A couple of days ago, my end of the world started to tip back towards the Sun. In six weeks it will have tilted enough that the Sun will peek over the horizon for the first time since November. For those of you who shudder at this, know that I love it. I enjoy the dark season and it really flies by. Christmas up here is a busy season. Every night the community gathers to play games and following that with a dance. Usually huki, which showed up up here with the Whalers and Hudson’s Bay Company boys. Think of it as square dancing without a caller. A single dance goes on for as much as 20 minutes. I don’t partake, I’d be too busy scratching my head and clutching my chest. But it is fun to watch.
I just now got back from dog sledding with my son and his friend. A short run as Travis got cold, but a good run all the same. On one horizon Jupiter glowed above the hills in an indigo sky, and a 3/4 moon was glowing orange as it pushed its way above the horizon. On the other, the sky lightened to a pale blue, the horizon glowing yellow and orange, with the promise of the sun. Although these are are darkest days, we are never without some light. Only the planets are visible at noon, the sky too light for the brightest stars.
Out of that sky, as we slid along, Ravens dipped down checking us out. Or they called at us from dog teams tethered on the ice, too busy stealing food to have a closer look. Ravens are the only birds I’m guaranteed of seeing this time of year, even if they aren’t the only ones around. Redpolls winter here, as do ptarmigan. Rock Ptarmigan mostly, but Willow as well. Out further, where currents keep the ice at bay the pelagic birds stick around. Gyrfalcon and Snowy Owl also stick around, but they are harder to find. It is the chance encounter when one reveals itself out of the gloom.
Although some of you may find this a strange place, exotic if you will, it is a far cry from where I spent my strangest Christmas. The Galapagos Islands should be on every birder’s wish list. A mecca of sorts for me, we made it there in the early 90s. It is a magical place (as is where I live) and I saw birds I dreamt about since I first heard of the place, and since reading The Voyage of the Beagle. Birds with no fear and that paid you little mind. It was incredible. But growing up on the Canadian Prairies, and spending much of my adult life in Northern spaces I equate Christmas with snow, and cold. Seeing ornaments hanging on succulents, feeling tropical heat, and being away from home meant Christmas felt strange, postponed, lost.
When we arrived on the islands, a mixup with our boat meant we were confined to Puero Ayora for a couple of days, making day trips until our ship arrived and was re-provisioned. Finally on Christmas Day our boat was ready, and we laid at anchor in the harbour until the planned departure in the early hours. As was my habit, the last thing I ‘d do every night was write in my travel journal, and after my wife fell asleep, I slipped out of our cabin and sat at the bow of the boat. It was quiet, broken only by the sounds of ships at anchor, and the lapping of waves against the boat. Above me, in an inky dark sky unfamiliar stars twinkled down. Constellations that I’d never seen before resolved themselves against the velvety black.
I laid there, looking up, taking in this new sky, when from one of the freighters anchored in the harbour the sound of a single pan flute rose up. The music dipped around boats, danced off waves and swirled all around me, wrapping me in its pentatonic harmonies. Strange as it was, that moment made for one of my most memorable Christmases ever, a moment I play over each Christmas while looking up at familiar stars in a dark night sky.