Travel Journal No. 4: Frozen lakes and the Milky Way

The stars splattered the sky above as the moon set and a dark cold enveloped me. The temperature had plummeted to below freezing, and an unexpected snowstorm hours before had coated the surface of the frozen lake with two inches of crystalline dust that hid the smaller surface cracks, making a retreat to my truck impossible in the dark. I pulled my jacket around my shoulders and fumbled with my camera gear, my fingers numb and unresponsive. It was 3 a.m.

Earlier I had navigated my way over the frozen lake to a small rocky island. At the time the ice sheets around me had looked stable and thick but now they seemed life-threateningly precarious. Minutes before an eerie sound had echoed through the quiet and reminded me of a huge pine tree being split down the middle by lightning. Even in the cold the ice was thawing.

If I could hold out just for another hour the Milky Way would lift into the sky from the east and be accompanied by falling bits from the Eta Aquarids meteor shower that had been randomly streaking across the night sky since sunset.

Less than 24 hours earlier I’d been baking in the deserts of Utah, sweating in the dry heat and surrounded by sun-cracked earth and the smell of sage heavy in the air. A friend had called to tell me that the road to Lake Sabrina above Bishop, California, had recently been opened, the deep snowpack of winter finally thawed enough for the road-clearing crews to brave the 9,000-foot-elevation pass. I’d quickly packed up my gear and driven to the site, hoping to capture the unique combination of a meteor show and the haunting smear of stars called the Milky Way. The waxing gibbous moon was to set soon, giving me a brief window before sunrise to witness something rare and wonderful — a convergence of a high rate of falling stars through a dense wave of our own galaxy.

There are billions of galaxies in the universe, but the galaxy we call home is the Milky Way. Our galaxy consists of a center core that spirals out like a pinwheel. Our own solar system (our sun and its associated planets), merely one of the billions of solar systems that reside in this galaxy, is located at the far end of one of these spirals. These are the stars we can see at night with the unaided eye, with the exception of the Andromeda Galaxy, which is 2.5 million light-years away. Scientists recently determined that our galaxy is actually within a larger supercluster of galaxies that they named Laniakea — “immense heaven” in Hawaiian. There are likely billions of superclusters in the broader universe.

The universe is huge, and the light traveling from these stars takes a long time to reach us. What we call light-years is the distance light travels from a source through space in one year. When we look at the stars at night we are actually seeing their light from years ago. For example, the nearest known star to our sun is Alpha Centauri, and its light takes more than four years to reach our eyes. There are thousands of stars visible at night, but the vast majority of them are about 1,000 light-years away, so the stars we are seeing may actually have ceased to exist.

I looked up into the sky, the past light of distant stars reaching me after its long journey as I sat on an ice-covered lake 9,000 feet above sea level on just one of many mountain peaks on our planet. I breathed in the smells of white fir and western juniper that were faint but distinct in the cold night air.

When most people think of the Milky Way they are picturing the brightest section of one of its spirals located in the constellation Sagittarius. Here the dust lanes, nebulae and star clusters are most concentrated. This section is only visible for about half of the year; the other half it is located beneath the horizon. Because the earth rotates, stars appear to move across the sky. However, because the earth takes 23 hours and 56 minutes (not 24 hours) to make a full rotation, stars rise at different times throughout the year. In the winter this core section is not visible in the Northern Hemisphere, but by May it becomes viable just before sunrise. On dark nights later in the summer, it is visible for nearly the entire night.

The Eta Aquarids meteor shower is caused by small flashes of debris left over from the tail of Halley’s Comet, and it occurs when Earth crosses its path, which is also in May, making this time of year truly special.

The frozen surface of the ice groaned and creaked around me. Space dust from an ancient comet poured down from the sky above as the spiral of our galaxy broke over the scene from the left to the right, traveling in a slow, timeless arc across the sky. How many billions of years had this scene unfolded without someone to witness its beauty? How many billions more are to come? Sitting there in the darkness I felt strangely defiant and protective of our tiny planet as I watched brilliant streaks of light slip brightly across the night sky, the soft sound of alpine wind and rushing water clearly audible from somewhere in the distance.

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Originally published in the Napa Register, May 2017