The sunlight slung off the lake waters as we picked our way along the coast, absolutely drenched in color. It was all there was up here: great, complex swaths of color the bled into, spackled across, grew among one another. We breathed in the nuanced blues of Superior and we brushed against the emerald needles of the ragged forests. We tasted the sour red of thimbleberries. The boulders we picked our ways across were canvases where the lime growth of lichens fuzzed electric patterns into mottled grays. The colors were their own kind of song.
Though I see these colors as if they were before me now, a whole year has passed since I stood there among the palette of Lake Superior. Life moves quickly. So much of it has been reduced to a blur in my mind, but some moments are preserved sharp and stinging. There are some weeks that stand out like thumbtacks.
This was one. This was the week of shouldering heat and sweat and the bulk of our possessions onto our strengthening backs, and it was also the week of slipping quick and free into cold lake waters and sinking into the comforting lilt of our hammocks at night. We felt alive and shimmering. Our skin was pinked by the sun. The world around us was richer than we were, and that was the thing we had never realized we craved.
On our last full day we reached the peninsula that would be our final camping home, a pretty thrust of land near Robertson Cove, and we dropped our packs and arranged tents and hammocks. I waded quickly into the shallows at the neck of the peninsula and dunked under, the small undulations of lake water licking away the sweat and heat I had been storing on the surface of my skin. I breathed and bathed and slogged out a little cold.
Our peninsula began with this thin neck, grew into a scruff of wide-reaching trees, and then cleared into a smooth humped form of stone like the back of a whale. I walked to the end where the students had collected, and I stretched out, stomach on the sunny rock, head turned so my cheek felt the warm wild texture.
I was coming into myself here. Sunbathing in Lake Superior Provincial Park, leading this trip for nine eager freshman students that reminded me so much of myself when I, three years prior, had signed up in fear and excitement for a similar trip—in my mind it was nothing short of a miracle. The passage of time was thin here, as if I had found myself back where I started, just on a different level.
The students jumped in the deep water, jostling each other with wet, noodly arms, flipping through the vibrant blue, pawing their hands on the rough orange that lurked surprisingly at the bottom of the shallow places.
That evening as we cooked dinner the sky turned dark, the lake soupy, and we could watch the sheets of rain form in the distance. We huddled under a tarp, eating quinoa and beans and talking under the sounds of rain until our eyes grew heavy. This was our last night, and tomorrow we would leave this private, colored world.
It was still misting when we dispersed, sending the light of our headlamps curving through the dark. We quickly arranged ourselves into tents, or into the hammocks we had strung in the grove of trees under our tarp, and we had just settled in when someone began to yell. We were all called out to the whale’s back.
Dayna had apparently fallen, slipped on the slick stone into one of the sharp dips of the peninsula that pocketed water up to your thighs. She had laughed, clambered out, shivered in the misty rain, and a few others were helping her back to the tent to borrow some dry sweatpants when they noticed the lights. They were subtle, almost like the glow that would emanate from a nearby city, and yet they could not be that. They were moving.
We yelled in excitement, thanking Dayna for losing her footing, for soaking her last pair of clean pants. The Northern Lights! They were there, and yet they were not fully there. It was still raining, and the clouds had not parted. We were seeing the Lights behind cloud cover.
The light pooled on the horizon, stretching like taffy, growing and receding. When it faded away in one direction, we looked behind us to see it growing in another corner of the sky. It seemed to breathe.
We whooped and hollered, gasped and pointed. We huddled together in the mist, mesmerized. At some point we began to see flashes of color seep through the clouds. A brief flare of red behind us, a cool streak of blue on the other side. A few times, it funneled up like a search light, growing brighter and brighter, larger and larger, until it flicked out as if someone had flipped a switch. We screamed when this happened, awed by this unnatural work of light.
The skies never cleared, and it didn’t matter. We pointed and we yelled and we laughed, and then, funny enough, we began to sing. I suppose that’s a fairly human response in the face of wonder. The Northern Lights were dancing above us, and we could only imagine what they looked like behind the clouds.
Some people say you can hear them hum, and I wonder if that’s true. I couldn’t tell you because all I heard were our voices, those heady shivering peals. Our own ribbons of ecstasy, pulsing lifelike over black water.