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The Moab Experience 2006: Desolation Canyon

Ever want to know what it was like to go on a photo adventure tour? One participant in The Moab Experience, Thomas H. Nevin, shares his journey down the Green River to Arches National Park.

©All photos ©Thomas H. Nevin

Personal journal of Thomas H. Nevin

Host: The Moab Paper Company; Greg Schern, President
Date: June 3-8, 2006
Schedule: One day photography workshop; four days on river; one day photo op at Arches National Park
Accommodations: Red Cliffs Lodge, Moab, Utah

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Photo: View behind Red Cliffs Lodge

Saturday, June 3

Full day photography workshop at Red Cliffs Lodge, including:

  • Presentation by Rob Sheppard, editor of Outdoor Photographer, on digital photography.
  • Presentation by Jeff Foott on outdoor and nature photography; composition and use of polarizer and ND filters.
  • Presentation by Jon Fuller, local Moab dentist, on his effort and success in getting published in National Geographic.

Dinner at Lodge; meet fellow campers; send any heavy gear ahead on truck to embarkation point.  We’re told the small planes can’t take the extra weight to lift off in hot/dry air. I sent my tripod ahead; kept my new Nikon D200 in gear bag given to each of us (a waterproof bag that we could keep personal items in, within easy access in raft).

Sunday, June 4

Early 6 a.m. wake-up and departure to Moab airport, 25 miles from Lodge.
Planes: 3 small, single prop planes. Pilot and 4 of us in each plane.

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Photo: Moab airport; non-stop flight to Sand Wash, Utah

We flew up Desolation Canyon, so we saw where we would be coming down over next 4 days.

Deep, red/brown canyon; surrounded by flat mesa tops. Would soon learn we would land on one!

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Photo: Sun sets on Desolation Canyon

Landing just cleared canyon top, hit rocky runway causing plane to bounce around. Little scary for a second.

Met by guides and truck; we loaded our clothes bag in a large waterproof bag, and stuffed a sleeping bag inside too.

Truck took off for river at Sand Wash launch; we hiked 1.5 miles down and around canyon side to river.

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Photo: Hike down to Green River

Met BLM (Bureau of Land Management) agent; talked about safety and keeping river pristine.

Noticed mosquitoes right away! As well as the intensity of the sun. Lathered on bug and sun lotions! Took out broad brim hat to wear.

Met rest of guides; some looked very young. Two were young women … wondered if they could handle rafts in rapids and keep us safe from ourselves. Soon learned there was nothing to worry about. They knew what they were doing! Sometimes felt bad as the girls rowed the rafts, while we lounged on sides, feet in water, taking photos of gorgeous canyons every time we went around a new bend in river.

Rafts held four days food supply for 16; cooking gear, including a propane grill and a charcoal grill; tents, cots, 4 inflatable kayaks, and everyone’s clothes and personal dry bags. Each raft also held 2 huge water and Gatorade coolers. In this climate you drink a ton of water!

After launch, we soon tied rafts together, forming a pentagon sort of floating contraption. The surprise was that the lead guide’s raft had a 30HP outboard motor in the stern! We used it for a while, to gain some mileage in a flat-water section of the river.

At times, we would take a swim, with life jackets on!  The current would move the swimmer right along with the raft!

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Photo: Raft flotilla

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Photo: Why row when you have an outboard?

Evening campsite:

We learned how to pitch our tents and put the cots together. You needed a friend to help!
Soon learned that meals were going to be great, and not just because we were outdoors where all food tastes great. The guides were great cooks! As soon as we landed, the guides would bring the gear bags ashore and get meals going, as we set up tents or investigated the site for photo ops, animals, etc.  We saw mountain sheep, a river otter and an “alligator” log.

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Photo: Campsite

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“Ali-Gator” log

At dusk, the dreaded mosquitoes returned, forcing many of us to retire to our tents early.
The more adventurous went “toe fishing.” This was a new sport to me. It consisted of putting leftover dinner food between your toes and wading into the river a few feet. In short order, a member of the local catfish community would swim up and nibble at your toes. The trick was then to reach down into the water and try to flip the fish onshore! We caught several that way.

The day’s last surprise was at about 2 a.m.; waking to take care of some business, it was almost unbelievable to look up at the night sky and see the zillions of stars! With no city lights around, the sky was jet black and the stars popped out like diamonds. We talked the next day about setting up a tripod and capturing the stars movement over the course of the night. Unfortunately, most of us had digital cameras and we were concerned about battery life, as there was no place to recharge. One man had a film camera and shot the stars the second night.

Monday, June 5

There is nothing like waking up your first morning on the river to the smell of coffee and bacon cooking! The guides were up early and had breakfast almost ready as we stumbled out of our tents. Pancakes too!

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Photo: Coffee is ready!

Personal hygiene was important on the trip. The soil in this environment is delicate and receives little rain, so #1s were to be done in the river.  As to the other necessity, the guides brought along a portable john, affectionately known as the “groover” for the grooves it left on one’s butt.

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Photo: Milkweed flower, waiting for butterfly to alight

A morning photo op was a few large (monarch-like?) butterflies feeding on milkweed. The blossoms on the plant were very interesting by themselves, but the shot was getting the butterfly in the picture. We had about six people bumping in to each other, trying to guess which flower the butterfly would next land on. Macros, flashes, wide angles, telephotos … all the equipment was in play. It was very interesting to see the “pros” work the scene. I took about 10 shots, they probably took 100! I didn’t get the butterfly.

On the river, we entered more fast flowing water, and left the bugs behind!

We brought out the four duck boats (inflatable kayaks for two people). With people in them for the next three days, the space on the rafts grew so that maybe two people would have their own personal guide/rower. Sort of like the being pharaoh on the Nile.

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Photo: Duck boats away!

The rafts and the duck boats took the rapids very well.  The waves looked large on occasion, but the boats glided over them with ease. Well, except for one time, when our raft hit a rock and stopped, right in the middle of a rapids. There were three rafts behind us and each took a turn trying to bump us off, as they rushed by. Luckily, the third raft was the charm and we were back in the flow.

Lunch break:

We had two hikes planned; one to see ancient rock art (petroglyphs), and the other to Rock Creek Ranch, a deserted homestead in the middle of nowhere. I often wondered who the settlers were who came to these spots so long ago and why? Who was on that pioneer journey and said, “Hey, let’s stop here and build a house?!” 

The hike to the petroglyph was short, but the artwork was very interesting to see. I wondered how it survived the weather and erosion for hundreds of years.

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Photo: Petroglyph

On the hike to the ranch, we stopped to shore up a dam on a nearby creek. In short order we had a wall a few feet high and several feet of swimming water. It was cold water!

The ranch had a couple structures and some discarded farming equipment. A cactus, with a pretty yellow flower, drew a lot of photo interest. The light was difficult as it backlit the delicate flower. 

Lunch was “tuna smash” sandwiches.  Great! (whatever was in them!)   Oreos dipped in crunchy peanut butter was also a big hit!

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Rock Creek Ranch ruins

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Photo: Cactus and flower on roof top of ranch house

Campsite:

Once again, gear and dinner was prepared quickly. It was pasta night with about three sauces to choose from. A cake was also baked in a dutch oven type setup.

Sunset looked like it would offer some great shots. A hike up the canyon side to a promontory offered the chance to shoot the “chicken wing” rock. Unfortunately, we miscalculated the time to get to the top, and the light was off our subject. We did have a great view of our campsite below and I took some shots. I got Jon setting up his film camera to shoot the stars.

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Photo: Campsite from canyon overview

The other entertainment that evening was the fun in an eddy. Our campsite was on a point in the river that caused an eddy just offshore. The eddy went in a circle of about 50 yards radius.  It was a strong current separate from the main river current, but as you swung around in it, it wasn’t clear that you weren’t going right out into the river. Our lead guide Reese did it first to show us it was “safe.”  Well, he was right, but the next hour was a laugh riot as we watched one person after another go around the eddy … unable to break out of the current to get back to shore. Everyone would try to swim straight back to shore only to get caught in the current taking them back around again, and again! The trick was to let the current take you further down before cutting back to shore, but that seemed counter intuitive. If you went around four times you got pulled out by the guide.

Tuesday, June 6

Last full day on the river; best rapids of the trip (2’s and 3’s); very hot!

Yesterday I forgot to put #45 sun screen on the tops of my feet; I have red/purple stripes from my river sandals.

Coffee smell wakes me up. Eggs, bacon, toast … created my own McMuffin.

One hike today to the McPherson Ranch.  Another deserted homestead, and same questions … Who?  Why?

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Photo: McPherson ranch ruins

Lunch onshore; cold-cut sandwiches and fruit slices. I’m amazed how fresh all the food still is. Great roast beef sandwich.

Photo ops around site; noticed a few clouds building up. (19, 20)

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Photo: Photo op after lunch

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Photo: Clouds build over river

Campsite:

We stopped early because the next campsite was about 7 miles downriver and we didn’t know if it was taken.

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Photo: Last night campsite

The sun was intense and the campsite offered no shade. The guides rigged up a canopy to provide a place to sit, and a place to prepare the meal. Once the sun went down behind the opposite canyon wall it improved greatly, except for the continued cloud buildup that threatened a storm.

Our appetizer was watermelon and shrimp cocktail! Shrimp cocktail on the third day on river? Wow. Dinner was barbequed chicken and steaks on the charcoal grill. Chocolate cake topped off the meal.

For fun, the guides and some adventurous fellow travelers walked up steam along the shore to get to the start of the last set of rapids we had encountered. A few minutes later, they were back at camp having shot the rapids in their life jackets. Greg went off to look for rattle snakes. We wished him no luck.

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Photo: Rapids above campsite (slow shutter speed)

As we got ready to turn in, we all wanted to sleep outside for one night (and not deal with the pitching of the tent). Those clouds that had followed us all day started to rumble and we could see lighting in the far distance. The question was would it rain if we didn’t pitch out tents? As the wind picked up, the lead guide said we’d better be prepared for rain, and he had his assistants help get the tents up. Just in time. It didn’t rain but the wind created a sand storm along the shoreline and several tents took in buckets full.

Wednesday, June 7

Half-day to exit point, north of Green River, Utah

This section is thru Gray Canyon, named no doubt for the rock color. Very different than Desolation Canyon, which had the reds and browns.

Kind of anxious to get off river; four days seems like just the right amount of time. The water is generally easy, with just a few rapids. A friend in my raft asks to row and takes over for the guide, one of the young women. He rows for several miles! The guide passes the time asking us brain twisters. One was, you’re buried in a concrete box with only a piece of paper with you. How do you escape?  We gave up. Answer: tear the paper in half; put the two halves together; two halves make a “hole;” climb out of the hole! Bad, eh?

We reached the boat ramp by noon. There were still enough food supplies to have lunch. However, the bean burritos were not for me! The truck brought candy bars, and we devoured them.

The highlight there was watching the guides stack the heavy rafts (3 high) onto their flatbed truck.
The van ride back was about an hour. We dined at Red Cliffs Lodge. Good meal but hard to beat what we had on the trip!

Thursday, June 8   

Photo op tour of Arches National Park. 

5 a.m. wake-up to be there for sunrise; at the Windows Section.

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Photo: Arches National Park: Balanced Rock

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Photo: Arches National Park: Delicate Arch

Someone forgot to tell the clouds to leave … no sunrise shots.

The light wasn’t great, and the sky was just a gray/white, not very interesting.

The Nikon rep let me borrow his 12-24mm lens, a great tool for capturing an arch while standing just in front of it.

The evening trip back to get the sunset shots were also problematic as it rained for a couple hours.

Jeff Foott was very kind to take us out both times, in very difficult conditions to get any good shots. Thanks to him … and all his adventure stories.

Photo takeaways from Moab Experience:

  • My new digital camera (Nikon D200) worked great. Image quality as good as my N80. I had just purchased the D200 and wasn’t sure about digital or my knowledge of using it.
  • Histogram: What it is and how to use it. A great feature! 
  • White Balance: Another new subject; use of presets worked well, rather than auto. Cloudy preset gave good color to canyon shots.
  • Monitor: For instant feedback on composition, exposure.
  • With digital, just keep shooting! I took 200 shots and should have taken even more.
  • Polarizing filter works great in this environment.

Finally: 

  • A superb trip/photo adventure … a real Moab experience. 
  • Extremely well organized; thanks to Moab Paper Company and World Wide River Expeditions. They treated us royally!
  • Participation by professionals in photography field was a fantastic opportunity to talk photography, to get some tips, to try some equipment you didn’t own (yet), and to watch how the pros worked an opportunity.
  • Wonderful mix of interested amateur photographers from all over the country; people got along well; good friendships made; everyone interested in doing another trip next year.