Friday, April 19, 2013

Grand Falls (Adahwiilíní)

It's been about three years since I've been to Grand Falls, even though it's only an hour and a quarter from home. The last time I went I remember it being really windy. So windy, the water was blowing around the whole canyon in a sticky muddy mist. It would cover the car windshield, and any camera lens with in the wind's reach. It was quite a sight, but not great for photography. This time I had the chance to catch the end of the year's run off. I planned a nice long evening to spend here and experience all it's grandeur.   The falls are absolutely huge and rivals the height of Niagara Falls.  The water, however, is quite a bit muddier. Some people call it the chocolate falls, or the mud falls. Spring runoff drains the Navajo reservation into the Little Colorado River, which in turn drains into the Colorado River. Adahwiilíní, the Navajo name for Grand Falls, is located West of Leupp, AZ.   Here is where volcanic basalt meet sandstone. As the story goes volcanic lava flowed from one of the many cinder cones in the area, blocking off the original course of the Little Colorado. The river was forced to change it's course over the cliff edge.

Grand Falls Sunset

The north side sandstone  catches the last rays of sunlight in a bright orange reflection. Combine those colors with the light brown water, and sunset colors in the clouds, makes for one pretty scene.  The sun here is really intense, so even up to early in the evening the colors can remain quite harsh. You literally have to wait until the sun hits the horizon before the colors finally get warm.  There was a bit of a breeze this evening propelling a few puffy clouds around, slowly clearing over the course of the evening. Tourists rolled in took their snapshots and rolled back out again all before sunset. By the time the sun set, I was all alone. I found a pretty neat vantage point that was below the rim in a little valley out of the wind. That's where I settled in. The spot allowed me to get a shot that wasn't looking  down so much on the falls, helping me get more stars in the shot.   I brought an extra coat to sit on and some granola bars and water. Every few minutes I tripped the shutter trying to harvest the light for some exposure blending to be done in Photoshop. From sunset, to dusk to twilight to night. Then a half an hour with the intervolometer cable release to capture the movement of the stars ( or vise versa).  This is how the first image seen here was created.

Firstly I made an exposure for the falls at twilight, where there was enough light reflecting off the atmosphere to illuminate the scene. This method allowed for mostly even lighting, minimizing any harsh shadows.  Another benefit is it allows some extra shutter speed, smoothing out the water of the waterfall. I then waited for about another hour to let the sky go much darker.  This results in a brighter more defined starlight. I usually choose an exposure time between three and a half to five minutes, depending on how much light there is in the sky (from the moon etc..). Depending on my vision for the final image I will choose a total exposure time from a half an hour to an hour.  Anymore than that, the sky begins to look a bit gaudy, any less,  the viewer might feel wanting more. An additional consideration for choosing a final exposure time is the distance from the North Star. The stars rotate much slower the closer to the North Star, so a longer total exposure time is required to get the right effect.  This startrail image had a shorter stack of five exposures of five minutes each. Since the North Star was out of sight here, the stars tracked across the scene much faster.  Looking closely at the star image you can see a couple of interesting aberrations.  The first being the hint of a satellite tracking perpendicular to the stars.

Grand Falls Glow

It is really faint, but runs the entire length of the sky.  The second being what I believe is a shooting star.  In my first exposure,  I saw a falling star shoot into the field of view of the camera. You can see it in the lower center of the sky of the image. This is the first time I have caught a shooting star. I've gone out during a meteor shower before, but never had much luck at capturing one. The timing and positioning was always off, or the intensity was such that it became invisible to the camera sensor.  When I first saw the stacked image afterward, I was skeptical that I actually captured it. So I went back to the original digital negative.  I remembered that it was the first frame taken, and about a minute and a half into the exposure.  The image showed me that the meteor light began about a fifth of the way into the image. Additionally it arcs oppositional to arcs of the stars.  If it were a plane you would see its flashing marker lights dotted across the entire frame, and in a straight line, not a curved arc.  We've already identified what a satellite looks like. Of course I'm open to other theories.

This was taken three years ago just after a big winter. It is a more traditional view, were you can see the Little Colorado wind it's way to the confluence. It also gives a perspective on how much water can flow over these falls, not to mention the muddy color.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Secret of Secret Canyon

Secret Canyon Sentry

Recently I posted some images on Facebook from a backpacking trip to Secret Canyon. Where's Secret Canyon? I was asked by more than a few locals. Having lived in Northern Arizona now for almost thirty years I have asked myself that same question on more than one occasion.  I kept hearing about Secret Canyon, but nothing specific in terms of where it was. I remember looking for it about ten years ago. I'm sure I never found it, at least definitively. I do remember some large pools surrounded by red cliffs, but that could easily have been anywhere.  Funny when you're hiking in a high desert climate, the hotter it gets, the hike begins to loose it's appeal and large cool pools of water begin to look pretty inviting. About three years ago I took up the search once again.  This time I brought a map. Such that it was. It was downloaded from the Red Rock Ranger District web page, and lacked any mileage or scale. There were plenty of canyons on the map. Long Canyon, Loy Canyon, Fay Canyon, Boynton Canyon. They're all on there. And they're all really cool and different. Some even have ancient ruins. Secret Canyon doesn't, but does have a  creek flowing in it,  mostly in the spring.  Until now I've never hiked Secret Canyon in the spring, but could tell you that there were some large pools of water in late autumn. Probably left over from our monsoon season.  So where's Secret Canyon?  The trail head used to be at the end of an old Jeep trail. The one that goes to all the arches (Vaultee, and Devil's Bridge). This year it was different. The forest service errected a new gate, and paved the first little rough part. I used to drive right to the trail head on the 4wd road.  Now we had to drive around the corner and park at the Long Canyon trail head.  This little change put about three extra miles on the trip. Normally I'd shrug. This time I had a nice 50lb pack. About a year ago we made it to the head of the canyon and hiked only a little ways up it.

We decided to make a loop out of it and another canyon, but didn't really explore Secret Canyon it for all it's potential.  We did, however, scope out some possible camping spots. We knew we'd be back.  We didn't know how much water would be there. Turns out, a  lot. The spring run off was in full force, and deep in the canyon we even found some pockets of snow. The map makes the cayon look like about ten dotted lines. The trail description says it goes for three miles and ends at a pool of water. Well I can tell you, it keeps going. In theory it continues to the top of Secret Mountain, but after hiking up it for three and a half hours it showed no sign of ending at some secret pool of water. After 25 (yes we counted) pool of water crossings we still hadn't found the end. I guess we'll just have to try again next year. The vistas are fantastic starting early on. You're surrounded by red rock, spires and of course the canyon.  We chose to bed down in a plateau area surrounded by desert scrub with views of the valley. Yucca, mesquite and juniper left us mostly exposed, but early spring is a bit chilly in the shade, so a litttle extra sun was welcomed. A little warmer, and we would have had to camp up the canyon which was much more shaded by large ponderosa pines, sycamore and maple.  The mesquite was in bloom and the sweet aroma of the little white flowers was starting to attract honey bees. Spring run off was trickling down the cliffs and into the creek.  The trail begins high,  follows the creek, and zig zags back and forth up and down.

The more impassable areas by-pass higher in the canyon on available terraces. Walking along the creek gives you the feeling of being in Zion.  High orange stained walls and deep under cut channels mimmick the back country canyons of Utah. Deep in the channel you can find a fairly large waterfall. If you were to follow the creek you would have to climb out one of the drainages to circumvent it. Its a little too large to be climbing through. Farther up the canyon the tall ponderosa pines contrast against the blue sky, and the red and orange cliffs. If you're observant you can see a natural arch high on the canyon wall. So where's Secret Canyon?  Just ask the helicopter pilots. For an extra few bucks they'll fly you along the length of the canyon in just a few minutes. Pay no attention to the hikers blatently exposing themselves to you from the canyon floor. They worked thier butts off to get there for a bit of solitude. So where's Secret Canyon? I could tell you, but then it wouldn't be a secret. Why would I deny anybody the joy of discovery?

Desert Camp

Looney Guy at the Grand Canyon Lodge

Canyon Vantage

 While traveling home from Cedar City's Shakespeare Festival last summer, we drove through Cedar Breaks and Brian Head ( see Twisted Forest ) and scheduled a night at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  On previous trips to the North Rim I've camped outside the park along what they call the Rainbow Rim. I haven't actually visited inside the park since I was in high school, so I figured that since I had a National Parks pass I'd continue to put it to good use and re-visit the North Rim. I got re-acquainted with the Grand Canyon Lodge with all it's little cabins. The terrace at the lodge is really an amazing sight.  Sitting in the Adirondack chairs and watching the sunset with a beverage is a nice relaxing way to spend an evening. Too bad I didn't do that.

Grand Canyon Lodge at Sunset

  No that would be wasting precious time immortalizing it with my camera.  I did enjoy it all the same, except I can continue to enjoy those moments when I reflect back and look at the images I took. No, I was climbing up the rock spires and out on ledges to find that unique shot.  I even shot a guy climbing up rock spires and out on ledges shooting with his camera.  Truth be told we did have some beverages, albeit self served. We sat at the highest point along the canyon rim, watching the sun sink lower, casting its light show off the late monsoon clouds. The brilliant interplay of gradient yellows, oranges, and pinks morphing into new and interesting formations. Listening to the silence of the canyon absorbing the surrounding energy of the fading day.   The sun was gone, and so were our beverages. It was time to pack it in before it got too dark to make our way back to the trail. As I was slowly ambling back to the parking lot I saw that guy.

Canyon Macrotogropher

You know, the looney guy standing on the spire shooting with his tripod into the abyss. "Hey, you're that crazy bas#*rd that was shooting from that spire."  "Oh, that was nothing," he said like he does it every day.  We exchanged gear tech notes for a bit, and discussed our camping arrangements. We both had VW campers, and spoke briefly of all the virtues of a the mobile sleeper unit.  "You know, I have a pretty great shot of you on that spire. If you give me your email address I'll send you a copy."   We exchanged addresses and handshakes and parted ways.  Our paths crossed coincidentally a couple of more times after that both on some forest service roads and even here in Flagstaff.  I sent him a high res file in exchange for his model release. Currently the image is on Allstar Grand Canyon's tours website promoting thier tours in exchange for promotional consideration as well as shuttle service between the canyon and Flagstaff. It feels good to make these connections once in a while, and to be able to make people happy with an image I've taken.