Monday, October 24, 2011

On contemplating limblessness

To be a photographer -- even just a hobbyist like myself -- or, dare I say, a true flâneur (look it up), is to be patient and intrepid.

Patient because photography is all about light, which changes from moment to moment. A flat landscape can become vivid when a sun comes from behind a cloud. Intrepid because the difference between a lousy photo and a good one might be a walk onto a ledge or getting just two steps closer to that mama grizzly (joking, really).

And so I find myself at the top of Fall Creek Falls, a gorgeous waterfall where Fall Creek tumbles down travertine  terraces into the South Fork of the Snake River in Swan Valley. From the road above the falls you can see it from the side, which exposes only about a third of the beautiful scene. I have been in front of the falls before during low water, when you can gingerly make your way over marsh to a small island (as pictured above).

It's late October when the river is at its lowest (though twice as high as the same time the year before), so I figure, what the heck. I secure my camera to my tripod and pick my way down a nearly vertical opening in the vegetation about 200 yards from the falls. I make it down without injury and start picking my way through the willows and shrubs toward the falls.

I'm closer, yes, but I can see less of the falls than I could from the road. The only way to open the view is to head out toward the river. There is about 10 feet of muck between dry land on the road side and the dry land of the island. I can see footprints in the muck, so I think, "what the heck?"

Two steps in and I sink in to my calves. I'm maybe four feet from one edge and six feet from the other, camera and tripod in my left hand. My first thought is, "It's 127 Hours all over again." You know, the guy who had to chop off his hand when it became wedged between some rocks in southern Utah. Then, the image of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail appears. This is the spew-milk-from-the-nose-funny scene in which King Arthur literally disarms the knight by chopping off all four limbs. The knight eventually offers to call it a draw as the King rides away.

I just know at this point that I'll have to chop off my legs -- hopefully below the knee, to make fitting prosthetics easier -- to save my life. However, before hacking (it would have been fruitless, as I had nothing sharp on my person other than my wit), I decided to take a step back toward dry land.

What followed was a giant sucking sound, followed by my foot coming clean out of my boot, which was one of those cheap slip-ons. I had no choice but to put my stocking foot into the mud; I only sank in about four inches. I reached out and put my camera and tripod on a dry spot, reached back and pulled my shoe out of the muck. One knee now on dry land, I pulled my other foot free (sans slip-on boot) and repeated the process. Eventually I stood, in my stocking feet, back on a dry spot in the marsh, mud-covered boots in one hand and camera/tripod in the other. I had the presence of mind to stop and snap a few pictures, which mostly succeeded in covering my camera in mud from my hands.

Shoes in one hand (why did I bring them back?), camera in the other, I slogged back to the base of the hill and, spotting a shortcut, started up the near-vertical climb back to the road -- about 30 feet in elevation gain. First, I had to fight through a thicket (shortcuts are always a bad idea), where I undoubtedly picked up the two ticks that Kathleen found on my shirt when (spoiler alert!) I returned home. Flinging my ruined shoes ahead of me (inevitably they would tumble back nearly to my position), I scraped my way up the mud and slate, eventually emerging with sore feet and quad muscles and a sheepish look.

I gingerly put my shoes in the back of the car, peeled off my socks, and used my tennis towel and drinking water to get most of the gray, stinking mud off my hands. I was home in 40 minutes, driving barefoot with the heat blasting.

The pictures weren't worth it. I did, however, have all my limbs. The shoes and socks went into the trash.

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