Seize the light

In these dog days of winter, when the great indoors can be both refuge and holding cell, I have to remind myself to get out there and battle/embrace the elements, because you never know what experiential treasures await, like the kind I had in St. Paul a couple weeks ago, or the one that happened a year ago this Saturday, when my dog Zero and I had a city adventure that we still talk about, that we still shoot for.

It was a little after 5 p.m. The sun was going down at the Lake of the Isles dog park, which is where he goes to get wild, and where I and the other humans go to be joined in the very simple and civilized act of making our animals happy. More often than not, real peace happens there.

As the dogs romped and their owners shuffled, the natural light of the sundown-moonrise made a crystalline canvas of downtown Minneapolis on the lake horizon. The bright blue, silver and aqua glass panels of the skyscrapers refracted off the white snow, and as darkness descended, I noticed a long row of tiny lights snaking out across the white terrain. From a distance, it looked like 50 of Orion’s belts had fallen to earth, or a UFO landing runway was forming on the lake.

Enthralled, I grabbed the dog and we made our way down through the trees, past the shoreline and onto the lake. I took off his leash and he darted across the ice, a galloping and free black streak that briefly disappeared into the darkness. When he returned, silhouetted by the glowing skyscrapers and framed by a canopy of pine trees jutting out from the middle of the lake, I called his name. He stopped in his tracks, raced back to me, and then made a beeline to a pyramid of candles in the distance.

I followed him, and quickly found myself amidst a gaggle of shadowy figures hovering around the pyramid, which was made of hundreds of glass luminaries, and still under construction. The quiet of it all was eerie, moonlike and broken only by the shush-shush of cross-country skiers, who motored past in the darkness alone or with sled dogs, and only then did I realize that Z and I had found ourselves in the middle of the Luminary Loppet, which has been going strong in the middle of Uptown since 2002.

We were Loppet virgins, and came away impressed with the cross-country ski events, and forever changed and awed by the holy stillness of all that candlelight and natural beauty. There was something truly ancient in how reverent and meditative the skiers and non-skiers alike regarded the churchlike scene, which has to be one of the most photographed of all local winter wonders. This year’s Loppet has been moved to Theodore Wirth Park due to balmy weather and thin ice, and this week’s column is to implore you to get out of your winter funk and go see the lights.

That’s what a gang of us did a couple weeks ago, at The Red Bull Crashed Ice extreme sports event, which basically consisted of a bunch of dudes from all over the world in hockey gear flying and stumbling down an ice ramp that resembled 30 Minnesota State Fair Big Slides stitched together with chicken wire.

The scene that invaded John Ireland Boulevard in St. Paul that weekend was pure “The Chronicles of Narnia” meets “Slap Shot-Rollerball,” what with the floodlights, star-studded night sky, capitol dome aglow on the horizon, and a spirit of oneness among the gathered that suggested they knew they were into something good, silly, fleeting and super-soulful.

The smell of mini donuts and hot chocolate spiked the nostril-pinching air. NBC cameras captured the action, and broadcast highlights on a jumbotron above the starting gate as leather-lunged youths wearing high school hero jackets on their backs and dead furry pelts on their heads pounded the ramp with faux enthusiasm. Saint Peter, Saint Paul, various angels and demons and God himself lorded over the proceedings from the ornate exterior of the 85-year-old cathedral that looms over the twinkling capitol city.

People were jumping up and down to keep the blood moving. Inside the church, some folks warmed up in the pews and took in the quiet, away from the Red Bull numbers. Some lit candles. Some toured the stained glass and bronze-encased shrines of the saints. Some knelt in front of the nativity scene, said their prayers to baby Jesus, then bolted out the door in hopes of seeing Igor from Slovenia do another face plant or back flip onto the ice ramp.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.