Antelope Canyon

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Trip Notes: We Play the Slots: Antelope Canyon At Last

I'm a bit of a slot canyon nut, and that's something you can't get in California. When we were in Jasper I dragged Dave to all the amazing slot canyons there. The ones in Jasper are very different from southwestern canyons: the water is a weird blue-green from the fine particles in suspension which come from glacial melt, and the rock is shades of grey with none of the reds you see in the southwest. A goal for this trip was to see some of the slot canyons of the Colorado Plateau.

Antelope Canyon, near Page AZ, is the famous slot canyon that you've seen in a million photos. It's located on Navajo land, and it's so popular that in addition to requiring a permit (like all access to Indian land) access is also allowed only on guided tours, presumably to control the number of visitors and try to keep the damage to a minimum. Dave and I aren't much for guided tours, so we'd avoided Antelope Canyon in past visits, but I really wanted to see it so Dave graciously put up with it.

Several tour companies run out of Page, or it turns out you can also drive out to the gate, and sometimes the Navajo run their own tours from there. That sounded more low-key and direct, so we decided to try that approach, and it worked out fine. Cost is about the same -- a little cheaper if you drive to the site, but not enough that it makes a huge difference. We did have to wait around for 45 minutes or so, which might not have been necessary with a scheduled tour, but the tour guide was low-key (you didn't have to stay with the group if you didn't want to) and interesting (we did stay to listen to his spiel, and he had some interesting things to say, and he still left us plenty of time to wander back on our own and take photos).

The most interesting thing he told us concerned the floor level, which earlier this year was about five feet higher than where we stood. The flash floods which race through Antelope Canyon and carve out its lovely features also move a great deal of sand, and the floor level changes dramatically depending on the nature of the past year's floods. It tuns out this year had some killer floods and washed out a lot of the sand which normally comprises the floor, so the canyon was about at its deepest point when we were there.

The canyon was exactly as advertised in almost all respects. It's beautiful: it looks exactly like all the photographs you've seen, and if you use a tripod (more on that later), your photos come out looking like that too. Neat! It was as advertised in other respects, too: Dave had heard that Antelope Canyon was like taking photographs in Tokyo subway, and that, too, was exactly right. Even in late October the canyon was full of people, ninety percent of whom are setting up tripods in the middle of the path at any given moment and looking impatient at all the other people getting in the way of their photos. I hate to think what it's like at the height of the tourist season when the big light rays are happening.

[My famous slot canyon tripod technique] About tripods: at one point I was semi-serious about photography, but I'm more casual about it now. I've been shooting digital, and I don't like the big zillion-dollar-zillion-pound auto-everything wonders that you have to buy to get a digital SLR (if I'm going to use an SLR I want control over everything, so why lug ten extra pounds around and pay $3k for features I'm never going to use?) so now I just use point-and-shoot digital cameras and try to get the best I can out of them (which is a fun challenge in itself). I have a nice 10x ultra-zoom camera, but since I knew light levels were low in the canyon (the townie tours recommend ISO 800 film for handheld shots, the Navajo recommend 400, and digicam CCDs are really noisy operating even at 400 -- you don't want to take art shots at that setting if you can help it) I left the heavy ultra-zoom behind and took my tiny new lightweight credit card sized Minolta Dimage Xt with a lightweight plastic backpacking "UltraPod" (one of those 3" foldup jobs: not the ones made out of metal coils, which haven't worked very well for me, but the stiff plastic type). The tripod and camera case all hang off my water bottle strap and don't weigh enough that I even notice the extra weight (including two spare batteries, and today, for the first time, I used all three.) Dave had a similar setup, with the slightly heavier Canon Elph.

This setup evoked an audible sniff from one of our fellow tour-goers as he scoped out everybody's equipment (oohing over the medium format rig one fellow was bringing). I found this somewhat amusing.

As it turns out, mini plastic tripods work very well in highly trafficked slot canyons. While everyone else is crowded at one spot jostling each other as they adjust their tripod legs to the perfect height to see over the camera next to them, you can mosey on by, holding your camera-attached-to-tripod, find a spot that looks good, set the camera to self-timer mode (to get around camera shake from lack of a cable release), hold the tripod firmly against a wall and adjust the ball head until the angle is right (you pretty much have to use the viewscreen, not the optical viewfinder, so this is battery intensive and that's why I used up two full batteries and started on the third), lock it down, fire the shutter button then keep holding the tripod firmly until the self timer finishes counting down and the time exposure fires. You do need a camera that can do reasonable time exposures (that had been a factor when I chose the Minolta: it can't do really long exposures, only up to 4 seconds, but that's long enough for most slot canyon shots without needing ISO 400). The Minolta's self timer isn't settable -- ten seconds only -- so occasionally someone walks into the frame before the countdown fires, but actually having moving people in the frame can make for an interesting picture (a few times I even went for that intentionally) so I didn't worry about that too much.

Occasionally (rarely) I actually set the tripod down on the ground, but the first time I did that I regretted it: the tripod tipped over and the camera fell lens first into the sand. I blew all the visible sand out right away, and found and blew out a few more grains later, but for the rest of the day it had problems opening or closing its lens cover. We'll see if that problem eventually straightens itself out or not.

The hour was over too quickly and we headed back to the parking lot. The guide gave us an option on another slot canyon (unguided), Rattlesnake, for a small extra fee, but we'd heard about another canyon we wanted to check out, so we declined the Rattlesnake option.

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