(Summer Solstice Tuesday night at 22:24 MDT, 0424 Z)
From the workshop’s south deck on this warm Solstice morning I gaze south at a breeze-ruffled swath of McLeod Bay. Just offshore, like a fleet of flattened ships at anchor, lie a few acres of mottled gray-white ice pans. For days the pans have lingered there to the southwest, although from the sky on a flight a few nights ago it was obvious, and surprising, that most of the bay – and all of the rest of Great Slave Lake – is now ice-free. On Summer Solstice! That is about five or six days “early,” at least by our phenology logbook of past springs here, this being number 30. We talk and remember other years – of running dog teams and landing planes on twenty inches of ice here on Summer Solstice day in 2004, and of sailing clear to Reliance and back on the tenth of June, two years later. The timing of these grand and subtle events is endlessly fascinating to me. (He drones on…)
In more southerly latitudes, by the time Summer Solstice arrives, Winter is already a distant memory. Not here. It strikes me that “Ice on Summer Solstice” might be one quick way of defining “The North” or “The High Country” – those two vague place names that get so glibly tossed around. Of course, there are other factors at play up north and up high, apart from latitude and altitude, factors that help a certain lake’s ice to linger until the first day of Summer. Depth and aspect and the overall size of the lake play into it. McLeod Bay has it all, being a broad deep trench of the continent’s fifth largest lake, set at a sufficiently high latitude, and plenty deep, with a sounding of 293 meters, or 961 feet, forty miles west of here. (Christie Bay, just over the southwest skyline, bottoms out at 614 meters or 2015 feet.)
Open-water season has come, after all that winter, and I – being somewhat easily astonished, I admit – am astonished all over again by the pace of the ice’s vanishing act. The utter disappearance, over the course of a few short sunny weeks, of that broad white plain upon which we lived and worked all winter, is magical. No, the rational, logical scientists will rush to intone, it is not magic at all. Nothing less than pure magic, I retort. And after another round or two of sparring we will agree that, like almost everything to do with life, Earth, energy, and – well, everything – it all comes back to our dear old star.
Old Sol, on his trek up and down the ridgeline of the sky. Drawing his arc these past six months, climbing a little higher every day, straining toward the zenith he will not reach – not at this latitude. That is how I imagine him sometimes. And, late this evening, he will turn. No, he will stand: Sol Stice. He will pause, like a gray-bearded mountain guide suddenly feeling all his weariness, and say to us, his eager charges, with a wistful smile: “Well, I thought maybe I could go up a bit higher, but I’m played right out. Just going to take a breather here for a minute, and then I’m starting down.”
And he does, every year. And every year we follow him down, by small degrees and steps at first, day by day, night by night. Then faster and faster, dropping toward the valley of December.
Yet also as if by magic, the warmth and fecundity of Summer will still come charging onward for weeks after today’s turn-around, fuelled by the stored momentum of all that arduous climbing, stoked by the solar effort that has been soaked up for months by rock and water and sky. The powerful crest of summer’s heat wave is still ahead of us, even while the sun itself starts slipping back from its high point.
The past week found me doing the bush-pilot waiting game, with daily flights north from Yellowknife up to a world-famous outcrop of bedrock on the edge of the tundra. On the second of the three long days of ferry flights and waiting, I wrote this:
Coffee on the Rocks
Waiting for Korean geologists; day two of three.
I crouch in a hollow of bedrock and boulders,
while a billy-pot of lake water
warms on my little gas stove.
Acasta River, 210 miles north of Yellowknife.
Over lunch Panseok and Kim and Lee told me more about Acasta Gneiss.
It is, by all reckonings, the oldest surface rock on the planet.
Four billion years.
The three of them are busy banging away on it, day after day.
Gesturing and talking, loading samples into pails, for the lab.
I pull out pen and paper while my coffee-water warms.
Let’s see – an eighty-year life – if I am oh-so-lucky as to make twenty more…
Eighty years. Times what?
Times fifty million, that’s what.
I try, for long minutes, to let this span of time sink in,
hunkered low in cold wind on this knob of bedrock.
Live five lifetimes.
Now do all of that, ten times.
And then all of that…
times a million.
I give up.
–Acasta River, 15 June 2017