Zion National Park Day 7: The Virgin River Narrows

At this point in the trip, I was starting to feel an extreme sense of accomplishment.  The weather had cooperated beautifully each day of the trip...giving me clouds when I needed them and clear skies when I needed reflected light.  If I had control of the weather, I couldn't have dialed up anything better.  I felt really confident about most all of my compositions, and even though there is a lot that can go wrong with film, I felt sure that there were at least some good shots in there.  The one incident regarding the missed focus was a troubling anomaly, but since then, every shot had been tack sharp upon checking.  As far as I could tell, my gear had only messed up on that one shot.  If the trip had ended today, I can honestly say I would feel satisfied with it.

Of course, we still had two full days left so I needed something to shoot or explore.  One of Tommy's goals for this trip was to photograph Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend.  These are beautiful locations, but I had reservations about joining him.  With regard to Antelope, I was worried about having enough time to find a composition and set up my shot.  Horseshoe was completely out of the picture as I didn't have a wide enough lens.  So Tommy and Marc headed to Arizona, and I stayed in Zion.  I still had a few loose ends to tie up.

I decided I would try for two shots today:  the one I had tried for two previous days in the Narrows and the very first shot I scouted on the trip of Angel's Landing through the cottonwood trees.  Since both were afternoon shots, I leisurely loaded up the car and headed into the canyon. Despite a relatively late (at least as far as photography is concerned) start, I was still one of the first cars to arrive at the River Walk Trail.  I sat in the car for a LONG time!  It was just cold enough outside to be a bit of a nuisance, and the thought of putting on my river gear for the fourth time this trip was kind of a buzzkill.

I recorded some video and then eventually decided to get out and get my day started.  As usual, the morning was quite windy.  I loaded up my water bottles and quickly hit the trail, anxious to get my heart rate up and get warm.  As I approached the water, a small voice in my head started asking, "Do you REALLY want to do this?"  Four days in seven is a lot of time to spend in cold water.  However, I did want this shot so I pressed onward.  The familiar chill of the Virgin River greeted my feet, and another adventure in the Narrows began.

Before our trip to Subway, my knee had really started to hurt, and I was nervous that the grueling Subway hike would be really hard on it.  Much to my surprise, I didn't notice it once the entire day.  However, on this day, as soon as I hit the water, it started giving me trouble again.  With regard to elevation, the Narrows is a much easier hike than Subway.  The water, though, is a constant source of resistance, and I believe this is what was causing my knee pain.  As I was set to arrive at my spot well before the light, I took my time until my knee loosened up.  Overall, it wasn't too bad.

What was annoying though were the continuous supply of small pebbles that kept finding their way into my shoes.  I would kind of kick them up toward my toes every now and then.  Eventually that stopped helping though, and I would have to periodically sit down, remove my pack, and empty out my shoes.  I cannot tell you how annoying this became...like having to stop on the Interstate just as you get into a good rhythm driving!

I eventually arrived at my location about two hours before the best light.  I took my time setting up everything, very much enjoying the fact that I was not the least bit rushed.  I focused, locked everything down, and then grabbed a seat on the rocks just beside my tripod.  Every ten minutes or so I would recheck focus and it continued to remain tack sharp.  I was very confident that I would get the shot today.

One funny thing I observed while waiting was the look on people's faces as they passed me by.  A large format camera draws attention, and each person who passed always looked back to see where it was aimed.  A look of bewilderment ensued as the scene was quite ordinary with no reflected light.  Inevitably, several of them still stopped, set up their tripods beside mine, and took a few shots...disappointment showing on their faces when the image popped up on the back of their screen.

I continued to wait for the glow, but I could feel a nervousness growing.  This was it...my last chance to get this shot.  When the glow arrived I took two shots of different exposure times.  About ten minutes in, direct light hits the right wall and shooting has to stop for a bit.  This is only momentary though.  When the direct light disappeared, I took two more shots...again of varying exposures.  I wanted to cover all of my bases.  Once direct light hit the right wall and reached down onto the canyon floor, my window of opportunity was over.  Hours of waiting culminated in about a 20 minute shooting window.

Anxiously, I ducked under the dark cloth again to check focus.  I literally held my breath in anticipation.  A general inspection looked sharp.  So far so good.  A quick look under the loupe confirmed focus.  Success!!!  Thrilled, I let out a literal sigh of relief.  This sudden exhale fogged my ground glass...causing the entire image to be blurry.

Stunned silence.

It cleared up and I breathed on it again.  Again it fogged and the image went blurry.

Silence again...at least for a few moments until I literally started laughing out loud!  I'm sure everyone who passed thought I was crazy.  The "focus problem" was nothing more than me fogging my own ground glass!  I quickly calculated that I should have about 6-7 perfectly sharp sheets of Ektar from this one scene.  If nothing else, at least I would have options!

Never a dull moment when shooting large format!  I packed up my gear, continuing to chuckle at what I had done.  My hike out of the Narrows that day was one of complete satisfaction.  The year prior, I had hiked out of the Narrows very frustrated.  High waters had turned back my last attempt to photograph there, and I only totaled one day shooting in the Virgin River.  This year I got six good shots in the Narrows in four days.  As my goal was only a single portfolio worthy shot, this year's trip was an embarrassment of riches.

"Vanishing Darkness"  Kodak Ektar 100, 90mm, 3:32, polarizer

And I still had half a day left!  Unfortunately, I was a bit too late to get my shot of Angel's Landing.  I would save that for my final day in Zion.  I grabbed a quick bite at the hotel room, and pondered what to do.  I didn't really want to shoot anything, and I was too tired to do any serious hiking.  I decided to go ahead and do my closing hike.

Not really an official name, but I like to end my trips to Zion with a hike to a secluded location in the park and spend some time completely alone.  I don't really have a purpose for this alone time, I just like to be completely still and take it all in...to have a moment I guess you could say.  For this year's trip, I chose to hike to the Northgate Peaks.  Up on the Kolob Terrace, this hike is about as completely flat as you can get.  After a few miles, it ends at a viewpoint of the Northgate Peaks, and the Guardian Angels in the distance.  It is quite a bit off the beaten path, and while the view at the end is certainly a good one, it's not something most people go out of their way to see.  This is exactly what I wanted.

I arrived at a completely empty trailhead about an hour and a half before sunset.  I took a backpack filled with some water, snacks, another layer of clothes, no camera, and no headlamp.  A full moon and clear skies would be all I needed to hike back in the dark.  I set out on the sandy trail and covered ground quickly on the easy terrain.  I was completely alone in this part of the park, surrounded by overwhelming silence.

The North Guardian Angel, centered between the two Northgate Peaks.  

I arrived at the viewpoint, a massive pile of volcanic rock, and took it all in.  In the distance I could see the North Guardian Angel, and beyond that was the massive chasm of Zion Canyon.  It's hard to shut photography completely down, so my mind was trying to work out compositions, but this is a location ill suited to 4x5.  Instead, I took an iPhone pano of a gorgeously subdued sunset.  I spent time alone with my thoughts, listening to the wind filter through the canyons.  My thoughts went nowhere in particular; I just tried my hardest to be completely in the moment...extending each second as long as possible.

By now, the sun had completely set, but the night was nowhere near dark.  Clear skies and a nearly full moon gave the evening a peaceful blue light.  This light illuminated my path as I returned to the car.  Once again I felt a sense of complete satisfaction.  Although I only took one image this day, it remains just as memorable to me as Subway or my previous days in the Narrows.  Man...I love Zion.