I am making my way across the kitchen to the narrow hallway where I’ve dumped a pile of clothes into my washing machine, when I happen to glance out the window and notice fiery clouds in the January sky. Or maybe those morning clouds are pulling my gaze outside the house, beckoning me to pay attention. In either case, I pause and step to the window. And I’m greeted by a stunningly beautiful sky: clouds sweeping from east to southeast glow a deeply reddish-orange.
Perhaps I’m especially struck by the beauty of these brightly sun-struck clouds because recent days have been so gray, so drab. I wasn’t expecting this, couldn’t have anticipated it. Though tall spruce trees across the alley hide much of the eastern sky, what I can see is amazing enough that I call my friend Kim in south Anchorage. She’s noticed some pinkish clouds through her west-facing kitchen window, but hasn’t seen the more intensely flaming heavens that I’m witnessing.
“Wow!” she says, moments later. “The whole eastern sky is lit up from northeast to southeast. It’s amazing.”
Miles apart, we embrace the morning’s dazzling beauty and the grand surprise of it. After several shared exclamations of delight, I say, “I’ve got to go outside and see more of the sky. I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”
A few minutes becomes a half hour as I walk my dog out the alley and past a neighborhood park, then down a nearby street that presents a more open view. Nose to the ground, Denali is more interested in the smells being revealed by melting snow than what’s happening overhead, but we’re both content to move slowly along the slickened street.
Now and then I stop to breathe in the morning, mindfully greet the day.
You’d think a nature writer would do this regularly and naturally, especially one who is self-employed and works at home, with a flexible schedule that many might envy. But I don’t do this often enough: consciously welcome the start of a new day.
Slowed down by the spreading fire in the sky, I notice other aspects of the awakening day: the still largely quiet neighborhood, the whirring wing beats of a raven flying past, the high-pitched fee-bee-bee calls of black-capped chickadees, the soothing trill of waxwings perched in a nearby tree. I’m reminded how much I love this time of the morning, before things get busy and noisy. Sometimes it takes an unusual spectacle to grab one’s attention: the delightful late-winter murmurings of hundreds of redpolls that have gathered in the neighborhood; or a sunrise that is more astonishing than any I can recall.
My desire to see more of the sky eventually takes me to the open space carved out by Northern Lights Boulevard. Now the entire sky has been brightened by the rising sun. Clouds in every direction are sunlit, although those toward the west have a softer pinkish cast.
Watching vehicles speed down Northern Lights, I wonder how many drivers are paying attention to the light show overhead. Would this be enough to get me to slow down and maybe even pull over and park my car if I were rushing somewhere?
Soft and wispy, the most fiercely burning clouds form feathery streaks and bands across the eastern half of the sky. Between their blazing forms are layers of blue of many different shades, some of them vibrant in their intensity. I think it’s this layered mix that makes the sky so unusually compelling. I’m reminded of brilliant sunsets I sometimes witnessed in the Arizona desert. And also a local sunset that Kim and I savored just a few days earlier. Back at her house after getting drenched while walking through a wind-driven downpour, we noticed a small lens of pale blue, far to the west. Not long after, golden clouds began to glide slowly across a suddenly and vividly blue sky. We watched, enthralled, for nearly a half hour, until the colors faded.
And now this.
Denali and I slowly make our way back home beneath the dimming flames, still in no hurry. Back in the house I again call Kim. She’s been standing outside in her yard, immersed in the morning’s glory. More directly beneath the blazing clouds, the snow around her glowed orange.
Under more ordinary skies, we’re ready to return to our day’s routines and responsibilities. But we do so with brightened spirits, our awareness and appreciation of this world’s natural beauty and wonder rekindled by an exceptional dawn, a burning sky.
Bill Sherwonit has contributed essays and articles to a wide variety of publications (both traditional and online) and is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness" and "Chugach State Park: Alaska's Accessible Wilderness," the latter a collaboration with photographer Carl Battreall. He has closely followed and written about Alaska's wildlife politics since the mid-1980s.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.