Several summers ago, I witnessed two of the most amazing natural phenomena that I have ever seen, though sadly, I must report that I have pictures from neither.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, but both events were a bit on the magical side and perhaps better left to be witnessed firsthand.
The first took place in Great Smoky Mountain National Park which is located in Tennessee and North Carolina. Seeing the display of a particular firefly there–called Synchronous fireflies– has been on my “bucket list” for a long time and when I relocated from New York to North Carolina in March of 2010, my proximity to GSMNP could not be ignored.
I am very much a spur-of-the-moment kind of girl and so headed north in my car one June afternoon, not knowing exactly what I would do about sleeping arrangements. An hour later I arrived in the park, beneath an overcast sky that threw a few raindrops on my windshield in a non-committal way. I made a bee-line for Elkmont Campground, knowing from research that this was the best base camp for seeing the fireflies. I also knew it was almost always full in the summer and reservations were definitely required. Even so, I stepped into the small room beside the road with my fingers crossed and smiled my best smile, asking if there has been any (miracle) cancellations for the evening. To my delight, the woman said that yes, there was one tent site available. Whoo hoo! Another example of things falling into place despite complete lack of thought and worry.
After setting up my tent and eating dinner, I packed my camera into a backpack and headed out towards the trailhead, aware that there was a steady stream of people heading in the same direction. I took a narrow path up through the woods to the main road and followed the crowd. The firefly display has become so popular in recent years that the park actually closes the road for two weeks at the peak of the firefly cycle which is usually around the middle of June. People who want to see the display and are not camped at Elkmont must ride one of the free shuttles from nearby parking lots.
At the end of the road, there was a crowd resembling that at a fourth of July fireworks display. People of all ages and from all walks of life were on the trail, beside the trail, ten feet off the trail. Some were comfortably resting on blankets, others lounged in lawn chairs, some had coolers and picnic baskets, radios and toys for the children. All were there to see the fireflies! Imagine! Such attention bestowed on an insect. (Perhaps there IS hope after all)
I quietly started down the trail, wanting to find my own spot of peace where I could sit with my book until dark. Wide and devoid of obstacles, the trail hugged a river decorated generously with rounded rocks and bubbling cascades. Soon I was alone, walking off trail to choose a flat rock near the edge of the river where I could sit until “the show.”
It was a long time until it was pitch dark but I can’t remember a time that I been so rewarded. The flashing of the fireflies is a bit like those Christmas lights that all flash on, then flash off, flash on… In one moment I was engulfed in utter blackness, not able to see anything, blanketed by dark. The sound of the river flowing was constant, soothing in the background. Then! All at once, the darkness was pierced in thousands of places by the tiny white lights of creatures we call fireflies. On! and then Off! On and then off!
It brought to mind music–a soundless music that gave me goosebumps and left me feeling like I was witnessing a most magical event. Perhaps the definition of music needs to be altered.
I stood rooted to the ground that night for a long time, not wanting to do anything but BE in the moment. On and then off! On and then off! Dark and then not, dark and then not. The flashes were in perfect synchronicity… on and then off! On and then off! But how could it be? It truly boggles the mind, wondering how those tiny beetles barely the side of a dime can possibly know when is the right time.
I eventually used my tripod and camera to take some time exposures, but when I looked later, there was nothing in the frames but black. Only a square of black. I am disappointed, but there is a part of me that thinks perhaps it is just as well. Perhaps the magic is meant to be experienced firsthand.
The second phenomena I witnessed from a kayak in the San Juan Islands. Again, it was night. Pitch black and not a time most people venture outside, much less outside in a kayak on water! But for me, the thought of this was as thrilling as telling me I’d just won an all-expense paid trip to the destination of my choice. Kayaking at night? Where do I sign up!
Before the kayak trip I had heard of bioluminescence in the ocean. I had listened to a description from a friend who had seen it while in Costa Rica. It sounded a bit far-fetched–that the water “lights up” when you touch it or when you drag a hand or paddle through it. I had to see for myself!
West, my kayak guide, assured me that it was real, caused by millions of microscopic zooplankton in the water that emit light when disturbed. West assured me that I would see it. So while many from our group slept soundly in nearby tents, West, Joe and I stealthily moved through the darkness, carrying the kayaks down to the beach. In silence, we got in and headed out into the bay.
And immediately, it was obvious all of the hype WAS indeed true! It was pure magic! As the paddle moved through the black water, a swath of light followed. Dipping my hand in the cool water, I spread my fingers and watched in awe as five matching paths of light sped through the water. I arched my hand up and watched as the light followed. I curved back toward the boat and again, watched the light follow.
Exclaiming in total wonder, I scooped some water and tossed it, watching as pinpricks of light danced across the surface, like fireflies in the night.
Magic. I know it exists for I have seen it with my own eyes.
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in the magic will never find it. “
-Roald Dahl, from the Minpins
What magical things have you witnessed lately?