Sometimes we’re so focused on documenting the beautiful moments in life, that we forget to experience them. In this edition of Out There, Shelby explores a canyon in winter and discovers the difference between looking and seeing.
One December afternoon, my boyfriend Josh and I crossed Highway 61 to a trailhead near Grand Marais.
Winter rendered the woods in black and white, all snow and branch and shadow. A northwest wind shivered the naked treetops. Through the trees the sun glowed weakly, like a Victorian-era novel character with consumption. The trail was paved with ice.
Photo op! I rummaged for my battered point-and-shoot and pressed the power button.
The light flickered green, then went dark.
I frowned and tried again. Nothing.
Increasingly desperate resuscitation attempts (switching the batteries, warming it inside my jacket, promising to buy it a cushy new case, demanding that it work, dammit) proved fruitless.
“It’s dead,” I pronounced. Part of me wanted to add, “Let’s go home.”
We set out despite my inability to document the excursion. We stepped carefully, huffing moisture-ghosts into the air with every breath. Where the trail dipped near the riverbank, we scrambled down onto the ice.
The ice was cloudy and thin and riddled with fissures, revealing shallow water pulsing over the riverbed.
We stuck to the edges. By mutual agreement, I kept an eye on the fissures and gashes, gauging the water depth. Once the river was more than shin-deep, we would turn back.
In the meantime, we marveled at the aural alchemy of water and ice. Beneath us the river spoke in tongues—babbled and grumbled, murmured and moaned, simpered and wailed and roared.
“We should be recording this,” Josh said. I agreed and reached for my camera. Then remembered.
A twinge of disappointment curdled my pleasure.
The twinge became more like a disappointment charley horse as we crept upstream. The riverbanks had been low, snarled with trees and leafless underbrush. Now, though, the banks rose around us, forming a canyon that looked as if it had been imported from out West.
Afternoon light honeyed the canyon’s upper reaches; the depths were drenched in darkness. Cedars with roots like tentacles clutched the sheer walls.
Even as I bemoaned the photos I totally would’ve taken, I had to admit to that trying to capture this scene, with these conditions, would have distracted and frustrated me.
Instead, I could just look. And listen, and breathe.
We continued, leaving the light behind. The temperature dropped from chilly to frigid. The air grew dank; the river-sounds resonant, almost subterranean; the ice murderously slick. The canyon walls no longer vaulted; they loomed.
Time to turn back.
Shortly thereafter, as we went downstream, toward the light, movement grabbed my eye.
I swiveled my head. A small, sleek, dark shape darted down the snowy center of the river, reached a patch of open water, and vanished. We waited with held breath to see if it would reappear.
Finally I exhaled and said, “What was that?”
As soon as Josh turned to me, the creature reappeared—popping its head out of the water, whack-a-mole style.
“Look!” I mouthed urgently.
Josh turned back. The creature—a young otter—regarded us for a moment. Evidently we weren’t scary, because it bounced out of its hidey-hole and bounded downstream. Eventually it slipped into the water again.
I grinned. Not only because we had been treated to a rare wildlife encounter, though we had, but also because, free of the meta-burden of the camera’s greedy eye, I had experienced the moment rather than watched it.
On the drive home, the conversation turned to my camera malfunction. Josh figured it was a sign that it was time for me to stop dithering and get a DSLR.
Perhaps. After all, I had been drooling over my mom’s Nikon since before Pluto got demoted to “dwarf planet.”
But maybe the malfunction wasn’t a cosmic hint to go shopping. Maybe it was a reminder of a maxim I first heard when I was six years old and learning to cross the street:
Stop, look and listen.