Donald Hall • Photographing Fly Geyser

Something out of this planet. You would be justified if this was your first impression, for such is the impact of Fly Geyser. As Donald Hall says, its surreal beauty in such a desolate place seems misplaced

In 1916, a local rancher drilled a well hoping for water for his stock. What he hit, however, was a pressurized geothermal pocket that resulted in a geyser of hot mineral-laden water. Over time, the minerals built up and produced a tall slender 12-foot cone. Regrettably, this geyser eventually went dry and remains so today.

Then, in 1964, a geothermal energy company sunk a test well about 270 yards south of the old geyser. The water they tapped into, however, was not hot enough for their needs so they abandoned the project. The test well was apparently either not capped or inadequately capped, so continued to spew hot mineral-laden water. Left alone, the calcium carbonate deposits began to form, growing several inches each year; Fly Geyser was born.

The Area

Fly Geyser is located on Fly Ranch in the Hualapai Valley approximately 20 miles north of Gerlach, Nevada. The geyser may be seen at a distance from County Road 34 but the geyser itself is on private property and the dirt road that leads to it is barred by a substantial locked gate. Trespassing is strictly forbidden and enforced.

The million-acre Black Rock Desert, which is home to occasional world land speed record attempts and the annual Burning Man festival, surrounds Fly Geyser. Each year the geyser plays an unsung part in the celebration by providing water from its ponds to suppress the considerable dust at Burning Man City.

The ponds, which were once a destination for Hippies who would bathe in its warm waters, are now a significant flyway resting area for migratory birds. There, you are likely to see swans, mergansers, mallards, ibis, and many other species.

The Geyser

The geyser is quite small, perhaps only about 7 feet tall, and rests atop 3 terraces. Rust-colored travertine wraps the geyser in a large colorful blanket about its base. To try and prevent damage to this fragile environment, a few boards have been laid down for the convenience (and guidance) of visitors.

The geyser’s brilliant colors are produced by thermophilic algae which, as heat-tolerant microorganisms, thrive in this 220-degree environment. The colors reminded me a great deal of those found at Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring.

My Visit

I first became aware of Fly Geyser from viewing a very dramatic photograph of it taken by Michael Fatali. From that moment, I knew that I had to see it for myself. My opportunity came in May of 2009 when I received a call from a friend who knew a friend … well, you get the picture. The result was that I drove all night and found myself in Gerlach the next day for what was to be 4 days of shooting this incredible feature. The multi-day visit gave me the rare opportunity to see and shoot the geyser at all times of the day and night.

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I think that it was the multiple spouts of water that first attracted my attention. It was as if its plumbing had gone wild and rerouted the water to 9 different “spigots” which never stop spewing water. The multiple angles of the fountains break up any potential symmetry and are quite pleasing. As the flow never stops, there is never a need to wait for some eruption timetable.

Shooting Fly, however, has its challenges. Aside from the usual landscape issues that we are all aware of (clouds, weather, and quality of light) you must also deal with the geyser’s steam. The slightest wind may engulf the geyser in steam or push it in some other undesirable direction. I was often engulfed by the warm, moist cloud – patience is indeed a virtue for landscape photographers.

If you go, take a ladder with you. Though dragging it through the brush was cumbersome, it gave me a higher point of view that allowed me to include the water in the upper terrace.

As with most landscapes, Fly is best shot during the Golden Hours. If you are blessed with good atmospherics, though, midday shooting can work very well. If not, consider black and white or infrared photography as they can actually enhance that other-world feeling. Also, consider painting the geyser with torches at night; it can be magical, particularly if you’re working with a moonrise.


The Future

There are now plans to turn this area into a recreational resort. Although this will provide many more people the opportunity to see it in person, I can’t help but feel that the geyser will be ruined with development springing up all around it. As a photographer, allowing the Friends of Blackrock to conduct frequent tours would be my preference.

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