When it comes to the beauty and diversity of the surrounding landscape, not many rivers in the United States can compete with the Arkansas River. At 1,469 miles, it’s the sixth-longest river in the United States, flowing eastward from Colorado through Kansas and Oklahoma before finally emptying into the mighty Mississippi River in Arkansas. The first stretch is clearly the most spectacular section: From its source high up in the rugged Sawatch Range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, “The Arkansas” is a raging stream of crystal-clear snowmelt water, cascading downhill and thundering through awe-inspiring canyons, dropping more than 10,000 feet in elevation on the first 125 miles. It’s no surprise that this part of the river has become America’s favorite destination for rafting and a fly-fishing Shangri-La to catch some of the many legendary trout cruising through the eddies of the run-off.

The most popular accessible area is the stunning 57-mile stretch between Canon City and Salida in Colorado, where the river winds through deep canyons and runs parallel to U.S. Route 50. During spring, summer and early fall, this area sees a fair number of visitors, but for me, the true magic happens here in winter, when surprisingly very few people venture along the shoreline. As soon as the temperature sinks below the freezing mark, the Arkansas River changes dramatically. Due to extremely cold nights at 7,000 feet elevation and the low sun that’s unable to penetrate the shaded bends in the canyon, ice starts forming on the river in November, and by mid-winter, huge ice floes drift downstream, making the Arkansas look like the Yukon River.

During a bitter-cold December hike along the headwaters near the village of Cotopaxi, I noticed that ice had formed around boulders that were peeking out of the fast-flowing river. Shimmering, alluring. Naturally, I was intrigued, but from my viewpoint—eye level with the river—I couldn’t see any details or shapes. The only way to get an idea of what the ice formations would look like was from above. Luckily, I had packed my drone, but flying a drone under the conditions at hand was risky business. I knew I’d have to position the drone in turbulent wind directly over the water, hoping to avoid ice buildup on the propellers from moisture evaporating off the river and potentially forcing the drone to crash and vanish in a liquid grave. I also had to be quick since the cold would drain the batteries very fast.

I carefully flew the drone up and then slowly moved the aircraft directly over the river. Hovering at 37.7 feet, I swiveled the gimbal with the camera to 90 degrees down toward the river, and I was totally floored. Every big rock sticking out of the water had bizarre attachments of ice trailing behind it—fantasy creations resembling giant bacteria, spaceships or alien lifeforms shaped by the swift current. Some of these frozen pieces of art were up to 30 feet long, the ice glowing in the water in iridescent green and turquoise colors. Without the point of view made possible by the drone, I would not have been able to experience these incredible hidden artworks of nature. 

See more of Christoph Stopka’s work at christophstopka.com.

DJI Mavic Air 2. Exposure: 1/300 sec., ƒ/2.8, ISO 100.

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