Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Visit, or an Experience?

   It often bemuses me with record numbers of people visiting our National Parks, how many are really experiencing all they have to offer? Many people take a trip of a lifetime to see the grandeur of a place like the Grand Canyon, but then limit their visits to a few mid-day snapshots on the South Rim. How many wake up early to watch the rising sun illuminate the landscape? How many visitors ride the shuttle through Zion National Park, but fail to experience the golden reflected light off the sandstone monoliths? How many people have watched the milky way rise above the dunes in Death Valley National Park? While wilderness hiking and camping is not for everyone, it is a shame that visitors travel far and wide to see these magical places, but then miss the really magical moments that bring them to life.

   Cumberland Island National Seashore is part of the sea islands of the southeastern US, and was established as a national seashore in 1972. Much of the island is wilderness, with a diverse landscape including beaches, salt marshes, gnarly oak trees, and ferrel horses that were imported earlier in the century. It has become quite popular in recent years, accessible only by ferry, and limited to 300 visitors per day by the park service.

    I visited the island recently while doing a commercial shoot for a widely circulated magazine. I was fortunate enough to secure one of the few overnight permits that are given out daily. The conditions are not ideal: it is very hot and humid this time of year, and the mosquitos are vicious.

    I spent the day exploring the landscape, covering miles of terrain on foot (no vehicles are allowed on the island). Hoards of daytime visitors filled the most popular spots on the south end of the island, snapping photos of the Dungeness Ruins, horses, and beaches.

    When the last ferry of the day departed the island, I found myself alone and did not encounter another person until the next morning. As the sun began to set, I saw a side of Cumberland Island that everyone who visited for the day missed. I felt bad for them. The ocean and sand dunes glowed with the orange light of the setting sun; sunbeams illuminated the mist in the maritime forest, and the harsh light on the gnarly oak trees and palmetto shrubs softened. This was the side of nature I came to see, and it was exhilarating to witness it alone.

    The night was rough- my air mattress had a leak, rain soaked through the vents in my tent I had left open to catch whatever breeze would cool the humid air, and the mosquitos were relentless, seemingly immune to the deep woods repellant I used. But when I look at the photos I captured, I don't think about any of those things. I think about the moments I witnessed where the light transformed this landscape into an amazing show that almost 300 other people missed that day.

    Your clothes will dry after the rain, mosquito bites will heal, and a nice shower will wash away the sweat from the heat and humidity. Next time you visit one of America's great landscapes, ask yourself, did you really experience it? Or just visit for the day?

"Forbidden Forest"

"Enchanted Forest"

"A Walk in the Woods"

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