet straight to a shallow pool, is visible from the river and is a wonderful waterfall. I shot it years ago with a Pentax 67II, a 45mm lens and Fujichrome Velvia 50 in open shade [opening spread]. Swirling mists mean you’ll be wiping your filter if you shoot from the base of the falls, so I opted to back up and include fallen blocks of orange sandstone in the foreground to define the corners and lend visual weight to the image.

As you’ll have six or more nights on the river, seek out a site with scenic potential when your raft ties up for the night at a beach. I tend to like the water’s edge, as the foregrounds can work for either wide scenics or detail images. A bonus is that the music of the river’s flow will lull you to sleep and drown out the snores from other exhausted campers.

At night, the usually clear sky shows a torrent of whirling stars, and if you ever wanted to shoot star tracks you may have a series of nights to practice. The caveat is that digital doesn’t permit all-night exposures, even if you have extra batteries. My solution is to carry an old 35mm film body, a wide zoom and a cable release and compose during twilight. I trigger the exposure when full darkness falls. The trick is to focus at infinity and remember to wake up predawn to stop exposing! The straight-up view of the stars from deep in the Inner Gorge shows both sides [opposite page].


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