15 December 2010

The Yin and Yang of The Wave and White Pocket (part II)

Trudging a 100 meters or so through the soft sand, one has no idea what’s on the other side of the low hill.  Even if you have seen photos of White Pocket, you cannot really be prepared for it. Trust me.

Bold, expansive, riotous, chaotic, contorted and complex, bright white and popsicle orange, weathered and eroded, weird, strange and otherworldly. While all true, these adjectives only go so far to describe the pleasant insanity that is White Pocket.  Even photographs — no matter how beautiful and stunning — can only give you snapshots of the craziness.  Macroscopically compelling and microscopically arresting, you can spend hours working just one small area, following twisty-turny lines of strata with eye and camera, or sit perched on the elephant hide-like back of the highest point that acts as both a viewpoint and a visual reference point for this otherwise easy-to-get-lost-in-landscape.  Bring your panoramic camera (and/or ultra-wide lens) but don’t forget your 105mm macro: you’ll want them both.

It’s easy to imagine spending days here exploring the various nooks and crannies and since camping is still permitted, White Pocket really deserves at least an overnighter.  I spent two afternoons extending into and past sunset both days, and perhaps had covered maybe half of the exposed sandstone.  A mile or so away rises the bulk of White Pocket Butte and that would certainly afford many more exploring and photo opportunities.  While visually cacophonous, the arduous drive into White Pocket assures you of quiet, tourist-free time.

Though I had seen many photos, I was not prepared for The Wave.  After scaling the last steep and deep sandy hill, you enter The Wave through what appears to be a hollowed out sandstone hall with no roof.  Smooth lines flow sonorously through and around The Wave. Serene, graceful, and harmonious, this is the Yin to White Pocket’s Yang.  Very compact (another surprise as most photos can’t really reveal its scale), The Wave proper could easily be explored and photographed in a half of a day. If you had more time, you could try to find the Second Wave and and a small arch nearby. No camping is permitted, so get out there early and maximize your time.

The Wave has become the latest in a long-list of must-see/must-photograph landscape icons. Shooting them is a challenge, if you want to say something new, rather than just replicate what others have done.  In the case of The Wave, I initially shot from what has become the standard, central position, but then I crawled high up on the bowl edges in several places as well as chose low angles inches from the sandstone. I also used infrared and panorama cameras. There are always ways to put a unique spin on a familiar setting.

Upon my return I was asked which I liked better: The Wave or White Pocket.  The facile answer is “they are different” but it also happens to be very true. They are both sides of a (sandstone) coin.  It would be like saying you like ‘heads’ better than ‘tales,’ when really you can’t have one, without the other.


09 December 2010

At the Court of Chaos and the Hall of Harmony: White Pocket and The Wave (Part I)

I can think of no greater example of extreme difference in ostensibly similar landforms — with commonality in base components, age, agents of erosion, and location — than White Pocket and The Wave. Both are located in the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs wilderness, now newly designated as a National Monument, in a remote section of northern Arizona bounded by the Paria and the Colorado Rivers. Both are formations of primordial sand dunes long since petrified and frozen in time, when dinosaurs wandered ancestral seashores occasionally leaving tracks for us to find. Sandstone of muted reds, brilliant oranges, bright whites and golden yellows, the ever-present building blocks of the Southwest, shaped by water and wind (but mostly water), provide the foundation for both landscapes, as well as an exercise in the study of contrasts.

Separated by less than 20 miles as the raven flies, White Pocket and The Wave offer completely different experiences. Since its “discovery” some 15+ years ago, The Wave has become, for the growing legions of aspiring landscape photographers, a “must-see/must-have.” Relatively easy access — 10 miles of the usually very well-graded House Rock Road, followed by a 3 mile, basically level hike over sand and slickrock — would normally contribute to a steady stream of visitors and your classic outdoor Disney experience. So much so that the BLM has implemented a contentious permitting process that allows for only 20 visitors per day. This has been frustrating for those without open-ended dates but pretty much guarantees that once you get a permit you will have, if not a solitary experience, a quiet one.

Access to White Pocket is quite a bit different. Another 5 or so miles down the aforementioned road leads to you the first possible turnoff. This will lead up and over Paw Hole which can be nasty-deep with orange sand in the dry season. Further south is another unmarked turnoff in Corral Valley that will bypass the Paw Hole sandtrap but is longer and quite rough in some stretches. Both tracks (really, calling them ‘roads’ imparts a bit more dignity than they warrant) meet up in the middle of nowhere otherwise known as Poverty Flat. At this point, if you are not lost, it’s a good thing, as there are a number of spur tracks that seem designed to lead you astray. The land rises in such a way that only very occasionally will you catch a glimpse of the large white sandstone butte to the east which is labeled White Pocket on the map, but is not exactly the White Pocket you want to explore. Assuming you end up on the right track after Poverty Flat, you still have almost another hour of negotiating sand and rock (but mostly sand) before the “road” leads south around and past White Pocket Butte to end at a wooden fence that seems designed to keep ATVers off of the brittle sandstone but permits desiccated cows access to crap where they please.

Having survived the sandy and at times bone-rattling 2 hour drive from the nearest pavement, now would be time to set up camp and pop a cold beer, or, better yet, go exploring with cameras in tow.

(Part II: the Yin and Yang of White Pocket and The Wave)