Ticking Your Photography Bucket List

A change of plans to take a rare opportunity yielded memories I will cherish

I have two travel modes: places to simply visit and places I want to photograph. And I mean seriously photograph, the main difference being the latter is a place I am more invested in with a unique story I want to explore. I am always planning places to visit, and I could easily rattle off a dozen places I want to go. But a vastly more difficult question is if you ask me what’s on my photo bucket list. That list is as changeable as the weather.

Serious photographers have dozens of locations to visit and shoot, but we all know it takes more than just a beautiful location to make great photos happen. The perfect photo destination takes research, and you have to be ready for the opportunity to be there at the right time. It’s like waiting for the alignment of the stars: a combination of light, season, weather, people and, of course, your ability to access the location.

My photo bucket list is always evolving, and sometimes events align and opportunities I never thought would happen in my lifetime become possible. We all know those moments when a rare opportunity presents itself, and you know in your heart that you have to drop everything to take advantage of the moment. I’ve just returned from one of those trips and managed to tick another item from my photo bucket list.

But I should back up a bit. My plans for early summer 2017 were pretty solid. My wife, Melanie, and I were planning to bike a selection of historical European river corridors. Starting in Munich, Germany, we would follow dirt trails along the Isar River north to its confluence with the Danube River in Passau. From there we would follow the Danube past castles and ancient walled villages downriver through Austria and into Slovakia. We estimated we could cover 700+ kilometers of river before our time was up. This wasn’t strictly a photo trip as much as an introduction to bike travel in Europe along one of its most famous cycleways.

Then, in mid-March, news began circulating that the snow pack in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado was hitting epic levels and growing. The spring melt could potentially flood the Dolores River corridor and allow boating opportunities all the way to its confluence with the Colorado River 172 miles downstream. The Dolores River is one of the few multi-day true wilderness rivers in the U.S. The sad irony is that it rarely has enough flow to be boatable. As the weeks passed and more storms pounded the mountains, snowpack increased and a rare release of water from below the McPhee Dam was planned. The flows would be the biggest since 2008, lasting nearly 60 days and possibly exceeding 4,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) at their height. In pre-dam times the lower Dolores River during most years could be depended upon for 55 days of spring runoff for boating, but that had been turned to a trickle in 1984 with the completion, by the Bureau of Reclamation, of a 295-foot tall earthen dam.

Since then, much of the water flowing down the Dolores River is diverted for agricultural use. Excess water behind the dam, called non-allocated water, could be released below the dam during high river flow years, but a severe drought for the past 10 years has meant few releases. The 2017 release would be unlike anything ever witnessed before on the river. Beginning in 2004, stakeholders in the Dolores River water district, including farmers, boaters (who had a right to excess water) and conservation managers such as BLM, Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Nature Conservancy and others, forged new policy to regulate these non-agriculture releases so they might best benefit the health of riparian and fish habitat, as well as allow for ideal flows for boat navigation through the river’s lower canyons. The dam release of 2017 would be a major test of the collaboration agreed upon by a diverse group of people who don’t always view water use the same.

For me, the river release was an opportunity of a lifetime. We canceled the Europe bike trip since access to the Danube and Isar Rivers could wait another year or 20. When the release on the Dolores River began in spring, boaters and scientists in the hundreds flocked to the river, boaters to enjoy the water that allowed them access to remote canyons and scientists to collect data and monitor effects of the high flows.

As we were packing for our trip, the flows were being reduced. We went light, “backpack style,” as there were a couple of portages around rapids requiring us to carry all our gear and boats. The boats were 30-pound Aire inflatable kayaks—perfect for the flows of 600 CFS and lower we expected to encounter (and too little water for most rafts to get through the rocky class IV rapids). We planned for 10 days on the river.

Our trip started just below the Dolores dam, giving us an incredible 205-mile river trip to the town of Moab, Utah. The most remote and beautiful section of the Dolores River is Slickrock Canyon, a section of the river that cuts through vertical walls of red sandstone hundreds of feet high. Sometimes paddling 30 miles a day, we were able to spend a couple of days exploring this canyon. The most spectacular camp in the canyon is at a bend in the river called the Grotto, a massive alcove carved eons ago by the river. With its huge overhanging roof, it provides natural protection from the rain for river runners as it did for pre-historic inhabitants living and traveling the river.

During the night, we camped in the Grotto, I spent hours exploring the ancient foot routes leading from the river to the rim. When it was nearly dark, I discovered a view of the Dolores River, where I could see up canyon and down canyon in a single frame. I set my Nikon D810 on my small Gitzo carbon fiber tripod with a prime 14mm Rokinon lens, a sharp, manual focus lens I enjoy using because it is much smaller and lighter than the Nikon 14-24mm. My exposure was ƒ/16 at 1.3 seconds. The photo was inspired by the idea of the ephemeral waters that now flow through these canyons and the memories I will cherish about this incredible trip down the Dolores River—and my hope that I can return again soon.

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.