Last night, the phone rang in our room at 1:10 am. It was the hotel calling to say the Northern Lights were visible. We fumbled around, coming from deep sleep, Jean emerging from the apex of a dream, me asking my brain to work and find my jeans, gloves, shoes, hat. Camera. Warm socks. What else? Get out the door!
Outside, thirty or so people had moved much more quickly than us. I looked up at the sky and gulped. A green-blue-reddish glow lit up the sky in a streak. It plumed up like pictures we see of the deep cosmos. Still, “lit up” is perhaps not the right word. Don’t picture fireworks. The night sky was glowing from within. The jeweled-tone green in particular, created by a mixture of dust and gases and solar flares, was other-worldly. I touched my cheek in a physical gesture: I am here, I am myself, I am seeing this.
The Japanese man beside us with a tripod and big time-lapse camera, we learned later, was a semi-professional photographer traveling in Alaska to take photographs for a contest. Among many amazements of our time in Denali, it turned out that we happened to there when solar activity was at a peak. The photographer did not speak English; but a few times he tapped me on the shoulder, grunted some Japanese, and showed me photographs from earlier that night. Breathtaking. Stunning. Clearly we had missed some spectacular lights in the moments in took us to get outside. I told the woman I was sure he’d win the contest. She said something to him in Japanese. The man, small, gray-bearded, with a wool cap and wiry frame, shrugged and then grinned. I gave a thumbs up, pointed to his camera and bowed. He grinned shyly again.
I have wanted to see the Northern Lights all my life. Like Jean’s gold nugget, one might say that it has long been on my bucket list. The woman next to me under the lights said that she’d read about the high level of solar activity this morning, and, voila, she and her daughter had made the six hour drive from Anchorage to Denali. It was solemn, breathtaking, sacred to her. Wrapped in gloves, coats and multiple layers, we all watched the black sky became a living emerald jewel. It pulsed; it breathed; it clearly lived. I closed my eyes. No camera, no binoculars. Just rest your eyes in darkness for a moment and open them, eyes and heart, to the unreasonable splendor of our world.
In the opposite direction, almost impossibly, the round white moon glowed bright and clear. When we walked inside two hours later a thin layer of clouds bracketed the orb and reflected rainbow hues. Again, the sense of being drunk with beauty and outsized majesty. The cosmos showing us in a thousand ways its own glory.
Our shuttle driver told me this morning that he’d slept half-dressed so that he could hop up quickly to see the lights. This would not have occurred to me to do. I could not really believe that it would happen. Yes, we had asked the hotel for a wake up call if the lights came out, yes a ranger at the Park said she’d seen them several times recently, yes the night had turned clear as we fell asleep. We’d even said to each other that there might be a good chance. Still. We had already had much good luck; one does not want to count on it. Earlier we’d spent the day on a safari-like adventure in tundra wilderness, where silty-gray arctic rivers stream through orange and golden brush. We were brought close to Mt. Denali, the Great One itself. Once again we had views: brilliant, heart-scratching, soul-bruising views.
It’s said that when white men talked to the native people for their advice about climbing Denali, they scratched their heads, pointed to a ridge that did indeed turn out to be the best route, and said good luck to you. They themselves, they said, had no interest in climbing the Great One. There was no game up there, no reason to make that big haul upwards. Besides, it was a sacred place, best to leave it to itself. Apparently they had no objection to the white men climbing the mountain. Still, it was a white man telling us these stories; though the man spoke with respect, I cannot know if it was entirely true.
Such a day. Perhaps my happiest moment out in the tundra was seeing a golden-brown grizzly bear mother with her two cubs. They were far away, foraging in the hills. But through my binoculars I could see them. There was something about the absolute privilege of this, to see the great bear mother there, unconcerned with us, in the wide open landscape of her world. Moving slow and easy, her center of gravity close to the earth, eating the land. The small ones roamed a bit far from her; yet one could tell that they were all in energetic contact with each other. A triad, a triangle, sacred in its form. The mother was so blond as to reflect the sun. The cubs were not so small; they were fat and, I imagined, expert at picking berries in the brush. Preparing to curl up soon in a nest and hibernate; their entire systems slowing down during the long winter of deep and constant snow.
We continued our journey deep into the Park, saw several outsized moose with their fabulous antlers, and high up at the ridge of a mountain, the Dahl sheep for which this region is famous. Classic, ancient, strangely familiar, and yet its long, craggy hair and horned spiral high up on a mountain peak against the blue sky was a vision from distant eons. These creatures live here year round, traversing the tall peaks, living in packs, climbing together in long lines. Looking out, they have the high view of an eagle or a hawk. Their hooves have evolved to hold steady on cliffs even during the long months of snow, climbing where few other mammals dare to go.
Here outside the coffee shop at the Denali Visitor’s Center, I gaze at the golden aspen and birch leaves, bright red fireweed, black crowberries, wild lilies and the endless array of plant life, and can hardly believe that all of this, and soon, will be covered with snow. The days have been sunny and warm; the air crisp with the feel of early Fall. Fluffy clouds open wide in impossibly blue skies. It was too much to hope for; we’d planned on rain, as there’d been a wet summer this year. Being frequent travelers to Ireland, we were quite prepared to enjoy it all anyway. But there has been a respite, day by day, so far.
Still, the winter is on its way. On this our third morning in Denali the yellow leaves have begun to blanket the paths and the forest floor. They reached their peak just as we arrived, turning ever brighter. Now they have begun their descent, fading slightly, allowing the brown of their final tones.
So fast, so fast. It is hard not to contemplate how beautiful things are, sometimes, just before death. When salmon make their way upriver to spawn, they are at their apex, full of color and sheen, full of potency, laying the way for the continuation of their kind by returning to their home stream for a watery dance of laying eggs and mating. And then, right in the river waters of their birth, they give over and die. They are eaten by bears, vultures, maggots, flies. They bring the nutrients of the ocean, where they have been feeding for years, up into the woodlands. They literally make it possible for the woodland creatures to eat the sea. The gift of their bodies is immeasurable; a continuance in death that is true for all earth creatures when we live in balance with each other. It is the same for these leaves, which will fall to the earth and feed the soil with nutrients that will, quite spectacularly, become new life.
Beside me, a small reddish Arctic ground squirrel hops onto a nearby table. Someone has left a metal napkin container outside, and the squirrel jumps up, expertly claws a napkin out of the box, and uses her small, exquisite hands to wrap it in a bundle–which she holds in her mouth. Then she claws another napkin out of the container, tugging until it gives. Now she jumps down and skitters away. She must be making a nest, I think. Preparing for Winter. Taking the wood pulp of the napkin and reusing it once again. People at the various tables point and call out. She runs across the outdoor patio, past many human legs, under a back fence. I follow her but can’t squeeze myself under the locked gate as she can. Still, she shows back up at the table to snag more napkins, following the whole routine four or five times, back and forth. Now the Japanese photographer from last night spies her. He is as wily as her, follows her with his wide camera, crawls under tables and tracks her atop railings. He calls to her, asking her to pose, to stop. His camera clicks constantly.
Squirrels have lived on this earth for 30 million years. They are the true indigenous creatures of the land, and, we are told, they keep the Arctic going. Everyone depends upon them for food: golden eagles, bears, foxes, lynx, falcons, hawks, wolverines. Like the bees and songbirds who pollinate our world and keep the plant life of the earth growing, small creatures like the ground squirrel keep the hunting mammals of the earth alive. Always on the verge of being eaten, they are careful, skitterish animals. They are known to call out warnings to each other. Many survive for years, living several full cycles of life, building nests, bearing young. Watching this creature get materials for her nest, she is so human-like, or should I say so intelligent and ensouled, it is impossible not to sit back, to sit in her lively and determined presence, and admire.
Later I’ll take a short hike in the Park. Jean and I have whole day ahead in Denali. I’m tired from being up last night; but it is the good fatigue of wonder, the greenish plumes of the northern lights still humming within. The photographer chases the ground squirrel under the table. Click click click. I’m sure he’ll win his contest, I want to tell him. Instead I gaze at the squirrel. Stay safe, little beauty. Stay safe.