By Kirby Neumann-Rea • Of the News-Register • 

Back, and Forth: The Northern Lights one of Upper Peninsula's splendors

Matthew Rea photo##Northern lights glow green and purple across the bay on Big Shag Lake, Upper Peninsula of Michigan on Sept. 19. Aurora borealis was coined by Galileo using the name of the Roman goddess of the dawn and the Greek name for the north wind.
Matthew Rea photo##Northern lights glow green and purple across the bay on Big Shag Lake, Upper Peninsula of Michigan on Sept. 19. Aurora borealis was coined by Galileo using the name of the Roman goddess of the dawn and the Greek name for the north wind.

A week’s vacation proved no less than luminescent.

I was able to take eight days and travel to the family place on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, my mother’s birth territory, which holds a strong sense of kinship for my family. My last visit to 64 Big Shag Lake Road, aka “the camp,” came in 2022 with my wife, Lorre. It was her first visit and my first since 1979.

Last week I returned in the company of all three of my brothers, another first. That made it truly special.

We all have shared or independent memories of visits here, and now it was the four of us together, along with a nephew on his first visit.

We flew to Chicago and had a pizza dinner with our beloved Uncle Sid, who is 101, in the company of several cousins. Then we drove the six hours from Chicago to camp, beginning a full week together by the lake.

Simply being back in the North Woods is uplifting. This cabin, this property, this “neck of the woods,” amount to something beloved and magical. Yet the human connections, familiar or distant, are what truly define it.

We — my brothers Brent, Matt and Joel and I, along with Brent’s son, Nick — enjoyed time with cousins we do not often see. And I had a happy crossing of paths at the neighboring cabin in a mini-reunion with Gary, an Upper Peninsula guy I had not seen since we got to know each other 52 years ago during a two-week camp stay.

All week, we enjoyed the dual sensory surrounds of resplendent fall colors and warm and pleasant weather, perfectly soft shoulders linking summer and autumn.

There were the earthly pleasures of meals, including oatmeal mixed with foraged apples. At camp, everyone eats well, the place being about the three F’s — Food, Family, and Fishing.

These included three meals of meat pies known as “pastys,” as most signs in the UP do not drop the Y in the pluralization. They are an absolute staple of Yooper existence, along with another firmly ensconsed UP tradition: the hamburger-like sandwich called the Cudighi, pronounced cuddy-hee and served everywhere.

But the best food was that for the soul.

In a huge surprise Tuesday night, we saw aurora borealis. Cousins and a few people from the Upper Peninsula I spoke with had seen the Northern Lights a number of times, and two of my brothers at least once, but this was a first for me. And they were stunning to behold.

I talked to other Yoopers, as the locals are known, who said they have lived there for years and never witnessed the Northern Lights. So I feel blessed by the experience. And I thought I had seen an incomparable visual delight in each morning’s gossamer mist over the lake.

That night, the Northern Lights began slowly, the glow over the trees across the lake first resembling the urban artificial glow from Negaunee, Ishpeming and Marquette, the small cities to our north. It did have the telltale green cast to it, but the bright porchlights on the homes across the bay made it difficult — for my eyes at least — to adjust to any unusual light show.

But it was dark enough, and with a bit of patience, and the rising solar activity that causes the phenomenon, we were soon witnessing a spectacle. For those keeping score, it was a Kp5 or G1 level show, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center — briefer and more muted than a Kp2, the aurora not reaching overhead, but spectacular nonetheless.

The others had actually gone inside, thinking the faint aura was all the aurora we would see. I had stepped back out on the deck, and looked up to see something that caught my breath and brought tears to my eyes.

I rushed in to let the others know the show had reached its second act. We all spent the next half hour gazing northward.

The green shimmering glow, interspersed with shifting pillars of light, was truly one of the more awe-inspiring things I have ever seen. Pulsations of green, yellow or lavender would intensify, then weaken, then gain renewed definition.

Sharp features would turn hazy and hazy ones turned sharper. Suddenly, what was vague would wave and bend into something more distinct, the northwest fringe of the palisade trading degrees of brightness and activity with the eastern curtain’s edge.

Seeing the Northern Lights was a half-hour I’ll never forget. They are a mobile, ethereal miracle, an ineffable natural wonder of the world.

With apologies to Crosby, Stills and Nash and their song, “Southern Cross,” a redirection of one lyric to another hemisphere: When you see the northern lights for the first time, you understand now why you came this way.

Contact Kirby Neumann-Rea at or 503-687-1291.


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