Elves Chasm

Gigapan: Thomas Hayden

The Grand Canyon Gigaview Project

The invitation came to my cell phone via a friend's Facebook wall post, "Anyone interested in an April private on the Grand? I just won the permit lottery!" It was just after Christmas 2009 and I was on a plane home to Portland after the holiday. There wasn't much time to get ready for a trip like that, but I knew I wanted to go. The Grand Canyon: 18 to 21 days of wilderness river travel REQUIRED to pass its 225-mile primary stretch, from Lee's Ferry to Diamond Creek.

I had done it once before. I was invited on a trip in 2005. At that time the National Park Service was distributing the permits through a waitlist system. The couple that invited me had waited 25 years to take their friends down the river. The following year a weighted lottery system replaced the waitlist. The friend that invited me on the 2010 trip was remarkably lucky to win the permit lottery the very first time he applied for it.

On my first trip, I had rowed every mile, rarely allowing anyone else to pull on the oars. Not sure if I would ever have the chance again, I didn't want to miss a single moment. I had just begun working with a revolutionary new 360-degree video camera, and every time someone was disappointed that his or her photos just didn't do the Canyon justice, I thought of the camera I knew could.

Thomas Rowing

I decided that, if I was going to grab this second opportunity to spend three weeks on that wild ribbon of water, I was going to have to do some immersive imaging.

The original plan was to bring the technology that I had worked with on Google Maps Street View, but that proved to be a logistical (and budgetary) nightmare.
My next option was a technology that I had first seen in the days after the Obama Inauguration. David Bergman, a professional photographer, had taken a 1.4 GigaPixel image of the event, and it went immediately viral (to date it has almost 14 million views on gigapan.com). The incredible ability to zoom into the image, especially at such a high profile event, where every face in the gallery was recognizable, was addictive and powerful. GigaPixel photography was the new medium I was looking for to immersively capture our Grand Canyon journey.

The Pitch

My neighbor introduced me to a website where I could pitch my project to the world and ask for financial contributions, called Kickstarter.com. He helped me produce a pitch video and my proposal to Kickstarter was accepted within an hour. This was 18 days before we were due to drive to Flagstaff Arizona to meet our river group. 21 days before our March 29 launch date.

My Kickstarter pitch video

I asked the Kickstarter community for $2500 to help me cover the material costs of the project. I reached that goal in 10 days, primarily because Kickstarter.com featured my project on their homepage at the same time that the New York Times featured their social media-driven fundraising platform. By my Kickstarter project's end, my generous "backers" had contributed over $3400 to Grand Canyon GigaView.

The Gear

Gigapan Systems had provided me with a Gigapan Epic 100 robotic camera mount, which was perfect for the Canon PowerShot S5IS I already owned. Both are powered by AA batteries, and power was going to be my primary challenge if I chose any other configuration. There are zero reliable recharging options on an 18-day Grand Canyon trip. Solar only works half of the day when winding through the Canyon's shadows, and wouldn't be manageable on board the boat between rapids. For a robot to move a camera several thousand times, it would need a lot of power. For that, I bought $300 worth of AA batteries (non-rechargeable classics). I also bought two military-issue 7.62 MM ammunition cans (an old river-runner classic) to carry them all. Before the trip, I packed one can full of pre-packaged sets of six batteries for quick reloading of the Epic.

Gigapan Epic 100 in the Canyon

I went to Kurt Bauer of Bauer Cases in Vancouver, WA for a hard plastic Pelican case to fit the Gigapan, my Garmin GPS (loaded with detailed topography maps), and all of my other bits of technology. NRS (Northwest River Supply) contributed at the corporate level and outfitted me with new river gear. PNY sent me all the 32 GB memory cards I would ever need. Mark Sublette of Sedona, AZ's Medicine Man Gallery and David Amory of ChaseVision360 in North Carolina also contributed at the corporate level.

The Journey Begins

We launched our four rafts laden with gear, food, and beer at Lee's Ferry in the cool morning air, as the first rays of the sun began warming the Vermillion Cliffs. The night before, I had asked my girlfriend, Christy, to marry me under a young cottonwood tree, and we were now engaged. At Navajo Bridge, just downstream, we were welcomed into Marble Canyon by a flight of six Californian Condors, the largest flying birds in the world. Reintroduced through Herculean efforts by conservationists, these almost prehistorically enormous vultures are one of the more rare sightings a birder like me can enjoy.

California Condors

Our days in Marble Canyon were marred by an upstream gale that would push our rafts back upstream if a rower stopped rowing for only a moment and lost the downstream momentum. I remember looking over my shoulder at a boulder below one of the hundreds of large, wide eddies, and wondering how many strokes of the oars it would take me to be past that boulder. I focused on it and began counting. I lost count shortly after 50 backbreaking oar strokes, when I still hadn't past it.

When the wind was at its worst, I asked Christy to sit next to me to pull on one oar, while I controlled the boat with matching strokes of the other. One stoke too far on either side of the barely visible "bubble line" of downstream current, meant being pulled into water traveling back upstream and another fifty stoke penalty. At camp, each night of those first four days, the boatmen questioned whether or not they could do another day in those conditions. The truth was, we simply had no choice about it. The Grand Canyon has its entrance fees, and they are Marble Canyon and the word you dare not whisper... wind.

The Gigapan Dance

Nankoweap marked the end of the suffering. I had managed to grab a few Gigapans in Marble Canyon: The first day at Badger Creek, two in the early morning at Soap Creek, and one at North Canyon. They had all gone well until Redwall Cavern where we were short on time (afraid of the wind). I was plagued by battery and memory issues and didn't get a complete 360. Nautaloid Canyon camp was a cool place to get a shot of our camp life, but I didn't really have an opportunity to get up and away from the river until Nankoweap (river mile 52) on the fourth day.

Nankoweap Granaries

I was up before dawn despite having been on cooking duty the night before. I packed my Giga gear and headed up the talus slope toward the ancient Puebloan ruins at the top - where the talus met the sheer rock face of Redwall Limestone. Peter, our trip leader and my old raft guiding buddy joined me for the early hike.

The Nankoweap Granaries are one of the iconic images of the Grand Canyon, almost a prerequisite for Grand Canyon GigaView. While every photographer that comes down here gets the image of the stark openings in the Canyon wall with the River winding its way into the distance behind, I could get the full field of view from that place. I took a group image once everyone else arrived, and I waited for them to leave so I could shoot the place all by itself. This was the first of many times that I would perch the Gigapan in some precarious position on the side of a cliff and be happy to walk away to allow it to do its business.

Doing the "Gigapan dance" around the robot to avoid being captured in the image is a difficult thing to do on cliff face. In a couple of the images from Grand Canyon GigaView I can be found peering from around a bush or rock while checking on the robot's progress, only to be faced with the cold eye of the camera staring directly at me.


I found one of my favorite images from the trip on the beach at Upper Tanner (river mile 68.5). Here the Canyon opens up before diving into the oldest (and among the hardest) rock on Planet Earth, the Vishnu Schist. At 1.7 billion years old, almost half the age of the Earth itself, this basement metamorphic is a window into another world. The rock immediately on top of it is only 300 million years old. A sequential gap occurs above the Vishnu Schist of about 1.4 billion years, during which time mountains grew and fell away. This is the Great Unconformity, as explorer John Wesley Powell named it. It can be seen clearly in a number of images from Grand Canyon GigaView.

River Camp

At Hance Rapid, I had time to capture three Gigapans since I wasn't on cooking or camp duty. It allowed me time to experiment with shooting a Gigapan image from a floating boat and to get a good image of the whole rapid with all of its rocks, waves, and holes. We all had good runs through it the next morning.

After Hance, the rapids get really tricky. With names that they make you remember like Sockdolager, Grapevine, Zoroaster, Horn Creek, Granite, and Hermit, each bigger than the last and all of them just previews of the monster at Crystal. We scouted them all, but as an oarsman, I had more on my mind than photography. We made it to Crystal just as the front of a storm was rolling over the Canyon. The only official campsite at Crystal was already taken by a camp of experienced guides. We followed their advice and set our camp at the tiny inlet where most people only scout from. From the pool above the rapid, one could see the wind whipping a twirling cloud of spray off the dangerous hole that makes the rapid infamous. I remember being a young guide, drinking 3.2 beer in the burger bar in Green River, Utah, and gawking at a poster they had hanging on the wall that showed this tiny boat in front of a frothing wall of whitewater. I think the caption was "intimidation", and it was Crystal Rapid in the Grand Canyon that was intimidating.

Slow Down

I was able to do three more Gigapans that evening at Crystal: an unevenly exposed shot up Crystal Creek showing some beautiful formations in the granite and two above the rapid. Crystal also gave me a good location to shoot a "framed" panorama of higher resolution.

Thomas kicked off the trip by asking Christy to marry him.
The newly engaged couple Hiking

Also on the advice of the group of experienced Grand Canyon guides (the only other private group on the river with us), we slowed down. Now, they told us, we were in the heart of it all, and the current would flow much faster between rapids from here on out. There was plenty of time to make our take out date another hundred and twenty-five miles downstream. We set our sights on Lower Bass Camp for a much anticipated "layover" day. It was a day where we didn't have to get up early and pack up the boats, navigate treacherous whitewater, unpack the boats, set up camp, etc. It was a day of swimming, hiking, bocce, beer, and three or four late games of poker. With river-sculpted features of Vishnu Schist like toes in its sandy beach, Lower Bass is one of the most amazing places to camp in the world, and my personal favorite. Most of my Gigapans from our layover day (I shot four) are from the hike Christy and I went on to Shinumo Creek. It took us up and over a small rise above the camp and down into its chum hiding pools.

Zoom In

Elves Chasm, Blacktail Canyon, Deer Creek Falls, Havasu... each could have a novel written about it. There is such character in these places where water brings life to the desert. If it is true, as someone recently said, that "a picture is worth a thousand words, and a Gigapan is a novel", then I guess I'll let my images speak to those special places, and the rest of our trip. I have tried to annotate the images in this collection with accurate information about the rock layers and plants visible in each, as well as tell the story of the day they were taken.

It should be noted that I didn't do any of this alone. Without the love and support of my fiancée, Christy, Grand Canyon GigaView would certainly never have happened. Nor could I have managed to put it all together in the time I had without the generous support of my Kickstarter backers and friends. Our river party deserves mention for their role in getting us down the river as well. My thanks go out to them all.

Our River Party

Almost five million people travel to the Grand Canyon every year. Maybe 12,000 of them actually go down any part of the river. Of them, only a few hundreds do the entire trip without a motor to push them through and disturb the natural stillness of the river (that is between the chaos of the rapids). With Grand Canyon GigaView, I wanted to share part of that experience, one rarely enjoyed more than once in a lifetime.

Today, anyone with a computer and an internet connection (or even just an iPhone) can zoom into the Grand Canyon from outer space, right into one of my images down by the river, and then zoom again, into the image, to find some hidden detail. On Google Earth, via the 360Cities.net layer, an average of 1100 people a day, do exactly that. Since the 360Cities layer became default for most Google Earth users, over 150,000 people have seen Grand Canyon GigaView.

Grand Canyon GigaView is also available on Bing Maps via the Photosynth Map App, as well as fully navigable on the iPhone with the new Photosynth App.

Isn't it a fascinating time to be alive?

Thomas Hayden

Guest Editor

Biologist, Wilderness Expedition Leader, Ecotourism Entrepreneur, Destination Marketing Pro, Thomas Hayden's career jumped tracks when he became immersed in a new camera technology in 2005. A year later, Thomas was among a handful of photographers dispatched to visually map the world for Google StreetView. An endless road trip, it was a journey that would take him from the lip of Niagara Falls to the beaches of Southern California. He always knew that, one day, he would take the technology down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon on a rafting expedition.
With an invitation to row a boat on a private permit in 2010, he had his chance.

Follow Thomas Hayden on Twitter @GigaView360
See more of his gigapixel images at:
gigapan.com GigaView360 and Photosynth.net GigaView

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