An ode to disappointment (or RIP, little quad copter)

The Pacific Northwest has more capes than Comic-Con, each of them with exotic and descriptive names. But my favoritely (not a word) named cape (a headland or a promontory of large size extending into a body of water, usually the sea, in case you wanted to know the definition) has to be Cape Disappointment, an area on the southwest Washington coast that doesn’t disappoint when it comes to beautiful views of lighthouses, but has been known to have terrible weather. And sometimes it even eats quad copters.

Last week’s weather forecast for the coast looked incredible–almost too perfect. Clear skies and low humidity promised an amazing view of the night sky. I learned a long time ago that there’s no such thing as a slam dunk when it comes to night photography in Oregon or Washington, but every forecast I saw said that it couldn’t get any more clear.

On my way, a thick marine layer met me in Seaside and left me briefly concerned, enough that I almost turned around after over an hour of driving. However, the skies cleared and my spirits soared as I neared Astoria. I clicked through my mental checklist of photos that I was going to take at Cape Disappointment that night while crossing the Astoria-Megler bridge into Washington. Nothing could stop me. However, after arriving at the North Head parking lot at Cape Disappointment, I was met with a surprisingly hard wind that only got worse whens I made my way through a grove of trees to an open bluff where the lighthouse sits.

I set up my gear, but several blurry photos informed me that my normally sturdy tripod couldn’t hold steady during the 40-mph gusts, even with my 20-some pound backpack hanging from it as ballast. My grand plans were being blown away. I realized that a lot of the compositions I wanted simply would not be available to me because I was too exposed.

I had to find cover from the wind, so I sought out different compositions and eventually found a couple spots that offered some protection, at least to the point where my tripod was no longer quaking. I took my sunset photos, and then recomposed for twilight and waited.

Shortly afterward, a couple of guys with a quad copter showed up. The sun was below the horizon, and the sky was darkening quickly. I watched them trot by the path in front of me over to the lighthouse, eager to prepare their drone (I’m assuming there was a camera of some kind on board) for what would’ve been a beautiful set of aerial photos. The sun’s remaining light was breathtaking, and the lighthouse itself was beautifully lit. It was a perfect evening. Except for the wind.

After a quick setup, the quad copter took off, reaching about 50 feet in altitude. Then it began to list like a boat taking on water as the winds quickly pushed it away from North Head, until it was hanging 100 foot above the ocean. The guy flying the drone had no way to put it down without crashing it into the sea, so he kept it aloft until it was over Deadman’s Hollow and Long Beach and was probably over half a mile away. As it got dark, I lost site of the drone. The guys left soon thereafter–presumably to look for their missing equipment–with noticeably different body language from when they had arrived.

I waited around for the stars to come out, and then I grabbed a few more photos, but I was still having a lot of problems with the wind. A couple hours after sunset the winds still hadn’t died down. My eyes were dry and irritated, my face felt chapped, and my equipment and I were covered in blown sea spray. I decided to pack up and leave. I turned my back to the wind and let it propel me down the path back to my car. As I walked the dark trail, far down below on Long Beach I saw a couple of flashlights scanning the sands. They still hadn’t found their drone.


The North Head lighthouse glows at twilight, Cape Disappointment, Washington.

The North Head lighthouse glows at twilight, Cape Disappointment, Washington. Prints available here.

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