One hazy, overcast day I hiked over the rocks to pull the skiff in on our outhaul (a rope and pulley system for keeping skiffs offshore).
I didn't feel right, almost as if someone was watching me. But who could that be in winter in the middle of the wilderness? The crisp day was very quiet with a strange stillness. I shivered a little, but not from cold...something was very wrong. Alien.
When I looked up from the steep rocks, there were two suns in the sky.
They burned side by side, one smaller than the other, in the hazy cloud cover.
The disorientation was severe and complete. It was as if I'd gone from my planet to another in an instant. I wasn't frightened, I was awed. Impressed and struck with a sense of wonder. I was living in a sci fi drama, I had traded places with an alien who lived in a world shaped by two suns, perhaps in a galaxy far, far away and a long time ago.
But there, when I dropped my gaze from the eerie spectacle in the sky, was the skiff. Floating placidly, normal and workmanlike with nothing bizarre about it.
Moving gingerly, as if gravity might go at any minute, I clambered down to the water, shooting constant glances at the two suns, imperturbable as if they'd always been there and I was the one who'd changed.
When I got back to my house the first thing I did was search through my science books until I found this:
Sun dogs, also known colloquially as mock suns or phantom suns, is an atmospheric phenomenon that belongs to the halo catalog, and is created by light interacting with atmospheric ice crystals which act as prisms that bend the light rays passing through them with a minimum deflection of twenty-two degrees. Scientific name: parhelia.
I was both relieved and slightly disappointed to find such a mundane, terrestrial explanation. I was more pleased to find that my sighting was rare, usually there were two sun dogs, one on either side of the sun.
Over the years Alaska has gifted me with many amazing sights.
When we were kids one night we saw above the vast wilderness we lived in, a swath of white light scything across the pre-dawn sky, back and forth, as regular as a metronome. To this day I don't know what it was. A form of Aurora Borealis? If somebody out there knows, please tell me.
One of my favorite memories is flying through the rugged, high mountain passes on Baranof island in a floatplane, sometimes so close to the granite and snow sides of the mountain that we were almost eyeball to eyeball with the agile mountain goats enjoying the brilliant alpine sunshine. At one point I looked out the window and down. Directly below me was a perfectly circular rainbow. The silhouette of the plane was inside it.
I have seen water devils, eclipses, countless stunning sunsets and northern lights. And what about those clear winter nights when you can see, sometimes riding close to the full moon, another planet, with your naked eye? We've seen Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn without even the aid of binoculars...and again I've had that sense of living in a sci fi drama.
I remember one late evening in winter very well. My oldest brother, James, and I had been out to dinner at my parents' house. I was housesitting for someone in the nearby village where Jamie lived, so he gave me a ride in his skiff back to the roadless village.
It was a beautiful night, the cool wind pressing against our faces in the pearly blue twilight. Jamie slowed the skiff when he saw a promising looking firewood log. It wasn't until we had it in tow that we both looked up and saw beside the full moon, sailing low on the horizon, a small, perfectly formed planet beside it. To our awe it was not overwhelmed or blurred by the powerful luminescence of its bigger neighbor. It held its own, round and sure, as if it had always belonged there, riding shotgun with the moon.
My parents, since they live right next door, have shared many of these sights with me (though I missed the black and white rainbow). One night stands out more than any other for the sheer abundance of riches. When we returned home after our sojourn into an altered state of reality, my mom drew and colored a stylized rendering of the night and wrote her account in a stream of consciousness eulogy that I don't think can be improved upon. Here it is.
....my husband leads me down the beach in the dark at 10:00 PM. Alaskan sky against black rocks, blacker cedars silhouette those stars and Hale Bopp! Plus northern lights, rose and green and white, a rainbow shape unraveling through night...our moon's just a sliver but the light from it meets the comet's tail on the water and ripples down the strait bisecting all those other lights. Ratz Mountain beacon and McHenry Ledge buoy lights and a rare golden-eyed car miles across the bay travels down the mountain to where boat lights glimmer on the water and those myriad stars all together dizzy me, till one breaks off and comes fast and quiet. Then comes sound, the buoy bell rings and rings, ringing clear and silver as stars in all the black, and with my head way back I stand and stare and listen and smell that freshening breeze...a water wind and star scent no one could bottle, like ripest watermelons, cool cucumber and cottonwoods and you can almost feel the northern lights dancing with the moon and water and the comet blurs it all together. You can try to focus but you can't see at all because the water gets into your eyes.
...our daughter comes so quietly up and softly says if we walk over to Half Moon Bay we can also, in an embarrassment of riches, see the ending of a sunset all glowing rose in that black and the sky--it's like a flower burning in coals and it hurts to overflowing.
....All this and one can only THANK. Thank God for eyes and feelings and all these senses for creating us and all on this night for just this night we lived to see a night for the gving of THANKS in one of the last days of this old century.
And if we turn there is home golden lamplight glowing, floating in the darkness. We can guide ourselves back up the beach by it and go inside and say our prayers and trust and sleep and know the sun will set the moon will rise 'forever and ever, world without end.'....Amen.
Photos: Top: I was fooling around with the photo editing tools on this picture and something I did brought out a tiny sun to the left of the real sun. Was it the moon, invisible in the unedited picture? Or a sun dog? Or just a result of the tinkering? Second photo: I was disappointed when I got home and saw the picture I'd taken hadn't captured the perfect color spectrum in the rays of sunshine shooting through the forest. But the editing options brought them back into focus. Third picture: My mom's rendering of an unforgettable night. Bottom: My sister's panoramic shot of an Alaskan sunset. No matter how many you've seen, each new one takes your breath.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)