Ancient Forces

Welcome to Off the Beaten Path, dedicated to far away places, once-in-a-lifetime moments, and those rare flashes of inspired thinking. In this post, I’d like to talk about the Narrows of the Virgin River in Zion National Park, a magical place where the ancient forces of water, rock, and light slowly grapple with one another over the ages.

Rock is the very stuff of the Earth, its binding material, giving it enough heft to enable an amount of gravity that leaves us somewhere comfortably between the extremes of (1) not being able to stand and (2) spinning off into space. This mass also produces intense pressure and heat in the planet’s core, spawning magma that moves the crust of the Earth, thrusting ramparts of stone high into the sky.  Water is the most destructive force in nature, over time carving deep canyons, beating down mountains, and reducing even solid granite to dust. Light is life, energy from the ancient collapse of a hydrogen molecular cloud (forming the Sun), providing sustenance to plants and digital camera sensors alike. These three forces engage in a slow dance over the millennia, sometimes acting in concert, sometimes in conflict—sometimes destroying, sometimes building. The steps are complex, and the tempo may not be apparent to those who do not have the luxury of watching for several million years. Molten rock raises high mountains, light sustains plants which break down the rocks, water carves the rocks and washes sediment away to a distant ocean delta, the sediment is buried and eventually turns to sandstone, tectonic pressures raise the sandstone rocks, water carves a mighty chasm over the eons, and light follows a winding path to the canyon floor, kindling the rocks with an otherworldly glow.

The Narrows is essentially the mother of all slot canyons, with walls towering hundreds of feet above the canyon floor. The Virgin River flows through the canyon year round, making a trip into the Narrows a wet slog through knee or waist deep water (if you go far enough into the abyss, the occasional swim is necessary). A dry suit staves off hypothermia in the colder months, whereas a walking stick comes in handy when negotiating slippery rounded boulders hidden beneath the rushing water.

The key to photographing the Narrows, or any slot canyon for that matter, is sunny weather. If there are clouds in the skies, forget about it. Clouds might bring rain, which creates the potential for flash flooding—not something you want to experience while in a narrow canyon. Beyond the remote physical threat, however, is a more immediate artistic one. To get the best glow deep within the canyon, you need light, and plenty of it—strong, intense daylight striking the tops of the canyon walls, strong enough to bounce its way down into the gloomy interior, filling it with radiant splendor.

Blue sky above also means blue light below. The sky basically acts as a giant reflector, and on a clear day, the color of the reflected light is blue, just like the sky. This reflected light illuminates anything in shadow. Our brains tend to compensate for the blue light and make an “automatic white balance” color correction, so the blue is not always very apparent to the eye—but it is there, nonetheless. In the days before digital capture, color slide film picked up this blue light in the shadows, and photographers learned to take advantage of this, finding ways to juxtapose the cool tones with warmer colors in the image. With digital capture, it is up to you whether you keep the blues or not. In a place like the Narrows, where glowing red sandstone walls mix with shadowed water, I typically prefer to select a white balance setting that retains the cool tones in the shadows, creating color contrast.

Although much of the Narrows stay deep in shadow year round, light does manage to break through here and there, sparking life with each touch. Cottonwood trees thrive in the canyon, stretching to reach the sunlight. Their leaves turn vibrant gold in autumn, adding another unique hue to this symphony of colors deep within the earth.

The Narrows is the kind of place that seems to hold endless photographic possibilities. With ever-changing light and water levels, unique compositions are literally waiting around ever bend. Rock, water, and light interact in a myriad of ways, and each trip into the Narrows seems somehow different from the last. I always find something new whenever I go.

Scientists give us another billion years or so before the sun’s rising temperatures extinguish all life on Earth. So I guess in the end, light will win and consume us all. Not a bad way to go, if you ask me.

To read more about my adventures in the Narrows, visit my Zion Narrows Photo Journal.

Ian Plant