The Night We Slew the Mountain Lion

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:

Ebb Tide, McClures Beach, February 2003
September Sunset, McClures Beach September, 1995

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.

Milky Way Reflects over McClures Point October, 2016

23 comments on “The Night We Slew the Mountain Lion

  1. So otherworldly and beautiful! When I look at the image I see the shape of a mountain lion’s ears, eyes and nose peering out at me from the cloud-like Milky Way formations.

  2. Thanks Marty,
    I know that feeling and sometimes whether it’s the fear of something real or imagined, pushing through often produces otherworldly results, this photo is proof! Thanks for sharing this awesome tale.

  3. Susan, from Point Reyes Outdoors and who is our son Lawrence’s partner, was nice enough to send me the link to this post. She knows of the love my wife Irene and I carry for McClures Beach. We do have you beat by a few years, Marty, having first walked on McClures Beach more than a half century ago. Irene and I look forward to hearing your Artist Talk next Saturday in Solano County, where we live.

    • Bruce, I look forward to seeing you next Saturday at the opening. Please introduce yourselves and remind me of your love for McClures Beach!
      I’ll add you to my email newsletter so you’ll future editions automatically. Thanks to Susan at PR Outdoors from me. Cheers, Marty

  4. It’s interesting that most of the time, being an artist is a solitary endeavor; but sometimes it requires another person’s presence. I love this image. I get so caught up in the beauty of your photos that I often forget the courage that it takes to make them.

    • Christie,
      Thank you for reading the story and understanding the main idea. Jean’s collaboration was essential to making this photograph. Overcoming my fear was possible because of her generosity and love. We send our love to you and Daniel.

  5. I love it! “Strength in Numbers” It works for the Warriors basketball team and for hikes in the wilderness at night. Living in the city it’s easy to forget the brilliance of a starry night away from city lights.

  6. Look big, carry the tripod fully extended over your shoulder to help you look even bigger. I also attach a jingle bell to my camera bag – in an effort to alert a wild animal to my presence & avoid a surprise encounter. Nevertheless, one morning, ahead of civil twilight, I was walking down the path to the ocean bluff and saw two beady eyes in the beam of my flashlight. Turned out to be a dog out for a very early morning walk with his human. My heart rate eventually slowed back to normal.

    • Frank,
      I think I saw that same dog on a walk to Abbots Lagoon. (At least I hope it was a dog. I’m thinking though, based on how far apart the eyes were and how high they were off the ground, that it was probably a bobcat. I’ve seen them often in the daytime. They too also tend to keep their distance, phewww!!

  7. Hi Marty,
    Beautiful photograph ! I was reminded of my own experience with a mountain lion years ago. I was living with Big Sue and her sister who was dying of cancer. It was difficult to sleep with her cries at night though she was getting as much morphine as was dared. I got in my car at 5;30 am and started driving, feeling so bleak, and found myself parked out on Red Hill, the sun had come up, just sitting and smoking and wondering about life when a magnificent creature plopped down from the hill onto the road. It was a very thin mountain lion, probably displaced by the floods that year. It turned and stood there staring at me from about 20-25 ft. away. I froze, it was the longest staredown I’ve ever experienced. I was freaked out at first, realizing my windows were rolled down. It had the most beautiful eyes. My cigarette burned down to my fingers and I carefully put it out, still staring back. After what seemed like an eternity the big cat went on down into the valley below. It felt like such a gift to me. I wanted so bad to get out of the car and watch it, but I knew better and started realizing what had just happened, guess I was meant to live another day. Wish I’d had a camera and the nerve to use it!

    • Mary, Good to hear from you. Your story made the hairs on the back of my necks stand up, again!
      What an amazing experience… I had no idea, and better that you burned your fingers than let that hungry cat jump you!
      I hope you like the photograph Jean and I took that night.

  8. Great story Marty. I live in a wild stretch of eastern Oregon and I know the feeling. I often walk out our 1/2 mile driveway to stargaze and the darkest parts of that walk keep me on edge. Doesn’t help that I’ve caught the resident cat on game camera. Keep doing what you do!

    • Thanks for your comment, Andrew.
      I’ve heard that these big cats aren’t really interested in messing with us two-leggeds. That is unless they’re very hungry and we are small and vulnerable…

    • Judy, so good to know you’ve read this and continue to read and look at my posts.
      Thanks and watch out for that big cat up on Olema Hill!! (only kidding….)

  9. Hi Marty –
    Stellar photo (so to speak) and great background story! I know that “mountain lion’s somewhere around here” feeling. Glad you and Jean went back for the kill.

    –jk

    • John,
      Good to hear from you. It’s experiences like this that keep me going out (though somewhat reluctantly, at times!)

  10. Wonderful tale that I readily relate to! I have had the same hair-raising fear alone in the SW deserts and the feeling that I was being watched. In fact, I made a photo of very fresh cougar tracks next to a cattle pond where he was digging deep in the sand either trying for prey or hearing me approach. Great photo!

    • Hey, Loren!
      Glad that big one didn’t want to mess with you either. I’ve seen a couple of juvenile lions around here, but they were very stealthy and slinked quickly into the roadside brush. I wish my hearing was a little better, though on some of my night walks.

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