A visual journey through Northern California’s Coastal Redwoods and its wild coastline.
The world, we are told, was made especially for man — a presumption not supported by all the facts. — John Muir
No matter how much you try, the mind and circumstances tend to conspire in ways to unsettle your soul. And when that happens, you need to find a way to reset, recalibrate and replenish. And for me, that usually means a few days of landscape photography.
Let’s go back and begin at this past Sunday…
Along with two photographer friends, I drove up the 101, so far north, that the highway typically seen carrying the venous blood of urban blight eventually gives way to a beautiful, two-lane road, sinewy and taut, slipping through mountains, valleys, tall trees, vineyards, and orchards. It is as if the world ends and life begins. Seven hours later, I find myself on the border of California and Oregon.
Crescent City is one of the many small towns on the Pacific Coast. It doesn’t boast of many niceties. It is pockmarked with fast-food restaurants, a handful of motels, and the occasional hotel. The marina, the beach, and the lighthouse are the main attractions. There is a certain unpretentious quality to this town. It looks tranquil, laid back, and even pastoral in places.
Still, all isn’t alright. Parts of it are very rundown. You can see traces of the same problems that infect most of America. The impacts left by drug use in general — meth, specifically — are obvious. But the street we are staying is far from all that bleakness.
The Airbnb rental is right on the edge of the ocean, ideal for watching the sun slip under the Pacific. It is on a beautifully curved avenue and is lined by beautiful and newly restored homes, many awaiting their coming summer guests.
Right now, it is spring. The nights are cool — they are always cool in California — the days are warm and bright, with the sky bluer than a blue jay. The sun doesn’t shine directly, but tries its best to glance its reflection off the ocean. The wind doesn’t flow so much as it whooshes. The rumbling sound of the waves is loud enough for me physically feel. And yet, I feel the toxins of modernity leave me, like smoke from the dying embers of an overnight fire.
We do nothing except drive around, looking out, placing ourselves in the context of the landscape. It might seem aimless, but this is how you find what makes photographic sense.
We stop at the Big Tree. It is big. Apparently, it is the second-largest tree in the area. It is genuinely awe aspiring. Still admiring nature’s art, I start talking to a couple taking a selfie with an old-school DSLR camera. They are teachers from Irvine.
They have been coming to the Big Tree every year since 1973. They take a photo together each time. Their kids, who were kids when they came the first time, are now in their fifties. They have grandkids now. I see the gentleman set up the camera, put it on a ten-second timer, and then run over to her. They hold hands and do it again. I leave the love birds alone and wander off to find something else to focus on.
It is only a matter of time before I lose myself in the trees, all of them big, some older than America itself. I don’t like to photograph flora and fauna. I prefer just to savor them. The smells, the sounds, and the quiet — they are enough to etch an image into my memory.
It is hard to find what I want to capture on my lens. As I enjoying the walk, I keep looking.
The first composition that speaks to me isn’t too far from the highway. Wilson Creek Beach is a cove edged by the 101, rocks, and black sand. I love the way it is surrounded by pine and Douglas firs. On both ends of the curve are rocks roughly rounded, driftwood bleached nearly white, and sea stacks. I am a sucker for sea stacks.
“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” — Ansel Adams
I don’t know why I love rocks in the sea — maybe I like their stoicism. They bear the pounding of the waves, minute after minute, hour after hour, year after year. Someday, they will be gone, but up until then, the solidity is a gentle reminder of the passage of time. We decide to come back the following day, just before sunrise.
What a wonderful morning it turns out to be. The beach is submerged in coastal fog. Being early, I have ample time to figure out my composition, set up the camera, and wait for the light to announce its arrival. When it comes, it is gentle and faint pink. For the next forty-five minutes, the warmth of the sun lifts the foggy veil as much as it can. The horizon is still was covered in the corners that the sun isn’t high enough to reach just yet. But slowly, the sea stacks are revealed.
My attempts to tame the waves using long-exposure techniques don’t reward me with a great photo. No matter what I try, they manage to get the better of me. With the sun playing hide-and-seek with the fog, and I know that the images might have blown highlights no matter what I do. Still, it is a great morning.
The late morning and early afternoon are reserved for work calls, emails, and urgent Zooms. Late afternoon, however, is reserved for location scouting. And after a drive along the Klamath coastal trail, we end up at the Klamath Overlook. With California mountains covered with lush forests in the background, the Klamath River snakes its way into the Pacific Ocean.
It looks perfect. If things go well in the morning, we could find ourselves looking at beautiful fog lingering over the coastal trees and the edge of the ocean. The pre-sunrise light would light up the fog, and sun rays would give the whole location a golden glow. And later, when the sun would be higher and the light harsher, the conditions would be ideal for minimal compositions.
We start early. And my guess about the location proves correct. It is everything we had imagined. Except the pre-sunrise was more peach than pink (not ideal, but still lovely). I spend nearly two hours there, most of it just sitting on the edge watching the fog gently roll out from the valley into the ocean.
It is an unusual sight for me. Around San Francisco, fog is always rushing from over the Golden Gate Bridge into the Bay. When I go into the Marin Headlands or Mount Tam, it is pretty common to experience fog rolling in from the ocean.
I sit there listening to the birds, their sweet song louder than the noise of the waves gently lapping and kissing the edge of the rocks. And seeing the fog dissipate into the deep blue. The opposite trajectory of the fog made me think about the singularity of nature — moisture to moisture, dust to dust.
“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always.” — John Steinbeck
The biggest, the greatest, the tallest — these are superlatives befitting the Coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) — or what we in California simply think of as Redwoods.
According to Wikipedia, “this species includes the tallest living trees on Earth, reaching up to 115.5 meters (379 ft) in height (without the roots) and up to 8.9 meters (29.2 ft) in diameter at breast height.” They grow from Big Sur all the way to Oregon Border. And it is not a surprise that I spend an afternoon looking at these gentle giants, who seem to touch the stars.
A redwood grove with ferns and wild redwood sorrel is something to behold, a friend tells me. I have no doubt that he is right. So I intend to spend the next few days finding one. We start the day by driving through the Jedediah Smith State Park to experience these trees. The 7-mile ride through the park should take an hour. Four hours later, the fast-fading light gets me thinking of dinner.
Like most of the natural world, redwoods fascinate me because they are the real manifestation of time and its long arc. No mechanical watch will ever capture the inevitability of time, like the rings visible in the fallen redwoods, the wrinkles in their skin. Their bark is like the wisdom of years on a grandmother’s face.
Redwood forests are dark, and even the sound of birds is muted. Even the smell of redwoods is so subtle that you only smell the forest – the soil, the decaying remainders of another day, and the woods. But get closer, and you can smell the redwoods — it is the smell of time. I read somewhere that redwoods remind us that “there is nothing new under the sun.” It is very appropriate that the smell of redwood is so soft. After this trip, I will never believe any candle maker trying to sell me candles that smell like redwoods. It is just not possible to capture that smell.
Another thing you notice about redwoods is quiet. It is as if someone pressed the mute button and dampened the cacophony of modernity. Occasionally, you hear a woodpecker, maybe screaming in futility as it fails to make a dent. The light fails to reach the ground below, and when it does, it only lingers for a few minutes.
It is pretty hard to photograph a scene where a dynamic range of 200 might not be enough. But that won’t stop photographers from trying. I am glad I have my iPhone just to capture the moment. I make a series of short videos and capture an odd photo to remind me that I saw these beauties. Thanks to man’s marauding of the planet, it is likely that these trees might be gone all too soon.
As Wikipedia points out, “Cool coastal air and fog drip keep this forest consistently damp year round. Several factors, including the heavy rainfall, create a soil with fewer nutrients than the trees need, causing them to depend heavily on the entire biotic community of the forest, and making efficient recycling of dead trees especially important.”
There isn’t any fog in sight. The moisture is missing. April is usually wet here. But today, it is drier than a lizard’s skin. The skies are blue — but they don’t portend blue skies. In Crescent City, they say that it pours a month worth of rain every day in April. So far, not a drop has fallen. Daniel Swain of WeatherWest doesn’t mince words. He writes, “I’m increasingly concerned that the widespread severe dryness and intensifying long-term drought conditions will lead to another very severe wildfire season across a broad portion of the West in 2021.”
Reality, beautiful as it can be, is sometimes just too real. The trees are too green, the sky too bright, and the rocks too shiny from repeated washings by the river. Reflections, on the other hand, a reinterpretation of reality. They have many meanings — the dictionary describes it as “return of light or sound waves from a surface” or “an image produced by or as if by a mirror.”
However, it isn’t the perfect reflection that piques my interest. I love looking at (and photographing) reflections in the water — the water surface aroused by a gentle breeze, much like a lover’s cold hand on a warm naked body. In a reflection, the trees take a whole different feeling, with green turning into a brooding black. The rocks become abstract shapes.
Standing on the edge, looking at the reflections, I can’t help but remember saying at some point that reflections don’t happen in moving water. Like a raging river, boiling water doesn’t reflect either. Calm and still water is what nurtures reflections. Our mind, too, needs to cleanse itself of anxiety, anger, and excitement and find a way to be still to reflect. Perhaps that’s why reflections are my favorite waste of time. I could look at them for hours — completely suspending reality.
These landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession. –Claude Monet
Some days start out great, nosedive, but end perfectly. I have one of those days on this trip.
After a late evening search for locations in the southern end of Oregon, we end up on a small beach. Just off a country lane, right next to a small, well-tended cemetery, the big sea stacks on a beautiful beach were perfect silhouettes against the setting sun. It is nearly bedtime and time to move on. It is clear that a sunrise here would be perfect.
The following day, at the crack of dawn, we are back for more — and not only to see the lit-up sky, but also witness the subtle morning rays illuminate the stacks. I should not bother, but I make some long exposures. I just want to capture the morning the way I was experiencing it — calm, cool, and carefree.
Just a mile away, there is another beautiful scene unfolding — at the edge of the ocean. The river traveling over long distances finally loses itself to the ocean. The freshwater from the river and saltwater from the ocean is fertile ground. This estuary attracts quite a bit of wildlife.
Against the backdrop of a beautiful orange-pink hue in the sky, you can see birds looking for breakfast. Seals are lazing on the beach. Otters, too, are looking for a meal.
It is all worth savoring, but it is the gentle curve of the sandy beach that catches my interest. I know what photo I want, and it doesn’t take me long. Thirty minutes and a dozen frames later, I have what professional landscape photographers call “a portfolio image.” As an amateur, I would say, “I made a photo worth printing and hanging in my office.”
I know I will have to come back here just to see what this location looks like in different light.
“No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.” — John Steinbeck.
Soft light is usually a gift of cloudy skies, mist, or fog. If you live along the northern pacific coast, you are pretty accustomed to seeing a cloud or a fog bank on the distant horizon. However, when it starts to move, you know it can move quickly. On one of the days, we say the fog bank is starting to motor. And this gives us hope that it will slowly slither and shimmer its way through the giant redwoods.
We rush to the forest. The fog, however, manages to disappoint us — it goes south and north, everywhere except the redwoods. I end up spending a few hours making some intimate landscapes of sorrel, ferns, and fallen redwoods. I try to capture the dappled light patches on the giant trees, not successfully. Still, I just enjoy the silence in general.
Like hope in general, hope for visually exciting weather conditions is a common affliction among landscape photographers. The disappointment never dissuades us from hoping for a better tomorrow.
When returning from the redwoods, the fog bank has given way to low lying clouds. And right outside our Airbnb, there is a perfect scene unfolding — an angular sea stack is backlit by streaming rays of setting sun. The interplay of dark clouds and light beams is a perfect setup to end the day with a near-perfect image.
“Many a calm river begins as a turbulent waterfall, yet none hurtles and foams all the way to the sea.” –Mikhail Lermontov
A favorite landscape is hard to come by. And when you find one, you revisit it again and again. And again. You hope the changing conditions will reveal more or tell a different story.
I go back to the estuary for the third time, this time on a cloudy evening. The waves in the ocean were rambunctious. In sharp contrast, the river was placidly plodding towards the end of its purpose. The scene makes me a little philosophical, wondering about the circle of life.
We humans noisily announce our arrival, much like the moisture that rises from the oceans to the mountains riding the wings of clouds before declaring itself with thunderclaps and lightning. As we grow, we tumble and speed our way down the slope of life in our younger years, much like gushing streams, loud waterfalls, and the rushing mountain rivers. Eventually, in middle age, the river achieves its depth and maturity. In doing so, it gives life and stability. It moves with purpose but with the pace of a marathoner. And eventually, it just melts away to where it started.
At the edge of the ocean, I stand mesmerized, lost in my own reverie for hours. A curious seal gives me a curious look. With this rhythm of the waves, including the occasional roar of the surf crashing on the nearby rocks, I can feel a sense of calm wash over me. It is as if the universe is telling me — go ahead and press the shutter. It is time to capture the feeling. I sometimes try to capture the wild energy of the waves, sometimes the contrasts. Three hours later, it is time to pack up and go — reluctantly.
I know, no matter what I do for the remainder of the trip, I have achieved what I came looking for — that feeling of nothingness that is not solitude, nor solitary, but is my own self.
The week ticked away fast, and I have not spent enough time around Crescent City itself. An overcast morning allows me to make some seascapes around Crescent City. The city has a photogenic pier, set against a vast expansive curve of a fantastic beach, revealing itself in the low tide.
Right next door to the pier is an abandoned jetty that is an ideal subject for a minimal image. Of course, there’s the lighthouse the city is famous for, but admittedly, it is my least favorite part of the city. A few hours in the morning were enough.
Having tired of my camera, I pack it up and commit to enjoying the sights. I just want to be a tourist with his iPhone. I want to savor nature’s creations and look at living things that have lived for thousands of years. I can’t but marvel at the thought that the world’s biggest, tallest, and oldest living things are all here in California. I feel grateful that I live in this great state.
Soon it will be time to drive back to San Francisco. On the way, the freeway will again reveal the fantastic beauty of the Northern California landscape. And then, it will succumb to the urban sprawl that starts at the edge of Marin County and ends somewhere at the end of America.
The only thing left to look forward to is a grilled cheeseburger at In-N-Out Burger — the only fast food I ever have, and only when on a road trip.
April 21, 2021. San Francisco
All photos and videos in this essay were made with an iPhone 12 ProMax. The images were captured in ProRAW format, enhanced by Adobe’s Super Resolution, and edited using my Lightroom CC.
- My fellow photographers on this trip were Rod Clark (Wine Country Camera), Rand Scott Adams (Rand Photographics), David Brookover (Brookover Gallery), and Craig Sullivan. Thanks to them, the trip was made enjoyable. We had long late-night photographic discussions, swapped tips and techniques, and most importantly, I learned the importance of the subtle art of printing. I am better educated about the art of photography, thanks to my fellow landscape photographers.
- The equipment used on this trip was my Leica SL-2 with 24-90 and 90-280 lenses. I also used the Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max (which is on loan from Apple) extensively in the ProRAW mode.
- In Crescent City, Kin Khao Eatery is an amazingly good spot for Thai food. So is Seascape Brewery. Amazing kombucha. And for Mexican, try Cristinas. The rest of the food options are pretty mediocre/poor. For coffee, you have two mediocre choices — Dutch Bros and Starbucks. You can pick your level of averageness.
- Everything usually shuts down by 8 pm, so be better prepared when it comes to food. There is a Safeway (and Walmart) in town, though be careful around the parking lot.
- It is advisable to not leave valuables in the car when visiting the parks or other locations, including the city, as there has been a growing incidence of smash-and-grab in the region.