How to Photograph a Grand Canyon Rafting Trip
We launched our raft into the swift moving current and grabbed the paddles to quickly navigate towards river center and line up for the rapid. The river flow was picking up speed as we neared the tongue of this monstrous mix of boiling, turbulent, whitewater. My excitement to again be on Colorado River adventure gave way to more rational thinking of “what the heck am I doing here?” as I observed the massive river waves, seemingly taller than us, quickly creeping closer.
This rapid was Lava Falls, the biggest, baddest, most feared and most talked about rapid on this 277-mile rafting adventure. It is rated between 8 and 10 on a scale that only goes to 10. That is a big rapid! We were well into our second week in the canyon and were all ‘tuned in and going with the rivers flow’ by this time. That also meant we had two weeks to think about Lava Falls and ‘guesstimate’ what type of ride the rapid would give us at this water level. For me, I wondered what action photos I could capture from within the boat. Would I have to hang on for dear life or could I snap away?
I was comforted in knowing that my longtime buddy Brian, our boatmen and owner of an Oregon rafting company, was well experienced in navigating through the maze of holes and huge curling waves that we were about to enter. Once we reached river center, Brian told us to stow our paddles and hold on as he took full control of the oars. His plan to was to enter the rapid just to the right of Ledge Hole, a bus-size crater of re-circulating water that can leave a raft or kayak stuck or easily flip either.
Eagerly following his suggestions, I quickly moved to the rear of the boat and set myself on the pile of dry bags carefully strapped in. This position was slightly higher than the bench seat and provided a good shooting perspective of the boat, Brian rowing, and the impending hurricane of whitewater waves. I wrapped my left hand around the boat straps like a cowboy preparing to ride a bull and reached for my camera. It was secure in a Ewa Marine Underwater Housing that was tied to the boat with a loop of climber’s rope and a carabiner. This ensured the safety of my camera if things get crazy, but also serves as a lifeline should I get tossed into the river I can pull myself back to the raft.
As we entered the rapid, I confirmed my hold on the boat strap and camera and attempted to frame the scene through my cameras viewfinder, which was awkward when looking through the underwater housing, but necessary to keep Brian and the boat centered in the frame. We hit our first large wave which swamped all of us and from there all seemed a blur! I started shooting as we found ourselves dropping into a hole before immediately seeing blue sky as we climbed the side of the next wave. Brian constantly pushed and pulled the oars in an effort to keep the bow facing the large waves. During what seemed like an eternity, the raft tipped right and left, up and down as we bashed our way through Lava Falls and I continued pressing the shutter in rapid succession to capture all the action.
In reality, the ride through Lava Falls took barely a minute before we washed out at the end of the rapid, soaked, dripping, and yelling a whoop, followed by the customary high-fives. Then I hopped to the bow of the boat where my Pelican case was clipped in and grabbed my other camera with the 300mm lens. I immediately began shooting the action of the remaining 3 boats and two kayakers as they appeared and disappeared in the churning waves of Lava Falls. Once they were all through and had reached the slack water of the river eddies, we had another brief celebration before rowing back into the slow meandering river flow on our way to find a campsite. Most days spent rafting the Grand Canyon are similar with plenty of rapids of all sizes mixed with slow and lazy sections.
While many photographers make the trip to the viewpoints that dot the North and South Rim of the Grand Canyon and capture its awe inspiring grandeur, they rarely get more than a glimpse of the Colorado River as it snakes its way through the canyon. While being on top is an amazing experience, it’s the river that winds through the Grand Canyon that provides a whole new world for the adventurous nature photographer. Placing your self at the mercy of the river aboard a raft as it winds through the great depths of the Grand Canyon is an unparalleled experience. I have had the good fortune to raft the Colorado River through the canyon three times and each a 21-day private trip providing totally different experiences every time.
While the excitement of rafting some of the best whitewater in North America is a draw in itself, it is the limitless photographic opportunities that are a reason all their own. From the towering canyon walls and unusual geology, the canyon is blessed with a diversity found nowhere else. There are huge caverns and slot canyons all carved by water over eons, some contain waterfalls, hanging gardens, seeps, and springs.
Plant species are diverse with over 120 vegetation communities in the canyon. Along the river and its tributaries exists a vibrant riparian community including willow, western honey mesquite, catclaw acacia, and tamarisk are the most common species. Cacti can be found pretty close to the river and in the upper reaches of the canyon including; California barrel, fishhook, beavertail, desert prickly pear, hedgehog, and cholla. Wildlife are common from deer to bighorn sheep, birds and frogs, and a wide variety of lizards, including the elusive Chuckwalla. Like much of the American Southwest, the canyon was inhabited by Native Americans for at least 4000 years and remnants of their presence can be found in many areas.
While nature’s bounty is abundant for the photographer, the human element is just as important when documenting the full Grand Canyon rafting experience. While you can capture exciting point-of-view perspectives of the whitewater action from within the raft, the rivers edge is often close enough to the rapids allowing close-in action shots of a kayaker in a rapid or a fisherman in a shallow pool.
Campsites are often on long sandy beaches and here there are opportunities for photography that tells the story of camp life, an important aspect of a Grand Canyon adventure. Keeping an eye on your fellow rafters around camp can result in great storytelling images. For example, images I have captured include a fellow rafter sitting high on a rock and playing his flute whose melodic rhythms echoed across the canyon. Another image was a trip participant sitting in a chair with his feet soaking in the rivers edge while reading a book. Yet another participant sat in the opening of her tent bathed in golden sunrise light while sipping the morning coffee. As the sun sets you can capture images like reading by a headlamp, the glow of a small campfire, and a tent lit up by lantern.
Within the Grand Canyon there are many treasures worth exploring with your camera. You can day hike up countless side canyons spread along the trip and some of the more notable are Deer Creek with its magnificent waterfall along the rivers edge. A hike up Deer Creek Canyon presents many photographic opportunities from the slot canyon of Deer Creek above the falls, to the smaller cascades along the upper creek. A favorite among river runners and photographers is Elves Chasm, a small grotto ¼ mile from the river where a small water cascade slides down the rock wall surrounded by moss and ferns, something seemingly rare in this hot and dry environment. And then there is Havasu Creek, known as the “blue-green water” that flows from the infamous Havasu Falls, 10 miles upstream and where many river runners often make the all-day loop hike.
While the canyon presents something new and unique each day and along every section of the river journey, the desire to stay in one place like you have discovered the Garden of Eden, is understandable. But like life in general, there is a schedule to be kept and the time to move on arrives. We camped a few miles below Lava Falls that night and had our boats packed by mid-morning the next day before beginning our last week through the canyon. Today the rapids were smaller but just as exciting and I decided to shoot using another of my favorite approaches. Here I will put on my kayaking helmet and tuck down in the bow of the boat with my underwater setup. This approach allows me to look up at the boatman and passengers and shoot every wave as they splash across the boat.
A rafting trip through the Grand Canyon is an incredible experience! Photographing the abundance of scenery, flora and fauna, and the adventure easily makes it a photographer’s trip of a lifetime. There are not many places anymore where you cannot stay ‘connected’ and are forced to leave the outside world behind and become one with the river and the canyon. The trip is a true life experience full of nature and adventure and photo opportunities you will treasure forever.
There are many ways to raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. You can take a take a private trip or a commercial trip and it depends on how you wish to raft. Commercial trips vary in length depending on the river section and can last from 1 day to 18 days. Private trip permits are issued for 2 to 25 days and the length of the trip is also dependent on the river section.
Choosing a private trip versus a commercial trip is not a tough decision. If you prefer a private 3 week trip and want to invite your friends, are you or they qualified river runners capable of guiding rafts through some difficult and challenging whitewater? Or like me, do you have friends who are qualified and have all the equipment? Beside technical rafting requirements, a private trip includes shared responsibilities among participants. This means everyone helps with loading and unloading boats, cooking, cleaning, and other camp chores and this can cut into your photography time. On a commercial trip, you are a guest and that usually means fewer camp chores and more photography time. The guides will cook and clean and take care of all the needs in camp and on the boat, but they are certainly open to assistance from the trip participants.
There are many Grand Canyon Outfitters and an online search provides plenty of results. First, consider two things: how much time do you have and what type of boat would you like to raft in? There are three main types of boats; the small raft powered by oars that usually holds 3-4 passengers and the guide. The large motorized rafts that are pontoon boats carrying up to 18 passengers, and dory’s. Depending on the length of the trip, the type of raft may already be determined. Short trips, like 7 days or less, are often motor trips on pontoon boats that go faster and get through the canyon in less time. These pontoon rafts, being huge, are also better if you are not interested in getting wet in every rapid and prefer a drier, more stable ride. Oar boats are where the action is, so if you like the wild ride and want to photograph it, the oar boat is the best way to go. The third option is a dory, a boat similar in design to ‘drift boats’ used for fishing.
Other options include joining or ending your trip by taking a mule (or hike) to or from the South Rim and Phantom Ranch. And many commercial outfitters will pick you up and return you to Las Vegas.
Private trips are a great way to raft and explore the Grand Canyon. Here you can pick and choose who you go with, where you camp, and what to explore; all on your own schedule. You will need all the required equipment and experienced guides to row the boat because the rules prohibit hiring a guide. All expenses must be shared by the entire group and no person is allowed to raft the Grand Canyon more than once per year. The National Park Service will verify all of this before issuing the permit allowing you to launch. To get a non-commercial permit you need to enter the ‘weighted lottery’ and you can get more information here: http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/weightedlottery.htm The permit application is $25.
Best Time to Go
It is easy to say that there is a season for everyone depending on your temperature preferences. April averages a high of 82 degrees while October 84. June, July, and August are the hottest with average daily temperatures over 100 degrees. My first trip was in June and it was over 100 degrees every day. Our one day stop at Phantom Ranch showed a temperature of 113 degrees in the shade. This was much too hot for us and we spent more time seeking shade and staying close to the river than taking day hikes and exploring. My second trip was late September and the temperature averaged more around 90 and we had cooling rains. The third trip was mid October with average daily temperatures of 85 and cool evenings. It is hot in the Grand Canyon, so you will want to prepare accordingly.
What to take
Upon signing up for a commercial trip, they will provide all rafting gear and a list of what you should take for personal affects. For private trips, your leaders should also provide a list of everything to take if you do not already know. Some things I have found very valuable and may not be on any list is first; lots of lotion. The environment is hot and dry and combined with hot sun and wet conditions, consider even more lotion. I also take a small can of Bag Balm and it is invaluable. Designed for pets and livestock, this salve works wonders on your feet and hands if they dry and crack from the constant wet/dry conditions. When mine start to dry and crack, I smother them with Bag Balm and put on a pair hiking socks, brought just for this, then go to bed.
You may also want to include some dry wear like a wetsuit, dry suit, rain gear, or paddle jacket to stay drier while rafting. The time of year will play a role in what’s best, but if you go in the spring or fall, you may have some cool days and staying dry provides more comfort.
While the last decade has ushered the digital revolution in photography, the days of film have not completely gone away and you should think about this. With film I usually took 100 roles and a lot of AA batteries for the cameras motor drive. This seems much easier than digital which requires a storage device for downloading cards. It needs to be rechargeable and this requires a solar charger to keep everything at full power.
I take two camera bodies, extra batteries, lots of film/flash cards, a 16-35mm lens, a 70-200, and a 300mm lens. A flash with wireless triggers, a Polarizer, a 3 stop neutral density filter, are all packed into a Pelican case that can be clipped to the raft with a carabiner. In the past I have taken an older body with a 20mm lens in an Ewa Marine Underwater Housing to capture the whitewater action while in the boat, but today’s waterproof point and shoot still/video cameras provide plenty of image quality. And last, I take a compact tripod, one that is older that I do not mind it getting wet or full of sand. Sand is everywhere and gets in everything.
Communicating with the outside world
This is one drawback or advantage to rafting the Grand Canyon, depending on how you look at it. For the most part there is no cell service at all. Satellite phones are being tested and may work in all but the narrowest part of the canyon. If your trip includes a stop at Phantom Ranch, there is a pay phone where you can make collect calls, mail a postcard, or get a cold drink.
National Park Service: http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/whitewater-rafting.htm
General Info: http://www.gcriverguide.com/
Have you rafted and photographed the grand canyon? Please share your experiences.
This article originally appeared in Currents Magazine, the journal of the North American Nature Photography Assoc.