Cumberland Island at Midnight

Cumberland Island is a mysterious and magical place no matter what time of day you’re there. But a few years ago I got a chance to see the island in a whole new light—literally.

Late one moonlit night I woke up in my tent at Sea Camp. There was no hope of getting back to sleep anytime soon. Rather than disturb my companion (or try to lie there motionless and silent until sleep overtook me again), I pawed around in the dark, found my camera, put on shoes and jacket, and slipped out of the tent.

The moonlight streaming through the twisted branches of the live oak trees, filtered through wisps of Spanish moss, gave me enough light to see by and bathed the island in a strange glow. I set out along the path toward the beach.

When I emerged from the thick row of clumped, scruffy shrubs that mark the line between the windy beach and the sheltered inland areas, I saw how well the full moon’s light illuminated the landscape. After my eyes adjusted to the soft glow, it seemed almost as though I were not in moonlight but in some kind of hazy daylight.

The paper mill at Fernandina Beach a few miles to the south gleamed like a nest of mutant lighthouses, sending thick streamers of noxious white smoke into the night air (thankfully the wind wasn’t blowing toward me). An endless, orderly procession of cloud islands moved swiftly overhead.

The persistent sea breeze gently bent the sparse sea oats atop the dunes. No other living thing stirred: no people, no birds, no horses, no armadillos, no pigs, no crabs—not even any raccoons. It seemed I had the island to myself.

How Light Is This Dark?

As I braced myself against the railing of the Sea Camp boardwalk to take some long exposures, I suddenly realized I knew nothing about how to gauge the amount of light flowing through my lens. My camera’s built-in light meter was not equipped for this kind of work, so I’d have to rely on my eyes and my wits. Was one second long enough? (I was using ASA 400 film, so maybe it would be.) Or would I need ten minutes? Without a tripod or cable release, this was going to be an experimental outing.

I had taken long exposures years before, in some of my first youthful adventures with a camera. I remembered that there seemed to be a lot of leeway in low-light situations. The difference between three and four minutes was somewhat like the difference between f5.6 and f4 in daylight conditions. I turned the shutter speed dial to “B.”

With the camera sitting on a railing, I pressed the shutter release button and held it down for a long time. I counted to myself—one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three—in a feeble attempt to add the illusion of scientific accuracy to my method. I didn’t keep notes of the lengths of the exposures, but I think it was two or three minutes.

Since I had only hunches and half-forgotten experiences to base my exposures on, I had no idea whether any of these pictures would come out. This uncertainty gave me a curious sense of being simultaneously hesitant and free, off-balance and sure.

Taking these long exposures, trying to keep the camera still while pressing the shutter release button with my index finger for minutes on end, forced me to be patient and constantly attentive to what I was doing. I also became aware, as the night progressed, that there are at least as many kinds of night light as there are daylight.

We tend to think of night as just “night” most of the time. It’s the time of day when we go inside, or maybe drive around in a car on the way to or from somewhere, and it’s when most of us eventually go to sleep. So we don’t generally explore the darkness.

But the quality of light at night is influenced by so many factors: the moon, the stars, the presence or absence of artificial light, the amount and character of cloud cover, the reflectivity of the landscape—and of course our own level of adjustment to the light and even our state of mind.

On my Cumberland night out, a bright moon, medium cloud cover, scattered man-made lights, and a highly reflective landscape—the beach—made for an unusually luminous night.

The Other Side of Moonlight

After a while on the ocean side I decided to check out the inland side. Cumberland is about 17 miles long, but it’s narrow enough at Sea Camp that you can easily walk from one side to the other in a few minutes. I left the sandy eastern side and moved west into the maritime forest.

Overhead the snaking live oak limbs reached toward the moon. I blinked my flashlight a couple of times to get glimpses of the path before me. My eyes were so wide open by this time that even a quick, dim flash temporarily blinded me, so I stopped, waited for my pupils to reopen, and let the moon light my way from then on.

There are many differences between the inland and coastal sides of Cumberland Island. One has salt water, the other salt marsh. One is windy and smooth, the other generally quiet and variegated. One presents a landscape of white and tan, the other green and brown.

Somewhere between Sea Camp and the skinny, unpaved road known as “Interstate Zero,” I felt a sense of giddy dread—the sort of feeling you get from reading a really good horror story. The feeling passed over me as though I were swimming through a cold spot in a lake. I knew that such cool spots often seemed to hover at crossroads. I’d heard country people say that when you passed through a cool spot on a road it meant that somebody had been murdered there, and the distressed spirit of the victim hung in the air like an invisible mist. I shuddered and moved on along the path.

Soon I saw lights through the trees, telling me I was near the Sea Camp dock. A bright mercury vapor light lit up the ranger station by the dock. In the distance, a few lights from the town of St. Mary’s and from the King’s Bay nuclear submarine base pulsated dimly. A couple of small fishing boats carved the still water, their low-horsepower motors putt-putting softly.

I braced the camera on a picnic table and took a couple of photos of the ranger station. I guessed that the exposures should be much shorter than those on the beach because of the bright light from the mercury vapor lamp.

I walked out onto the deserted concrete Sea Camp dock, which had been crowded with daytrippers, campers, and gear earlier in the day. As I walked down the aluminum ramp floating on pontoons, it boomed dully beneath my feet. Then I was back on concrete at water’s edge.

The water on this side was as smooth as glass. I decided I had to get a good picture of this beautiful sight, no matter what it took. What it took was lying on my stomach on a stucco of dried seagull droppings. (Moist gull droppings might have tempered my enthusiasm, but the dried stuff wasn’t too different from the concrete itself.) Taking the picture this time was the easy part; sighting through the viewfinder while lying prone on the encrusted dock was more challenging.I steadied the camera against the concrete with the fingertips of my left hand, pressed the button with my right index finger, and started counting off the seconds. I waited minutes and minutes, and tacked on a couple of more minutes for good measure. I struggled to my feet and decided it was time to call it a night.

Before returning to my campsite, I wanted to try one more thing—just standing still for a full ten minutes, pointing my camera at some trees and palmettos. After a couple of minutes I realized what a crazy idea this was, because my hands were unable to keep the camera from moving back and forth, up and down, and in small circles, jerking at least an inch or two on several occasions. Then, of course, after moving, I could never hope to regain my original position. So I knew I was going to end up with something either unuseable or really strange. Fortunately it was the latter.

Walking back to the campsite, I felt very tired now, and somewhat disoriented. I was in a bit of a hurry, because the feeling of uneasiness was creeping over me again, this time a little less giddy and a little more sinister.

I eagerly turned right down the lane that would take me back to my campsite. But twenty feet into the path I realized I was completely lost! I knew I was near the campground, but I had no idea exactly where I was. And I didn’t want to turn on my flashlight lest I disturb people in their tents. I turned around and around and couldn’t find any familiar guideposts to lead me back to my campsite. It was as though I’d stepped through a portal into another dimension, and I didn’t know how I was going to get back.

After a couple of minutes of slightly delirious panic, I realized what I’d done. I’d turned right at the first path, the one that leads to a group campsite—a mistake I make about a third of the time even in the daylight. (Fortunately the group campsite was unoccupied this night, or I might have gone tripping and sprawling into a thicket of Boy Scout tents.)

Once I regained my bearings and started back on the correct path, I gained an appreciation of the experience I’d just had. Being completely lost like that had given me not only a sense of mounting dread, but also an exhilarating sense of absolute freedom. When you don’t know quite where you are or where you’re going, if you’re in the right frame of mind you can achieve a heightened sense of liberation.

Back in the tent, I lay motionless for a long time, my eyes wide open and my heart gradually slowing, listening to the wind in the trees and feeling almost as though I were still outside in the moonlight. I fell asleep just a couple of hours before dawn.

I’ve been back to Cumberland Island several times since that night, and I’m sure I’ll go again. Each time I become more familiar with the place, and each time it seems ever more strange.

Originally published 1999 (personal site)

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