In spite of temperatures in the high 60’s, the sun is high and if not sheltered by some shade, feels white and hot as only high desert sun can feel. The surrounding landscape reflects shades of salmon, not that bright red sockeye, but the pink Chinook slabs on ice in the fish case, pale and soft. We are settled in for our last afternoon at the Page Lake Powell Campground, on the main road into the town of Page.
It has been a good location and a good park for us to regroup a bit, pick up another month’s worth of mail sent by overnight express USPS general delivery. “Overnight Delivery” in remote locations like this one often mean two overnights, but in our case it was three. We planned for that possibility with a three day stay, and with delivery not as promised, will get our $19.99 refunded in full. Good for us, too bad for the USPS.
It is amazing to me, that in all my years traveling around the Colorado Plateau, I never came to Page. I did know that the Antelope Canyons, once called the Crack and the Corkscrew, were in the vicinity of Page. I hiked slots all over Utah, and looked at photos of Antelope, but somehow the trip never happened. It was a bucket list trip for me, one I knew I would have to someday experience.
I can’t help wishing I had done it prior to the 1997 tragic death of 11 canyon hikers in a flash flood. A Navajo permit was always a requirement, but now non native folks are not allowed in the canyons without a Navajo guide. Our decision to travel through Page was Mo’s suggestion, and took my breath away. Yes.
The minute we arrived, the young man at the campground desk called their favorite tour group for me, Antelope Canyon Tours. All photographic tours for the next several days fully booked. All prime tours for the next several days fully booked. “Prime” means a tour during the magical light hours of 11AM and 2PM, when the sun shines into the canyon forming the famous light beam that folks come from all over the world to photograph.
With a bit more conversation, after he realized that I was a party of one, (Mo declined this part of the canyon), he called the company again and they found room for me on an 11:30 AM tour for Upper Antelope Canyon.
Visiting Lower Antelope Canyon is completely different. Entrance to this part of Antelope is administered by a single family, and no reservation is needed at the current time. You simply show up, pay the $26.00 fee (including the 6.00 tribal fee) and wait for a guide to take your group through the canyon.
I was so excited, and actually nervous on the morning before my Upper Canyon tour. I knew that it would be crowded, and that the lighting conditions were challenging. I thought that even though I wasn’t on the photographic tour that I could still take my tripod and read extensively the night before about tips for shooting the famous colors and light in the canyon.
Antelope Canyon Tours uses open 4 wheel drive jeep type wagons that hold 12 people in the back. They picked me up at the campground, a free service, and took me back to town where I joined the several dozen people waiting to leave on the 11:30 tour. I was told then, that without being part of the official photographic tour, I could not take my tripod.
With f8 and f11 being the sweet spot and shutter speeds of more than a minute in some cases, I knew I was doomed. I thought well, ok, it doesn’t matter really. I am not coming to this canyon because I want to take pictures, I am coming to this canyon to be IN this canyon, so took off the tripod and accepted that my photos would be personal reminders and not technical perfection. I set the ISO really high and went for it.
All the photos in the world, no matter how many times you see them, will not give you a clue of what it is like to be here. All the crowds, all the rushing through of group after group, the clicking shutters, the calls of the guides trying to get people out of the way as the next group comes through, not one bit of this interferes with the amazing visual experience of walking through these canyons.
I found myself slipping into a meditative state, trying to be in the moment as much as possible while I also tried to change camera settings and frame and shoot. It was a test, a spiritual test, I am sure. Of course I would love to walk alone at my own pace through this sacred space created by time and wind and water. Me and a whole lot of other people, I am sure. Some precious places in the world simply require humans to accept that there are other humans around who want to experience them as well.
The trip from town to the canyons takes about 20 minutes or so, with much of it in Antelope Wash on thick soft sand. It is dusty. It is rough. Of all the people on the tour with me, not one spoke English. I was treated to the sounds of German, French, Japanese, something I am pretty sure was Czech, and several languages I didn’t recognize. This is a very popular place and people from all over the world make the journey to Page, Arizona, to experience these magical slot canyons.
We were in the canyon just a little over an hour before we were herded back into the trucks and I was dropped off at my campground on the way to town. I think my hair was stiff with dust and my face streaked from the dust and the happy tears that kept falling as I walked through the canyon. Dumb. The place just made my eyes water.
I was so happy that the next day I had another chance to be in an Antelope slot. Mo and I woke early, and were on the road toward Lower Antelope Canyon a little after 8. With tours beginning at 8:30, when we arrived there were already many people waiting. We paid our money and within a minute were in line with our Navajo tour guide.
Photos I had seen of this canyon showed people entering through the narrow slit in the earth from above, but our entry was on the south side of the canyon down many flights of steep stairs, but wasn’t difficult at all. The narrow entrance shown in many images of Lower Antelope Canyon is now the exit, or at least for this day it was.
Entering once again into the reflected light of Navajo sandstone was thrilling, and this time Mo got to see it as well. Mo is a bit less excitable than I am, so I was happy to see her eyes widen in delight as we descended into the canyon. Our tour group once again had people from all over the world, and included several small children, and even folks packing babies in carriers. I was glad that all I had to carry was my camera!
Once again, the canyon light was breathtaking. The morning sun was in the perfect position to reflect and bounce light around the swirling walls in ways that direct lighting could not do. Our young guide was great, managing all the people gently, and yet still taking my camera for some shots that he didn’t want me to miss.
Lower Antelope Canyon is a completely different experience than the Upper Canyon. The floor of the Lower canyon is more narrow and the upper part is wider, allowing more light to enter and more bounce. While orange and shades of salmon are common, in the lower canyon the purples and golden shades seemed to show up in the images more dramatically. Looking at the sandstone up close, it is all the same soft pale salmon color, but all the color in the imagery is about the light and how it is reflected and bounced around the complex walls of the canyon.
As with any kind of photography, settings make all the difference, with the camera seeing things the eye cannot. The eye and the soul however, working together in the canyons, can see and feel things the camera will never capture. All the techniques and tripods and equipment and time in the world can’t capture what it feels like to walk in either canyon. It is a life time, don’t miss it if you can help it, kind of experience.
This afternoon, sifting through the hundreds of images of swirling color, I thought of Erin a lot. Her photos of icebergs in Greenland must have been similar. Frame after frame of shape and color and light and shadow are so incredibly seductive. Blue water frozen in place and reflecting light and pale sand frozen in time and sculpted by water, reflecting light, somehow the same.
I could happily drown in this frozen sand filled with light.
If you want to get lost in the pictures as well, the Jpegs will be posted to a google album in the next few days. Check the link on the upper left side of this blog. Finer resolution photos will be waiting till I get back home.
I will close with the “Advice from a Canyon”, from a sweat shirt I bought at Chaco Canyon:
Carve Out a Place for Yourself
Aspire to New Plateaus
Listen to the Voice of the Wind
Don’t get Boxed In
Stand the Test of Time
It’s OK to be a Little Off the Wall