With my dopiest hat to keep me warm, it was a night to watch for the shooting stars of November.
YOU COULD SEE IT in their wide eyes. Our two cats thought we’d finally gone ’round the bend.
It was 1:45 Sunday morning — a sailor would call it O’Dark Thirty — and Barbara and I were bundled up, she in her warmest sweater, I in my Elmer Fudd hat, and heading out the door of the Nuthatch cabin.
Nothing was on fire. The house wasn’t flooded. Our bed was comfy as ever, yet we had set an alarm and climbed out from beneath the winter quilt many hours before breakfast. The kitties were miffed.
When a geezer such as myself tells someone he is seeing stars, the common questions are, “Did you slip on ice? Have you broken a hip? Got a concussion?”
No, this was the peak of the annual Leonids meteor shower, a night-sky phenomenon generated by Earth’s crossing of the orbital path of Comet Tempel-Tuttle, which is not known for its neatness. It leaves behind chunks of space debris that become blazing fireballs as they plunge into Earth’s atmosphere.
It happens every year around November 17 and 18, but you have to spend some time in a good dark place between midnight and dawn to see the show. For us, it was a serendipitous thing. Barbara saw an item about it online yesterday and told me the peak viewing time for our area would be at 1:52 a.m.
“Let’s get up and see it!” Barbara suggested.
I was all for it. Here we were, on a remote island with a dark, cloudless sky, newly retired and with plenty of opportunity to catch up on our sleep. This is what ditching the office is all about.
We’d walk up to the Center Island air field, about 300 feet through the woods behind our cabin, we agreed. That would give us a good wide view rather than peering up through the tall firs surrounding the Nuthatch. Before bedtime, we’d make a Thermos of something hot to drink on our adventure.
Leaving the cabin at the appointed hour, I wore a headlamp and Barbara toted a flashlight as we carried mugs of steaming apple cider to ward off the upper-30s cold. As we followed a path toward the grassy air field, I suddenly saw another light in the woods. Did a neighbor have the same idea? Were we not alone out in the dark?
The other light became two big dots of light, just a few inches apart, and shining just as intensely as my headlamp. That finally made sense as a deer’s face materialized out of the murk 20 feet away. In another moment the laser-like reflective eyes turned and the big animal clambered into the brush.
Breathe normally now, Brian.
Reaching the air field, we tilted our heads back and gasped at the heavenly, van Gogh-ish panorama of stars above, bound by a smeary ribbon of Milky Way light.
“Wow, look at Orion, you can even see his knees,” Barbara exclaimed. A little to the west, the seven stars of the Pleiades pulsed in and out — a bit like a deer appearing out of dark woods, then vanishing again.
Barbara saw the first shooting star. I missed it. This wasn’t a year for one of the meteor storms the Leonids occasionally bring. Witnesses to a 1966 Leonids storm over the southwestern United States reported up to 3,000 meteors per minute. An average year such as this brings a modest 10 to 15 per hour. But seeing even a few can be a treat.
The night was still and quiet until we heard a distant banshee cry. A coyote maybe? It came from the direction of Decatur Island. I didn’t know they had them. Might have been an odd owl. Just when you think you’re alone again.
“There!” I called out to Barbara as a light streaked low in the southern sky. “Another straight overhead,” we cried in unison. “And another!”
After 20 minutes, the cricks in our necks, the gradually penetrating cold and the emptiness of our cider mugs convinced us to call it a night. I’d seen four meteors and Barbara six.
As we turned back toward our cabin, the Big Dipper floated hugely above, pointing, as always, toward Polaris, the North Star, an old friend from our ocean-sailing days. A star to steer by is a comfort on a dark night, even if you’re just on your way back to bed.
“I’m so glad we did this!” Barbara said as we stepped back inside our cozy cabin. I heartily agreed.
The cats? They thought we were nuts.