C:\Users\Bengeyfield\Documents\Petes Stuff\American Littoral article for NPN.pdf
In 2008 retirement was fast approaching. I knew I'd be spending a good portion of my
time photographing, but I felt my efforts needed to be more focused than the scattershot
approach I'd used for weekends and vacations while I was working. I needed a project.
Living in Montana, within three hours of Yellowstone, I felt I'd maxed out my coverage
of the Northern Rockies and the Colorado Plateau, at least for awhile. I'd done books on
those subjects using what somebody once called the "shoebox" method - picking a
subject and then going to your files and choosing images that would illustrate it. I
wanted to do something different, something that would require a little more forethought
So in the fall of 2009 my wife Alice and I we bought a 16' travel trailer (The Cramper),
and right after New Years, we hitched it to our Chrysler Pacifica and headed out to
photograph America's coastline, with the vague idea of putting together some sort of
book project. I divided the coast by geologic process (glaciated northeast, river
delta/barrier islands southeast, westward drifting west coast, Alaska, and volcanic
Hawaii), and figured I'd photograph the geology, coastal vegetation, and wildlife in each
area in order to explain the natural history of the American littoral. That's the idea
anyway. Now, six years later, the Lower 48 and southeast Alaska are done, and over the
next few years we have to finish up northern Alaska, and then Hawaii. Needless to say,
it's been an adventure.
That first year, we figured the southeast could be photographed in the winter because it
would be warm. Ha! In many places it was the coldest winter on record. I was as cold
photographing a windy sunrise at Cape Hatteras as I've ever been in Yellowstone. But it
was easy to find campgrounds.
Photographing the southeast coast is a challenge because it pretty much looks the same
from Long Island to Mexico - sand dunes on one side and the ocean on the other. Even
the shorebirds don't vary that much. To have the variety of images needed to carry a
book, unique lighting and weather conditions became paramount, and we'd adjust our
travel schedule to take advantage of whatever diversity we could find. The weather
stayed cold all through the Carolina's and Georgia, and we bypassed a number of
locations to pick up on the way back. It became apparent the flexibility was going to be a
big part of this project.
In Florida, the weather started improving, and bird photography became more of a focus.
Many counties have added public walking facilities to their sewage treatment ponds -
elevated boardwalks and the like. They could not have done anything better to attract
wading birds, and egrets, herons, gallinules, anhingas, and bitterns are all plentiful at
these facilities. In Palm Beach County, Green Cay and Wakodahatchee, are probably the
best - or at least the most popular. My favorite was Viera Wetlands south of Titusville.
The area is so large, that you can drive around and the ponds are large enough to attract
Skimmers, Caracaras and a few predators. On the west coast of Florida the treatment
plants aren't as developed for the public, but they still host lots of birds. Commercial
locations, such as the Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, are also productive for birds, but
they're costly for serious photographers ($65.00 a day in 2009).
We spent a lot of time in the Everglades, Great Cypress Preserve, and the Keys. To me,
this was the "real Florida." The chance to photograph all the "jungle" vegetation was
well worth the effort. Anhinga Trail and Shark Valley, both in Everglades National Park
are exceptional for all the wading birds. The Everglades deserves its reputation for
landscape photography, and I was relieved to be able to fill some of those gaps. The rest
of Florida is pretty much either agriculture or concrete. At Great Cypress Preserve it
was disappointing to find that most of the large cypress trees have been harvested, and
only small roadside groves remain. The "preserve" has been recently established to
protect the next stand of cypress. Far thinking no doubt, but we didn't have time to wait.
From Key West, we took the boat trip out to the Dry Tortugas and tent-camped for a
couple days. The sunrise behind Bush Key, with thousands of Sooty terns in flight, was
magical. We had brought kayaks with us, and all along the southeast coast they were
invaluable for getting onto backwater sloughs and bayous. We had planned to canoe the
Ten Thousand Islands Trail between Everglades City and Seminole, but the logistics
were pretty daunting, and it was 35 degrees and windy the day we were going to leave.
Heading north along the West coast of Florida, Ding Darling NWR on Sanibel Island,
Homosassa State Park and St. Marks NWR were perhaps the highlights for birds. Ft.
DeSoto, a county park at the entrance to Tampa Bay, is well worth the time also. The
Florida Panhandle was a relief after the congestion of the rest of the State. Heading west,
access to the Mississippi Delta is petty limited, with only two roads going out on it for
any length. Fortunately, the delta looks pretty much the same wherever you are, so a lot
of pictures aren't necessary. The presence of Big Oil is pretty overwhelming on the delta,
so don't expect a wilderness experience. (We were there before the spill.) We made it as
far as New Orleans the first year, before turning back to pick up the places we'd been
frozen out of.
The second year we started on the Olympic Peninsula and headed south. The sea stacks
and cliffs of the western coast were far more interesting photographically, but the bird
life was not nearly as diverse or abundant as we encountered in the southeast. We spent
too many days in Oregon listening to the rain on our aluminum roof, before deciding to
head south and finish up in the northwest on the way back. (Flexibility again). In
California, the weather improved and we took our time wandering down California Route
1 through the redwoods. Gold Beach and Fern Canyon were especially worthwhile,
although I could never find any of the Tule elk on the beach, a shot I really wanted for the
South of San Francisco the elephant seals were probably the wildlife highlight. They are
visible at Ano Nuevo State Park and Pt. Reyes National Seashore, but San Simeon is the
place to photograph them. At many of the viewing sites you're restricted to platforms,
but I was able to find a beach to the north, where I could get down among the seals. No
need for a 600 here, and I spent a fun couple of days recording behavior. When the bulls
move, you can actually feel the beach shake. Big Sur lives up to it's reputation for
coastline beauty, although beach access is really limited by topography, and you're pretty
much tied to the roadside pullouts. We made it as far as Santa Barbara before heading
Oregon is, hands down, the best State for beach access combined with exceptional
photography, that we found anywhere. The State Parks and Waysides scattered along the
coast, and the miles of public beaches make photography almost too easy. Some of my
favorites: Bandon Beach, Pistol River, Cape Arago, Cape Kiwanda, and Ecola State
Park. Sunsets and sea stacks - what more could you want.
We crossed the Columbia, and made it to Grey's Harbor for the April shorebird
migration. Then it was back up to Olympic National Park and backpack trips out to Point
of Arches and Rialto Beach. After the rat-race of just about everywhere else on the
coast, it was good to hear only the surf and the gulls. Great sunsets didn't hurt either.
The third year we hurried back to southern California and finished up the coast down to
San Diego. The pelican colony at La Jolla was fun, but I did feel conspicuous, 600 over
my shoulder, traipsing among the rollerbladers and frisbee throwers to get to the sea lion
and seal rookeries. Whatever works. (I knew this project wouldn't be a backcountry
experience. At San Diego, our campground was between I-5 and the railroad. I called it
the "wilderness corridor").
We wanted to get over to the Texas Gulf Coast for the songbird migration in the spring,
but it was only February when we got down to Mexico. That gave us a couple months to
wander across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, photographing mostly birds and desert
landscapes. Highlights were Joshua Tree National Park and Anza Borrego State Park
(the pool at the Visitors center attracts a lot of birds) in California. After four days of
searching in Patagonia State Park in Arizona, I finally found the only Elegant trogon in
the Park. At Sweetwater Wetlands, a sewage treatment facility in Tucson, a bobcat came
up and sat down next to me. Many Arizonans will maintain feeding stations in their
yards, and for a nominal fee to defray the cost of seed, will allow photographers access.
Local guide maps are easy to get. The campground at Saguaro National Park is good for
desert birds, and the Park itself for the iconic saguaro cactus shots.
The Rio Grande Valley is exceptional for birds. We didn't go to any of the private
ranches that rent blinds, but I've done that before and it's worth it. Santa Ana NWR,
Bentsen State Park, and Estero Llano Grande were good when we were there.
We hit the Gulf Coast in April for the start of the songbird migration. It's best if the
winds are out of the north, so the birds will be tired when they reach land and will
"fallout" in the first bunch of trees they find. We had south winds our whole time there
and could watch huge flocks of birds on the TV weather radar being blown to Oklahoma.
Nonetheless, enough birds landed to make it worthwhile. In addition to feeders, people
use "misters" to attract birds. There are dozens scattered from Brownsville to Galveston
at State Parks and other birding sites. A local guidebook is a huge help in locating them.
The Audubon facility at High Island is excellent for both songbirds and roseate
spoonbills, but you have to reserve the photo blinds way ahead of time during the
migration. Texas produces an excellent series of maps for its statewide "Birding Trail."
One of the drawbacks of the project is that it's tough to schedule the trips so you can
catch all the wildlife events in season. I ended up flying back to Delaware one May to
photograph the horseshoe crab spawn/shorebird migration. Song birds and crabs are
everywhere as many species of birds come to gorge themselves on horseshoe crab eggs to
fuel their northward journey. Red knots are the stars of the show, but sandpipers, gulls,
dunlins, dowitchers and sanderlings are feeding as well. The Audubon facility at
Slaughter Beach was the hotspot when I was there.
Out last trip was to the northeast, and we did our first summer trip in 2013. Full
disclosure: I didn't take a picture between Delaware and Cape Cod. There's just too many
people. As we had done in Los Angeles, we made a wide detour around the entire area. I
grew up on Long Island and know what it's like.
Even when we got to Maine the crowds hadn't thinned out (In Acadia National Park we
couldn't get a parking place on Cadillac Mountain for sunset) so we just went up to
Canada until after Labor Day. A good move, because photographic opportunities are
equally as good up there. The Bay of Fundy (38-foot tides), Fundy National Park,
Hopewell Rocks, and Cape Breton Island, are all well worth photographing. The gannet
colony at Cape St. Mary's, Newfoundland is one of the most fun photographic
experiences I've had anywhere.
Back in Maine, the foggy, rocky coast provided lots of material as we worked our way
south (actually west). At Quoddy Head we photographed the last of the four corners of
the continental United States (Key West, Tijuana Slough, and Cape Flattery are the
others), and at Acadia National Park we finally got a sunset from Cadillac Mountain.
(Sunrise was still less crowded). I was lucky to get a spot on the tour to the puffin colony
at Machias Island, as reservations are usually made a year in advance. Puffins sit right in
front of the blinds, and a 70-400 lens was more than adequate. Cape Cod provided
landscapes of empty beaches and the biggest dunes on the east coast. At low tide grey
seals haul out on offshore sandbars. The northeast was easily the hardest part of the
country to get around in, although we never really had trouble finding campsites.
This last summer, we took the Alaska Marine Highway from Bellingham, Washington,
all the way out to Unalaska in the Aleutians. We didn't take a car, and got rooms on each
of the five different boats we sailed on. Needless to say, you don't have any control over
where the ferry goes, but we got off for a couple of days and rented cars in Juneau,
Haines, Seward, Kodiak, Homer and Dutch Harbor. We took a tour boat out of Juneau to
Tracy Arm to see the glaciers calve, and rented a backcountry cabin in Kenai Fjords
National Park for three days (the only three days it rained). Easily the most spectacular
of the coasts for landscape photography, it's no way to photograph wildlife. Over the
next three or four years I'm going to have to go back on specialty trips for polar bears
(Kaktovik), birds (Nome), walrus (Alaska Peninsula), and marine mammals (?).
Using a travel trailer worked well for us. Once you unhook and set-up, there's a lot of
driving around to photo locations once you unhook, and if you had a van (the other
possibility), you'd have to take it everywhere. Also, having "alone time" (impossible
with a van) is important for everyone. Although the Pacifica was a little underpowered
for a 2700 pound trailer, it survived all four years and is still going strong. Mileage was
11-13 mpg when towing the trailer. Fortunately, the coasts are pretty flat, and there
weren't many hills. There were only a couple places we had difficulty finding
campgrounds, and only rarely would we make reservations more than a couple days in
advance to maximize flexibility in the schedule. We averaged $35.00 a night for
campsites with hookups (water, sewer, electric), and they ran the gamut from palatial to
barely adequate. But, as we often said, it was better than the ripstop nylon we'd been
used to for years. I would photograph in the morning and evenings, and we would move
during the day. The longest we ever spent in one location was five days. Once we got to
a section of coast, we wouldn't really travel that far between campgrounds, as there was
usually someplace else to photograph. We put about 80,000 miles on the car.
So far we've visited 31 States, 5 Provences, 84 State Parks, 42 National Wildlife Refuges,
21 National Parks, and a variety of Forest Service, BLM, and county locations. We
photographed in most of them, but there were times when the light wasn't right, or no
birds were around, and we'd move on. When you do something like this, it really reenforces
an appreciation for our public lands, and the forethought the Federal, State and
local governments showed in setting them aside. We'd be an infinitely poorer country
I really don't know if this will turn into a book, as the publishing industry is in a flux, and
coffee table books aren't high on publishers lists to produce. I contacted a bunch of them
before I started and most said, "That's a good idea. Let's see it when it's done." So who
knows? It'll at least be an eBook. As with anything else in photography, the real value
comes from doing it - the process always transcends the product. Either way, it's been a