I love going out to shoot landscapes and finding new places that I think will look really cool at night. However, sometimes it’s hard to get to these places because of how far you actually have to go to get there. Here is my story from the night of May 25.
Some of your best work comes from the work that you chose to go out and do. Why? Because it is not a job. You aren’t getting paid to do it; you are going out there and doing whatever the hell you want, because you want to. If that is the case, you probably want it to look good, be cool, and maybe even tell some sort of a story. I’ve been out plenty of times; I shoot by myself or go out with a buddy, but this time, I went to the next level and realized I should have been a little more prepared.
This is where everything started. My friend, Chris, and I were brainstorming a place to go shoot that would look really cool. He brought up a quarry that he’s been to down in South Jersey. I liked the idea, and I invited the the business partner, Vin, and we all met up to plan things out. Going down to South Jersey was a little far, so we decided to meet up with Chris at his house and go to a quarry that was a little closer. We wanted to get a little time in with the drone and then go out to shoot some long exposures at night.
6:30 p.m.: We arrived at Chris’ house, take the top off the Wrangler Rubicon, grabbed some coffee like every photographer should do before going to shoot, and headed to the quarry. We knew this trip would require some off-roading, so we had some fun on a few dirt roads before heading in.
7:30 p.m.: After getting lost a few times and not being able to find a road to enter on, we finally found a place where we could get in. Now, I didn’t really think we were supposed to be in there, so we parked and walked to a section to fly around for a little. This took a little longer than expected, and it was already starting to get dark. It was time to figure out how to get closer to the quarry so we could get some night shots and stars out there.
We were constantly using our maps on our phones to find trails that led up to this spot in the woods where we would be able to get out and walk up to the spot we were going to shoot. This spot was about 2.5 miles in and was completely off the road on quad trails through the woods, but we didn’t go out there for nothing, so we began trucking through.
9:00 p.m.: We were still trying to find our way through the woods in the Jeep. At this point, it was pitch black, getting a little chilly, and the trail was starting to get tough to navigate. We were driving through puddles, branches, and basically just tearing through these woods. We were the only ones in there, so we were really hoping we would get there safely and be able to take our photos, head out, get food, and go back to get some sleep, but this would happen only in a perfect world.
9:30 p.m.: We were faced with a decision to make: left trail (muddy tire prints), middle trail (pond), or right trail (best option, but it didn’t look hard enough). We let fate take its course and drove onto the left trail, immediately getting stuck. It wasn't a problem; we were in a 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. We would just back that thing up and get out of there. Just kidding. We couldn’t move at all — four-wheel drive high, low, forward, backward — forget it.
For the next hour, we spent our time trying to get the Jeep out of the muddy ditch. We used our phones as flashlights in the pitch black and grabbed sticks and dirt to try to get some traction under the tires so we could get out. No luck. We found jumper cables and tried to pull the Jeep while someone reversed it. Nothing.
10:30 p.m.: Low on gas and stuck in the mud, it was time to figure something out. We resorted to a phone call to see if we could get help. Chris called his parents; his parents told him to call the State Park Police. We called them and asked for help. They were understanding and made their way out there to come find us.
11:00 p.m.: We were still awaiting the arrival of help: three people stuck in the woods with no food, no water, no tools to get out. What a dumb idea. We didn't even have gas; we didn’t think this through. But was it worth it to freak out? No way! Our cameras were in the back. We're photographers, so we made the best of things and took advantage of the situation we were in.
Vin and I took out the cameras and started shooting the beautiful, clear sky. We wanted to get to the quarry, but we had to wait for help to arrive. I started taking 30-60 minute exposures on the D750 in hopes of capturing some star trails, while Vin was on the D610, shooting the stars in the sky.
Photo by Vin DeMilio
11:30 p.m.: We started to get a little nervous after not hearing from anyone, so we called back to make sure they could find us. They told us they drove through the quarry and were waiting in there for us. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t come onto the trail with their cars, so we would have to walk to them. As we were on the phone with the police, we beeped the horn in the Jeep to see if they could hear us. They couldn’t. They told us to put our phone down and listen for the siren, and finally we heard it and had some hope of getting out. I told him to flash his high beams, and straight ahead we saw them. All three of us got so excited to get out of there and be rescued. We left the cameras shooting and headed over to see what the next step was.
12:00 a.m.: Chris was with the police, ready to get help from a towing service that could get his truck out. Vin and I were alone in the woods with the Jeep, cameras, and drone. Now, at this point, you'd think that was scary enough, but it got worse. Chris texted us saying the quarry looked awesome with the moon coming up above it. Then, to escalate things, he told us he was going 90 mph in the cop car, because they got a call saying someone was in the woods at a campsite threatening to kill people in the same forest as us. He called us and told us that the cops dropped him off at a fire station and rushed over to find out what was going on.
Photo from Chris Norcross
Amazingly, the New Jersey State Park Police were able to locate a vague area in which they believed we were. Delighted, but mostly just relieved, we sprinted towards their flashlights. Once we had finally made contact with the two officers, things seemed to be on the up. Due to our extreme, inaccessible location, the officers deemed their towing ability to not be sufficient enough for us. They instructed that one of us went with them, and they would drive to meet up with a member of Bill’s Off-Road Recovery Service. At that point, I would then somehow direct the off-road recovery unit (a heavily armed and jacked-up jeep wrangler) back into the woods to locate our vehicle, then tow it to a safe and driveable position. What seemed like a great plan turned into one of the craziest driving experiences. The officers received an urgent call stating there were people at a nearby campsite threatening to hurt others. The other campers were locking themselves in their vehicles as a safety precaution. In the back of the police SUV, we tailed it. My heart was racing as we went upwards of 90 mph; the officer told me I would be dropped off at a nearby firehouse to await the tow employee.
The officer continuously asked if I found this okay, and I was left with only one response: “your call seemed of a much important matte; anything is fine with me,” to which he responded, “unfortunately." Hats off to the brave and persistent New Jersey State Park Police; your rescue and safety efforts will never go unnoticed.
Minutes felt like hours, and finally, the off-road recovery service arrived. Unfortunately, service was about as efficient as one’s grandparent operating an iPhone. I mistakenly led the driver onto an ATV trail that climbed upwards of 30-40 ft along the side of a pond. Stuck climbing, I somehow managed to force this man to pull his jeep out with a winch. Back on the trail, we obviously had to put this thing in reverse and locate the jeep and the rest of my crew Backing up slow and steady, brushing trees, the right side of his Jeep was forcing the edge of the trail to give. Moments later, all I heard was, “this mother******'s gonna roll”. I kid you not, no exaggeration, this man’s lifted jeep was about to roll down this hill. Out came the winch for a second time, and yet, we were still nowhere near my Jeep. Finally out of that situation, we backtracked over a half-hour to the beginning of the main trail entrance. Luckily, I was able to locate several significant features that were lit up from this man’s headlights. Over an hour into the initial pickup from the recovery service, we located my vehicle along with the rest of the crew.
As scared as Vin and I were, one of our main concerns was to get to that quarry. We really wanted to see it at night with all of the stars and everything. We grabbed the cameras, made sure we had the phones, left the jeep, and headed back to where we met the police in the quarry to check it out and get some photos.
12:30 a.m.: Vin and I arrived at the quarry and were stunned by how big it really was. We were happy we made it out there and excited to be shooting. We took as many photos as we could before Chris called to tell us he was in the woods with a truck that was going to pull his Jeep out. Vin and I kept shooting a bit while Chris kept texting us, asking for our location, because he was lost in the woods with the tow service. We realized it was time to get back, because things were getting a bit too real.
1:00 a.m.: We made it back to the Jeep as we ran through the woods like we were in the Marines. Vin told me it was time to launch the drone and see if I could see anyone heading towards us. I was a little hesitant at first, but I ended up launching it where there were no trees and getting it high enough to see where we were. I used the POI to fly down the exact path we were on, but we had no luck finding Chris. I flew the drone back as the battery was beginning to die, but I made the most advanced landing in my drone career, pulling it over the car while Vin reached out over the roof and caught it.
1:30 a.m.: As I was putting the drone back in the case after landing it, I heard Vin screaming and asking if there were lights behind us. Sure enough, there were. It was Chris with the guy who was going to pull us out of the mud that we were stuck in for five hours. He pulled us out, and we followed him out of the woods and started heading back to Chris’ house to spend the night.
2:30 a.m.: We arrived at Chris’ house, all of us thankful as can be that we got out of there safely. It was a crazy night that none of us expected at all. These are the nights that we will always remember — nights that set us apart from the others, because we love what we do, and that's what gives us the drive to continuously do it.
No matter what, if you are traveling to a location to shoot, make sure you bring snacks, water, chargers, and whatever you need to help you out in case something actually happens. In our situation, we should have had food, water, gas, a shovel, and probably a lot more. I wish I had more knowledge about off-roading so I knew what to do, but sometimes, your attitude alone can help you get through things, and by staying calm, being positive, and having hope, we were able to get out of there and get back to where we started.
After getting out of this whole situation, I looked back and realized photography can take you on many adventures; this is just one from three people who made an effort to get to a quarry. In the end, we can all look back at this and learn from it. Sometimes, we are fearless (we have to be), but that’s exactly what makes doing what we do so awesome. If anyone is ever out there adventuring, take my advice, and just make sure you can make it out okay. We screwed up, but you don't have to; so, go shoot whatever you want wherever you want, and be prepared for the worst. Even if it doesn't happen, it still can. I never thought it would happen to me until it really did.
Big thank you to the New Jersey State Park Police and Bill's Off-Road Recovery for helping us out.