Zion National Park Day 2: The Virgin River Narrows

(Thanks to Tommy Botello for using his D810 to capture some of the video seen above.  Also, a very special thanks to Ryan Musique for letting me use his song 'A River Runs Through.'  Has there ever been a more appropriate song title to go with a hike in The Narrows?!  Be sure to check out his work at www.RyanMusique.com)

I awoke before sunrise after what can only be described as the best sleep anyone has ever had on a pullout sofa bed!  The previous day's travel had really left me exhausted toward the end of the day, so I was relieved to wake up with energy.  Marc, my friend from Canada, had left about 4 that morning to drive up to Dixie National Forest.  He was wanting a morning shot of the Aspens, so he left early with the hopes that there would still be leaves left on the trees.

Tommy and I would be venturing into the Narrows today.  Since the shuttle bus was still in effect, that meant we got to sleep in a bit...if you can call 6:30 sleeping in.  A quick power breakfast of Pop Tarts and a banana and we hit the road.  One unexpected bonus was that I did not have to purchase another pass into the park.  The yearly pass I had purchased the previous October was still good until the end of the month this year.  Sweet!  That's $80 saved...I think I deserve two new boxes of Ektar.  :)

We pulled into the Zion Visitor's Center, and I began the daily battle of putting on dry pants.  If you start out cold, wrestling with your dry pants will quickly warm you up!  We caught the second bus out that morning and were on our way.  I actually enjoy the shuttle system in Zion.  I like being able to look out the windows at the passing peaks.  I also enjoy the informational recording playing in the background going over the history of the park.  I've even tried to find it online to download...to no avail.  (Ed.  Definitely in the running for the nerdiest two sentences ever written consecutively.)

This early in the morning we essentially had the bus to ourselves, so stashing packs in an empty seat was not an issue.  We eventually made it to the Temple of Sinawava, the last stop on the ride and the entrance to the Narrows.  We loaded our water bottles and were quickly on our way.  It was a typical Autumn morning in Zion.  A bit chilly (the River Walk hike quickly took care of that) and windy.  Not quite sure what causes the consistent early morning winds; I think it may have something to do with air masses of different temperatures filtering through all of the narrow canyons.

I cannot adequately express how excited I was to return to the Narrows.  It is without a doubt my all-time favorite hike.  Subway may have a bit more stunning scenery crammed in the last half mile, but the Narrows wins for consistent, awe-inspiring imagery.  I still vividly remember the first time I set foot in those frigid waters the year before.  Being completely honest, I didn't stop grinning ear-to-ear for the first mile in.  Had to be goofy looking, but I didn't care!  The only word I can think to use to describe it is 'magical.'  You've got this weirdly powerful river.  It has carved a thousand foot deep gash in the rock and can rage during flash floods yet, most of the time, it's gentle and shallow enough to walk through.  The river can run wall to wall and yet still provided space for neon yellow cottonwoods to grow.  Finally, the icing on this magic cake is the light.  In many places, the walls are so narrow that the sun cannot reach the bottom.  Instead, light reflects off one wall and illuminates another...giving the all important reflected light glow.  As the sun moves throughout the day, glows can appear and disappear giving you a new experience depending on when you hike it.

When planning our trip, we had hoped to hit fall color at its peak, but upon arriving we found many green trees in the canyon.  Not too big of an issue in the Narrows as there are many shots that don't require foliage, just rocks, water, and orange walls.  Today would be mostly a day of scouting, although I did bring the camera along.  I wanted to set up shots for the coming days, preferably ones that didn't depend on fall color.  

As we made our way upstream, I quickly realized I had made an error.  I wore low-top shoes!  I might as well have taken them off and poured small pebbles in them, because they were definitely a rock magnet.  Every mile or so, I had to take a break and empty my shoes.  Definitely going to change that approach this year!

Reflected light glows are all different.  Some are subtle...not so much seen, but definitely captured on film.  The first glow I found this day was of the other variety...so bright it takes your breath away!  Rounding a corner the orange was stunningly bright.  Better yet, for some reason there was a huge cottonwood tree close by that was in full color!  Despite this being a scouting day, I can set my camera up fairly quickly so I decided to try and work out a composition on the spot.

The first shot of a trip is very important to me.  I often feel self-induced pressure when shooting.  I find that getting this first shot under my belt, much like a golfer getting the first drive of a round over with, helps ease my tension.  This shot was no different.  I found that I fumbled around with my gear more than normal while setting up.  Composing was also an issue as I never could seem to get it exactly as I wanted.  For starters, try as I might, I could not find any composition that included that beautiful cottonwood.  Once I decided to scrap that, I found that I could never get my tripod arranged correctly around the rocks.

Ugh!  I finally took the shot, more out of frustration I think than anything else!  Another thing about first shots; without exception, I hate them as soon as I click the shutter.  In fact, later in the day I described it to a friend of mine as "composition wasn't great; it's just a color vomit shot."  That wall was REALLY orange!  I think I'm so focused on getting that stress out of the way that there is no room left for enjoyment.  Remember, these trips are supposed to be for fun!

However, upon reflection my mind usually changes.  After having nearly 3 months to think about it, I really enjoy this image.  First, it was the perfect scene for Velvia 50 with only 4 stops between the white water and the darkest shadow.  Secondly, the composition I struggled so much with actually conveys what I want it to.  The foreground rocks really anchor the scene while the white water takes the viewer back and up toward that beautiful orange wall with the hollowed-out feature.  I called the image "Chance Encounter" because coming upon a strong glow like that and being able to shoot it is really lucky!

 'Chance Encounter' (2:30 on 4x5 Fuji Velvia 50, f/45, polarizer)

'Chance Encounter' (2:30 on 4x5 Fuji Velvia 50, f/45, polarizer)

The rest of the day would be spent scouting.  I did expose a second shot, but by that time clouds began to roll in.  Clouds are like an 'off' switch for reflected light.  Once the sun is blocked the walls will not illuminate.  My exposure was good, but the shot was a dud.  I wasn't bummed though.  I managed to get my first shutter click out of the way, and I made note of a total of three more shots I wanted to get.  Success!

That evening we rejoined with Marc, who found the Aspens were sadly devoid of all leaves (much higher elevation than Zion).  As clouds crept in, they shot the Watchman while I hiked down river to video my closing for the day...making sure to be completely hidden from the bridge crew!  If you've been to Zion, you know the deal.  (Funny thing about the Watchman.  I attended the Ben Horne School of Zion, so it's against my religion to take that shot.  Yet, I will gladly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other photographers to get sunrise on the Towers of the Virgin.  Weird the photography rules we make for ourselves...)  I could not ask for a better first day of shooting!  I got a shot that I would eventually love, and the rest of my shooting time started to take shape.