On a brittle January evening, I was blowing snow in the driveway. It was a wild evening — a vicious northwest wind whistled across the drive, ripping snow from the snowblower’s chute and whipping it horizontally across the yard.
The temperature was on its way to 10 below, but I was layered up like a deep-fried mushroom. Still, I sensed the wildness of the night, reminiscent of a long-ago whiteout camp at the edge of the sub-Arctic barrens. The stove pipe in our little tent clanked all night. By dawn, one of the dogs was buried to her neck in compacted snow.
I was thinking about that kind of cold when I happened to glance up to the night sky far beyond the snowblower’s headlight. And there was the yellow glow of Venus glimmering in the late-evening sky.
You know how the sky looks in late evening, just before it fades to black? How it still holds a bit of blue — a deep, dark blue? That’s how it looked that evening, with Venus winking down at me. I actually smiled, it felt so good to see that lovely night sky above the roar and tumult of the snowblower. I felt a peace and calm come over me despite the controlled chaos of the machine I was wrestling.
That got me to thinking of a few other heavenly encounters I’ve experienced over the years. One of those was the summer night when Phyllis and I watched the northern lights pulsing in pale green ephemeral curtains while we were sprawled on a spit of granite up in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park. How long we lay on that warm rock, gazing up at the shifting swirls and shafts, I have no idea.
And I recalled another time, when Ely explorer Will Steger and I were staking out his dog team in a bay of Great Slave Lake, just the two of us. We were spent from a long day, each of us alternately skiing or riding the dogsled across a lobe of the huge lake.
It was all I could do to wrestle those immense polar huskies one by one to the stake-out chain. I was post-holing back to get another dog when I saw a falling star come slashing through the twilight just over treeline. It was huge, an incendiary orb of intense light. Then it was gone, snuffed out, spent. And our world was as it had been only seconds before — just Will and the dogs and me, and deep silence.
I wrote to Will not long ago and, among other things, asked if he remembered that night.
“Yes,” he emailed back, “I remember that green shooting star in the southern skies over Great Slave and that clear, cold moment of hooking the dogs up. It is etched in my memory…”
Most of us, I think, have a few of those celestial events tucked away. Eclipses, northern lights, meteor showers, Milky Ways, planetary alignments, moonrises — simple yet spectacular encounters that lift us briefly from our earthly toils and offer us perspective on our place in the cosmos.