Proof Photography Wisdom Comes With Age : A Tidal Lesson

A few nights ago I had a “breakwater” experience in my photography career. A tidal one. A heart-stopping, adrenaline pumping, oh-shoot-what-now, moment.  I’ve had quite a time laughing at it now and feel I need get it down for the record so that 10 years from now I can’t stretch the story too much.

Ocean, Light Painting, Stars
This story involves the stars and the tides. Pictured here. Perhaps if I had looked closer and could read the night’s fate in the stars I wouldn’t have gone out at all!

So here’s the scene. It’s is April 16th, 2018 and a new moon is leaving the sky void of light pollution. It was a slam-dunk, shockingly beautiful night with clear and luscious dark skies. For a night photography junkie like myself the opportunity was too good not to go out.  I arrived at Long Island outside of Hoonah, Alaska at 10:00 PM. This area is situated right on the ocean and a saddle of coarse sand connects the mainland to a 200 foot diameter island.  I began to shoot along that sand spit and was thrilled with the shots I was getting : smooth seas reflected the stars like opalescent pearls on the surface. The edge of the Milky Way rose to the north and was showing up brilliantly in my camera.  It was simply a stunning night to be out . Satisfied with the individual shots I was getting I began to deploy three DSLR bodies on 6 foot tripods being conscious of the high tide line. I programmed two to take images at regular intervals in order to create Star Trails images and one I placed on a robotic head to capture a timelapse of the Milky Way.  The robotic head was tethered to a battery which sat on the sand 5 feet below the camera. Smugly I thought to myself how good I was getting at this and decided that a few winks of sleep would be a great way to pass the time as the cameras did their thing. Sleep is a great way to lose track of time and reality.

Milky way, hoonah, alaska, stars
The edge of the Milky Way Rising in Hoonah, Alaska.

You may already know sleeping in a car seat never provides the best sleep. I woke up at 11:30 and saw the green light on my camera flicker, noting that it was taking pictures and that everything was OK. I woke up at 12:00, 12:30 and then at 1AM. Again, everything looked great! The stars were speckled across the heavens, the ocean was calm, and no sea-fog had rolled in. I wedged myself into a comfier position and passed out stone cold until 2:30 AM. When I awoke was when the real fun started.

I guess I have to tell you a bit about the tides since not all are familiar with them. In Hoonah, our tides swing as much as 23 feet from low to high. Huge amounts of water move like a large river and quickly flood tidal areas over 6 hours and then recede.In the video below (a result of the night) you can watch the tides come in fast.  Like all coastal areas there are two times of the month when then tides are greatest : full moon and new moon. I’ve already told you which moon I lay sleeping under.

At 2:30 AM I yawned, stretched, smacked my lips, yawned again, and then decided I should go check on my cameras. I opened the door and came face to face with my situation – salt water was rushing by my truck just below my floor boards like a river. Due to the new moon there was no regard by the ocean for the “normal” high tide line, it had gone past with the regard a lion gives a cob of corn. I tried to step from the truck and over-topped my 16″ tall rubber XTuff boots. Oh shit. I knew my first priority was to get my truck to high ground. Fortunately I had parked facing the right way and was soon there… but now about those cameras.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. When you have thousands of dollars of water-sensitive camera gear caught in the embrace of a rampant high tide it is desperate times indeed. My first few steps to Camera # 1 with the extra battery brought me over my boots and then over my thighs. I was shocked to see 6 foot tall tripod only sticking out of the water by 18inches. Rescuing the large battery from the bottom of the ocean required submerging my arm up to my armpit in the icy brine. And I knew I was just getting started as I rushed the camera to safety on shore.

On any other day I would erase this image, but since the stream tail lights of my truck captures the pandemonium of the moment its a shot with a story.

Camera # 2 was placed much further along the saddle that connected the island to shore. I was over my boots and over my thighs when, to my dread, the ice flows began to solidify in the 25 degree night. A skim of quarter inch ice had built up like tiny armor plating to rub against my stinging legs. Fortunately (I guess?) I had no choice to scrutinize my options and further in I went. By the time I reached Camera #2 I was over my belly button. As a man I can say that it was extraordinary uncomfortable to be that deep in those icy waters.

Camera #3 was placed on a flooded bolder field. Hindsight is 20/20, but my legs were so numb and becoming dysfunctional by the third camera that navigating my waterlogged boots over the volcanic rock was quite difficult. With a few stumbles I was able to retrieve the camera which was still taking images and toddle my way back to my vehicle.

Star Trails, Alaska, Hoonah
All said and done the night was actually quite successful. Check out this beautiful star trails!

It is truly remarkable I didn’t lose any camera gear. The tides were a full 4 to 5 feet higher than I ever would have suspected. In river terms it had “topped” its bank. On that night I did a rare thing by raising all of my tripods to their highest height. It is much more typical for me to shoot with low tripods which would have flooded for certain. I’ll count my blessings and do a much better job of measuring the tides next time I go out!

Star Trails, Hoonah, Alaska, Light Painting
Star Trails captured on my nearly disastrous night. In one I used my headlamp the light the treees on the shore.

Star Trails, Hoonah, Alaska, Light Painting

7 thoughts on “Proof Photography Wisdom Comes With Age : A Tidal Lesson”

  1. Unlike the TV shows espousing to real life in Alaska, you story of an evenings work documents ‘with flavor and feeling’ what it is truly like.
    Thank you Ian for for sharing that evening with us.

    1. Thanks Pete, I appreciate it! No doubt about the authenticity of this story. A stark contrast to those phony shows! I don’t have TV, but I hear all about “Alaska” when I travel!

  2. Thought you were going to relate a story of being stranded on a bar island. But No! A bit worse I would stay, certainly scarier. Sheesh.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.