I fell through the ice on a frozen lake in northern Norway in March of ‘95. It was two in the morning, twenty below, and I followed two friends across the snowy ice toward a road on the other side. I heard the ice crack and I stood still, a green band of aurora borealis bent just above us, and I stood still like Wile E. Coyote—suspended for just a moment listening to the ice crack—and thought, “oh, wow, shit,” and went through.
I landed just about ten inches below the surface on another ice shelf. I stood just deep enough for frigid water to cover and fill my boots about calf-high. I waited for the next crack when Joe turned and we froze in fear of us both plunging into the lake. This wasn’t the first time I’d walked on thin ice, but previous mishaps were mostly metaphorical—pissing off my parents, trying to pass a class, trying to cross borders with contraband. I stood with icy feet; my heart pounded in my chest ready to plunge into my stomach when the ice again cracked. Nothing.
Our friend John turned and laughed. “It’s day melt,” he said, ahead of us by twenty feet, already on the shore. “The surface ice melts a bit each day then freezes at night, but it’s thin. That’s what we were walking on. The second layer you landed on is probably six feet thick.”
“Why didn’t you go through?” I asked, John was six two and not a light man.
“I was first,” he said. “I loosened it for you.”
I sloshed to shore, took off my socks, and stood at the end of a fjord when across a field six moose stood taller than us all. I put my boots back on and watched the moose move toward us. They were bull-like, each one heavier than the three of us combined. The night was still, and the air was calm. To the north lay nothing but wilderness for a thousand miles; the Arctic Circle sat a hundred miles south. This was as close to sacred ground as I ever got. I was soaked in below zero temperatures, green bands of borealis bent above my head, the moose moved toward us, and I never felt so awake, like sleep wasn’t part of the Human idea, like caffeine was a tranquilizer. Awake. The northern lights lingered like they were in water, as if the the sky was submerged and the green bands couldn’t bend faster than the deep blue flow would allow, and we floated between. The moose moved closer. I held my breath. Two leaped just beyond our reach and bounced over the ice with absolute grace.
That moment, right then, will never go away.
I’ve been lucky to have had many such moments—the tram at Lake Baikal in Siberia, just about any day in Spain, the sunrise in Tucson, just about any evening at the river. We rise every morning and gaze at life around us, but how often are we awake, I mean completely and blatantly alive?
Studies tell us that most of us sleep a third of our lives and most of us work a third of our lives. And now at my age with hopefully about a third of my life left, I’d like to spend as much of what amounts to one third of that third being fully awake before the ground falls beneath my feet.