Last February, I presented at the Out of Yosemite conference. I had turned down the offer to be an instructor there twice. I had only visited Yosemite once before (for a dear friend’s wedding) and had never photographed there before. I didn’t feel like I belonged. After some cajoling by the Out of Chicago staff, I finally agreed. And my life, unknowingly at the time, was forever changed.
(Let the remainder of this story be a lesson in saying YES!)
While there, I happened to meet Jeanne Falk Adams, Ansel Adams’ daughter-in-law (and later, Michael, Ansel’s son). Jeanne attended my three-hour Visualization session where we struck up a conversation about water-related topics—rafting, paddling, oceans, rivers, etc. After my gig, she invited me to participate in an upcoming exhibition she was in the process of curating called “Vital Waters” for the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo, CO. It featured ocean-related works by Ansel Adams, Ernie Brooks, Scott Campbell, Dorothy Kerper Monnelly, Chuck Davis, Camille Lenore, and Robin Robinson. She had been looking for one last photographer to add to this line-up. There was only one problem: that show would feature only black & white photographs. I work almost exclusively in color…
When she asked me if I worked in black and white, I said, “I can if it means I can be a part of this show!!!”
Instead of changing who I was as an artist, my style, and my focus, we came up with a new idea. I was to have my own separate solo exhibit in the foyer leading into the “Vital Waters” hall. We called it “The Current Flows: Water in the Arid West.” It included 16 of my photographs—in color!—focused on the Colorado River watershed. In preparing for the show, I wrote captions that were too long to fit on the wall (a surprise to no one…)–and we realized not everyone would be able to get to Pueblo to see the show–so we created an exhibit catalogue for “The Current Flows” that contains the 16 photographs, expanded captions, and a Foreword by Jeanne.
Just over a week ago, I had the great honor of participating in the opening festivities for the complimentary shows “Vital Waters” and “The Current Flows.” It was a whirlwind of joy, gratitude, celebration, and new friendships. When I climbed up the last of the third story steps and saw my images on the wall for the first time, I teared up. I can’t thank everyone who played a role in making all this come together. It truly was and is the privilege and thrill of a lifetime.
To see some “happy snaps” from Friday’s opening gala and Saturday’s “Coffee Talk” with Jeanne Falk Adams, visit the exhibit website: www.thecurrentflows.com and select the Exhibition Photos tab. (For those who know the background on “cyan,” notice the wall color. That wasn’t my doing! The arts center picked that paint color out without me knowing. Gotta love the Universe!) From the website, you can get to recommended books, river guiding outfitters, and other resources for getting involved and becoming part of the flow.
Both shows run through January 2022. If you are in the Pueblo area—or need an excuse to make a road trip—check out both shows on the 3rd floor. (They take up the entire 3rd floor.) In addition, swing by the 2nd floor to see Ansel’s Polaroid Teaching Panels—which have never been on display to the public before.
Then mark your calendar for 11 am on July 31, 2021! I’ll be giving a “Coffee Talk” for my exhibit at the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center in Pueblo, CO. It’s FREE to the public. You’re all invited!
If you can’t make it out there, grab an exhibit catalogue (available in print and eBook formats) to bring the show to you. I’m donating a portion of the proceeds from the sales of this catalogue to the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center to support their programming and to American Rivers.
For the love of the River!
Michael Adams (Ansel’s son), Jacque Miniuk (my mom), Jeanne Falk Adams (exhibit curator and Michael’s wife), and Bob Miniuk (my dad) pose in front of the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center before the opening gala on June 4, 2021. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I or my parents would ever meet Ansel Adams’ family nor have my photographs in a solo exhibit on water (I used to be terrified of water where I couldn’t see my feet!). But here we are…you just never know where the river of life will take you. So long as you keep saying YES!
The confluence of the Green (left) and Colorado (right) rivers on the final morning of my paddle adventure.
This is the first October in 11 years that I’m not in Acadia National Park adoring the coast and chasing fall colors. Ongoing pandemic concerns and strict travel constraints cancelled my photography workshops there this year (one of which would have started today…). Those same reasons cancelled my appearance at this year’s Out of Acadia conference too. When I made those tough decisions, I felt sadness, disappointment, and frustration.
Requisite selfie at the start of my trip at Potash Boat Ramp
You know what wasn’t cancelled, though? Life.
I decided to use this unusual gift of time to explore another place that holds great meaning to me: the Colorado River. A couple of weeks ago, I went on a six-day solo paddle on my stand-up paddleboard through Meander Canyon, a 47-mile stretch of flatwater through Canyonlands National Park outside of Moab, Utah I’d not yet experienced—but had wanted to for years.
I launched at the Potash Boat Ramp, and after learning to faithfully follow the bubble line around sand bars to avoid getting stuck, watching big horn sheep rams climb impossible cliff walls, and listening to the river lave the shore each night, I ended at the magical confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers. I even had the confluence to myself for 21 whole hours! Yes, tutus and dancing and wine were involved! Don’t worry, eagles and ravens supervised.
So while Acadia wasn’t in the cards for this year, the trip gave me the chance to not only get some fresh air and deepen my connection with the river (which did wonders to uplift my spirits), but it also helped me create new photos for an upcoming exhibition and gather words for a new book project.
As my smart mama used to tell me growing up, “If one door closes, push another one open.” You just never know what kind of meanders your life will take…
See below for some photographs from the trip:
My first camp after a 16-mile paddle, near mile 31 (distance measured from the confluence)
Foam bubbles collected against my SUP during a rest stop. How long do you think I stood there and photographed them?!
Sunrise view from my camp on Day 3 (near mile 12). I hadn’t intended on traveling so far on the second day (about 20 miles), but camps weren’t exactly where they were supposed to be per the map… I was treated to this glorious sand bar and view for my extra efforts.
The Loop refers to an S-curve in the river that travels four river miles but loops back to within a quarter-mile of itself. From this viewpoint, which required a stair-step climb for a half-mile, you can see both sides of the river at the same time…this is the beginning of the Loop looking downstream at mile 11.
The Colorado River had remarkably low sediment, so the bucket I brought to settle water using alum became an extra piece of gear to drag along…until I realized I could fill it with cool water and have it serve as my wine cooler!
View from my camp on Day 3 (mile 7). I had blue skies almost the entire trip–except for night 3 (and the last morning of my trip at the confluence). As the sun started to set, a few poofs of clouds crested the cliffs in front of me. Then a few more, then streaks. I ran to the nearest eddy, which was all of ten feet in front of my tent, to make this image. As I like to say, sometimes “we must suffer for our art.” (LOL)
The view from my SUP on day 4, about 5-6 miles from the confluence
Looking downsteam at the Colorado River (officially the start of Cataract Canyon) after the Green and Colorado merged at sunset on day 5.
Sunrise at the confluence looking towards the Green River on day 6.
Jumping for joy at the confluence where I camped for two nights until the Tex’s Riverways jetboat picked me up and returned me to Potash (a two-hour-plus boat ride UP the Colorado River).
While the trip was 47 river miles, my Garmin InReach logged 57.5 miles from start to finish. Why the 10.5 mile discrepancy? The extra distance I likely covered constantly zig-zagging across the river following the bubbles and avoiding sand bars…(which I was mostly successful at doing…)
The Tale of the Colorado River Croc
(or, How I’ll Never Forget the Line through Lava Falls)
I could start this story in the traditional way, with “Once upon a time” or “Long ago, in a faraway land.” But I’m a river guide in training. I’ve learned to start all river stories with “NO SHIT! This really happened!”
So: NO SHIT! This really happened!
There I was, just another speck of sand clinging to a thirty-five-foot motorized boat at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I wasn’t alone. The boatman, Lars, and the swamper, Josh, were in charge of the eight-day operation, both guides from Hatch River Expeditions, the commercial outfit I had hired for a private charter.
I was on board as the photography guide and instructor. I had convinced fifteen unsuspecting guests to join me on a trip called “the Grand Canyon Rafting Photography Retreat.” “It’s such a cool trip,” I had said to lure them in. When Lars motored us into our overnight camp around river mile 159—159 miles into our 188-mile trip—it was 108 degrees Fahrenheit. “That is cool,” I told them. “I mean, compared to yesterday’s 113 . . .”
In the shadow of a thousand-foot cliff, Lars shooed us off his boat, and onto a series of long, narrow, stair-stepped ledges made of black and beige Tapeats Sandstone. Our camp for the night. The place didn’t have a name. It was a wide spot in the canyon just big enough to fit a kitchen, a groover, sleeping cots organized in two rows on rock shelves stacked like bleachers, and a yard-sale assortment of clothes and camera gear. After we unpacked the boat, Lars pointed out the high-water line, which doubled as the “don’t-camp-below-here-or-you’ll-die” line. Four of us took three steps back. A voice from the back suggested we name this prime riverside property “Lars’s Ledges” (which wasn’t to be confused with The Ledges, a formal camp upstream near river mile 152). We were all living like Lars now, like real river guides: living on the edge by living on the ledge.
PHOTO: Camping on Lars’s Ledges. Photo courtesy of Jacque Miniuk.
The late afternoon sun started tracing the backbones of ocotillo-lined ridgelines and spotlighting distant serrated spires. A sign from the river gods to commence the Ritual of Noctis. Change into camp clothes (a fancy term for pajamas you’ve worn for six nights straight). Set up cot. Wash hands. Eat. Clean dishes. Brush teeth. Check under cot for rattlesnakes. Pour sand out of shoes. Then, as the sliver of sky overhead sings its soothing lullaby from cobalt to navy to purple to black, fall asleep.
As I neared the end of this evening’s ceremony, I wasn’t tired. Neither were the guides. Josh invited me to join him and Lars for a rendezvous on the boat where they slept. This was my fourth trip with Lars, my second with Josh, but I still felt like I had been summoned to the popular kids’ table at a high school cafeteria.
I bounced across the unloaded S-rig, feeling my way in the dark by memory around the oblong-shaped doughnut and long, torpedo-like tubes attached on either side like outrigger pontoons. I found a perch on top of a metal food box in the back of the boat. I took my shoes off, my cyan-colored Crocs, and set them next to me. My feet dangled inside the floorless raft, where I could hear, but not see, the Colorado River rushing beneath me.
Earlier versions of these “baloney boats” had sealed floors and thus were not self-bailing. Assistant crewmembers used buckets to remove water from the boats so they wouldn’t sink in the rapids. These lucky individuals were known as “swampers.” Even though the Grand Canyon Expeditions founder Ron Smith ripped out the floor years ago—a design known now as the self-bailing “S-rig,” the “s” for Smith—the term “swamper” lives on. Before you ever think of becoming a head boatman, you have to do time as the swamper, at the beck and call of the boatman. On this trip, in addition to leading the photography activities, I was the swamper to the swamper. I was doing double time.
“Wanna beer, swamper?” Josh asked me. Lars didn’t drink.
“Is the pope Catholic?” I said, turning toward the sound of his voice.
He opened the cooler.
“What was that?” Josh asked.
I had no idea. I couldn’t see anything other than a faint V-shaped silhouette of the canyon walls and stars sparkling overhead. I turned on my headlamp.
“Where’s my shoe?” I spotted my left Croc on the food box beside me, but not my right. “I think that was my shoe.”
“Oh, that shoe is gone,” Josh said, handing me a cold one.
“If you fell in here without a life vest, you’d die,” Lars’ voice boomed in the dark from across the boat. His 280-plus trips down the river had worn him into a realist. “Maybe you’d resurface ten days later downstream like dead bodies do. Probably after Lava Falls somewhere. Or maybe you’d just stay in the river. Yeah, that shoe is gone.”
I took a long swig of beer. Josh did the same. I shrugged and said, “It could have been worse. It could have been the beer.”
“The first rule of being a river guide is to keep your shoes on your feet,” Lars said. “If you step on a stick and it goes through your foot, or you get even a simple infection, you’re getting helicoptered out. Trip’s over. What are you going to say to your clients then?”
My shoulders fell. I had passed all previous swamper training exams, which had included tying tidy taut-line hitches, grilling Texas toast without burning it, digging up band-aids in the first aid kit, discouraging clients from making oven mitts around their hands with toilet paper, and pushing wet—and hopefully clean—butts over rocky steps in narrow side canyons. I was failing this quiz, though. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a river guide after all. Or maybe I’d find my way. One thing was sure: I wasn’t about to sit and wait for the other shoe to drop. I picked up my left Croc and put it back on.
“I have Chacos with me,” I said sheepishly. I didn’t dare tell Lars that I referred to those sandals as the Death Shoes, wearing my Crocs whenever I could. The Death Shoes had caused dime-sized blisters to bubble on both of my heels and etched long abrasions across the top of my feet. I’d never feel thankful to be off a river, but I was glad I would have to suffer in the Death Shoes for only another thirty-six hours.
Several more rounds of banter and beers passed, and finally conversation tapered off. Josh gave me a piggy-back partway back to my camp on the lower ledges. I hopped on one foot the rest of the way, too independent and too damn stubborn to let a higher-up carry me any farther. While I sat cross-legged on my canvas cot, I slid my left shoe into my dry bag so I wouldn’t lose it. Although I didn’t know what I’d do with a single shoe. Be half a river guide?
Sleep came easily. Waking came sudden. In the middle of the night, a thunderous boom jolted me upright in bed. The river, twenty feet from my feet, sounded different. She no longer mumbled by. She raged and roared and thrashed. Trees snapped like toothpicks. Boulders smashed against boulders. The hardened sandstone underneath me shuddered. I flashed my headlamp toward the channel. The opaque green water had turned to blood. The river had flash-flooded, returning to her true self. This was what she looked like before 1963, when the Glen Canyon Dam upstream stripped her of sediment and changed the color of her waters. In Spanish, “colorado” means “colored red.”
I laughed aloud. I had no hope of getting my shoe back now. If it hadn’t drowned in Lava, the sudden torrent had chewed it into oblivion. I fell asleep again trusting Lars knew where the high water line was.
PHOTO: Lars cooking up breakfast in the morning after the flash flood. Note the change in the color of the water from the photo above. Photo courtesy of Jacque Miniuk.
We woke on the seventh day, yet there was no rest from all the work to be done. The river flowed gently again, as if the flood never happened, but the most violent rapid in the Grand Canyon, Lava Falls, waited downstream. Water there plummets over ancient basalt rocks scattered across the riverbed, dropping 37 feet in height in about 750 feet in distance around holes deep enough to swallow a two-story house. To the outside world, it’s a waterfall. To the rafting community, it’s a bucking class 10 rapid. Or, a test of survival. We’d face our fate in twenty-one miles.
We loaded the boat and chased reflections of cliffs and light between the narrow, near-vertical walls of the canyon for the rest of the morning. From my seat near the back of the boat, I wrapped my feet toe to ankle in athletic tape before slipping into my Death Shoes. Our guests dipped their sarongs and bandanas and hats in the fifty-one-degree water to stay cool. The river stained everything red.
The overnight flood gave us something new to do as we floated: sort through river booty. River booty is like pirates’ booty, except it’s the Colorado River that plunders the goods. The most highly-sought after treasure? An unopened beer chilled by the river herself. And also my missing shoe.
We spied a brim of a hat, half of a gnawed-up bailing sponge, even a torn-up captain’s chair, all drifting by. I pointed to another object bobbing off in the distance. “Lars, what is that? Is that a beaver or a river otter or a . . . ?”
“No. That there is the elusive Grand Canyon gator, the rarest species of alligator in all the world,” Lars said. The rounded head with a long snout swam closer to us.
“Lars! That’s a piece of wood,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“How do you know when a river guide is lying?” Josh said. He didn’t wait for a response. “His lips are moving.”
“That joke is older than Vishnu Schist,” I groaned, referring to the billion-year-old rock exposed in the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon.
“Don’t take that schist for granite, swamper,” Josh said. Zoroaster Granite, which is equally as old, criss-crosses the Vishnu Schist formation.
We stretched our legs on a short hike into National Canyon, a narrow side canyon, then continued floating downstream. We pulled into a sandy beach around river mile 168. “Lunchtime!” Lars yelled from the back. “Colleen, tie us off.”
PHOTO: Our group of river rafters at lunch at mile 168 before hitting Lava Falls. Note the tutu (while wearing the Death Shoes).
Another river guide pop quiz! I grabbed a two-foot-long sand anchor, then tiptoed along the right boat tube, careful not to fall in. I unraveled the rope at the front of the boat, then marched twenty or so feet up the beach. After pushing the metal spike into the soft sand, I tied a well-dressed knot.
I too was well-dressed, and feeling it. I was wearing my lucky blue tutu. For Lava.
Lars inspected my work, kicking the three inches protruding out of the sand. “The first rule of being a river guide is to make sure you’ve pounded the sand anchor all the way into the sand. Otherwise the boat will drift downriver. Trip’s over. Then what will you say to your clients?”
“I thought the first rule was to keep shoes on my feet,” I said, pressing down on the anchor with the ball of my foot.
“That is the first rule.”
“Then this would be the second?”
“No. It’s also the first.” Lars bounded onto the boat.
“Let me guess. All the rules for being a river guide are first?”
“You’re catching on quick there, swamper.”
“How is that even possible? If all the rules are first, then none of them are,” I said, taking an armful of food from him to set up on the beach.
“Law of the river.”
“Created by who?”
“Oh right. I forgot. Lars’s Law of the River.”
For lunch, our group smashed peanut M&M’s into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, devoured our twenty-seventh tube of Pringles, and slunk from one patch of shade to another as the sun cast shadows of willow and tamarisk across the shore. We didn’t linger. Lava loomed twelve miles ahead.
After a bouncy ride through Fern Glen Rapid, a class 2, Lars cut the motor, looked at me, and asked, “How do you approach Lava?”
I had studied many historical explanations in the Great Library of Almighty River Knowledge—the internet—of how to run Lava. Seven days of river time, withdrawn from technology, though, had turned my brain to mush. I couldn’t remember.
“Very carefully?” I said, laughing. When I saw he wasn’t joking, I straightened up.
“Follow the bubble line?” The easiest way through a rapid usually entails following the bubble line through its smooth V-shaped tongue.
“You’ll drop over the Ledge Hole and die,” Lars said. “Do you go left or right of the bubble line?”
I had a fifty-fifty chance. “Um. Left?”
I winced. I hadn’t kept count of all the ways I could have died so far, but I was starting to wonder if talking with Lars was dangerous to my health.
“Then right!” I said.
“Hug the right side to avoid the Ledge Hole,” Lars said. “But stay left so you don’t get sucked into the Pourover.”
Maneuvering a boat, especially one the size of a small barge, down the narrow navigable channel between the Ledge Hole and the Pourover requires a surgeon’s precision. The Ledge Hole, on the left, spans almost half the river. The Pourover, on the right, tumbles over a smaller, but no less dangerous, pit closer to shore. Rafters must punch through what sits between, the Hump Wave, a long, feisty lateral wave they fear—until they see what’s next.
“Then get ready for two more big hits,” Lars said. “First, the V-Wave. Don’t get turned around there, otherwise you’ll end up in the Corner Pocket on the right. Then, T up for Big Kahuna.”
First, the V-Wave. Its two lateral waves form the open jaws of a laughing hyena lying on its side. The teeth of the two waves devour boats that aren’t angled right. Then the hyena laughs and keeps frothing at the mouth. The alternative is to take a spin in Corner Pocket, where the swirling current holds rafts hostage and shreds them against Cheese-Grater Rock. It’d take a boat as long to get out of Corner Pocket as it would a dead body to resurface there. Maybe longer. And likely in worse condition.
Then it’s Big Kahuna. “Kahuna” is a Hawaiian word for sorcerer or wizard. That wave is a magician all right. It makes rafts disappear. Boats spill into a trough so deep they vanish from view. Seconds later, they crash into a ten-foot standing wave. If your boat hasn’t folded into a human taco once you hit what feels like a slab of concrete, then it stays submerged underwater as it plows through the crest. Lucky rafters resurface eventually. Smart ones bring a snorkel.
Lars revved the engine and off we went to meet our doom. From a quarter mile away, the roar of Lava echoed through the canyon. Soon after, the bubbling cauldron came into view, foaming and cackling. We made the requisite offerings to the river. Circled around Vulcan’s Throne. Looked up at the small arch on river right, the canyon’s Eye of Horus. Tightened down boat straps, life vests, and butt cheeks.
“It might get a little splashy,” Lars said, which is code for “Hang on. We might die.”
He led us into the maw to the right of the bubble line and executed the plan to perfection. In eighteen seconds, it was over: just like that, we were through Lava Falls. The Ritual of Aqua commenced. Hooting and hollering. Exaggerating the size of Big Kahuna. Cleaning fish out of our ears. Our boat had busted a tube strap in the V-Wave, but Lars blamed that on me wearing a tutu.
We spent a few minutes watching other boats take their turn down Lava, then turned to putt-putt downstream to our final camp at Whitmore Wash. After a mile or two, excitement melted into melancholy. Chatter silenced. No one wants a river trip to end.
“Hey, look over there! What is that?” someone suddenly yelled from the front of the raft, someone obviously still on river booty duty. I stood up thinking it would give me a clearer view of the sighting.
“Lars! THAT’S MY SHOE! I mean . . . ” I turned to him and changed my voice to mimic his. “That there is the elusive Colorado River croc, the rarest species of crocodile in all the world.”
Lars smiled. He circled around the eddy but couldn’t fit our boat’s big nose into the small gap between fallen boulders. He pulled into a longer eddy thirty feet downstream. Josh disembarked, then bushwhacked through tamarisk and rocks, jumping over at least two sleeping rattlesnakes, maybe three, to rescue my Croc with a fishing net. Back on board, he handed it to me and said, “Don’t lose this again.”
(VIDEO: Josh rescuing the Colorado River Croc: https://youtu.be/cw-S9p8Y0mo)
“My shoe made it through Lava all by itself!” I turned to Lars. “A successful solo run. On its first try!”
“I bet it stayed to the right of the bubble line,” Lars said, grinning.
“Of course it did. It’s my right shoe!”
My clients stood quiet on the tubes looking at me, Josh, Lars, each other, me. One eventually piped up, “So . . . yeah . . . how’d you lose your shoe?”
Before I could answer, Lars chimed in. “Did you know 87 percent of incidents in the Grand Canyon occur on shore? Of those, 96 percent involve alcohol.” He paused. “But 99 percent of statistics about river incidents are made up on the spot.”
“But, Lars, this isn’t a Croc of shit,” I said, waving my shoe in the air. “Remember, I’m a river guide in training. I have to end all river stories with ‘It’s all true.’”
This story originated from my participation in the Fishtrap Outpost writing workshop on the Snake River with Craig Childs. Much gratitude to the Outdoor Writers Association of America for granting me the prestigious 2019 John Madson Fellowship award, which provided financial support to enable me to experience the magic of Hells Canyon for the first time while honing my outdoor writing skills.
“Deliciousness,” from Lake Mead National Recreation Area, on the Arizona-Nevada border || Prints available–click on photo to order yours!
I wanted to spend time with an old friend of mine, the Colorado River, on my stand-up paddleboard (SUP) in a place I had only been once before, Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border. I had spent much of the last year planning and training, and the last month watching and waiting for a window of favorable weather conditions. On November 1, I got it.
For the first three days, my friend and I had ideal conditions for paddling: virtually no wind and a few clouds here and there to keep the sun from baking us. Easy going! On the fourth day, which was also my first day on my own, though, things changed…
Despite a bullying headwind for about five miles, I ended up paddling hard and long, almost 12 miles. When I found a good camp for the night, it was completely overcast. Even though I was tired, I still went exploring as the day came to a close. After all, I had never seen this foreign landscape before.
Right after the sun went down, all of a sudden, BOOM! The sky exploded. It was off the hook!
I thought, “How delicious! How delicious this sunset; how delicious this chance to be in such a magnificent place; how delicious to feel SO alive right now! And how delicious brownies would be right about now!!!” The photo above resulted. (So did two pans of brownies when I returned home…)
After nine days–two of which I spent in camp on high wind delay–I paddled just over 60 miles from South Cove to Kingman Wash. I finished last Friday morning. It was likely one of the first crossings of Lake Mead (the largest reservoir in the United States) by a woman on a SUP. Regardless, it was definitely a grand adventure!
One where I learned more about the tenacity of the Colorado River as it’s transformed (once again) from a river to a reservoir. I witnessed indescribable beauty in the land and lake. I tested my outdoor skills through high winds, equipment failures (broken sunglasses, paddle, and tent poles), and an accidental capsize 50 yards from shore. But most importantly, I listened to the wisdom of the river.
The journey reiterated the life lessons I have learned since 2015, when my life took an unexpected left-hand turn and I attempted paddle across Lake Powell—a trip I took to cope with my struggles with loss, one that, like life, didn’t quite go according to plan. My friend, the river, reminded me to keep going with the flow. And always keep your paddle all in.
More photos, stories, and thoughts to come…stay tuned…
From the first day, about two to three hours after we started (aka, before the headwinds, LOL). I’m standing on the sand bar created by the Colorado River meeting Lake Mead. Photo courtesy Scott Lefler.
“Grand Serenity” || The rising sun illuminates unnamed cliffs along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon in the Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA (Prints available – click on the photo to order)
When I used to work as a project manager for Intel, I occasionally heard the advice from upper management, “Don’t confuse effort with results.”
Initially, it seemed like pretty harsh advice as my dedicated team worked 16 hours a day, 7 days a week to help bring a new software application to life for our internal customers. Didn’t our managers (and customers) appreciate our tireless efforts?
Most of them did, yes; but it did not replace their expectations that the software application eventually had to function without “bugs” (flaws/issues), as designed and delivered on (or before) the date our team promised. Anyone who has been involved in software engineering knows this sometimes involves project teams displaying impressive feats of strength and willpower equivalent to Superman moving the Earth…
Although I left the corporate life behind over nine years ago, I see this playing out all too often in the outdoor photography world. As photographers vie for attention on social media channels and elsewhere, this notion of traveling to unknown foreign lands, enduring unforgiving conditions, and torturing oneself to “get the shot” has overshadowed the value of an artist’s ability to observe, feel, and visually express their individual connection with the land.
Don’t get me wrong; as wondering and wandering photographers explore the Great Outdoors, fascinating adventure stories do tend to emerge. And sometimes you need to push and challenge yourself to experience a place to the fullest extent. In fact, famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that the mental state of “flow”—when you feel like you are “in the zone,” and that leads to increased happiness and creativity—occurs when a person concentrates on an important and challenging activity that requires some level of skill.
But just because you walked 17 miles in Class 4 terrain on the side of a mountain while hobbling on a broken foot through the middle of the night in grizzly bear country during the worst summertime blizzard in recorded history does not automatically guarantee that you “nailed it.”
Don’t confuse effort with results.
Maybe you did. Maybe this harrowing experience was so real, rich, and personal that you made a hundred images that were meaningful to you. Awesome. The expressive images you created resulted from you wholeheartedly feeling the fear of the darkness, the cold snowflakes seeping through your leg cast, and the wind burning exposed parts of your skin, though, not because you merely survived the grand adventure.
This personal and emotional connection with your journey and with your environment drives the creation of unique images—and you can accomplish this in your backyard under sunny skies, in Iceland under a glorious sunset, and everywhere in between. It matters not where you are standing but rather how you make the most of what you are standing in front of by incorporating your skills, intimate knowledge, and background.
Maybe you didn’t bring home any images. Awesome. Was the experience meaningful to you? Did you have fun? Mission accomplished.
To drive the point home, I made the image above from our Fossil camp (river mile ~125.5) while on our raft trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Before dawn, I casually strolled about 100 yards on a gorgeous sandy horseshoe-shaped beach to reach this point on the river. I waded across a small riffle and sat on a boulder waiting for the rising sun to illuminate the deep canyon walls in the distance. I inhaled my surroundings. I felt at peace and at home after four days on the river. I felt like each new day unfolded exciting mysteries of geology, history, and adventure. I felt the constant shifts between flat water and roaring rapids.
I intentionally composed to show this serenity, this mystery of light, and the balance of the two water energies. Then I snapped my frame.
With a cup of delicious coffee in one hand (and cable release in the other, of course). In 80-degree weather with a light cool breeze. While still in my pajamas. While waiting for our amazing guides to finish cooking up made-to-order Eggs Benedict for our group’s breakfast. One can only imagine the immensity of the tragic conditions I endured.
But really, I should not confuse effort with results…
“Of Glory and Beauty” || Cliffs along the Colorado River near mile 54 (just south of Nankoweap ruins) soak up the day’s last light in the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA (Prints available – click on photo to order yours!)
My mom and I recently had the fortunate chance to spend eight days rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon for the first time while on a private trip with 14 dear and new friends with Hatch River Expeditions. Commonly used words to describe the trip like “epic,” “best trip of my life,” and “life-changing” all fall short of how I feel about my time in the canyon’s warm (literally and figuratively!!) embrace. I’m not exaggerating when I say it was so far beyond epic! I loved it so much, I’ve already booked another trip down for May 2017!
I have 4000+ images and ~128GB of GoPro video footage to sort through, plus pages and pages of notes I scribbled in my journal, from our trip so more pics and stories are sure to follow as I start to shake the sand out of everything.
However, to give you a taste of how exhilarating–and at times, downright hilarious–our trip was, I put together this three-minute video of our run through the famous Lava Falls, the river’s most difficult rapid (albeit short). It’s rated a Class 10 on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the most difficult and dangerous.
In the short clip, Wendy Gunn, her son Troy, and I are riding in the “bathtub” (the front of the motorized raft), so we had front-row seats as the action unfolded. Boy, did we get a mouthful! And man, did we have a blast!
Take a peek at the video below to experience (and for those who have been down the river, perhaps re-live your ride) Lava Falls without getting wet like we did!
(Note: we spewed a few expletives during the ride, so you may not want to play this at full volume at work…)
In accordance with tradition on all of my photography workshops, our group poses for a “silly” group photo on the shoreline of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon.
This past weekend, 17 enthusiastic women embarked on a remarkable four-day photographic journey to Page, Arizona on the third Arizona Highways Photography Workshops(AHPW), “Women’s Photography Retreat.” Offered in a different location each year, this year our group marveled not only at classic locations like Horseshoe Bend and Lower Antelope Canyon, but also lesser-known spots like the depths of Glen Canyon on the Colorado River from a jumbo raft and the geological “teepees” of Little Cut.
Everyone following their own vision while rafting down the Colorado River in Glen Canyon, Arizona.
During our location visits and classroom sessions, we reviewed photography techniques like conveying time through slowing our shutter speeds, getting closer to our foreground subjects and maximizing our depth-of-field, and taking test shots at high ISO speeds to determine the proper settings for long exposures of the night sky. We also held discussions about we can gain inspiration from learning about the history of women in photography as well as how women photographers may see differently. In between, we swapped “interesting” life stories (some involving things like cats and microwaves…) and loads of belly-aching laughs. But most importantly, this workshop is – and has always been – about empowering women to try new things by pushing the limits of what we think we’re capable of in both photography and life.
Although the entire experience was unforgettable, what will certainly go down as one of my favorite memories of my photography career is our hike and night photography session at the Toadstools hoodoos in Utah. To watch the women light paint, photograph the Milky Way, and then hike back in the dark under the full moon light – all experiences some had never had until this past weekend – was incredibly rewarding.
We set out about an hour and a half before sunset to allow ample time to wander among this geologically rich area. After photographing the hoodoos bathed in direct sunlight at sundown, the group refueled during our picnic dinner before starting our night’s activities.
While waiting for the night sky to fall and the moon to rise, we ate a picnic dinner on the rocks. Somehow, this led to a suggestion to “wiggle your pickle.” And if you’re going to wiggle your pickle among a group of photographers, someone is bound to get “THE” shot of everyone wiggling their pickle!
Since many of the ladies had never photographed in the dark or painted with light, we began with a quick introductory session around one of the clusters of hoodoos. In a line, we focused (figuratively and literally) on composing the frame before losing daylight. As the sun fell well below the horizon, the entire group tested their exposure settings starting at ISO 1600, an f/8 aperture, and 30 seconds shutter speed – an arbitrary setting to serve as a starting point for how much light our camera would collect during that time frame. Based on the histogram, we could add or subtract light accordingly to record our vision.
As soon as everyone dialed to the right settings and achieved sharp focus, I counted “1-2-3″ and everyone snapped the shutter at the same time. During the exposure, I painted the hoodoos from the left side with about five to seven seconds of light from a strong LED flashlight. After the exposure, we all reviewed our histogram to determine whether our cameras had collected enough ambient light and flash light. Then, we’d repeat.
After a number of snaps, a large, unsightly shadow line revealed itself at the base of the tallest hoodoo. Because the neighboring smaller hoodoo prevented the flash light from hitting the taller hoodoo, the light needed to originate from the front – not the side. Because of the longer exposure, I could solve this minor problem by running into the frame with my flashlight while the group’s shutters were released.
On my first attempt, I painted the hoodoos from the side for a few seconds and then danced into the frame (“Like a gazelle!”), painting the tallest hoodoo at the base to eliminate the shadow. A quick review of the photos indicated the tallest hoodoo had received an excessive amount of light, so we needed to repeat the process with less flash light time.
On the next attempt, one second I was painting the hoodoos as I had down countless times before. The next second, I was chewing on sand. By taking a slight deviation to the right in my path in order to distance myself and my flash from the hoodoos to achieve less light, my right foot dropped into a two-foot deep trench and my entire body fell forward into the higher ground on the opposite side. Not wanting to ruin the entire group’s photo, I yelled, “I’m OK! KEEP SHOOTING!!”
(The hilarity of this statement becomes more evident when you consider the entire group had released their shutter for 30 seconds, making any adjustments to their shot impossible. What were they going to do then? Change their ISO?!)
With the flash light still moving in my right hand, I used my left hand to pick myself up so that I could continue running across the frame to paint the shadow area with light. After the exposure completed and many laughs about my tumble, “Keep shooting!” quickly became our trip’s motto.
And what a fitting rally cry this was not only for this trip and all the AHPW Women’s Photography Retreats, but also for life in general. When something brings you down, hose yourself off, get up, and try again. When something gets in your way, walk around it. When something does not go the way you hoped, try something else. No matter the situation or obstacle, personal growth and success comes when we keep going. Keep trying. And always KEEP SHOOTING!
P.S. If you or someone you know would like to join us on the next AHPW Women’s Photo Retreat in Verde Valley/Sedona in April 2014, visit the AHPW website at ahpw.org/workshops/2014/Sedona-Arizona-Womens-Photo-Retreat-2014-04-25/ for more information and to register. This workshop sells out quickly, so if you’re interested, I’d consider registering as soon as possible to reserve your spot!