Since moving to Montrose, Colorado six years ago, my pet project has been to photograph Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. While not as overtly impressive as the Grand Canyon, Black Canyon is just as striking in its own way. The valley is over half-a-mile deep and only forty-feet wide at its narrowest point along the Gunnison River. The landscape is truly unique, but rugged and treacherous. Extreme caution is necessary when working near the rim.
On this day, I was shooting panoramas from Pulpit Rock. The day began like most. Up at 5 a.m. to catch the canyon at dawn, I arrived well before sunrise and made the short hike down to my favorite spot. It’s a relatively safe place to set up and gives an impressive view to the south down the canyon. It is also a stunning scene to be enjoyed without looking through the viewfinder, complete with a rushing-river and birdcall soundtrack. This is the real reason I get up so early. There is a palpable sense of the earth turning and reaching out for the new day, a sense of a cosmic link to the natural world. I want to be there to capture the moment, knowing full well that it is impossible.
When the sun comes up, I break down. Black Canyon is infamously difficult to photograph during the day due to the extreme contrasts. Indeed, the canyon gets its name from the deep shadow filling the narrow gorge during most of the day. The best time to shoot the canyon is during the magic hour around sunrise and sunset when the lighting and color can be breathtaking. Few people see the canyon during these times and in the mornings especially I am almost always alone.
The day I discovered the Dragon’s Tongue, the morning was crisp and clean and the canyon beckoned so I had decided to stay and explore. Suddenly, I was jolted by a glimpse of something bright in my peripheral vision. I stopped dead in my tracks and stared dumbfounded at a most wonderful sight. The vertical wall of rock on my right seemed to be split by a narrow shaft of pure light. Closer inspection revealed that one side of a tall gap in the wall was reflecting the light from the rising sun onto the opposing surface and causing an intense otherworldly glow through the gap.
I quickly found a game trail running through the underbrush and hiked to a better vantage point at the canyon’s edge. I set up the tripod, changed lenses and tried to compose a shot. Unfortunately, I found that I was shooting almost directly into the sun. I tried shading the front element but I couldn’t seem to get a shot without at least some of my hand being included. Many attempts later, a few images of the lovely scene were recorded. Clearly the shot called for better preparation and I vowed to return the next morning.
As luck would have it, the next day was a bust, so I spent the time processing shots from my initial encounter and found only one exposure that was salvageable from the horrible flare. I sent this image to Paul Zaenger, the supervising ranger at the park, and Carol Dominguez, the manager of the visitor center bookstore, and promised to get some better examples over the next few days. A week later, the sky before dawn was clear so I headed up to the canyon. No matter how many times I wait for sunrise, it’s always a surprise. That day was no different. I wanted to include the rising sun breaking the horizon in the composition, but the wonderful light failed to appear until several minutes later when the sun was well above the rim. Again, I was fighting lens flare, but I managed to get several nice images at a variety of focal lengths.
The response to the pictures was overwhelmingly favorable, but the phenomenon needed a name, if for no other reason so we could stop calling it “the phenomenon.” After discussions with park officials, a reference to dragons was deemed appropriate. I finally decided that the feature most closely resembled a dragon’s fiery tongue. It was long and narrow and certainly had a fiery glow. It is amazing to me that in modern-day, twenty-first century America there is anything left to be discovered, let alone a natural phenomenon in a national park that is visited by hundreds of thousands of people a year. Maybe others have seen it, but I have never seen a photograph or read a description, and the officials at the park weren’t aware of its existence. Amazing.
The Dragon’s Tongue Technical Description
Much like the famous Horsetail Falls in Yosemite, changing lighting conditions produce dramatically different results.
Since taking the first photographs of the Dragon’s Tongue in April of 2012, I have done some research, trying to better understand the phenomenon. During the summer and fall I noticed it changing with the angle of the sun. The position of the sun at sunrise varies greatly during the year. At the summer solstice in June, it rises 60-degrees east of north, while in December at the winter solstice it rises 120 degrees east of North, a full 60-degrees away. During the rest of the year it is found somewhere in between these extremes at dawn. At the equinoxes in March and September, it rises due east at 90-degrees east of North.
On April 18th and 20th, 2012, when these photographs were made, the sun rose 75-degrees east of north. The lighting was relatively brief and the effect intense. By the middle of June, near the summer solstice with the sun rising about 60-degrees east of North, the effect was starting earlier and lasting much longer, but the intensity had waned significantly. At the end of July, with the sun rising 67-degrees east of North, the intensity had partially returned and duration was still over an hour. The sun rose at 75-degrees east of North again on August 20, 2012 as it worked its way south and pictures taken on August 19th and 21st were essentially identical in respect to lighting to those taken in April, just as predicted (August 20th was cloudy).
By September 15, the sun was rising at about 86-degrees east of north. Pictures from this morning were extremely difficult to take because of sunlight shining directly into the lens. However, the effect was very strong soon after sunrise and then faded to a less intense but still obvious glow within about 20 minutes. Also in September, I traveled to the canyon to photograph the Dragon’s Tongue at night, reasoning that moonlight should produce the same phenomenon if the lighting angle was similar. On the night of September 2nd, moonrise was at 81 degrees east of north. Exposures were much longer, of course, but the results were so similar to the daytime shots that it would be difficult for an uninformed observer to tell them apart. There is much work to be done in accurately recording and describing the conditions for the Dragon’s Tongue and I for one plan to be there as often as possible to help.