NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 20, 2013

Illuminating the solstice

A chilly walk on Amesbury's Deer Island welcomes winter

Outdoorsing the North Shore
Justin Chase

---- — As late fall bows to winter, it’s easy to forget that longer and sunnier days are right around the corner.

The winter solstice is tomorrow, marking the first day of winter but also an important point in our daylight cycle. Here in New England, the first full day of winter means the beginning of brighter days. With each passing day after the solstice, the sun sets later and farther to the north. Soon, too, the sun will rise earlier each day.

It’s a pretty awesome thing to watch, the literal and figurative brightening of our darkest months, and something I wanted to share with my boys, just as my grandmother had with me once when I was a child. Hoping to shed light on a changing season, she had dug out some old lanterns from her barn and walked with me into a dark and chilly forest across the street, adding light to the darkest day of the year.

Taking advantage of clear skies and a nearly full moon, my wife, Jamie, and I brought our boys and a few special friends into the darkness for our own solstice walk.

In re-creating the special evening with our small group, we converted some of my mother’s old canning jars into festive lanterns for the kids to carry. With all sorts of craft supplies, candles, yummy snacks and cheery music, we chatted of arriving home from school in winter to a setting sun and going to bed in summer with it still high in the sky. We looked out the west windows and noted how far the setting sun travels from north to south, from solstice to solstice.

Then, after a touch too much cocoa and even more whipped cream, we packed up and headed to Deer Island for a chilly walk with our newly crafted lanterns. Although a few days before the actual solstice, we had a wicked great time making our lanterns, learning of the seasons and walking along the Lower Merrimack River on Amesbury’s Deer Island.

Offering free parking, a tiny loop trail and even a quiet little beach, Deer Island provided a perfect place for us to get outdoors and into the dark without venturing so far as to scare young imaginations. Under an intensely bright moon and a twinkling clear sky, we fumbled with our lanterns, determining whose was whose and lighting them while excited little hands did all they could to stay still.

We walked together through bare trees and along the south shore of the island. The old Chain Bridge clicked and rumbled behind us with crossing traffic, while pack ice crashed and crunched in the river below. It was cold, and the ground was frozen hard as a rock. The kids all swayed their lanterns, then held them to their faces to see their warm breath disappear into the darkness beyond their light’s reach.

After a few short minutes, we reached the east point of the island and made our way down to the water, where an outgoing tide had left huge sheets of ice precariously suspended by cattails and boulders. Watching the kids shatter the ice was as infectious as watching someone pop bubble wrap. Before turning back, we had all joined in the smashing of ice and exploring the pockets of air underneath. We had a blast, but it was cold and the candles would only burn for so long — it was time to turn back.

We climbed up through a stand of reeds and cattails and back into the tiny forest of oak, pine and hemlock. Our lanterns glowed warmly and flickered in a soft but frigid east breeze blowing in from over Ram and Carr islands. Looking across to Newburyport’s modern living, I couldn’t help but think of a time when lanterns and candles dotted the shorelines of the Merrimack Valley. It must have been beautiful.

Walking back to the car, I hung back a few steps to savor the moment as best I could. My oldest boy, Derek, walked hand-in-hand with his friend Taylor as their lanterns lit their way. They chatted of everyday stuff — iPods, school and the like — but I also overheard them talk of the solstice and what that meant.

With the recent snow and the arrival of winter, I invite you to take comfort in an old Yankee adage my grandmother taught me decades ago: “When the cold begins to strengthen, the days begin to lengthen.”

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Justin Chase is an avid naturalist who lives in Amesbury and grew up in Newburyport. He is the author of the blog Outdoors, By Cracky! Visit his website at www.outdoorsbycracky.com or contact him via email at justin@outdoorsbycracky.com.