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Modified Expectations. Flexibility is the Key to the Constant Change in Nature.

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

A summer flood rearranged the river valley and forced us into a new part of the canyon. We are glad it did (see the video at the end of the post).

Leaf and foam, Phipps Wash. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. A totally unexpected scene in a new section of the canyon inspired this contemplative image.

Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The hike downriver.

Heading downriver from the Highway 12 bridge on a crisp autumn morning, hoarfrost coated the grasses in shady low-lying areas while steam rose from the river in the sun. Our destination was Phipps Wash, a tributary to the Escalante, a mile and a half down river.

Where the little cascade met still water, organic foam slowly spread out on the surface in delicate lacy patterns. Charmed, we decided to stay a while.

Thickets of Russian olive trees made the first half mile a thorny obstacle course. The tamarisk (salt cedar) crowding the river retained their clusters of flowers—now straw yellow—which gave them a feathery appearance. Pale leaves of ubiquitous cottonwood trees hung in their branches.

Fallen cottonwood leaves caught in tamarisk. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

Of the three river crossings required to get to Phipps Wash, the first is the deepest. A large boulder in the riverbed, just upstream from the crossing, forces the current closer to the near bank, digging a deep channel. The initial step is the trickiest—the water is often a cloudy brown, and the bottom is sloped and sandy.

We steadied ourselves in the thigh-deep water with a long branch someone had thoughtfully left leaning against a tree. After a few steps, the river was only calf deep, making it easy to get to the other bank. Walls of sandstone forced into the river for the next two crossings. The water was shallower on the right, where it flowed directly over sloped sandstone, but it was slippery.

As we got close to Phipps Wash, we saw where the river overflowed its banks last season. Temporary new channels were created during late summer’s flood, tearing away bushes and young cottonwoods, and leaving a 50-yard-wide braided scar of rocks and sand. Lower Phipps was similarly rearranged. The fan-shaped mouth of the wash, usually covered with grasses and sagebrush, was now cut up into multiple sections by rocky channels.

We were hoping to re-photograph a lovely stand of cottonwoods in Phipps Wash. Tucked in a curve of the high-walled canyon, the area was illuminated only by soft pastels of light reflected from colorful sandstone walls, and it was challenging to get the color right. Now seeing the extent of the flood’s destruction, we knew we would have to modify our expectations.

Reflected pastel light bathes a stand of autumnal cottonwoods in Phipps. As mentioned, it is difficult to get the light right. We're still working on it. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes


Where the stream in Phipps Wash once flowed down its center, it now flowed on the right side—near the high canyon walls. The new course took it over sandstone, where it collected in leaf-covered shallow pools and flowed, stepwise, down layered ledges. Where the little cascade met still water, organic foam slowly spread out on the surface in delicate lacy patterns. Charmed, we decided to stay a while.

We studied, then photographed, the slowly shifting patterns of foam in the water to the soothing natural sound of trickling water. The video shows the scene as we recorded it. The still photos show how we decided to compose and process the images.


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