Making a Photograph in the Dark at McClures Beach
It had been a long time since I had brought my camera to McClures Beach. Over the last 40 years, I had made innumerable trips to my favorite Point Reyes beach, making some of my finest images there. I felt I was through photographing this beach. But, then something changed. While on a desert photo expedition, my friend Hadley introduced me to starry night photography. I made my first night sky exposures and became inspired by the beauty of astrophotography. I began to imagine how McClures Beach might look under a clear star-splashed sky….
McClures Beach is the northernmost beach on the Point Reyes Peninsula. A half-mile trail winds steeply down through a canyon. The canyon wall, covered with dense brush growth, rises abruptly on the north side of the path. More than once I’ve had the eerie feeling of being watched by some large animal hidden in the brush as I’ve walked down this trail.
At the bottom of the trail, to the south, a majestic dark rocky point juts out to sea. Beyond the point are rugged sea stacks. The point is magnificent, ancient, and more than a little threatening. A plaque on the rocks memorializes the many fishermen and sailors who have lost their lives here. It warns me to be careful. McClures exudes a powerful, and sometimes terrifying beauty. That beauty has drawn me here so many times since my first visit in November, 1974.
Two classic daytime photos made at McClures Beach:
First night visit to McClures Beach
On the last day of Sept, 2016 our coastal fog disappeared as the new moon arrived, providing ideal conditions for star photography on our coast. Excited about this chance, I organized my gear and set my alarm for a midnight adventure. Lying in bed, I rehearsed my upcoming visit to the darkened beach. As I began to drift off to sleep an ominous sense of dread disturbed my reverie. I shuddered. I recalled reports of recent sightings of a mountain lion in the northern area of the peninsula, not far from where I would walk that night. Finally, I managed to fall asleep, but tossed fitfully until the alarm went off.
I quickly dressed and gathered my gear. Outside I noticed how brightly the stars shone above, but as I began driving toward the coast, dark thoughts returned. The thought of the upcoming walk down the trail to the beach gave me the willies. In 30 minutes I was parked at the trailhead. To prepare for the downhill walk, I reminded myself that it was unlikely I would be in danger along the canyon path.
The hair stood up on the back of my neck as I walked briskly downhill. I lifted my tripod high above my head to appear larger. I heard crackling sounds coming from the brush. I made my own brave noises as my hands grew clammy.
Once on the beach I began to feel a wee bit safer. Standing on the vast plane of sands, the immense dark starry sky above, I experienced a sweet mix of joy and loneliness. I found my spot and set up the tripod. I could see the Milky Way streaming above the point, glowing in the water below. So beautiful….
Then it happened. As I prepared to make my first exposure, the camera would not turn on! Everything I had gone through just to be here… and now, this? No photographs of the stars at McClures Point this night… and perhaps ever. Disappointment, then resignation washed over me. Then, fear crept back in. I had to get back up that dark trail. As I looked back toward the trail, I felt a sudden, deepening chill in the air. I scrambled up through the dark canyon passage. Then, safe inside the car, I slumped against the steering wheel.
The repaired camera came back in several days. The sky was still dark and very clear. I wondered if I could make that midnight walk to the beach again. When I visualized my favorite beach at night, that damned mountain lion kept popping up! I didn’t know if the beast was really there, but the thought of being alone in the dark gave me the creeps.
Returning to McClures with Jean
I confided my struggles with fear to Jean. She said, “Well… what if I came with you on the walk… strength in numbers, y’know?” I thought about it for a moment. I replied, “Hmm… now that sounds a lot less scary. The two of us will be formidable. No mountain lion will dare mess with such a team!”
So, on the night of October 4, 2016, Jean and I drove to McClures Beach. We talked and laughed all the way down the canyon trail to the beach. We made a new path of sound to protect us. The creatures of the night remained invisible somewhere out there in the dark.
The crescent moon was setting to the west as we set up the camera. Jean held a micro light to assist me as I adjusted the Sony. We both saw the band of the Milky Way streaming above the point. Jean wondered how such a faint band of light would look in the final photograph. I reassured her, “Tomorrow, when we get up, I’ll show you what the camera captured. I hope we’ll both be surprised!”
The next morning, I developed the image which showed our galaxy in all it’s glory — a wondrous stream of millions of stars above the dark rocky point. Jean said, “Now I get it … the camera sees them all, even the ones we can’t see!”
That was the night we slew the mountain lion.