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Night Lights

Astonishing Ourselves and the Ancients

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We dressed out the black bear on a slab of granite above Devil’s Cascade. Two days before, its acorn-laced scat betrayed it: we surmised the bear was foraging among scrub oaks on a ridge northwest of Shell Lake. Mike prowled the shield rock until the bear reared up. He killed it with a single shot.

By the time the hide was stripped and the pungent muscle and fat wrapped in cheesecloth, the western horizon was an orange smudge. Two ravens held vigil in a nearby jack pine snag, coveting the viscera. The weather was warm for late September, and fearing for the integrity of the meat, we broke camp. It was dark when we shoved our canoes away from the Shell Lake campsite and paddled for the portage into Lower Pauness.

It was two days past the last-quarter moon, so the crescent wouldn’t rise until after midnight. The bright star Arcturus was low in the west, over the portage, and I lined it up with the prow of my canoe. Its name means “bear guardian,” because the star shadows the tail of the “the great bear,” the constellation Ursa Major. A few evenings before, I’d drifted in the lake after dinner, and Arcturus cast a long, serpentine reflection in the water. As I gazed, a fireball – a large meteor – slashed across the sky. It was bluish white, as brilliant as moonglow, and rocketed directly toward Arcturus. As it reached the “bear guardian,” it exploded into three fragments. For an instant the star was bracketed by celestial shrapnel, then the fireworks winked out. It seemed like an omen.

The portage out of Shell – 216 rods – was our longest, and we hustled over it as quickly as darkness allowed. With two canoes, camping gear, rifles, and a hundred pounds of hide and meat, we made two trips. When we eased into the black water of Lower Pauness it was almost midnight. Our eyes were fully dark-adapted, and after rounding a point, I spotted a notch in the treeline a half-mile across the lake, indicating the forty-rod portage into Upper Pauness. Mike was a few canoe lengths behind.

Suddenly, a dazzling point of white light burst into radiance high on the far shore. My first impression was that someone switched on a camp lantern. I was surprised. We’d seen no others in that tract of the Boundary Waters the entire trip, and it was late – in the night, and in the season. Besides, I recalled no campsite there. As I puzzled over that, the light began to weave through the treetops, slipping down the ridge toward our portage. We drew closer. The light was not in the hand of a human, but wavering through the forest canopy, forty feet in the air.

Stunned, I half-turned toward Mike. “Do you see that?”

He was staring. “Yes.”

“What....?”

“I don’t know.”

With our canoes gunnel-to-gunnel, we watched the light – now more of an orb than a point – arrive above the portage, seem to hover momentarily, then vanish.

There’s another portage from Lower to Upper Pauness, but it’s beastly even in daylight, and we’d need to backtrack. Spooked, I considered it for a moment, but said nothing.

I hiked the forty rods first, canoe up on my shoulders, hairs up on the back of my neck. I was acutely conscious of our grisly cargo. I thought about loading the Winchester, but didn’t. By 2 a.m. we were up the Indian Sioux River and out of the wilderness. We drove down the Echo Trail in moonlight and silence.

I don’t know what we saw that night thirty years ago. If Mike hadn’t been there as a second witness, I might, by now, doubt I’d seen it at all. One person suggested ball lightning, but it was a clear night, and though ball lightning is not well understood, its manifestation is associated with thunderstorms. Someone else mentioned St. Elmo’s fire, an electrical discharge from a pointed object – most commonly a ship mast or tall antenna, and sometimes trees – but it also requires thunderstorm activity, and tends to hover in one place.

The fact it was night, and we were in the company of a dead bear, and the mysterious light drifted precisely to our portage, all cast an eerie ambiance. But there was something else.

Mike had encountered our quarry the day before while patrolling a ridge. The bear abruptly rose from a clump of oaks only fifty yards away. Startled, Mike slammed his rifle butt to his shoulder, and it slipped off the padded strap of his pack. He re-shouldered the weapon, but was off balance, and fumbled with the safety catch, another split second lost. The bear had seen him. Its eyes locked onto his. Finally peering through his scope, Mike centered the crosshairs on its chest.

Two things happened – or seemed to happen – at once. Mike squeezed the trigger, and the bear fell to all fours and dashed off. Had he missed? He dropped the pack and cautiously advanced to where the bear had been, rifle at the ready. The ground was mostly bare rock, but he could see no blood. He circled and searched for over an hour, gradually working further out from the oaks. Nothing. No blood, no hair, no bits of bone. It was getting late, and he returned to camp. Over the fire, he told me the story, and my opinion was that the bear had escaped – a little older and wiser.

But Mike was not convinced, and the next day he returned to the ridge and found the bear, about 200 yards from where he’d shot it. Kneeling beside the body, knife in hand, he noticed something odd: the genitals were missing. Chewed off.

I couldn’t help thinking about that as we crossed the dark portage where the light had been.

The entire episode lends itself to esoteric speculation, and it’s easy to see how our pre-scientific ancestors could’ve viewed the world in terms of a spirit realm, where unexplained or puzzling phenomena could be assigned magical authority.

A few days later I playfully concocted a story wherein a raven, seeking brute strength to augment its cleverness, ate the genitals of the bear and was transformed into the light we’d seen. As unwitting agents of the raven, we were presented the first glimpse of its new manifestation as it guided us to the midnight portage, where it could chortle in triumph over the bear meat in cheesecloth. We’d been on an archetypal quest to slay a monster and were seeking safe passage home. It was fun to spin the yarn, and it spurred me to look up a half-remembered quote from Albert Einstein: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” And, he may’ve added, of religion. Our sense of awe before the unknown is one of the most potent human emotions.

Several years later, on a dark and transparent August night, I laid in our backyard and gazed at the Milky Way. From the bright star Altair in Aquila the Eagle, through the dense starfield of Cygnus the Swan, to Cassiopeia and Cepheus, I tried to take in the magnificence of our home galaxy, scratching at the unimaginable scale of time and distance.

Then a swiftly moving point of light crossed my field of vision, like a racing star bolting the fold. A manmade satellite. I thought of the strange light we’d seen on Pauness, and how it stunned us – and how this satellite would’ve astonished and frightened an ancient observer: an unfixed star. An angel? A god? A demon?

But then, even more astonishing perhaps, it occurred to me that this now routine sight in the heavens – from a dark place you may see a dozen or more satellites in an hour – first appeared in my lifetime, just over sixty years ago. How rapidly we’ve altered the world and the sky, and how much we take for granted our instantaneous worldwide communication, GPS receivers, images of earth from space. All made possible by those lights streaking against the backdrop of the Milky Way, lights that were non-existent when I, and billions of others, were born.

As an avid amateur astronomer, I know that a majority of Americans, and perhaps a majority of humans on the planet, do not look much at the night sky. Our cities are fogged by electric mist, and we have other distractions after dark – mainly revolving around screens. But if it’s wonder you want, and if you cherish mystery, the night sky rarely disappoints.

Peter M. Leshack is a well-known writer and author. He lives in Side Lake.

stories, night sky

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