The odds were against us.
When nearly 100 of us set out for Lake Superior’s shore in October, the weather took a turn for the worse. A blizzard brought the first snow to Minnesota, the airport started to cancel flights, and historic waves crashed onto the shore of Lake Superior.
Aurora chasers, one and all, we were looking to the night sky for a gleam of hope. We wanted to see the sparks of our enthusiasm mirrored in the stars. We hoped to watch the Aurora Borealis dance, where it is more rare, in the mid-latitudes.
But the clouds were as ominous as the violent waves on the lake. The Aurora forecast was quieter than a winter night in the north woods. Out of an index that spans from 0 to 9, the outlook for Northern Lights was merely at one. Kp 1. Even the beach, where we would light our fire, was flooded. The waters of a great lake had pounded the hotel walls just days before. These waters settled near the creek bed, standing at least knee-deep.
It’s only natural, I suppose.
Beyond the pebble beach north of Two Harbors, they call the place Flood Bay. Beyond the bay, they call the spirit of Lake Superior “Gitchigumi.” Beyond the waves, it is rumored that a mythical creature threatens the safety of those on land. They call him “Mishipashoo.” A sea serpent, with the head of a lynx and razor-like spikes down his back, the mythological beast demands our respect.
For a moment, let’s meditate on this question. What happens to the spirit of something after it’s gone?
What happens when a beloved phenomenon of mythical proportions collapses into the earth? Months ago, we nearly abandoned this tradition — a tradition where those in pursuit of the Aurora gather on Lake Superior’s shore, and search the skies for a sign. But the fire that burns within us was just too bright.
A passion like this, it takes hold of the heart, and it becomes unstoppable.
Like a bird stripped of its feathers and reduced to a pile of soot, this tribe of Aurora chasers rose like a Phoenix and gained new wings. I was honored to be among them, when I stood there to witness it. The flames of our passion lit up the night, as strangers and old friends shared their stories and admired each others’ photographs of the Aurora Borealis.
“A mythical bird that never dies, the phoenix flies far ahead to the front, always scanning the landscape and distant space. It represents our capacity for vision, for collecting sensory information about our environment and the events unfolding within it. The phoenix, with its great beauty, creates intense excitement and deathless inspiration.”
— Feng Shui Master Lam Kam Chuen, The Feng Shui Handbook
Together, we raised a phoenix.
Adventurers braved the snow to face freezing temperatures in the dark. They carried their cameras out into an eerie night, ever hopeful that the Northern Lights would appear. They used their incredible talents to conjure up the glow of purple and green that has touched our souls, one and all.
These people came from near and far. They traveled from eight states (10, depending on how you count them) and two countries. They came together from many places in the midwest, and from as far as the southern state of Georgia, and the northern abode of Manitoba, Canada. They embarked on a journey to Minnesota to start something new. The Aurora Summit.
By our “deathless inspiration” and our “intense excitement,” we formed memories that will last a lifetime.
We were on fire, sharing astounding photography, mind-blowing science, inspiring mythology, and wild adventures on the shore just north of Duluth. What’s more, we formed phenomenal friendships that defy the odds. We shared moments that connect us to an ethereal dance, something much larger than ourselves.
One of you named us a phoenix! Then, by your generosity, your selfless talent, and your compassion, all of you moved me to tears.
Embraced by the Lake
At first tempted to feel unwelcome due to the hazardous weather, I realized something as the weekend moved on.
With our admiration for the wild and the beautiful, maybe even the natural world was glad we endured. Maybe the water of Lake Superior was excited by our fire.
If you waded through the pooled water, when it was ankle-deep, and stood patiently on the pebble beach in the middle of the night, you were likely rewarded. For a brief moment, the clouds began to part. The stars shone through.
At dawn, surfers ventured out onto the Lake Superior waves. Then the sun shot up into the air, creating a gorgeous mosaic of color — one that I happened to sleep through. On the second morning, sun dogs flanked our star. And on my drive home, a sun pillar shot up into the western sky. We even heard about light pillars crowning the city of Duluth!
I know of at least one person who achieved a lifelong dream. She waited all her life to witness the power of enormous Lake Superior waves, and that weekend, she captured their sheer beauty on camera.
So, what if the blizzard was the wind at our back? What if the waves were an intense wilderness welcome? What if the flood was an exuberant Lake Superior smile?
Then, a dear old friend of mine captured a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Our champion, Lake Superior, rose up to offer an embrace. Through the lens of Jamie Rabold, we saw Gitchigumi’s heart. It was a sight that rendered me speechless.
So, this is my epiphany.
When we set aside time to admire nature, nature admires us back.