Late afternoon on a frigid November day, movement along the coastal flats below Kincaid Park’s sand dunes catches my attention. Looking more closely, I see a multitude of wispy, vaporous forms floating slowly across the frozen mudflats.
Hiking the Bluff Trail with Denali, I’ve been reveling in the beauty of this cold, clear day, the sun suspended in a vast ocean of blue while dropping ever closer to the distant horizon, its low-angled rays of light setting the world aglow. But the undulating forms far below me add a new dimension to the day.
It’s as if a portal to a mysterious world has opened and I’ve been invited to peer into it.
In the many years I’ve resided in Anchorage I’ve never seen anything like what moves before me. In fact I can’t recall anything quite like this in nearly 72 years of inhabiting our planet.
Legions of small ghostly shapes follow each other across the flats, moving together in a synchronized pattern that reminds me of the way that caribou herds weave across the Alaska landscape, or schools of salmon migrate upstream, or flocks of shorebirds—or bohemian waxwings—swirl through the air.
Though few in our modern American culture would say they are alive, the wisps of fog have a liveliness to them. Letting the imagination take over, they might be considered spirited beings of a sort, the presence and movement of their shining, vaporous bodies accentuated by the day’s last, low-angled light.
For all their similarities to the animals I’ve described, these have their own nature: they are fluid, gliding, shape-shifting beings that move in sinuous fashion across the landscape. They must be nudged by the gentlest of breezes and seem in no hurry to make their way across the flats.
Elsewhere in Cook Inlet, I see layers and patches of fog and I assume that in their entirety, these wispy forms too make up a certain type of fog. But why or how did the water vapor take this shape?
Figuring I can later seek out a scientific explanation if I choose, I let my senses wander and another image comes to mind: I’m reminded of the other-worldly, wraith-like beings that move across other fantastical landscapes, like those that appear (if my memory is correct) in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” Middle Earth realm.
For all of my mind’s imaginative wanderings in these moments, I’m delighted—and thankful—that this ethereal procession is occurring here and now, a part of my world’s magic and mystery, one manifestation of nature’s infinite wonders.
To be able to hike this trail—and the many others that pass through the Anchorage Bowl and neighboring Chugach Front Range—with my beloved dog (and on many other occasions, Jan and Guido) is among my life’s greatest blessings. I recognize it is also a privilege, one of many I enjoy in our nation, our culture. So many people can’t afford to take a couple of hours and walk such trails and explore wild places, for any number of reasons.
And yet . . . just about anyone can find moments of such joy and magic and wonder, because we’re surrounded all the time by nature’s marvels, even in harsh, desperate circumstances. Wild nature has certainly helped me through some dark and oppressive times and nowadays (and for many years) the larger world reminds me daily that life is indeed a miracle, in so many different ways. And for that I give thanks.
Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com