Flood waters are cruel, destructive freaks of nature and rarely considered to be creative artists. But out on the wild, lonely, high-plains desert of Northern Arizona flood waters have carved a beautiful salute to our changing earth. Walking through Antelope Canyon is like strolling through Mother Nature's art gallery. A variety of colours dance across the canyon's walls, choreographed by the sun passing overhead. There's just one small problem. Visitors afflicted with a touch of claustrophobia won't feel comfortable.
There are places in this slot canyon where you can stroke your fingers along both walls simultaneously.
Antelope Canyon cuts through what used to be a sand bar in an ancient ocean that once covered Arizona and neighbouring states. The sand was compressed into stone, but not hard stone. Millions of years after the sea receded this sand bar was left as an impressive bump, called a mesa, on the sandy floor of the desert. And then came the flood waters to slice a narrow gorge through the sandstone mesa.
During the monsoon season rainwater falls on a wide basin 65 kilometres south and higher than Antelope Canyon, and then starts its rush downhill to Lake Powell. The flood waters have carved a twisting route through the mesa, hence the canyon sometimes is called Corkscrew Canyon.
There is an upper Antelope Canyon and a lower Antelope Canyon about four kilometres further downstream along Antelope Creek, which is a wide, dry river bed much of the year. Both canyons are four kilometres east of the town of Page in Northern Arizona, close to the boundary of the huge Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The more popular and prettier upper canyon is 400 metres long, with walls 60 metres high. It's only about a metre wide at the top where natural light pours in to bounce off the red sandstone walls.
The twisting, striated walls reflect a cavalcade of colours. It's a photographer's delight. Antelope Canyon photos can be found in the finest photographic books and galleries around the world. But you must be patient. The best photos are taken with a tripod and time exposure. Expect other tourists to wander into your shot. This canyon has starred in half a dozen Hollywood movies and Britney Spears used it to film her video "I am not a girl. Not yet a woman."
The canyon is on Navajo land and you must have a Navajo guide to enter the area. The guides can tell you about the long history of their people on these lands. They will explain that the canyon derives its name from the pronghorn antelope that roamed these lands only a generation ago. They were eventually elbowed out by grazing cattle.
After a $20 admission fee your Navajo guide will transport you in the back of a four-wheel-drive truck three kilometres along the dry, sandy riverbed until it looks like you're going to run smack into a huge mesa. It's only when you climb out of the truck you'll notice a narrow slice in the rock. That's your gateway to this cathedral of natural art. Your Navajo guide does more than explain the area's geography and anthropology. He also keeps you safe.
When you are in the canyon you wouldn't know if there's a thunderstorm underway 30 kilometres up stream, which in an hour or two could send a flash flood roaring through the canyon. Your guide checked the region's weather just before loading you into the shaded back of his truck.
In August 1997, an out-of-state guide took a dozen tourists, mostly European, into lower Antelope Canyon. Only one came out alive. The guide didn't know about a cloud burst only 25 kilometres away which sent water 50 feet high crashing through the narrow canyon. Two bodies were never recovered.
Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/