Re-post of My Journal From Isle Royale, Part 5

The Darkest Sky
Click Here for Part One

The morning was chilly, but I didn't need a jacket . I ate breakfast, read a book, and once again listened to the loons. I packed up camp slowly, paying attention to the quality of my actions. I cleaned every piece of gear unhurriedly before carefully packing it away. I accomplished another one of my intended goals. Life was moving at a snail’s pace.

I decided to go back to Rock Harbor for my final night, where this hike began. Heading out of Lane Cove, back over balance beams and through clouds of bees.

I hiked along with my head down staring at the trail in front of me, then stopped suddenly. Just a few yards away, in the middle of the trail, stood two enormous moose, grazing and unperturbed by me. I don’t know what the safe distance was to be away from a moose, but it certainly wasn't this.

I, of course, grabbed my camera and snapped a dozen pictures rather than retreat to a safer distance. When the first moose crossed the trail a few yards in front of me, I could see sores on its hind legs. They looked like bite wounds, fresh bite wounds. Did he escape from certain death nearby? Where wolves still close? I honestly didn't consider that much, though. I was too excited about the photos I was getting and mesmerized by their size and closeness.

I moved towards the larger moose further up the trail. He wasn't facing me and didn't know I was there. I crept forward slowly, but still spooked him when he heard me behind him. He darted about 10 feet, but realized I wasn't a threat and went back to eating. The commotion, however, startled the first moose, which had now turned to face me. It seemed to move slightly forward, but this may have been my imagination. I thought his face looked concerned  or fearful. Fear can lead to anger, anger to violence. The kind of violence that makes you just want to headbutt an idiot with a camera. I backed away slowly, but continued taking photos like those tourists in Godzilla movies moments before their death.

I learned later that moose can be more problematic than bears, and very aggressive during mating season, but that doesn't start until late September. This was early September, so clearly nothing to worry about. Once again, my naivety will one day be the death of me.

With such a wonderful night, and being right in the middle of the moose’s world, I was on a naturalist’s high. I don’t even know what that means. I just know it doesn't get any better than this, at least not so far.

Since I was in a hurry the day before, I walked back up Mt. Franklin to sit and enjoy the view without feeling rushed. Several people came to check out the view, take a photo, and left quickly. I remained. I knew once I headed back down it might be the last I’d get to see it. As a result, it was hard to leave.

At Rock Harbor campground, I expected to see it crowded and full of activity, especially since it was Labor Day weekend. Other than the side with the restaurant and lodge, it was the opposite. I pretty much had the pick of whichever site I wanted. I choose to stay in one of the shelters. An empty 10 x 15 foot space with one wall made entirely of screen that faced the forest and a picnic table out front.

Writings and drawings covered the walls and ceiling inside. There were signatures, poems, short reports about experiences, testimonies, and commentary. One thing was clear, even those who wrote about bad experiences from weather or failed gear, enjoyed their stay and wanted to come back.

I left my gear behind and went to check out the slightly more civilized part of the island. I felt out of place. I was a guy from the woods who has been drinking water from the lake and lying on the ground. They were drinking wine on a patio. It’s a very small section, but where a lot of people congregated. I thought about getting a meal at the restaurant, but turned down the $35 cost. Instead, I walked down a trail and discovered a deck with benches angled towards both the sunrise and sunset. A few other people came and went, but everyone left before the sun completely set. I stayed, happy to be alone.

Daylight faded like a retractable roof revealing the cosmos. The smell of campfires started to waft over in the breeze. The first point of light to emerge was Jupiter, then Vega, the Big Dipper constellation, the Northern Cross, Cassiopeia, and a small handful of other stars light-years away. Soon, thousands of others joined them.

The dark sky was full of stars, more than I have ever seen in a night sky, but I can still only see a fraction of all that exist with the naked eye. There are hundreds of billions in our galaxy alone, which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies. There are more stars in our universe than grains of sand on all the beaches on earth. Nobody ever believes me when I say that, but it's true; ask any astronomer or statistician (if you can find one). I cannot help but wonder how many of those stars hold planets in their gravitational grasp. How many of those planets support life? What color are the plants where their entomological dramas unfold?

Light emitted from these stars takes years to reach my eyes. In fact, the stream of light from each star left at different times, so every twinkle that I see represents a different moment in history. The light from Vega, which I can see now, left its source in about 1983. That’s before the Cosby Show and the creation of Alf. Think about it.

The ancient light from Mu Cephei started its voyage towards earth while humans were entering the Bronze Age, fighting wars with copper and bronze weapons, constructing Stonehenge, and for the first time using plows, pottery wheels, and interestingly, astronomy itself. The starlight is on a journey so long that when it finally passes by, I am not using copper for weapons anymore, but in the circuitry making it possible for me to later Google this information about the 4th century B.C.E.

The Andromeda galaxy is just a pale white point of light to the naked eye. That beam’s voyage is so old that pre-human hominids were tramping over the same planet, which I now lay, with the first primitive stone tools ever created. Now here it is colliding with my retinas and registering in my brain not as just another pale light from far away, but conjuring up feelings about my life of both insignificance and precious rarity. Whenever I am taking my life too seriously and need brought back down to earth, I simply have to look up.

I wish I could hold onto these moments always. Permanently slow things down. A rushed life finally unhurried. Regrettably, I know it will not last forever; but thanks to a love of the natural world, I will forever know that at any time I can get it back. Even in the realm of the known, without making up fantastical and magical stories, the world can be seen as fascinating, miraculous, and enchanting; and should above all, never be seen as repetitive and boring.

I had to put on my headlamp to see the trail for my hike back. When I neared the resort’s lights, I temporarily turned my headlamp off and strolled with my eyes still pointed at the sky. This caused me to veer off the trail and nearly trip, but I just couldn't keep my eyes off it. This was my last night; I had to take it all in and make it last. After all, it might be the last I’d get to see it.

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A Backpacker's Life List by Ryan Grayson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.