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Photography Larry Malvin

Navigating the Narrows - Virgin River, Zion National Park, Utah

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I press my walking stick tight across my body, angled hard against my left hip, and dig sharply into the river bed. Fighting the strong river current, I struggle to stay upright. My legs push against the current as Greg and I seek the opposite shore and a short respite from the relentless river. We are in Zion National Park, mid-day in early November, hiking up the Virgin River Narrows in an attempt to photograph the beauty of the haunting canyon. The river temperature is 45˚F; air temperature 37F˚. Our early afternoon start is a result of the inclement weather. With sunshine, light will shine upon one side of the twisting canyon wall and illuminate the other side with a subtle golden cast. The forecast calls for partial afternoon clearing, but as I look skyward toward the narrow canyon opening, all I see are clouds.

We exit the river onto the opposite shore, but that brings its own peril. We now have a several hundred yard walk over a boulder field. The river has deposited boulders of all shapes and sizes along the shoreline. Some are large and stable; others wobble precariously as a result of our step. Our river shoes with neoprene socks underneath offer no stability. Our walking sticks double as trekking poles on land as well as providing steadiness in the river. They are essential for our well-being.

We step back into the water. The boulder-laden river offers its own hazards. The submerged rocks are hidden in the murky water. They come in every shape and size-large and rounded, small and oval shaped, flat, jagged. All are slippery, and every step offers its own challenges. I land on some boulders perfectly and head on to the next. Another step might find me balancing on two toes or the edge of my foot. Other times I might slip off the side which brings a jolt to my body as my foot comes to rest on the river floor.

We constantly crisscross the river, avoiding the large rapids while heading for the relative safety of the shoreline. But each piece of real estate is different. Some contain short boulder fields that end abruptly at the river. Others consist of steep hills with river debris scattered about-car-sized boulders, rock slabs, tree limbs or trunks, bushes, and trees themselves growing at odd angles along the edge.

Back in the river, the shoreline has disappeared as the canyon narrows. We hug the canyon walls, one hand pressed against the wall, the other grasping the walking stick, which provides stability and guidance as well as testing the depth of the river. The water is cold, but the neoprene socks provide a warm insulation between the water and my feet. A photographer we had met earlier in the week who had hiked the Narrows complained about his numb feet and the smell that permeated from his feet for days after the hike. At least I have no issues with the numbness. And the drysuit is comfortable enough. Interestingly, every time I submerged beyond my calves, the suit tightens around my body, like a blood pressure strap wrapped around an arm. The only cold part of my body is my hands. The nylon gloves I use for cold weather photography are thin and wet. They provide minimal comfort. But the real issue is my shoulders, as the constant stress of holding the walking stick and digging it into the river bed or boulder fields is beginning to take its toll. The heavy backpack and tripod draped over my shoulder exacerbate the condition.

We press on, each step against the current a taxing ordeal, following the river as it curves and bends toward our destination: Orderville Canyon, a long, deep, slot canyon tributary of the Narrows and a two mile hike from our put in point. The area is perfect to photograph the sinewy canyon and waterfalls and a good turnaround point for our day trip.

Our pace is exceedingly slow, with the river's flow twice that of the summer rate and a mere 35 cubic feet per second from being unhikeable. At times I have to lift the walking stick above the water before jamming it back down into the river as the stream is just too strong to drag it through the water. Up ahead we see a truck-sized boulder spanning half the river bed. As we draw closer, the boulder looms large. To the left, the deep, fast running water is too strong to navigate. The right side offers hope as a small opening between the boulder and the canyon wall offers a chance to pass through. The only issue is a rock slab wedged between the boulder and canyon wall which sits at a 45˚ angle. I approach the opening, analyze the scene for a moment, then try to hoist myself upon the slab to crawl my way to the top, a distance of perhaps three feet. My first attempt is pitiful. With the weight of my clothes, drysuit, backpack and tripod along with exhausted arms, I can barely managed three inches off the river bottom. And the slab is simply too slippery to hold. Two more attempts prove fruitless as well. I turned to Greg and say, "Can't do it. Let's try to go around." We make our way alongside the monster boulder, but as we near the opposite edge, the water gets deeper, eventually over our heads, and the current increases. We abandon the plan. Greg sloshes his way back to the rock slab. His attempts at jumping are worthless as well. Then he places his walking stick between the boulder and the canyon wall, just above the rock slab, and presses down on the stick. It bends awkwardly.

I look at Greg. "It's going to break."

"Nah, it'll be fine," he says.

He places both hands on the stick and pulls himself up. Crack. The stick breaks in two. We stare at each other.

"I've got to have a stick," Greg says nervously.

He then somehow shimmies himself up over the rock slab, grabs the canyon wall, and crawls above the boulder. I hand my stick to him. He grabs it at one end and extends the other to me. I grip it as he hoists me onto the slab. I inch myself up the slab on my bottom and stand up next to him. He immediately spots a branch riding the current beside the boulder and snatches it from the water. We look at each other but say nothing. The branch is more like a large ostrich leg, about 5 1/2 feet long with a pronounced bend one third of the way down. Coarse red bark covers the top, and it appears thicker and heavier than my smooth, creamed colored walking stick. Still, it is better than nothing and essential for Greg's safety.

We venture on until we find a location ripe for photography. Off come the backpacks and tripods. A fifteen minute shoot and we're ready to move on to Orderville Canyon. I ask Greg to check the time. He pulls out his phone which has been securely wrapped in a waterproof bag.

His eyes bulge. "Three-fifty," he says. "We gotta head back."

We have hiked for three hours, and sunset is two hours away. With newly found energy and a growing concern, we immediately head downstream. The pace is faster, but the strong current poses a double threat as the footing is just as treacherous as the river hurls us downstream. At times, we lose our footing and float perilously close to the rapids before regaining our balance. I'm thoroughly exhausted now, with another annoying issue at hand. Somehow, a pebble has wedged its way into my right boot. I don't know how it found its way in, but at least provides company for the pebble that inserted itself in my left boot hours ago. Every few steps I kick one foot or the other out, trying to shift the pebbles to a less annoying location. Still, we make good time, even stopping three different times for photographs.

Few people have ventured into the canyon today. We pass a husband/wife team photographing near a bend in the river and a group of three hikers-two ladies and a man. The man is holding the arm of one of the women. She looks concerned and uncomfortable, her pace turtle-like and deliberate. She takes one step to our five, and we pass them several times after stopping for photos.

As we scramble past a waterfall last seen hours ago, darkness is closing in within the canyon. But within minutes, salvation-we spot the steps beside the river walk that mark the end (or beginning) of our journey. Greg tosses his branch triumphantly onto the rocks as we clamor up the stairs. A wood bench along the path calls out our names. We collapse upon it as a man and woman who had been standing at the trail's end approach us.

"You guys just hiked the river?" the man asks in astonishment.

We feel like heroes or rock stars. They batter us with questions, and after a few minutes, we are ready to complete this exhausting day. But our ordeal is not complete. We still have to endure a mile walk along the river to the car in the fast approaching darkness, and at the car we have to suffer through the remarkably slow and tedious removal of our gear. I find unbuckling the water shoes difficult with my cold and wet hands, and I struggle at peeling off the neoprene socks. Removing the drysuit is cumbersome, and I'm panting as I remove the latex that has adhered to both my wrists and angles. At last the clothing is off. I feel my pants and long underwear. Soaked. My jacket is damp as well. So much for the "drysuit."

The car ride to town is quiet, the heat blasting our faces and bodies. Greg drops me off at my motel, and we agree to meet another photographer in half an hour for dinner. Within minutes I am under the warm stream of the shower and stand there motionless for what seems like an eternity. I make sure to scrub my feet, but as I eventually dress I still smell the stench from the neoprene socks. Fully clothed, I fall back onto the bed and stare at the ceiling. Dinner will have to wait awhile.



Greg runs photo tours to Utah and California. Check out his tours at www.gregclurephotography.com.


I am standing in the river against a turbulent flow to photograph this particularly interesting part of the canyon.


A self portrait—hoping my camera doesn’t fall into the river.