Dry years in the West have lowered the level of Lake Powell and revealed long-submerged canyons
Text And Photography By James Kay
As my obsession with the canyonlands of Utah evolved, I began to understand just what had been lost beneath the deep waters of Lake Powell. By the mid-'90s, I had explored every major canyon system in southern Utah. As magnificent as these places were, I felt as though I had been denied the prize, robbed of the chance to ever gaze with my own eyes upon the wonders of Glen Canyon.
I sought out photographs and stories of Glen Canyon in books such as The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado by Eliot Porter, published in the early '60s in an attempt to rouse a nation's attention as to what was about to be sacrificed in the name of "progress." This beautiful book contained page after page of images of the doomed canyons. There were places with names like Music Temple because of the wonderful acoustics provided by its huge subterranean chamber; Hidden Passage, due to its almost invisible entrance where it drained into the Colorado River; and Twilight Canyon, which was so deep and narrow that harsh noonday light was reduced to a soft evening glow in its depths.
But the most magical place, it seemed, was a place called Cathedral in the Desert, located along a tributary of the lower Escalante River. This deep subterranean chamber of stone was regarded by people who had explored Glen Canyon before the dam as perhaps the most glorious single location in all of Glen.
Longtime friend Maxine Bounous had hiked into Cathedral before the lake inundated it. She once told me that Cathedral was located a short walk off the lower Escalante River along a beautiful, wildflower-lined stream. She said the initial reaction of nearly everyone who rounded that last bend in the canyon and suddenly found themselves staring into its glowing chamber was one of hushed silence followed by a rush of words, trying in vain to describe what lay before them. As she completed her story, tears began to well in her eyes.
Glen Canyon Photo Challenges
The most difficult aspect of shooting the restored canyons around Lake Powell is simply getting into the canyons. There are only a handful of locations that are relatively easy to access from trailheads and most of these require overnight backpacking.
Many of the most spectacular canyons are located between the Escalante River and Glen Canyon Dam, and are difficult to access overland. The only practical option for exploring these canyons is via motorboat. Since the marinas on the lake charge around $300 per day, plus gas, for their 19-foot motorboats, I searched around and rented an 18-foot-long pontoon boat from a friend for a more reasonable rate.
Photographing In Narrow Red-Rock Canyons
Light. The best light down in these deep, narrow canyons is during the middle of the day when shafts of sunlight penetrate into the depths (unlike photographing sweeping landscapes above the canyon rims where great light usually means shooting at sunrise and sunset). Look for locations where sunlight is illuminating the wall across from or above your composition and casting its warm-reflected glow on the rock around you.
Beware of contrast. If you have direct rays of sunlight illuminating part of your scene, the contrast between this light and the shadowed areas will be extreme. This can cause highlights to blow out while the shadows go completely black. The only exception to this rule is if the sunlit portion of your scene is very small compared to the entire framed subject, such as a sliver of light at the end of the canyon.
Long exposures. Exposures of 10 seconds or more may be required in the dimmer canyon light so a tripod is a must. If you don√ït have warm reflective light, you may find that blue skylight entering the canyon from above may be a problem. Use warming filters (such as the 81 series) or choose a shade or cloudy preset with white balance to compensate.
Special needs. Be sure to bring wide-angle lenses for shooting in these narrow canyons. The challenge is to find a pleasing composition where the range of light is within acceptable values. A spot meter can be helpful so that you can meter the wide range of light between glowing walls and dark shadows.