Beyond the Wall


Floating into the Maze

  I'm only 4 months late in talking about this trip.  The following jaunt spanned the end of March and ended in early April - typically a bit before the spring run-off (which was oh so short/non-existent this year) and, more importantly, before the crowds.
   We dropped in at a lonely Ruby Ranch, two twelve foot rafts and a tandem ducky.  The nip of a cold winter in the four corners still could be felt, but so to could the cutting edge of seasonal transition.  Spring is a magical time to travel in these parts.

The river was anemic, flows below typical and the impending "melt" did little for the Colorado basin this year.  Another few years like this and the turbines will stop spinning at Glen Canyon.

Like the changing season, it takes a little while to get into the mindset of a shoulder season float.  Transitioning from the daily hustle and bustle (how insignificant it seems) to a routine of loose logistics and flexible itineraries gives one pause to the absurdity of so much of our daily lives.

The first "section" of this trip entailed drifting through Labyrinth Canyon.  Initially. the passing farmlands gave way to ever increasing sandstone walls.  Little current and no whitewater made for lazy slow miles with plenty of time for gawking. 

Having read Colin Fletcher's account of his solo source to sea Green River/Colorado trip while waiting the winter out on the reservation I can understand why he identified so much with the stretch below Desolation Canyon up to Cataract Canyon.  Taking his trip solo late in life with nearly no whitewater experience the rapids of Lodore Canyon to the north (and to a lesser extent Desolation Canyon) and Cataract Canyon to the south garnered his full attention and focus pre trip.  As a result, the quiet interlude of Labyrinth and Stillwater provided a much needed aesthetic and spiritual respite during his journey.  A welcome and cherished surprise.

3 Blue Herons

The camping on the upper stretch was quite nice and abundant.  Many spots high above the river offered easy carry with substantial views.  Tons of side hiking makes return trips necessary.

Half way to Mineral Bottom lies the "River Registry."  An assortment of many (historical) petroglyphs smattered all over a nice chunk of Navajo sandstone on canyon left.  Many of them are historical dating back to the late 1800's and some requiring and incredible amount of tedious labor.  While fascinating, I find the aesthetic lacking in comparison to the work of the Anasazi.


Mineral Bottom (nice take-out/access) denotes the first change.  The end of Labyrinth Canyon and the start of Stillwater Canyon.  Stillwater runs through the heart of the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands.  The "White Rim" formation can be seen in its humble beginnings in this shot, Buttes of the Cross in the distance.

This new formation requires closer inspection as it grows.

And more thorough examination.

Despite cutting its path through a National Park this section of the Green makes for tough camping.  The Tamarisk have so thoroughly invaded all shore line that sand bars offered the only respite for stopping.  The Park Service unfortunately has quite the daunting task on their hands in ridding the banks of this invasive plant.

Wall to wall tammies - notice the required sand-bar dodging due to feeble flows
We press on, and as we make our way south the river presents us with a first in all our years of rafting.  Riverside Anasazi ruins.  It is quite a special feeling to float by these structures and view them from our boat, and we soon are checking every alcove, our mind ever playing tricks on us.

Can you see it?
And another one.

A small tower in the crescent shaped crack half-way up the canyon wall.
Our last night above the Confluence provided for great entertainment.

The last ten miles of canyon before the Confluence of the Green and Colorado are particularly interesting/impressive. 

Eventually, after an arduous slog battling immense upstream winds with little current we reach the confluence.

The Green coming in on the L and the Colorado on the R
Just down river we approach Spanish Bottom, where we de-rig and transition from nine days of rafting and prepare for three days of backpacking.

We spend the latter half of the first day getting gear ready for the return shuttle and sorting the hiking gear.  The next morning we shove off across Spanish Bottom, heading for the Dollhouse.

We find the trail up.

 Had I not known there had been a trail up the scree laden hillside I would not have believed it.  But a fine trail it was, and before you knew it we were standing at the entrance to the Doll House.

Picking our way through the chaotic formation we found a jeep road which lead to our jump-off point in the Maze.  We were treated to gorgeous light as the weather began to turn.  For my first time viewing this storied landscape I could not have asked for more.

We made our way to Chimney Rock and quickly bedded down on the sandstone to avoid the ensuing wind and rain.

After shelter was securely in place we fanned out in different directions to have a look around.

The dramatic light made for an incredibly memorable evening.  We tucked in just before dark, and when I woke up I had to rub my eyes to make sure what I saw and where I was were real.

Not a bad spot for breakfast.

Making our away along the Pete's Mesa Route/Jasper ridge made for easy walking and sustained incredible views.  Stopping just to take a gander was a frequent occurrence.

 Eventually we found the spot where we could access the innards of the Maze and make our way to Pictograph Fork.

Reaching the canyon bottom we trudged on in deep sand.  At the mouth of Pictograph fork we found a large spring and topped off our water supply.

Another bit of hiking brought us to the source of inspiration for this trip.  The Harvest Scene.

The life-sized anthropomorphs were unlike any we'd ever seen and had been on our collective life lists for some time.  A nice shady patch (tammies) directly across from the panel provided a great place to sit and contemplate.  We spent a large period of time here before the wind kicked up and ushered us back out of the canyon.

By the time we were back on the Mesa the winds were a-howling and rain looked like a real possibility.  We tucked in behind a large slab of rock and hunkered down for the night.

Despite the weather the views were anything but boring.  Here are the Chocolate Drops, silhouetted

The next morning we awoke to much of the same.  A large weather system was moving in and we took off for Spanish Bottom and the comforts of our VE-25.

When we reached the trail down to Spanish Bottom we were afforded dramatic views cross canyon to the Needles District of Canyonlands.  From this view it appeared that the storm was headed our way.

We had less than a quarter mile to go when the skies opened up and a violent rain thundered down.  We reached our base camp, threw out wet gear into the tent vestibules and battened down.

The next morning the jet boat arrived early and somehow we made all the gear fit.  Next time I do this trip will be in a kayak or a packraft.  All in all a wonderful 12 days spent with my folks.  A great preamble for things to come.

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Happy 2013

A Time for Reflection

Sandstone Heart, Antelope Canyon.  Photo taken by Valonia Hardy

I often wonder how much of it is nearly a perceived reality, that of living in the “adult world,” but I find that time is measured differently as I get older.  My life is more confined by commitments, there are more boundaries imposed on my day-to-day existence, and as a result, true un-structured time seems to be at a premium.  The ensuing task oriented arrangement leads to a loss of simply being present, an act providing much enjoyment and fulfillment.

I began to realize this at the end of 2011 and desired to make a small lifestyle edit to enable me to recapture those essences.  One such revision was the simple act of reading.  Reading for pleasure seems to have escaped me since I was at university, burdened by the heavy science tomes that defined my studies.  Now free of those encumbrances I have somehow failed to pick the habit up again.  As a child I was a voracious reader – the beauty of truly free, unstructured time was a gateway for the exploration of curiosity.  Realizing this I assigned myself a very simple task for the year 2012, my first ever “New Year’s Resolution” as it were - to read at least one book per month for 12 months.  As 2013 approaches, I pause to reflect.

A byproduct of this exercise has been expanding my sphere of knowledge on a variety of subjects, some of which are directly linked to my daily life, but more importantly, it has taught me to slow down.  A seemingly simple act, that of reading, has facilitated the development of sustained periods of focus; an attribute much lacking in a world where our attention resembles more a braided river channel than a singularly flowing river.  There is no greater gift in life than time, and being free from (perceived?) tasks and simply observing its passage is a wondrous event.  I’ve only begun to realize this as the year comes to a close, that slowing down, getting rid of “to do lists,” canceling commitments that are not worth my energy, and generally allowing for more shapeless open time has been greatly beneficial. 

 Another year is destined to arise and fall; it is a subdued gift to simply observe its passage.  Find five minutes of unstructured time in your day to observe, to be aware.  Happy 2013 to all.

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Echoes of Glen Canyon

Echoes of Glen Canyon
Admiring a place that I have been apprehensive to visit
           I was up in Moab for the tail end of November and felt as if I had stumbled onto a quiet surprise.  The town barely resembled its high season self when it becomes an odd conglomeration of ORV’ers, desert rats, backpackers, rafters, climbers, escapists etc.  No, November brought with an empty main street, ample parking room, and an underlying notion that the locals were glad to have their town returned to them
           I was hanging out with family in the morning at a small cafĂ© and was reading the paper about the letter that was sent to President Obama by 100 outdoor related businesses requesting the creation of a new national monument.  The plan, known as Greater Canyonlands National Monument, detailed here would basically protect an additional 1.4 million acres stretching from Hanksville on the western border to Moab on the eastern border and from UT 95 on the south to roughly 15 miles of south of Green River to the north.

A map of the proposed monument
            I could write a whole piece about the politics of current issue, but I just want to briefly mention an interesting realization I made when thinking about this issue. 
            First, as someone who, echoing many of my peers, gets tired of tourists in Moab and other areas of the four corners in the “high seasons” (basically the whole year except winter) I find myself rethinking my previous attitude.  When on the trail or out exploring I am always looking for places free of people.   I can honestly say I have decided to stay at home with time off vs get outdoors because I didn’t want to deal with “the crowds.” 
Any and all people who enjoy the outdoors can empathize with this view.  But now, reading about the fight the outdoor industry is putting up to protect this truly special land from the likes of uranium miners, hydro-frackers, tar sand developers etc., I want to extend a huge THANK YOU to the omnipresent “crowds” that flood our national parks and public lands, particularly in SE Utah.  If it were not for these people and the industries that’ve sprung up to support them (mostly responsibly) then there would not currently even be a push to protect this truly unique part of the state. 
            As I sat in the warm November sun staring at Delicate Arch stretch upward in all its glory, having the whole place practically to myself, I thought about the people who travel from around the world to see this arch.  It is the archetypal image for the SW desert landscape.  I often complain about how Arches National Park is “ruined,” that the hike to Delicate Arch on most days resembles more of an anthill than a peaceful stroll.  I get selfish; I want it all to myself.  I get sick of waiting in lines, checking boxes, applying for permits to even be allowed to sleep on my “public lands.”  But then I ask myself, would there be a push to protect this area if no one came here?

Camster and I heading back from out vantage point
        In 2006, an estimated 19.3 non-residential tourists accounted for an estimated $5.87 billion in traveler spending in the state of Utah.  Additionally, this generated an estimated $467 million in state and local tax revenue.  Many of these visitors came to the state seeking outdoor recreation in some form.  In our political system, having that kind of capitol behind your movement allows you a voice to the highest level of government.
            Glen Canyon, before the dam, was called “The Place No-One Knew.”  It is understood that one reason that it went under is that it had few advocates.  Those who knew it were only the most hardcore desert rats, in search of the Holy Grail, the elusive people-less desert wilderness.  Without the large crowds that we all complain about, Glen Canyon was doomed.  It was only after the water began to back up that people got a glimpse and realized what was about to be drowned.  Hopefully the same is not destined for the Greater Canyonlands area.
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The Shocking Truth about Photographic Workflows

 "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept." 
-  Ansel Adams

This is a post for all the technicians out there.  As photographers we strive for control.  We “pre-visualize,” use the zone-system when we expose film, have our own top secret development formulas for pushing and pulling exposure and, more recently, cling to calibrated monitors, printers, papers, cameras etc. to bring a “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) sense of comfort to our image making.  But we do not live in a static world, and just as wet plates gave way to film and zone systems so too does the digital workflow to updated software and new tools.
At the same time, we lust after gear; new cameras, computers, filters, and software.  Photoshop and Lightroom are the standard-bearers of our trade.  We learn to live and work between updates as what took hours in CS4 can be accomplished in minutes in CS 6.  The natural extensions of the software we use, ICC profiles, calibrated monitors, and print drivers are all dialed in to serve the aesthetic of the images we are trying to make.  It takes work and it’ s a pain in the ass update, just as I can only imagine film photographers having to re-calibrate their film as more and more of it disappears from the market.  Our initial excitement when new pieces of software come out is soon met with the reality of redefining ones workflow.
I am friends with a wonderful photographer named Huntington Witherill.  He has deemed the update obsessed pace of the digital workflow the “hamster wheel of progress.”  He’s written about such ideas in publications like Lens Work.  His analogy is spot on.  Often times, the updates in gear, software, etc., serve as a source of frustration and can get in the way of doing and making our work.
I get caught up in this all too often.  Photoshop CS5 worked just fine for what I was doing and I had a process I had been using for years with no problems.  Somehow I became convinced that with the newest software (CS6) the quality of my images would improve, so I decided to install it.  Upon doing so I also had to update my print drivers and a variety of plug-ins I use which took the better part of a day.  After doing so I went to make a print in order to full-fill a web purchase and what do you know, the new print driver menu has completely changed and I can no longer print using my dedicated printer profile for the paper I use.  Further, I lost all of my saved printer pre-sets and could not print in advanced black and white mode. 
It took the better part of an entire day, a complete box of Ilford Galerie Silk paper, multiple phone calls and emails, and a pounding headache to finally resolve this issue and realize a new truth (with this update).  Control of color management in the new Epson print driver is f’d (in my opinion) and I have to completely re-work my “digital workflow” to accommodate this truth.  I lost two whole days, time that I could have been out shooting, printing, hiking, whatever, in order to upgrade to new software that I did not really need. 
It reminds me of an Ansel Adams quote, shown at the top of this post.  Often times, we are so obsessed about the background minutia of the photographic process (the tools, the gear, etc) that we begin to believe that having the latest and greatest can make boring or flawed images beautiful.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but like I said, I really had no reason to upgrade my software other than a desire to be able to use a few new tools that simplified my process a tad.  But at what expense?  New technology and new equipment cannot make bad photography good.  It can enhance what an artist is striving for (resolution, sharpness, tonal range, etc) but it cannot make flat lighting interesting or a lack of personal vision translate into a deeper frame.  It just can’t, and all my time wasted on the phone, in front of my monitor sending emails, surfing chat rooms etc. yesterday confirmed this. 
Get out and make images, the other stuff will fall into place.

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