Friday, January 25, 2013

The Wave at Coyote Buttes

I got an invite last week to join a few other guys heading down to northern Arizona to photograph a famous area called The Wave.  I've seen pictures but never given it a lot of thought.  We left on Monday, driving down to Kanab, Utah.  I was riding along with TJ Lenahan. He and I have a lot of photography likes and dislikes in common and it was pretty obvious immediately.

I saw a Bald Eagle a ways off the road.  TJ immediately turned up a side road and we started trying to figure out where we would have to be to get the eagle and the moon in one picture.
The answer was to drag through two feet of snow, climb a barbwire fence into someone's field, and then trudge through some more snow. And of course, do this with a big tripod attached to some very serious camera equipment.  TJ got the worst end of it when his shoe pulled off in a snow filled ditch.

That's not an optical illusion.  His Canon 800mm is really that big.
We got the pictures and even with wet socks, we agreed it was well worth it.  That's my kind of photographer.  Another shot before leaving.
When we got into Kanab we had some time to kill before dinner.  We drove down scenic Johnson Canyon and stumbled on these collapsing buildings.  An old farm?  Perhaps a tiny little town?  Actually it was an old set for Gunsmoke, the TV show.  You couldn't get very close to it.  I'm sure it would be dangerous to poke around in. It looked like a fairly elaborate set, so I'm surprised it wasn't preserved as a tourist trap.
Just down the road were some petraglyphs, but none I found that interesting. Right next to the rock art was an old shack, which I found much more compelling.
This is the gang getting ready to start our morning trek.  From left to right:
  • Will, from Dreamland Safari Tours. He was our paid guide and did an excellent job of getting us around to the right places.  I can't remember ever having a guide before, but having one for The Wave is nice.
  • Dick Pick
  • TJ Lenehan
  • Steve Casey
I checked the weather for Kanab before I left Park City. Consistent highs in the 50s, lows in the mid-20s.  That would be great except that our hike was starting about 30 miles east of Kanab.  There the temperature was down in single digits which meant a brisk start to our hike.  Once the sun came up life was a lot better.

Most of what we were hiking on was sand.  With the snow from a week ago slowly melting, there was enough moisture in the sand to freeze hard.  It made the hiking easier and the scenery much more interesting.
The Wave is an area of Navajo sandstone from the Jurassic period.  It was formed into layers and shaped into curves before the lithification of the sand into sandstone.  No, I didn't know what lithification meant before I went. The sandstone was eroded over the years by water and wind.  What results is gorgeous, colored, curved rock that looks like it took an artist years to create.
The Wave is more considerate than most photo sites.  On almost every trip I take, we are up long before the sun to be in the right place before sunrise.  You get about 15 minutes of near perfect light and then the party is over.

To shoot the Wave, you need to wait until the sun is high enough overhead to get rid of all the shadows. We still got there early enough to scout around and get a feel for the place before the ideal lighting occurred, but I can't imagine having to hike in before sunrise.
Once all the shadows are gone, it is hard to remember to keep taking pictures.  The place is spectacular.
The area is fairly small, maybe 50 feet by 100 feet. It's astounding to see how this one little area developed differently that almost anywhere you will ever visit.
Access to the area is controlled by two things.  First, you have to have a BLM permit, and they only give out permits for 40 people per day. Second, you drive out into the middle of nowhere and then hike three miles through rocks and desert. There is no path, so navigation can be a bit difficult, hence Will the guide.

This is me right outside the Wave. The smart agile photographer only takes exactly what he needs for a trip like this:  a light tripod, a DSLR camera, and two wide angle lenses.  This makes the hike much more comfortable.  Me?  Hell no.  I had a tripod, a camera, a backup camera, a flash, 5 lenses, a teleconverter, filters, lunch, three bottles of water, ....  My "day pack" weighed in at something close to 35 pounds.
While The Wave was unique and as spectacular as advertised, I was equally impressed with everything else around me.

This is an area in the sandstone that had lichen growing on it.  The lichen apparently resulted in some acidic reaction and even though it is dead and gone, its print is etched in forever.
For these next two photos, you really need to double click on them to see all the incredible details and patterns. These are the rocks above a small wash.  They look like they were applied with a cake decorating bag.
Even though it isn't a great photo, this was my favorite view.  In this one picture, you can see so many different colors, shapes, patterns, and directions. It looked like God made all the local rock formations and then just dumped all his extra materials in this one spot.
This is the group hiking along in a formation that was so boring, no one bothered to stop and take a photo. Anywhere else, this would have a crowd around it.

You'll notice that there are only three other people in this photo.  That's because one of our team wandered up to an area high above The Wave to get some photos of other rock formations.  Unfortunately, the way he planned to come down involved hundreds of feet of sheer cliffs.  No radios.  No phone service.  One missing photographer.  We spent the next 2.5 hours looking for him, hoping we wouldn't have to call Search and Rescue.  In an area with so many hazards, going off by yourself with no method of communication was not the brightest idea. In the end, everyone was safe but we did lose some prime photography time.
This picture was taken in an area called the Bone Yard.  It's a flat area right next to some fairly steep cliffs.  The rocks from the top of the cliffs are composed of very different  material from the base.  They break lose and tumble down where they sit out in the open and ever so slowly, get eroded by the wind.
Their structure doesn't erode like normal rocks though.They have vertical and horizontal layers of very resilient stone, mixed in with fairly soft sandstone.  The middle gets eroded leaving a lattice structure that looks a lot like weathered, sun-bleached bones. This one even has its own naturally eroded base to sit on.
Once we were all back together and returned to the cars, Dick and the other Steve headed back to Park City.  TJ and I were staying another night so we could shoot some other things on the way home the next morning.

We started by driving through Zion National Park.  We weren't going to spend much time there and the cloudy day wasn't great anyway, but Zion is still spectacular. I may have to try and get there right after a winter snow.

There's no perspective but that's about 2,000 feet of cliff you're looking at.
From Zion, we headed to St George.  There's a nature center there whose pond has had wintering Wood Ducks before.  They are one of the most colorful ducks around.  If you haven't seen one, here is a random link with some good pictures.

The bad news is that there weren't any there this year.  We still killed a few hours shooting whatever interesting things we saw.  This is a Hooded Merganser.  Sadly, I was set up to take pictures of ducks politely sitting around posing, not flying off at high speed.  That explains the "bonus" blurring. Slowly but surely, I get smarter about photography. Slowly though.
Now we have a more cooperative bird, a Ring Necked Duck. I have to wonder what moonshine the ornithologists drink when they are naming birds. He has an astoundingly obvious ring around his bill, and no ring whatsoever around his neck. 

If you have heard the expression "like water off a duck's back", just take a look at this guy.  Having just popped back up from a dive, the water was beading on his waterproof back.
Pictures of floating ducks get boring. The trick is to get them when they are doing something like taking off, landing, fighting, or just flapping around to dry off and fluff up.
The bashful little guy that kept our attention is a Bufflehead.  When the sun made its brief appearances, you could really catch the iridescent colors. Not quite as pretty and colorful as a Wood Duck, but he was ok.  However, he's just floating.
We found that he would dive for food for a while and then kick back to do some preening.  Almost every time, once the preening was complete, he would do a brief dance to fluff up. So much of good photography, whether people, wildlife, sports, ..., is about having a good understanding of your subject.  How do they behave?  Where will they go next?  Is it about to fly?  What jokes make the person smile?
Once again, the Southwest has provided interesting and beautiful things to photograph.  For my future trips and anyone interested in going to The Wave, here are some trip reminders:
  • Stay in Kenab at the Quail Park Lodge.  It's a little 14 room hotel that has been remodeled to be surprisingly upscale.  While it gets a lot more expensive in the summer, the winter rates were less than $70 per night. I get my old guy AARP discount. Their little breakfast was nice, but 7:00 is too late for photographers.
  • Learn about the BLM's permitting process for The Wave.  Some permits are done in a lottery in advance. Others are given out the day before.  There aren't many.  Local tour companies may have permits as part of their offering.  They have to go through the same lottery though.
  • The hike is fairly rigorous.  Three miles each way plus a few miles of wandering around, especially if you have to search for a member of your group. It isn't that bad, but it certainly isn't the normal National Park paved paths. Wear good boots and dress for a wide range of temperatures.  Bring lots of water.
  • You don't need a telephoto lens.  I shot almost everything with my 24-70 zoom on a full frame camera.  You might want a really wide angle as well.  Wish I owned the 14-24 zoom.  
  • You are only about 30 minutes from the back entrance to Zion.  Add a day and visit.
  • In winter, you have the advantage of having very few people around. I think we saw 6 people that weren't in our group and we were there for about 8-9 hours.  The downside is that the sun doesn't come up as high which gives you a lot more shadows in the rock formations.  It might be interesting to try something like late-April.
  • Nedras serves some nice, inexpensive Mexican food although I am tired of finding these places without a liquor license.  What kind of Mexican place doesn't have margaritas?
  • The Cowboy Butte Grill in Fredonia was recommended. However, this was a steak place that didn't even serve beer so we just left.  No idea how the food was.
  • We didn't see signs of any mammals bigger than a mouse (tracks) or any birds.  
Enjoy!



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