Posted by: kerryl29 | March 13, 2023

The Story Behind the Image: The Narrows

11 years ago this coming May, I spent roughly 10 days photographing in Utah and Nevada. My first destination was Zion National Park, a place I had previously visited 14 years earlier, on a two-week hiking trip in the national parks of southern Utah. (It was that 1998 trip, coincidentally, that served as the trigger for taking my photography to “the next level.” But I digress…)

It was on this trip that I finally satisfied a longstanding desire to hike (and photograph) part of the Virgin River Narrows. Shortly after that trip ended, I wrote a lengthy post covering the entirety of the hike experience, and if that sort of thing interests you, I direct you to that entry. As part of this–considerably more concise–piece, I will focus my attention on a tiny bit of the hike that preceded my first image making opportunity in the Narrows.

As discussed at some length in the post linked above, the time of year of any Narrows hike impacts the experience tremendously. I conducted my hike in early May, when water levels in the snow melt-fed Virgin River are at or very near their highest. At certain points in the Narrows, the water was so deep that swimming was required to traverse specific areas. I wasn’t impacted to that degree, but I was told before beginning that I should anticipate having to hike through waist-level water. This foreknowledge, frankly, had me a bit freaked out. I wasn’t concerned about the ability to drag my body through such water levels (I had a full wetsuit for the hike). My concern was about carrying my gear–including my tripod–in such conditions.

It was dawn when I hit the river–the very first person to start the hike from the jumping off point at the Riverside Walk that day–and due to the towering canyon walls that make the Narrows what they are, it was still quite dark when I set out.

I will now quote from the linked entry to set the scene:

The water was very shallow at the outset as I forded the river, walking carefully at first over a seemingly endless set of rocks.  As background, I’m extremely fit and naturally athletic.  It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be up to the hike physically, and I was correct about that; I had no problems.  I’ve done more than my share of photographing in and around shallow water and I’ve traipsed through water knee-deep or below countless times.  But this was something altogether new.  In the Narrows, I wasn’t hiking through water to get somewhere; the water itself was the “somewhere.”  Furthermore, footing was going to be a constant issue.  Most of the river walking was on rocks deposited on the river bottom.  The rocks were somewhat slippery and some of them aren’t well anchored.  I had a walking stick with me and it was a welcome companion, both for maintaining balance on occasion (though I didn’t employ it for that unless I was well above knee-level in water) and for probing the depths of the river.

So, at first, the water wasn’t much more than ankle deep. But that changed in a hurry.

Very early in the hike–I’d say maybe 1/8 of a mile from the start–I was walking in a section of river without the commonly rocky bottom. It was still pretty dark, but I was treading on a shallow, sandy bottom, with water at mid-calf level. I could see that I needed to cross to a shoal ahead of me on the other side of the river and I started to make the crossing. I took a step and the water level rose to knee-high. Another step and it was thigh-high. A third step and it was waist high. After the second step, the bottom of the river was no longer visible. I was still walking on sand, but it was falling away and rapidly and I had no idea how deep it would get. There was no one else in sight, so I couldn’t follow anyone’s example. I probed the river bottom with my walking stick and it was completely submerged. I took another half step and the water continued to rise, above waist level. I was smack in the middle of the river and by probing with my stick I couldn’t find any shallower area in any direction except to go back the way I came.

This was, to put it mildly, a bit of a pickle. I recall a thought briefly coursing through my mind as a I stood there in the middle of the river, momentarily paralyzed as the current swiftly swept past me, that I couldn’t risk my gear being soaked, and that the hike might be over right then and there, without my having made a single image. But I then had a revelation that allowed me to quickly reject such a notion.

Looking around, I noticed that–though I couldn’t see the bottom anywhere–the relatively shallow areas that I had already traversed were brownish in color (a function of the sandy mix). Deeper areas that I was looking at were green-tinged. I could see brownish-colored water on the other side of the river perhaps 15 or 20 feet ahead of me. I decided to take a chance that the water I’d have to walk through–already a few inches above waist-level on me–wouldn’t get any deeper as I approached the brownish area ahead. What choice did I really have, I reasoned, other than to turn back. So, standing on tiptoe to keep the water from lapping at the bottom of my backpack, I moved ahead…and sure enough, the water got no deeper and then got shallower. That turned out to be as deep as any water I’d encounter on the hike and on the couple of other occasions when I ran into something as deep, I could see the river bottom. In fact, when I returned through the same area well into the afternoon, sunlight was directly hitting the river and I could easily see the bottom, making crossing the river on the way back a snap.

Shortly after I cleared this figurative hurdle, having breathed a modest sigh of relief and feeling particularly encouraged that I had been able to proceed, I paused at a shoal on the right-hand side of the river and went though the time-consuming process of extracting my equipment to set up for my first photograph of the hike. It remains, to this day, one of the most satisfying images I’ve ever produced, given the angst involving in attaining the opportunity to make the photo.

Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah


  1. Kerry, it’s so true that certain images are extra-special for the photographer because of memories of the effort or experience. And I can certainly empathize with your quandary about the deep channel. I’m sure the water was lower in the Fall when I hiked the Narrows a few years ago, but I was still at chest height in one deep spot (and I’m 6’4″). I was also in a full wetsuit with gear in a drysack pack. However, I was able to find a shallower spot, to my relief. Great hike. There were four or five of us on the first shuttle who were all hustling up the river to try to stay ahead of the rest of the shuttle passengers and get some shots before there were too many people in the river. Saw a deer cross the river ahead of us at one point, to my surprise. Someday I’d like to enter at the other end and see how far I can get safely, but I’d need to find a companion for that effort.

    • Thanks, Steve.

      Yeah, I had my gear in dry bags (plural) too, but my tripod wasn’t (though it was wrapped in a plastic trash bag…which would have done only so much gear had everything become submerged). Unpacking everything every time I wanted to produce an image was a real encumbrance. But it was still a great experience, and I’m really glad I did it.

      If you ever want to take a real crack at the Subway, let me know. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

      • Sounds like fun, I’ll keep it in mind.

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