Grand Canyon Shakedown

“. . . it commonly took members of [Robert] Scott’s South Polar party several hours each morning to put on their boots. Day and night they did miserable, niggling, and often fatal battle with frostbitten toes, diarrhea, bleeding gums, hunger, weakness, mental confusion, and despair.” (from Annie Dillard, “An Expedition to the Pole,” in Teaching a Stone to Talk)

Minus the frostbitten toes, diarrhea, bleeding gums, hunger, weakness, mental confusion, and despair, that sounds a lot like the seven-day rafting trip I recently took through the Grand Canyon. Okay, I didn’t have to struggle to put on frozen boots every morning, but the daily torture of the sand in my sandals grinding the tops of my sunburned feet . . . there are no words for the torment. And though a few of Scott’s team were sometimes forced to eat human flesh to survive, I ate Eggs Benedict one morning. I don’t like Eggs Benedict!

Don’t let that breakfast suggest that this rafting trip on the Colorado River was a boutique experience. This was no Huck Finn float down the lazy Mississippi, no paddleboat trip in a city park. This was a challenging trip through some of the most fearsome rapids in the country. And though we were more or less safely attached to the boat, those of us who dared sit in the bow seats or forward on the pontoons experienced frequent inundations of 48-degree water that left our teeth chattering. Did I forget to mention the heat of a desert sun (or how it felt so good after being doused)?

thumb_IMG_1228_1024.jpgphoto courtesy Stuart Graves

Many of us will remember the near constant routine of getting on and off the boat, for one thing, often a clumsy exercise that left us envying Jacob’s barefoot leaps and bounds. Forming a “Conga Line” to unload the cots, chairs, kitchen equipment and water buckets, followed by a search for an unclaimed camping spot amid sand, cactus and ankle-twisting rocks. Assembling cots was like solving a Rubik’s Cube for some of us. All of this before we could get back to the beached boats for the ingredients of a well-deserved Happy Hour.

The next morning, the whole routine in reverse—without the Happy Hour. And we did that every day for six days. The horror! The horror!

I exaggerate . . . I think.

What was the lure that drew thirty-two of us to this river experience? Why did we come from Vermont, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Houston, Texas, Washington State, and California (so many!) to float 188 miles over six days through 100 rapids? What did we want from a trip like this? What will we remember?

For me, rafting through the Grand Canyon was nowhere near a bucket-list item. My purpose was to spend a few days adventuring with long-time friend Bruce Firestone. But what gradually focused my attention over the course of our six days on the river was the visual record of deep time (as much as 1.8 billion years in some spots) written in stone on the Canyon walls, and of the violent forces of fire and flood that birthed and shaped the Canyon. Day after day I contemplated the wall and its ruined temples and castles. Heaps of rocks at the river’s edge looked freshly fallen but might well have come to rest 10,000 years ago. I learned new words to express epochs of time—Toroweap, Coconino, Tapeats, Zoroaster Granite—and I came away humbled by the meagerness of our own human lifespans. Rome’s 1,000-year history is insignificant within the longer sequences recorded on the Canyon wall. The totality of human history probably doesn’t equal a single stripe in the mile-thick stack of stone.

It was almost depressing to think of how we figure in such vastness, but after the close-call I had on our hike to Havasu Falls, I came away with one perspective: Our life may be only a mite of sand on Earth’s vast beaches of time, but it’s all we have, and it’s far too precious to waste.

Surely, what all of us will remember were the moments just before sleep overtook us when we lay on our cots and watched the overwhelming sky-show of stars and constellations wheeling above us. As we closed our eyes, the sky still glowed with the sun’s last glance, and when we awoke in the early morning hours the western side of the canyon wall was already brightening with the promise of a new day. These memories will remain.

If there’s something else that will remain as well, I think it may be a sense of accomplishment. This was often hard going despite the magnificent meals Dave, Lars and Jacob produced three times each day.  On any given day we might broil under a hot sun and shiver from splashes of icy water. There were the twice-daily routines of setting up and taking down camps, loading and unloading boats. And then the sometimes difficult hikes and climbs along tricky paths through side canyons.

But in the course of just a few of these days, it seems to me, a village was being formed. Our evening conversations in the “fire circle” as well as chats in the boats and along the trails helped join names to faces and personalities. By the end, we weren’t separate individuals from hither and yon—we were a community. Our six days together proved that time isn’t only measured by the ticking of a clock that will inevitably run down, but by shared experiences that add depth and meaning and maybe even joy to our short lives.

It wasn’t easy, but it was a trip to remember.




Why Photograph This?

I wonder why I am drawn to make photographs like this.  A wintry, cold, overcast day in early January.   Lake Johnson, in Raleigh, a walk I love to make often and have only begun to photograph.  Rain the day before.  Fallen leaves along the marsh’s margin.  A somewhat dark composition, although the sky’s reflection and the grasses in the background give it a little tonal lift.  Is the subject beautiful?Image

I think so, in my cracked way of looking at things.  I’ve taken many photos like this over the years.  I used to categorize them as “Common Places” but I think they’re more special than that.  I don’t know how to label such scenes, but maybe it’s not necessary to do so.

Which gets me back to my original question:  Why do I photograph a scene like this?  That’s a question that’s at the heart of all art, I guess. I know some will say it’s not beautiful, but perhaps we will agree scenes like these are compelling in their own way; they focus attention, at least for a little while.  Winter, they say.  Death and rebirth.  Darkness and soon the light.

Finishing a Book

I found out that you don’t finish a book so much as the book finishes you.  The process of writing a book is like smoothing out a rough finish over many months or years. The rough finish is the book, of course, but it’s also the writer in the process of writing, of spilling out what is in his head, none of it much good until most of it gets better.

A rough finish is what we start out with–a writer with an idea.  Look at him, all shaggy and filthy, hair falling over his eyes, coarse and barely civilized, speaking in grunts.  He cannot be brought into polite company.  But gradually he becomes presentable, except for the flaws which will always be visible to him, always ruining the finish.  And then, if he is lucky, he gets grotesque all over again, a writer working with a new idea, a troglodyte returning to the cave, a troll rutting in the mud of a new obsession.

Grasslands Exhibit

Big Yellow MountainI just hung my “Carolina Grasslands” exhibit at the Nature Art Gallery of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.  It opens on August 2 and closes on Sept. 2.   For the last month or so I’ve been printing in the darkroom for the show, but for the first time I’m exhibiting inkjet prints along with the silver gelatin prints.  About half the show is made up of inkjet prints.  All of the work is film-based, so the inkjet prints were made by scanning the negatives and then working them up in Photoshop and Aperture.

It’s probably unusual to exhibit both inkjet prints and silver gelatin prints in the same show, and I have a lame excuse and a better excuse for it.  The lame excuse is that I ran out of time to do the show entirely in the darkroom, which is where I prefer to do my exhibition work.  A better excuse is that, truthfully, some of the digital prints were superior to prints that I had labored over in the darkroom for a couple of days. That, of course, really bummed me out because I think of myself as a pretty good printer.

Having admitted that to myself, I could have gone in two different directions: I could have said the heck with the labor and time involved in film and darkroom work, I’m going digital one hundred percent.  I’ve been tempted to abandon the darkroom for a couple of years now.  I know many photographers who are doing wonderfully creative work with digital materials.

The other thing I could have done is say that I need to improve my darkroom printing skills, and, no surprise for those who know me, that’s what I’m doing. I signed up for a Vision and Skills weekend course with Michael Smith and Paula Chamlee in Ottsville, Pa., in September.  They are two wonderfully skilled veteran photographers and printmakers whose work I admire.     I’m hoping to benefit from seeing how they work in the darkroom.

The Stories I Heard

One might well ask me why I spent much of the last eight years working on a book about old boats. Kenneth Grahame answered that question one way long ago in the children’s classic, The Wind in the Willows:  “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

A lot of people would agree with that, but it wasn’t the “messing about” in boats that drew me Down East time and again.  The stories were the draw. I spent time in a lot of living rooms listening to stories about fishermen and boatbuilders and their boats.  I was amazed at how easily people could recall intimate details about the boats—who built them, where, when, who they were sold to, what happened to them. The stories were what kept me coming back.

Wasted Wood, Atlantic, 1985

Wasted Wood, Atlantic, 1985

I asked David Smith of Atlantic why his father’s boat was called Wasted Wood.  He said: “The Wasted Wood was named the David M. and that was my name. But they always called it the Wasted Wood because she had great big timbers.  Will Mason wasted a lot of wood when he built that boat.  The name just stuck, that’s what it was always called.  It sounds funny when you say the name of the boat was the Wasted Wood. People kind of laugh. But growing up, that was the name of it; there wasn’t anything funny about it.”

Some of the stories had little to do with the boats and more to do with the person himself or herself, with the way they looked at things or with their sense of humor.  Crab-house owner and born story-teller John Paul Lewis of Davis told me this delightful tale about a man from Atlantic long ago:  “A lot of our boats went to Norfolk.  One man [had a] boat named the Louise, and she was built in the early twenties, probably. But he went to Norfolk and kept her tied up to the Atlantic Ice Company, right where the ferry crossed from Portsmouth to Norfolk, East Main St.  And I’d take shrimp there to be frozen in the fall and he got to be a very good friend of mine.  And he stayed in Norfolk twenty years on the Louise.  He kept her up and painted her.  And when he came back to Atlantic  he walked across the road to his wife’s house, and said, ‘What’re we having for supper?'”

The late Milan Willis of Atlantic said that he had joined the Navy during the Second World War.  “I didn’t go in because I was patriotic,” he said.  “I went in because I was digging clams for 40 cents a bushel and I thought the Navy would be better, which was a mistake.  The clamming was better.”

J.M. Brown of Gloucester responded to my question about the difficulty of building a boat alone in this way. “It’s hard to do much boatwork by yourself,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.  “You need someone to hold the end of something, you know.”


A Visit To Atlantic

I try to visit with my friends in Atlantic and other communities Down East as often as I can.  They’ve put up with a lot from me as I was working on my book, The Workboats of Core Sound:  Stories and Photographs of a Changing World (available in Oct. 2013).  I’d sit with them or go out on their fishing boats and ask things like, “I know you’ve told me already, but how does the back net work in your long-haul rig?”

I dropped over to see Buster Salter and his wife Carol in early June.  He was home on an off week from his job on the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry.  Buster was a long-haul fisherman when I first came to Atlantic, and he invited me to go fishing with him once or twice to try to understand how his pretty boats danced with each other as they netted fish.

Buster and Carol Salter

Buster and Carol Salter

A couple of years ago I was delighted to hear Buster recite from memory Robert Frost’s “The Path Not Taken.”  He says that he prints out poems from the Internet, and then memorizes them a few lines at a time while piloting the ferry.  He’s memorized some poetry by Robert Frost, Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Cullen Bryant among others.  If my memory serves, when Marvin Robinson died some years ago, Buster recited Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” at his funeral.  “Sunset and evening star, / And one clear call for me! / And may there be no moaning of the / bar, / When I put out to sea.”  Carole told me about a long William Cullen Bryant poem he memorized:  “It was about a thousand words!” she said.

It’s embarrassing that the first thing that springs to mind when I think of poetry I’ve memorized is a bit of doggerel I  learned in 8th grade:  “Abu Ben Adam (may his tribe increase) / Woke up one morning from a deep dream of peace.”  Which, of course, we amended to “Woke up one morning in a deep pot of grease.”  Where are the lines from Virgil I memorized?  Where are the sonnets from Shakespeare?

Danny Mason was busy with the geese and chickens and black ducks in his backyard pen when I was in Sea Level recently.  Used to be Danny and Buster both started long-haul fishing in May and finished up in October, but these days with the price of fuel so high and the chances of catching fish so low Danny does other things in May,  even into June.  Like repairing the gate on his pen.  Like painting his boats and tarring his nets.  But he was finished now and anxious to begin fishing this spring.  Best of all, he has a crew ready to go.

Danny Mason

Danny Mason

That was a Thursday, but he would wait until Monday to fish because of a tropical storm brewing off the coast. When I went to get lunch at the grill in Atlantic later that day, the wind was driving the white tops across Core Sound.  The boats’ rigging in Atlantic Harbor sang in the blasts.