I’ve been traveling extensively for years, working on a photography endeavor—almost exclusively shot on film, not digitally—called The Fresh Coast Project. Its geographic scope is our Great Lakes region—from the western tip of Lake Superior to the eastern rim of Lake Ontario—and the vast expanse, variety of terrain, and complexity of the project often provides ample opportunity for things to go awry.
I’ve been a professional location photographer since the 1980’s, which gives me more than 25 years of experience prepping, packing, scouting, traveling, and budgeting every aspect of complicated location projects. And this trip required all of those skills.
Upon leaving our home in Minnesota, the truck was perfectly packed with tents, cots, photo gear, food, safety kits and provisions necessary to remain on location for weeks.
My son was ready, too. Sixteen and assisting me, he had already spent a good part of his life exploring the Great Lakes. We were on the road, joyous, liberated, and ready to work.
But our joy was short lived. Vehicle problems began near Lake Superior. We found a garage, and I paid the repair bill, mentally noting that our food allowance was nearly wiped out. It was a good thing my wife had packed generous amounts of food, a nod to her Scandinavian heritage. We had teased her about this while packing, but we were thankful for the homemade abundance.
Finally, we were on our way.
Each day was sweltering and humid, but the nights were so cold we awoke to thin layers of frost. From this I suspected the weather was on the verge of turning to rain. I was right.
It was a full week of relentless, coursing rain. It pressed through our tent, the sides of our truck, our clothing, our beings. We tried to remain optimistic.
While driving along, I was in the midst of telling my son that no amount of rain ever stopped a project when we were jolted by a loud noise.
It was a grinding, wrenching noise that took our speed down to a crawl. We limped into the next town, lucky to find one garage. Hours and several hundred dollars later, our confidence was much like the week: soggy, dented, drained.
“We need to shake things up and change direction,” I said. At that, we headed for Michigan. It had been our home for nearly a decade, and we missed its green hills, blue waters and sunsets of pink-orange-gold. While driving, I informed my son that we were heading to the one place that has never disappointed me. If we could make it to Point Betsie and make pictures, I told him, we would be ready to move forward.
Nearing the point, I noted the weather clues and surmised that our luck was taking a turn for the better. But upon arrival we spotted a different challenge. People. Travelers, beachgoers, hikers, leisure walkers, and romantic couples covered the landscape I’d wanted to photograph in its natural state.
I was hesitant. I was disappointed. I was starting to believe that our work-trip was not going to produce measured results. We stood silent, watching legions of happy folk drawn to the sunset. I wondered, how could I have ever thought we’d be alone at this beautiful place?
I tried every possible angle. I crept through dune grass only to find people visible between blades. I aimed toward the lighthouse. No shot without people in the frame.
While I was trying to find something that would work, the sun was fast falling toward the horizon. We had to scramble. We grabbed the equipment and headed beyond the crowds to get right on the water’s edge.
But, of course, everybody else wanted to be at the water’s edge too. They filled in at our sides. I doubled down on our mission. I told myself to keep looking forward. My son and I watched the sun melt into the water. This trip had been a mess from day one, and this was our chance to avenge the rain sodden days, the stale bread with peanut butter, the garage visits in unknown towns, the spilled coffee and cold sleeping.
The sun finally fell below the horizon. It was time. The sky pulled through with a series of striations. Soft light. Sweet light. My camera working, winding, I made long exposures. The late sky didn’t disappoint. Twenty minutes in all.
We’re done. We laugh. We turn around to find … the beach barren. All signs of humanity now absent.
We were so lost in the dramatic light of the post-sunset that we’re not sure when everyone left. But they missed it. The best part of a Great Lakes sunset happens after the sun goes down, in the time between day and night, when light from below hits the clouds and then washes the coast in a gentle encore.
For this one particular journey, it was a sunset on Lake Michigan that made a series of travel mishaps irrelevant, proving that something really can be better just beyond the horizon. And that was my message to my son that evening: never stop pursuing what is beyond the horizon—and wait for the beauty that happens in those moments beyond the sunset.