Cross-country moonlight Sonata … at midnight


Photo by Jacob Wheeler

By Mary Sharry
Sun contributor

This reflection on a nocturnal Alligator Hill ski was first published in our Winter 2000 edition. The alligator’s new look, following the Aug. 2, 2015, storm, prompted us to revisit these words.

“I will push off and glide toward heaven …”

This was how I intended to begin a poem I have yet to write about one of my favorite winter passions. The urge to write was outweighed by the call to get out and live the inspiration … cross-country skiing beneath the winter moon.

It was the last night of the year and the sky and earth were illuminated by a blue moon, an occurrence so infrequent that a phrase has been coined from the rarity of the event.

On that night I skied alone in the light of a full moon under bright stars in crisp, wintry air on Alligator Hill, so named because of its distinguished silhouetted contour.

I began at the tail of the Alligator, skied up its back to look out over Lake Michigan, then down the other side, and eventually wound my way out and back.

The moon struck strong shadows from the woods all along the trail. Like dark ghosts they beckoned me to ski over them. I crossed a pen and ink sketch of serenity.

An occasional cloud took on features — cartoon animals, witches, laughing harlequins all in filmy hues of lavender, pink and gold. This was no ordinary night.

I could hear my skis glide in the snow, ice collected on the surface and created a delicate chatter. I turned my head to see who spoke. Trees moaned like old lovers locked in familiar embrace. Solitude surrounded me, it was my companion.

I stopped to listen to the silence. The stillness was background to the faint whisper of hushed wind. My breathing was soft, not labored. The usual exertion of stride and glide was replaced by an effortless glissade under the moon’s magic light. The night became a stage set for romantic ballet.

The celestial canopy pulled me up and on. No longer earthbound. I felt energy that had nothing to do with physical body, it came from somewhere beyond.

Animal tracks crossed the trail. Lunar light revealed outlines of trees leaning one against another in final support, before the fall in their return to the soil for the cycle of birth, decay and rebirth.

I reached the place where in daylight hours I could look out over Lake Michigan. A giant dark yawn lay before me. Its mystery seemed to hold a secret.

When it was time to descend, I reveled in the joy of skiing on the moonlit trail as my body succumbed to the downward pull of the hill in a sense of abandoned delight. Gliding toward some unearthly realm, this seemed like play in the moonlight, in and out of shadows, a return to childhood.

Later that evening at a local tavern I celebrated the new year in a more traditional manner with good friends. Deep inside, though, I felt as if I had something more important to celebrate than a turn of the calendar. It was my solo experience, a needed spiritual renewal and celebration of the universe held in the snowy northern Michigan woods.

Tragedy on the hill

By Mary Sharry

As Gertrude Stein said upon returning to her former home in California, “There is no there there.” There is almost no there there on Alligator Hill, either.

Stronger winds have blown and worse storms have arisen, but the storm of Aug. 2, 2015, took a toll on homes and woodlands alike. Thanks to the efforts of the National Park with heavy equipment machines and trail volunteers, most of the ski trails have been cleared allowing you to hike or, in case of snow, you could ski to see the effects of that major wind storm.

There is the destruction — trees snapped off mid-trunk or toppled from their root base. Beech, maple, oak, ash, black cherry — tree upon tree lean into others or have completely fallen to the ground, the sandy soil exposing their root systems. A grove of aspen, their slender trunks lie in lines and rows like fallen sisters. Enormous beech trees are uprooted, their trunks cracked and split from when they came crashing to the ground. Trees that remained standing were stripped of leaves.

Ascend the easy ski trail where you once looked up into tree tops, now beyond the broken trees you see sky. The remainder of the standing timber appears as giant spears haphazardly thrown into the ground along with bent swords pointing upward. You might imagine this to be the image of a war zone. The picture tears at your heart. Turn around and look behind you, there is the dune climb and the Glen Haven dunes, scenes not visible because of the forest before the storm.

When you reach the top, the Lake Michigan overlook, there stands the remains of the red oak, its top snapped off, fragments of its rust colored leaves still clinging to their stems, quivering in the breeze. Just before the trail turns and descends there are once majestic hemlocks twisted and fallen, the needles still fresh and green as some of the root systems of those giants continue to seek the soil. Everywhere you stand and turn you see sky where you once saw forest canopy. The scene repeats all the way down the trail and back toward the trailhead.

A tragedy in the forest has occurred. But the persistence of life rises on the call of a Barred Owl and a Ruby Crowned Kinglet, both recently heard on the hill. The process of regeneration takes time, but we’ll never see that forest as it once was. I imagine it will take more than a century for decay to provide significantly noticeable new life and a new forest, but like a wound in the process of healing, in the midst of earthy smells of decaying woodland, tiny shoots will poke up out of the ground and reach for the light. Fallen timber will meld into the earth. There will be mossy growth on the bark, insects and tiny creatures beneath. Out of this natural disaster and without human intervention, the forest will take care of itself. In the order of nature, life goes on.