This adventure was a second chance for me to experience a journey that ten years earlier held me entranced by the new world I had entered. An invitation to join a trip to travel 280 miles on the Colorado River, descending through a billion years of geological time through the Grand Canyon, is not one to dismiss lightly. I certainly wasn’t about to do so when an opportunity unexpectedly came my way again this year.
Canon 5D MKIII, 1/1000s, f/5.6
Our sixteen-strong group spent an afternoon rigging five rafts below the controversial Glen Canyon dam at Lee’s Ferry in Arizona, a unique spot as access to the river isn’t hemmed in by sheer canyon walls. I recalled the last time I set out, sat tight in a kayak with the goal of paddling through all of the challenging rapids to be faced. I was successful but at the expense of poorly documenting the trip as a photographer. This time around a couple of kayaks were part of our quiver of watercraft, but I would be focused on creative image making whenever possible.
Canon 5D MKIII, 10s, f/7.1
The water at Lee’s Ferry is beautifully clear, but just downstream, at its junction with the Colorado, the Paria River delivers cloudy sediment from the plateau that it drains. So as we put the frantic last few days of preparation behind us and launched the next morning, the others whooped and hollered with excitement while I floated along in the swift, icy cold current to photograph in what would be the only section of crystal clear water for the next eighteen days.
Canon 5D MKIII, 1/2000s, f/3.5
At the beginning of a Colorado River trip the focus is all about getting comfortable and preparing for the days ahead... Which raft should I travel on? Are the designated boatmen up to the task? Did I bring enough beer? How can I avoid ‘pooper can’ duty at camp?! The reality is that 95 percent of water time is spent idly floating or rowing in calm conditions. The long arms of swirling eddies pulling the rafts toward cliff faces and away from the main flow cause far more angst than the rapids that garner all the attention. Nevertheless anticipation builds as the first big rapids approach and at House Rock rapid we had at least one very anxious raft passenger!
Canon 5D MKIII, 1/1250s, f/4.5
Despite having an affinity for water, the real interest for me, especially this time, lay in the opportunities to explore away from the river, to hike and scramble and photograph people in the environment. In ‘River Runners of the Grand Canyon’ David Lavender explains the many experiences on offer for those who venture below the rim, “Side canyons, some attainable by trail and some not, offer unexpected plunge pools, waterfalls, banks of ferns, brilliant flowers. One can swim, hike, climb, fish, take pictures, hunt for ancient Indian petroglyphs, study botany or geology in what has been called the world’s greatest open textbook, or just sit still, watching small creatures go about their business while the variegated cliffs take on the rich hues of sunset.”
Canon 5D MKIII, 1/1000s, f/7.1
Fun in the water though was the name of the game for our group and any chance to leap out of the rafts onto an array of floating options was taken at every available moment. Our collective stand up paddleboard skills were best suited to a calm river but bodyboarding was something everyone enjoyed no matter the conditions we faced.
At impressive Redwall Cavern, a huge cave in the sandstone that no river runner visits without uttering expressions of awe, Jon dug into the sand with specific location instructions from a Kiwi mate. Buried deep was a bottle of home-distilled whisky, a special treat to be enjoyed only by those offered the secrets to its hidden spot.
Canon 5D MKIII, 1/2s, f/11
At day’s end a camp would be selected based on its shaded outlook but decisions based on maximising the view were not needed because at every twist and turn of the river’s course we were greeted by towering walls of rock strata, falling back stepwise to the plateau rim, which was occasionally visible far, far above us. The severe contrast between light and shade in the inner gorge of the canyon made photography a challenge. Once or twice storm clouds threatened overhead, and this added a new dimension to the predominant colour palette of blue sky and orange rock. As we passed through Deer Creek a nearby forest burn off introduced a strong distant haze bringing artistic ‘aerial perspective’ to the landscape.
Canon 5D MKIII, 1/1250s, f/5.6
To beat the heat I took to hiking and photographing at night, which had the added benefit of opening up possibilities for taking more interesting images. Thirst wasn’t an issue as we had enough beer with us to sink a ship, let alone a raft. Whenever I complained about how cold I got from swimming a rapid sans wetsuit to photograph, the standard reply was, “If the water was warmer, the beer wouldn’t be cold enough mate.” (The beer trailed along in a hessian bag attached to the raft.)
Everyone with an interest in tackling the Colorado River hears about the big rapids. While their significance in the overall picture is perhaps overstated there is no doubt that a few make a strong impression and require those responsible for rowing a raft or paddling a kayak to sit up and take notice of their topography.
Canon 5D MKIII, 1440s, f/2.8
Our group was cohesive throughout, a testament to Jon’s team selection and the easy-going personalities he had gathered together. The intense desert summer heat was our only real tormentor. It never left us alone, not even at night. At times facing the wind it felt like sucking air from a blowing hair dryer positioned inches from your face. Sleeping on a raft at night when the wind died down, partly cooled by the remaining wisps of breeze floating over the river, was one way to try and get relief.
Canon 5D MKIII, 30s, f/3.2
The days seemed to glide by all too quickly to enable me to truly take stock of such an experience. I knew that I was lucky to be there again, and yet a second chance still wasn’t enough to take it all in. I feel a third trip, maybe even a fourth, in my future. It’s just that kind of journey — one that draws you in again with the knowledge that there is more to discover, more to learn. I’ll be back.
Canon 5D MKIII, 1/800s, f/6.3
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