1 Nov 2014

USA Road-trip - The Blood Moon

After dinner at the Moab Brewery I did a little bit of research about the upcoming total lunar eclipse, which we were in the right place at the right time for, it turned out. I knew that there was a full moon while we were in Moab when I was planning the trip, but for some reason had failed to learn that there would be an eclipse until two days earlier when I'd read about it online. As a result, we weren't very well prepared. Sitting in the cramped motel room I used the photographer's ephemeris to work out where it would be in the sky. I thought about good places to hopefully see it. I learned all about how it gets darker and darker as the sun comes over the moon (obviously!) before the moon lights up red once there's totality. I manically checked the weather-forecast over and over to see if the forecast cloud was going to lift; it was actually clear outside in the evening, in spite of cloud forecast, so I was hopeful in spite of the overcast forecast. I checked over and over to make sure I had the time right for our time zone; the peak lunar eclipse was at 4.55am, but totality lasted for almost an hour, half an hour either side, with the partial eclipse beginning an hour earlier. I didn't want to get the time wrong by an hour...

We planned to drive back into Arches National Park and try to make our way to Delicate Arch, which in hindsight was wrong for so many reasons. We woke up to the alarm at 2.30am, checked out of the window to see if it was clear enough and as I could see the full moon shining brightly above us we headed out. By the time we parked it was about 3.15 and we set off up the track with torches and a rough idea of where we were going based on my memory of the trail from 9 years earlier, in the daylight; I had also had a cursory glance at a map of the trail the previous evening. The track was easy to follow at first, but as we reached the slickrock section the partial eclipse began, the light became weaker and we began to lose our bearings. With the full moon shining brightly it might have been easy to see the cairns placed at too-far distances on the slickrock, but as the light faded this was impossible. I was also a little nervous about bears, as someone we'd met a few days earlier told us that there were some black bears hanging around the park. I looked out for dark moving shadows around me; thankfully there were none.

We continued up the slope, following cairns if we could see them. It soon became obvious that we were definitely on the wrong track. I could see a few silhouettes of rocks on the horizon ahead and knew that the arch had to be perched on the edge of a bowl behind one of them, but we kept coming to big drop-offs, so had to go back down a bit, trying to retrace our steps. As well as being lost I was soon sweaty and uncomfortable as I was wearing my down jacket and thermals. The battery on my torch was weakening with every step. It wasn't going very well. We were both ratty and annoyed at not being able to find the trail. As we saw the first glimpse of the red moon marking the beginning of the total eclipse we found a cairn, but had no idea where the one further up the hill was, so we decided to cut our losses, sit down and enjoy the eclipse, and worry about the bloody arch in daylight, another time. We sat on the ground and I set up my tripods and cameras to capture the blood moon with different focal lengths. Light cloud came and went covering the moon from time to time. I wish I'd had a teleconverter with me to see the moon a little bigger - the 200mm wasn't able to capture enough detail, even on the cropped-frame sensor of the 60D giving it a little extra distance. The sky was full of stars, but the thin cloud didn't allow for great views of the milky way. The moon was quite spectacular, but the whole experience would have been far better if we'd just stayed at the side of the road and enjoyed the eclipse with a few hills silhouetted behind, rather than attempting a climb in the middle of the night up a slope with no idea of where we were really going.

An hour later and the show was over and the scene was plunged into darkness again. The moon gradually reappeared again, a tiny ethereal crescent surrounded by a light mist, growing as we descended. I used my iPhone torch to guide me, but we could see some lights in the distance from other people coming up the trail, which helped us find the right direction to head for and soon we were back in the safety of the car. We drove home in silence, both exhausted from a short night's sleep and still annoyed by our stupidity in not being better prepared. It was light by the time we reached the motel, but we still managed to get back to sleep for a few hours; no sunrise photos for me that day.

When we visited Delicate Arch the following day (couldn't face it when we woke up later that day) we found that although we'd only been about 10 minutes from the arch when we sat and watched the moon, there was no way that we would have found the trail as it took a little detour through a shrubby area; we made the right decision to go no further! We also realised that we wouldn't have been able to take any photos including the moon and the arch together - do to that we'd have needed to have been on the far side of the arch to get the moon in shot - off the side of the cliff!

Next stop: Canyonlands

US Road-trip - Bryce Canyon & on to Moab

We had a long way to go. Springdale to Moab is just under 350 miles, which should take about 6 hours on the fastest roads without stopping. We were doing a little diversion along the way, though, via Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks, taking the scenic route, so it was going to take at least 8. We set off reasonably early, but hardly at the crack of dawn, and we were lucky getting through the tunnel out of Zion with only a short wait. The weather had become overcast overnight, so the views weren't as spectacular as they'd been on our drive in.

We drove straight to Bryce Canyon National Park, where we only had time for a short hike, much like my previous visit. We parked at Sunset Point and walked around the rim of the enormous amphitheatre, crammed with strange orange hoodoos, up to Inspiration Point; the air was noticeably thinner again. The midday light didn't really bring out the best in the place - next time I'd have to stay for sunset and sunrise. At Inspiration Point I chatted to a photographer from the Cotswolds whose wife mentioned that her son had a double-first from Cambridge within about 5 seconds; a fact I had no interest in whatsoever! I imagine that she told everyone she met. I wanted to ask her why she was telling me that, given that I'd literally just met her and couldn't possibly be remotely interested in her son's academic achievements. Instead we said our goodbyes and moved quickly.

On our way back to the car we could see dots of people hiking down on the canyon floor; again, next time I'd hike down between the hoodoos to get a sense of their size, which you couldn't really get from a walk along the rim. The sun was struggling to come out, and finally began peaking through as we walked back, beating down hard on my un-suntan-lotioned bare shoulders.We stopped at Upper Sunset Point where a woman told me that she'd just met the great-granddaughter of Bryce himself, after whom the park was named; again, I imagine she'd be dining out on that meeting for the rest of her life.

After a lunch of cold pizza in the car we were off again, heading east and then north along the Scenic Byway 12, in and out of the Dixie National Forest and across the Boulder Mountain pass. The scenery varied enormously as we headed across the mountain pass and down again, with various forests, slickrock canyons, badlands and lush river valleys.


Driving through the forest was a pleasure. I had stopped to admire the view from the top of the highest pass when I'd driven in the opposite direction 9 years earlier when the aspens had displayed bright green new leaves; now the leaves were all yellow.

Eventually we reached Capitol Reef National Park, but we had no time to head into the heart of it. The road takes you through the park, though, so we got a little look as the road meandered for miles along a river valley, with small hills on either side that were littered with round black lava rocks, presumably from some long-past eruption. The scenery began to change again, with huge strange ash hills to the north. After a long, straight section on the 24 that seemed to go on forever, we reached the Interstate 70 and were able to drive a speedy 75 mph without worrying about being caught by the police (after a hefty fine in Norway, we were taking things slow). I wanted to get to Arches National Park in time for sunset, although that was unlikely, so this quick section was welcomed. We hadn't even stopped for me to take any photographs for hours.

We got to the park entrance, a few miles north of Moab, just as the sun was setting, and drove a little way in to see what we could see while there was still some light; most cars were leaving the park. It darkened extremely quickly, with some brief pinky-purple light on the clouds above the silhouetted rocks, but we drove on a bit further. By the time we stopped the clouds were blue-grey and it was almost dark. We stopped to watch the full moon rise behind the Balanced Rock. We decided to call it a day and return later in search of the blood moon (total lunar eclipse) which was due in the early hours. A photographer there commented as I was leaving that you have to make sacrifices to get the right shot (ie. he was alone and was clearly planning to stay around a while). I told him that we'd driven 350 miles and had been on the road for 10 hours, so had to get something to eat. He's right, of course - you do have to make sacrifices, but the way in which he said it was so condescending it made me snappy and defensive. I mentioned that we planned to be back out there in the early hours to see the moon when it was eclipsed. He hadn't heard about the eclipse. As well as sacrifices, I thought to myself smugly, one also has to do some planning to get the right shot and find out about things like eclipses.

I'd booked us into pretty much the cheapest place in town, the Redstone Inn, but it was an okay place with a small kitchenette (with a box of crockery and cutlery in it!). It was also a stone's throw from the Moab Brewery which had a selection of strong bottled beers (including a delicious Belgian-style one) in addition to some reasonable draught beers at 4%. They also served food - all very convenient as we were exhausted after the long drive and couldn't face going further afield.

Next stop: The Blood Moon

29 Oct 2014

US Road-trip - Zion, Utah

On my visit to Utah in 2005 I spent about 2 hours at Zion National Park - nipping in on my way from Kanab to Las Vegas. I'd hiked to the Emerald Pools and loved it, but needed a lot more time to do the enormous park justice (no sh*t!). This time round I booked for us to stay 2 nights in Springdale, a small town that lies at the edge of the park, so that we had a full day and the afternoon of our arrival to explore.

We drove from Page, without stopping along the way at a few spots I'd previously hoped to visit (Buckskin Gulch Trail, for example) as it was another clear and hot day and we didn't feel like a 3-hour hike in the open desert. Sadly the Wave was out of the question (I'll have to book 4 months in advance next time or try my luck with the daily lottery in Kanab). Instead we thought that we might try renting ATV off-road vehicles at Coral Pink Sand Dune state park. I'd googled it before we set out from Page, but couldn't quite work out how to book anything, or where from. We drove close to the turn-off to the dunes, but decided that it was unlikely that we'd be able to just rock up and find an operator. We stopped in a hotel at the turn-off from the 89 to the Mount Carmel Highway road to Zion (part of the Route 9), who suggested we try at a place called the Ponderosa Lodge. We followed their instructions and headed up the pretty North Fork Road. When we got there we were disappointed - but not very surprised given that we were miles away from the dunes now - that they only ran ATV trips on the nearby land, and not down at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes. It was a bit of a wasted journey, but the drive was pretty, passing some fields full of beautiful soft grasses blowing gently in the wind.

We went back to the route 9 and continued on to Zion. Although I'd driven that route in 2005 none of it seemed familiar at all; I had no recollection of the impressive tunnel and huge switchbacks below it. The scenery before the tunnel was spectacular, with huge stripey white and orange cliffs, checkered white hillsides and river valleys. There were many trees and shrubs; it was a lot less deserty than where we'd come from.

We stopped a few times to admire the views, bumped into our German neighbours from the cabins at Monument Valley, and headed through the tunnel without having to wait (it can sometimes take half an hour or more). From time to time there were windows, cut out of the side of the tunnel, giving a view down into the canyon below - quite an impressive engineering feat for 1927! Once out of the tunnel there were steep cliffs above us and a series of long, steep switchbacks below us. On the cliffs we could just make out a few rock-climbers and abseilers. I remembered seeing some on my previous visit too.

Not far from the foot of the switchbacks we reached the turn-off that led north into Zion Canyon (the "good" bits of the park), where only those staying at the lodge can drive; otherwise one must use the park shuttle services. We continued on and headed out of the park to our hotel on the outskirts of Springdale down the main street, which was crammed full of gear shops, restaurants, gift shops and lodges. I chose our hotel, the Driftwood Lodge, for the promise of a decent view of the mountains from our balcony - and wasn't disappointed! Sometimes it's worth paying just a little extra.

We had a coffee on the balcony and noticed the distinctive smell of marijuana - the people in the room below us were serious smokers - they must have been lighting one joint after another! We wanted to do a quick sunset hike, so headed back up to the park, left the car at the visitor centre car-park and set off up the Watchman trail. It was a pleasant walk up a small canyon, a couple of switchbacks, before winding round into the shade, coming out at a small outcrop, with the Watchman mountain towering above us. We'd left it a little late, but got there just in time to catch the sun set behind the mountains opposite us.

We hiked back down as the sun illuminated the peaks, the dark shadows rising up the hills fast. Dead trees abound - great for silhouettes. 

When we got back to Springdale we popped in to the Zion Canyon Brewing Company pub, hoping to try some of the local brews. The woman on the door explained that they were full, there was a 20-minute wait for a table, and that under Utah law you can't drink without having food, so we'd have to wait 20 minutes even to get a drink. Seemed a bit useless, given that it was supposed to be a brew pub. Not wanting to wait we headed home and then back out for dinner later to Wildcat Willies, where we tried a flight of the local beers. Draft beer in Utah can be no stronger than 4%, although bottled stuff can be. We stuck to the draft, which was rather tasteless and watery, especially having recently drunk the delicious 8% Crank Yankee IPA! We'd bought some beers by the Sleepy Dog Brewing based in Tempe, Arizona in a supermarket in Kanab so headed home and enjoyed a couple of those on the balcony under the stars. The neighbours downstairs were still smoking dope, and the smell continued to waft up, together with their giggles.

When it got a bit chilly we headed in, but I set my tripod up with the intervalometer on to take a series of star trail shots. I programmed it to take 30 shots, each lasting 2 minutes, remembering again to take the black shot at the end to get rid of the noise. Intermittently I'd check outside to see if it was still working. I quite liked the result, except for a couple of annoying aeroplane trails across the stars. The software let me take out the frames containing the planes, which left some breaks in the trails, but I think it looks better without them.

The following morning we set off to do a hike in the Narrows - a long, narrow, windy canyon at the end of the Zion Canyon road, which involves wading through the Virgin River. The choice was between that and Angel's Landing, which would have had fantastic views, but it was way too hot and that hike involved walking along an exposed ridge with little shade. The Narrows hike sounded unique (and was in the shade, mostly) so we plumped for that. We stopped off in one of the outdoor gear shops and rented special shoes, neoprene socks and a stick - all necessities for hiking through a river, which can be thigh-deep. We took the shuttle bus from the visitor centre, on which there was a recording of information about the park, its geology, history, etc. We got out at the furthest-away stop, Temple of Sinawava, and started up the Virgin River trail - there's an easy, flat paved trail to the Narrows trailhead, along which the less adventurous walk before returning to the bus.

The atmosphere in the Narrows was fantastic. It wasn't packed, but we were rarely alone. People hiked with their kids, some kitted out in full waterproof suits. It was such good fun, which is not something I usually think about hikes. We walked along sandy or rocky beaches, then waded through sections of the river to reach other banks. On the way up the canyon we stepped carefully, trying not to get water over our knees (I was wearing hiking trousers rolled up over my knee). On the way back we couldn't care less and swished right through deeper bits - the material dried off quickly. We took a little detour up the Orderville Canyon to the east, but soon the water became deeper (boys were swimming), so we turned round and headed back up into the main canyon. Most of the hike was in the shade, but from time to time the sunlight would reach the ground giving us a warm break. Some of the rocks at the edge of the river were illuminated by reflected sun and glowed gold. Photography was challenging, with a huge dynamic range of light conditions, although mainly just pretty dark! Occasionally I'd stop and take a few shots on the lightweight tripod I was carrying, but mainly I just pushed up the ISO and hoped for the best.



We got to the end of a section that is called "Wall Street" and turned around. In the last section the water was so deep that even our underwear got wet! At that point others said that it only got deeper, so it seemed like a good place to head back. It was one of the most enjoyable hikes I've ever done, but it was nice to get out of the water, take off the dripping socks and shoes, dry off and put on flipflops for the pleasant walk alongside the river under the cottonwood trees. Annoyingly I left a Snickers bar on the wall when I changed my shoes - would've been a nice reward for our hard work!

We got back to the bus stop at about 4pm - we'd been hiking for about 5 and a half hours. The sun was still high in the sky as we passed the Court of the Patriarchs and the Great White Throne, one of the largest monoliths (free-standing rocks) in the world.

We stopped off at the Zion Canyon Brewpub and managed to get a table outside immediately this time. We tried a few of their beers, but again were disappointed with the lack of oomph with the 4%ers. We only had to order one item of food between us in order to get beer, so we had some disappointing fries. The waiter told us that they were licensed to sell stronger beer in bottles, but just chose not too, which again seemed strange for a brew pub. It was all a bit disappointing! We headed home to watch sunset from the balcony instead, accompanied by a couple of Wasatch Beer's Polygamy Porters we'd picked up in Kanab (just love the name and the slogans - "Why have just one?" and "Bring some home to the wives" - and in spite of being only 4% they still have a bit of flavour to them). The rocks glowed an incredible orangey-red, just like the Totem Pole and Mittens had in Monument Valley.

We wandered up to the Zion Pizza & Noodle Co, located in an old church, where we sampled some much more agreeable strong Utah bottled beers (from Epic Brewing) and ate some reasonably tasty pasta and pizza, the remains of which would be our packed lunch the following day. We had a long drive ahead of us (to Moab), so we had an early night - I didn't have the energy to try out any more star shots.

Zion is definitely a park to return to; I can see why many people say that it's their favourite national park in Utah, or even the US. We only touched the surface - there's other sections accessible from the east too. Next time I'll have to try the Angel's Landing hike, but I'll have to revisit the Narrows as it's such fun, so at least 3 days will be necessary!

Next stop: Moab

27 Oct 2014

US Road-trip - Antelope Canyon & Horseshoe Bend, Arizona

I was kind of dreading Antelope Canyon. As a photographer, you cannot possibly pass through Page and not visit it, as it is too much of an iconic photographic location to ignore. Its beauty and proximity to the Grand Canyon have also placed it firmly on the tourist trail of northern Arizona. I knew that visiting it would not be a terribly enjoyable experience, given its popularity with tourists and photographers - all the reviews I'd read about it mentioned the dreadful crowds, but also that it was beautiful and unmissable at the same time.

I had researched the various ways to visit the place, which was an effort in itself, and had learned that the best option (or rather, the least bad) would be to get the photographer's permit for Lower Antelope Canyon, which entitles you to two hours to wander through the narrow canyon, without needing to be accompanied by a guide or on a tour. For this you must each carry a DSLR and a tripod and pay $50 (about $22 more than the regular guided tour). This sounded pretty perfect for me. If I'd wanted to go to Upper Antelope Canyon (the one with the usually over-exposed light-shafts) and take my tripod, then I would have paid more like $150 for a photographers tour, and my husband would have had to have gone on a normal tour (also about $50). This way, we paid the $50 each, my husband got to pretend to be a photographer by carrying my spare equipment (he lost his interest in photography a few years back), and we got to wander around at our own pace. The lower canyon has narrow metal staircases to climb down, which we hoped would put off a certain number of potential visitors.

The decision having been made to visit the Lower Antelope Canyon, then, we rocked up at 11 o'clock on a sunny Saturday morning, having driven the short distance from Monument Valley. If there's any chance of rain in the region the canyon can be closed, as it is at risk from flash floods, but this was not an issue on the day we visited. As expected, 11 am on a Saturday, even in the slightly off-season early October, is not a great time to visit. There are two operators based in the lower canyon, each sending down a group of about 15 people every 15 minutes or so, so there's a constant flow of new arrivals in the canyon. We had to walk to the canyon entrance with a group, but after that we were on our own.

As we waited at the top of the first ladder that takes you down into the canyon we could hear the chattering from people inside. We didn't have to wait for the group at the top, so climbed down into the narrow canyon. A few people were hanging around in the small chamber at the foot of the ladder. I moved on a little and tried to set my tripod up to take a few shots of people coming down the ladder, but soon realised that this wasn't going to be easy. No shot was going to be easy given the lack of space. And we were never going to be "on our own"- perhaps one might be if one visited at 3pm on a Tuesday in late January.

We spent the next hour and a half basically perched in slight recesses and nooks, waiting for tour groups and other photographers to go past, trying to find a little space and peace. It didn't really happen. Most shots I took were extremely rushed, and pointed upwards to avoid the inclusion of people wandering through. I wanted a couple of shots with people in, to give it a bit of scale, but not all the time, the whole way through. There was no opportunity for actually looking around and surveying the scene to find the most attractive composition. Tour guides instructed tourists where to point their camera in order to get the same shot as everyone else. We managed one corny self-portrait, standing in a hole that everyone posed in, taken using the self-timer.

At the hole we passed a Chinese photographer who didn't have much concept of personal space, waiting, moving aside, or taking it in turns to capture interesting views. When he wasn't shooting he carried his camera at the end of the tripod with the tripod over one shoulder, nearly hitting the camera against other people or the walls of the canyon. He didn't seem to be aware that he might not only damage his camera, but also make nasty scrapes along the soft sandstone walls (or someone's head!).

For the second half of our allotted time I gave up using the tripod and just pushed up the ISO and opened the aperture wider, neither of which were ideal (I didn't want grainy shots of the beautiful twisted walls and I wanted a good strong depth of field). But I couldn't bear the pain involved in trying to get steady, clear, deep shots and the time they took, with all the other people continuously moving through. Exposure was hard enough with the huge variety of available light, with little at the bottom and extreme brightness towards the top of the canyon, but the crowds just made it worse. I used a circular polarising filter to change the reflection of the light, but this required even longer shutter speeds. The image stabiliser on the new lens helped, but it was still challenging to get a decent shot.

We actually left the canyon before our time was up - it just wasn't an enjoyable experience, in spite of the amazing sculpted walls. We didn't need to worry about being late (they charge an additional $20 for every 20 minutes late you return the pass). My husband was definitely relieved to be out of there - he'd just stood around a bit aimlessly while I desperately tried to take a clean shot.

Feeling slightly shell-shocked by the whole experience, we drove on into Page, where we were staying in a rather characterless motel in the centre of the town. Just up from the motel we ate in an open-air Texas BBQ place, washed down by a well-earned Sierra Nevade IPA, before heading back to rest for a couple of hours. The wifi was decent enough, so I managed to download some star-stacking software and played around with my Monument Valley night shots until it was time to head out for sunset.

I was also slightly dreading visiting Horseshoe Bend too. It's another iconic location that I've seen many photographs of, and I knew it would also be busy with the same tourists that had been crammed into the slot canyons during the day. It was another must-visit place, though, with an almost 360 degree, horseshoe-shaped meander of the Colorado River, set down at the bottom of a deep canyon, with an almost-island-like hill sticking up in the middle of the bend. We drove the couple of miles up there from Page, parked in the already-packed car park and wandered up the short trail to the edge of the canyon. My husband had a brief look down into the canyon but then sat and read again, away from the edge. I found a couple of different spots along the cliff from where I watched the sun soon disappear below the horizon behind the bend. It wasn't nearly as scary as some of the reports I'd read by previous visitors. Yes, we were perched on the edge of a tall, steep cliff, but you didn't have to get right to the edge to look down. People do like to exaggerate!

Like Antelope Canyon earlier it was teeming with people, including huge numbers of loud Chinese tourists and photographers; there was a constant rabble, interspersed with sudden cackles of laughter or mock screams as people peered over the edge. At one point one woman squeezed next to me and just missed hitting my tripod and camera with her backpack by an inch (I had my hand in front of the camera shielding it just in case she had knocked it). It wasn't as if the cliff-top was short of space for seeing the bend, but she clearly fancied my viewing spot. It didn't make for a relaxing sunset-viewing experience, that's for sure. The cloudless sky prevented a spectacular sunset, but it was still a striking view. Immediately after the sun had dipped below the horizon the rock turned from an orangey-red hue to a pale magenta one. The hoards quickly dispersed, scurrying away like ants, eager to get back to town for the next feeding time, no doubt. I stayed for a while, watching boats come around the bend on the river leaving graceful trails in the glowing glassy blue water. Some people were camping down on the shore - I could just make out some tiny canoes and the dots of people pottering about camp; I think I would have preferred being down there with them.

Eventually we headed back to the motel, where we drank cheap Californian champagne out of plastic cups to belatedly celebrate our wedding anniversary (they wouldn't make an exception and give us a couple of real glasses from the bar). We tried to eat in the attached Indian & Thai restaurant, but it closed at 9, so we went to a nearby Mexican restaurant and ate more mushy food. It had been a strange day, starting with playing chicken in the road with Chinese photographers overlooking Monument Valley, struggling to squeeze through the crowded Lower Antelope Canyon with the masses and still hope to come out with a few decent shots, finished off with a cloudless sunset at Horseshoe Bend perched at the top of a huge cliff, being nearly jostled by noisy people desperate to get their shot.

We left Page the following morning on our way to Zion; if I ever return it'll be off-season, mid-week, and perhaps I'll venture down to the Colorado River to see the geological wonders from a different perspective. I won't be rushing back, though. I couldn't have not visited either of the two sights, given the route we were taking, but I can't say either of us particularly enjoyed the place!

Next stop: Zion National Park, Utah