Pete Bengeyfield | American Littoral

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American Littoral

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

and planning.

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.

Discretion prevailed.

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

book.

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

back north.

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

without them.

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

blast.