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October 26, 2014

The fact that the first step into the Virgin River, scarcely after 7am this frigid October morning, was more pleasant than imagined made all the difference, and soon all seven of us were taking surer and surer steps upstream, learning quickly on what to step and what to avoid stepping on.

I’d traveled to Zion twice before, once with my kids Tara and Tadeh, on a road trip through all five of Utah’s national parks in 2010, and once again just six months ago, with one of my best friends and a fellow photography enthusiast, Ara M. On the latter occasion, we’d hiked to Angel’s Landing, an effort that left us no time and no energy for the fabled Narrows. Signing up for the Zion Extreme workshop at Aperture Academy, at the peak season for fall colors, was a no brainer despite the heavy workload I had at that time.

My alarm had gone off at 5:15 that Sunday morning, much too early given the grueling schedule on Friday, lecturing for three hours, then driving more than six hours on a crowded Friday evening from Westwood to Zion National Park. Saturday’s equally early rise and a day spent photographing from well before dawn till dusk hadn’t helped either. But today, I was about to strike one more elusive goal off my list of photographic adventures, hiking the Narrows of the Virgin River, and that alone was sufficient to catapult me out of bed. A quick yogurt and granola breakfast, and an even more important cup of coffee later, I was out the door and in the Aperture Academy van, ready to catch the first tram up canyon from the Zion Visitor Center. It was October, after all, and cars were not allowed into the canyon. The only option we had was to catch a slow, meandering tram with a pre-recorded guided tour we’d memorized by this time, just on our second day here, arriving at the Temple of Sinawava station a full forty minutes later. As we disembarked, the puffy strings of clouds crisscrossing the sky turned a glorious pink, and many of us cursed our luck as sunrise the previous day had been forgettable at best. We split into two groups of six participants and one instructor each, and our group, deemed faster and perhaps more prepared for the laborious hike, went first.

After a mile on the asphalt-paved riverwalk, we gladly took the first steps into the river, marveling at how well the gear we’d rented the night before worked. The river boots immediately filled with water, but we were otherwise dry ankle-up, and the trapped water in our water socks quickly warmed to a bearable temperature, though I immediately missed having a flask of hot coffee to keep me company.

Not only were we first to enter the river that day, it took a very long time till we met other hikers on the route. The Virgin river flowed past us at a tame 40 cubic feet per second, making our trek easy, and ultimately, stabilizing our tripods in the river’s flow less of an issue than we thought it would be. Guided by Ellie, we sped upriver to our first stop, Mystery Falls. The first portion of the narrows, spanning over a mile, is actually quite wide, and both the river banks and the slopes, at least on one side, are dotted with trees and shrubs, many of which have withstood countless floods through the narrow canyon.

Throughout the previous day, we’d traveled Zion Canyon as well as Upper East Canyon in search of fall colors. The cottonwoods in both canyons were displaying every shade between a sun-scorched summer green and a vibrant yellow painted on by fall, but trees exuding the vermillion that signaled the end of autumn and imminent fall of leaves were few and far between. At Mystery Falls, though, we were fortunate to find the trees and shrubs on the slope along which the waterfall tumbles in every hue from green to red, making the easily accessible spot even more photogenic than ever. As this was our first stop, many of us had to get used to the lengthy process by which we carefully retrieved our cameras from dry sacks, placed and secured our tripods in the onrushing river, then packed everything away just in case a tumble introduced our packs to the water with dire consequences.

For the next two hours, I was haunted by the beauty of Mystery Falls, as scene after unfolding scene failed to amaze me. My companions’ grumbling hinted that I was not the only one of this mind, as the shallow river afforded too few opportunities and the number of trees in yellows and reds, or even in stark green, shrank noticeably with each bend of the river.

Just then, we reached what would turn out to be our longest stop of the day. The river deepened, so that in places we had to wade up to our waists, carefully using our hiking poles for balance and for determining the depth of the next step. We crossed from bank to bank several times to reach a secluded cove crowned by rapids upon which overhanging trees were shedding yellow gems of falling leaves. A number of large boulders marked the rapids, but I was drawn to the pair on the right, through which the river gushed most fervently. The layered flat surface of one boulder was dotted with fallen leaves, and here one felt the rhythm and flow of the river, as no two photographs showed the same pattern or volume of water flowing through the space afforded by the boulders. Here, though, a scant two hours into our expedition, my camera began to exhibit the signs of death at the hands of the river. Mesmerized by the scene, I hadn’t noticed water splashing intermittently on one side of the camera, and all it took was a drop or two to seep in through the card slot on the right. A “card read error” was the first sign of imminent death, one that I mistook for a passing issue, especially since the camera functioned quite well without a memory card. I was to find out later that each snap of the shutter short-circuited the camera’s “always on” on-board flash, and the camera flatlined in less than five minutes. At this point, my only option would have been to photograph the rest of the canyon with my second camera body, a dedicated black-and-white infrared conversion, had it not been for the foresight and generosity of our instructors. Ellie immediately lent me her camera, a significant upgrade from what I was carrying, and we shared the camera between her documenting the workshop and my efforts to bring back memorable photos of this incredible journey.

We soon entered the narrowest part of the canyon, dubbed “Wall Street,” where the real beauty of the Narrows lies. The sandstone walls crowded in, and turn after turn awed us with the landscape that was revealed. A large boulder with a flat top, its apex aglow with the first rays of the sun to penetrate the canyon, captivated us for quite a while. The boulder governed the river’s flow here, slowing the water to a crawl on one side and forcing it through shallow, picturesque rapids on the other. With less river to photograph, we often found ourselves elbow to elbow, taking care not only to safeguard our equipment, but to keep each others’ limbs and tripod legs out of our photos.

Our stops became more frequent now, and, four hours after our first stop on the river, we finally reached the most picturesque part of Wall Street and the furthest we’d be hiking today. Time was of the essence now, as sunlight crept down canyon walls, making many scenes impossible, too contrasty, or too flat to photograph. Our frequent stops during the previous four hours had also meant that a number of hikers had passed us, and it soon became impossible to exclude brightly clad hikers from our images, no matter how patiently we waited. After a brief lunch, it was time to head back, and I opted to use my infrared camera more and more, seeing the increasing contrast in blacks, whites, and grays instead of the sun-washed blandness the sandstone had absorbed. It was almost midday, and well past the time for color photography even in this narrow canyon.

One of the funnier incidents during the journey occurred just after we began to head back. There is an oft-photographed boulder in Wall Street, one side bearing two deep gouges carved by the unrelenting river. These openings are large enough that the bottom of each is lined by a layer of fine sand and decorated by small rocks swept there by the current when the boulder is submerged. A number of our group photographed this scene, and at one point we paused to erase all signs of footprints and other human activity from the sandy ledges of the boulder. Just as I set up my tripod, though, with obvious intent to photograph this very scene, a rotund hiker reeking of cannabis splashed in, stepping on the very sand we had smoothed out, leaving several footprints as he balanced a pocket camera on top of the boulder to photograph himself and his friends as they reveled in the river. As patient as I am, I couldn’t wait more than the five minutes I did for them to move downstream, and I ended up being the only member of our group not to return with a photograph of this boulder, as we moved on long before this happy group did.

And so ended one of the greatest photographic adventures I’ve embarked on in recent years, a seven-hour trek in the Virgin River at perhaps the best time of year, and one that my comrades-in-photography and I will not soon forget. A big thank you to Stephen and Ellie from Aperture Academy as they made this trip more than memorable from the first moment to the last.

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