Welcome to Off the Beaten Path, dedicated to far away places, once-in-a-lifetime moments, and those rare flashes of inspired thinking. While photographing in the Utah desert in early April, fellow photographer Joe Rossbach (who is profiled in this month's OP) and I spent a day exploring a rarely visited red rock canyon in the Castle Valley area just outside of Arches National Park. As you can probably tell from the title of this column, I enjoy getting "off the beaten path" and photographing areas that are overlooked by the hordes of photographers who descend on more popular places. The little canyon we choose was perfect in this regard: tucked away down an unmarked dirt road, followed by a three-mile hike along a muddy wash, we didn't see a single other living soul.
The path meandered along a small stream, crossing it dozens of times as cliff walls came and went along its banks. After two hours of leaping back and forth across the four-foot wide stream, the canyon narrowed, its cliffs rising on either side as high as seventy feet, until the trail abruptly ended at a beautiful fifteen-foot split waterfall cascading around a large boulder wedged in the canyon. We arrived late in the afternoon on a sunny day, and the canyon’s sandstone walls were glowing with light reflected from above. Although we had warmed up considerably during the hike, once deep within the canyon's shaded interior, we quickly began to feel the chill of the day. Out came jackets, hats, and gloves, as well as water shoes for wading.
Joe and I made a number of photographs in the canyon, capturing images of the glowing walls and the waterfall. As we neared the falls, we were quickly drenched by a wave of spray. We both began the arduous procedure required to protect our lenses from moisture build-up: compose, wipe spray from lens with a cloth, hold cloth over lens to keep it dry until ready to take the shot, remove cloth and quickly trigger the shutter, repeat as necessary. More often than not, spray would build up too fast and the shot would be ruined, but with some persistence, we both managed to make some spray-free shots.
During this time, standing in the cold water, my body temperature began to drop. To warm up, I would leave the spray zone under the waterfall, head slightly down-canyon, and stop to wipe my lens and camera clean. Once I felt somewhat warmer, I would head back to the falls, and try again to get a spray-free shot. I did this several times, experimenting with new compositions, until I was simply too cold. Shivering, with wet fingers numb from the chill, I decided to head downstream again, this time for good.
But something stopped me before rounding the bend that would have left the waterfall out of sight and mind. The images I had taken just didn’t seem to do justice to the wild beauty of this place. Cold, wet, and miserable, dangerously close to hypothermia, I cursed persistence as I headed upstream for one more try. This time, I vowed, I would make an image worthy of this magnificent canyon.
Standing once again in the spray below the waterfall, I searched for a different angle, something that would work better than the images I had made before. Nothing jumped out at me. Then, as if answering a silent summons, I started to move forward, not sure what I was doing, wading through frigid knee-deep water, passing under a drenching curtain of liquid, finally emerging in a small grotto. Under the boulder splitting the falls, I found a small dry space, sanctuary from spray and dripping water. Turning around, I saw a magical scene of glowing red sandstone and shimmering blue water. I knew then that I had found the image I was looking for. Persistence had paid off.