I thought there would be better signs marking the trail. I thought perhaps there would be a sign, maybe wooden, maybe peeling, maybe partially obscured by a few pine branches, reading “Dark Sky Space,” with an arrow. Though I suppose in the falling light it wouldn’t have mattered.
We had made it to Gordon’s Park earlier that day, a small independently run camp ground with a rickity For Sale sign staked out front on Manitoulin Island, Ontario.
I rushed us along a path I thought could be the one, leading further into the forest, while looking at my watch. 8:54. As we closed the gap between ourselves and a couple walking ahead of us, they restrained their dog.
I smiled. She began barking angrily, tugging at the short leash.
I shouted, “Do you know the way to the dark sky?” but my voice was lost beneath the dog’s.
“What?” They shouted back.
“The dark sky, we’re trying to go to the meteor shower party.”
“Us too, we thought maybe it was this way, but it’s a dead end,” their voices too, fought to be heard above the snarling dog.
“There’s a path over here,” called my brother, from the trees. “I think this is the way.”
“Good luck!” shouted the couple, heading the opposite direction.
We followed the path up some rotting log stairs and into the brush for perhaps ten minutes before deciding this was not, in fact, the way.
So we retraced our steps, darkness continuing to approach.
We skirted the tiny, trying lake with water-retention issues, and headed the other way at the fork we had previously passed.
We passed a four-wheeler, abandoned on the side of the trail. “Remember that, for later,” I said.
With gravel crunching under our boots and darkness now fully upon us, we entered a clearing. “Is this it?”
“Look, over there.”
We could just make out a few silhouettes, gathering in the middle of the clearing.
“That must be it…is that it?”
We made our way over. My mind was bursting with images of falling stars and constellations, vivid like those I had seen lying in the bottom of a boat that freezing night last summer at the cottage, drifting out on the lake staring up at the sky. My mind was ready for magic.
As we approached the group, my gate slowed slightly. Nearer now, we could see there were more than just a few others. We were told to take a brochure, then line up to look through the telescope. We hesitantly took the brochures in our hands, then lined up behind the other ten to fifteen people waiting to catch a glimpse of Jupiter, which we learned by overhearing the chatter of the others in the line, was where the telescope was pointing. I shuffled my feet uncomfortably. We struggled to listen to the man talk about the meteor shower above the shuffling of blankets, the opening of snacks, and the snapping of photos. Something about stardust, and Perseus, the northern hemisphere. Papers rustled, phones buzzed, the dog from earlier growled.
When it was my turn, I peeked through the eye-piece and saw nothing but blur. I sheepishly asked the man if he could re-focus the telescope for me, and he happily obliged. “Can you see it now?” I was amazed. Clear as day, another planet, way up there in the night sky with storms brewing on its surface. I saw a perfect sphere of orange, red and purple. Then I was shuffled along by the next person waiting.
We found a spot on the grass to sit down and listen, but our view was blocked by people who sat their lawn chairs in front of us, leafing through brochures and shouting out questions. We moved closer. It got cold, as the sun sunk further and further below the horizon. We hadn’t thought to bring blankets and chairs.
We turned our faces towards the sky, following the laser pointer as the man demonstrated various constellations: Sagittarius, Scorpio, Queen Cassiopeia, trying but failing to follow the lines he traced before turning to each other and whispering, “Should we just go?”
We picked our way back to the abandoned four-wheeler in silence, in the pitch dark. We moved slowly, edging through the trees until we were out of the dark sky space, then switched on our headlamps. The light brought words with it.
“It wasn’t what I expected.”
“Me neither. Sorry your birthday present wasn’t magical.”
“And we didn’t even see a shooting star.”
“It was just so…”
“I hated it.”
We found ourselves once again at the stagnant little lake, telling us we were moving in the right direction. I quietly mourned the lack of magic the evening had brought.
Back at our camp, all was quiet. We tried to light a fire, but the wood was damp and our fingers were cold and we were tired. After much smoke and little result, we turned away from the fire pit.
I climbed into the hammock, bundled myself deep inside my sleeping bag, and turned my eyes to the sky once again. My mind was quiet. I could hear the crackle of fires not far off, and the song of late-night crickets, and a breeze blowing high above me through the leaves. My nose was chilly, but I revelled in the warmth of my make-shift bed as it swayed gently. I sighed, thinking about how far we had come in one day, and how far we had to go. A shooting star sailed across the sky, disappearing as quickly as it had arrived.
“Did you see that?” I gasped.
“I’ve already taken my glasses off, what was it?”
“A star,” I said quietly, turning in for sleep with a smile on my lips.