Outdoors North: Stars above spark insight for writer

JOHN PEPIN

“In a purple vision many thousand years ago, I saw the silent stranger walk the Earth alone.” — Buck Dharma and Sandy Roeser

Driving down a snow-covered wintry road, the temperature was dropping like a rock from the top of a 10-story building, straight down and fast.

The night was clear and everything within the beam cast from my headlights was crisp, easy to see. A few inches of snow lay piled on the road, only a couple of car tracks down here all day.

Hours earlier, the sun had been shining brightly, bringing some welcomed blue skies. The night before, howling north winds had tossed and sifted snow into drifts of varying heights outside my door and in rolling mounds across the yard.

But tonight, the snow was glittering like a billion diamonds had been sprinkled out of a black velvet bag over everything. As far as I could see, through the trees, down in the gullies, across the frozen surface of the lake, pockets and pockets full of diamonds, beautiful riches.

Sometimes, when I’m out driving on a night like this, it doesn’t seem like things could ever be better. I just want to keep driving to god only knows where, never stopping.

But tonight, I did stop.

I wanted to get out just far enough beyond the lights of town to where I couldn’t hear or see any more cars, street lights or glaring advertising signs, out to where the ages-old constellations hang in the sky clearly blinking and twinkling.

It’s amazing the magic there to see.

The celestial friends I first met lying on my back in the cool, wet summertime grass in my backyard, or on the rough-shingled roof outside my bedroom window, will be there long after I’m cast to the winds myself.

Among them are The Herdsman, Draco, Lynx and the bears of the Ursa Major family, all spinning around the North Star. The same is true for the Perseus family forms, including Cassiopeia the Queen, the Lizard and the Charioteer.

I had pulled over to the soft snowy shoulder of the road. I put it in park, kept the motor running and got outside, opening the back door. A few second later, I shut the door again and kicked the cold metal legs of my tripod open.

I knelt in the snow and got ready.

I tried to focus through my camera lens as best I could though the dark shadowy outlines of the trees in my foreground weren’t really giving me much to work with.

It didn’t really matter all that much. I was just out here trying to catch some lightning in a bottle, a few seconds of mystery in my glass.

By now, the temperature had fallen to just below zero.

I set the timer for 15 seconds and opened the shutter as wide as it would go. Then I aimed for the darkest part of the sky, where the stars were shining the brightest. I changed the timer to 30 seconds to soak up a bit more of the blue-white glow.

The night was so cold now, the loud snapping sound of trees cracking cut through the stillness was startling. A couple of times, it was so loud, I wondered whether it might have been something else cracking branches in the night.

Maybe a deer, maybe a moose, maybe somebody coming through these black woods in the night. The wondering, the cold, the clear and the magic and mystery of the heavenly display set my own eyes wide open, like the one on my camera.

I felt like I was breathing hard, my heart pounding on the edge of the sharpest knife blade. So alive. So free. It felt like anything incredible could happen at any second.

I watched the orange glow of the camera light blinking on and off in the darkness, waiting for the delay before snapping again and again. An airplane glided silently across the beautiful backdrop of stars.

In 30 seconds, it would show up on my photograph as a thin, straight line of red and white-colored beads headed south in a straight line across the sky.

A few more shots and I was back in the car.

On the county road I had stopped for a few more minutes. The sound of a boreal owl echoed through the trees and out over the lake, straight past me, continuing into the night.

No cars at all. Strange, but cool. I knelt with my camera in the middle of the road, the lens pointed toward the horizon. The Milky Way in its glowing foggy fascination sat right there overhead.

In the photos I’d taken, within the gray and black between the stars, it looked like soft patterns finger painted on a foggy bathroom shower door. Seeing is seeing everything, including the space between the stars.

These patterns were quite intriguing to me. Some looked like stick figures, backwards letters or numerals, blotchy forms like some of the painted images from ancient petroglyphs.

The air was even colder now, down to 2 below (and) still falling.

I was warm inside, captivated and locked in tight to the magnificence of the night sky. I could have stayed way into the wee hours, watching, listening and opening my heart, mind and soul.

I saw no animals, only meandering tracks down the sides of the road through the snow, reflections of fellow travelers. Maybe they stopped to take a few moments to enjoy the starlight too. I wonder.

Slowly, I drove around the big corner, along the lake again and closer to the houses. Outside the garage at one house a lone evergreen tree stood wrapped in colorful Christmastime lights. All around, nothing else but darkness.

Beneath the snow, in the dead of the night, the cemetery lay still and peaceful. Nobody visiting the graves of the Civil War vets tonight, probably not for a long time.

The sexton likely knows this well. The roads in that oldest part of this eternal resting place are unplowed and impassable. When the springtime comes, I think I’ll go to see those old marble stones for myself, the potter’s field too.

Have all these souls gone to the stars, to dwell within the bosom of Cassiopeia, among the Seven Sisters or the hallowed halls of heaven? I wonder.

Back in the yard at home, I look to see the sky above the maples, as I trudge through the deep snow drifts. There’s Orion the Hunter, noble as ever.

Spinning, spinning, spinning, around and around, every night, the trails of the stars are capturable on my camera. With a little more practice and a few tricks of the trade I hope to one day create a lasting portrait of the heavenly nighttime lights.

Seemingly almost close enough to reach, their light shines through the echoes of dead and dying stars to appear in the cloudless, icy skies above the trees.

I watch, through all the seasons of the year. Wrapped up in the enchantment, I wonder.

Like a bolt out of the blue fate steps in and sees you through

When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.