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OUTDOORS | The Wonders of Winter Light

Winter’s shorter days and longer nights have a bright spot thanks to Earth’s astro-gymnastics.

Our hemisphere’s seasonal backbend away from the sun delivers low-angle light that coaxes contours, teases textures and pinpoints patterns.

Yep, light that blazes hot and harsh in summer seems to soften as the atmosphere cools. The results are richer colors and deeper shadows that satisfy the eye.

It’s a miracle, really, that photons travel from 93 million miles away to bounce off the feline sitting on our fence. On cold days that smarty cat perches higher to catch winter warmth from the southern sun.

In fact, on luminous winter afternoons much of the world appears to seek the light. Trees, hills, fields, rivers, buildings and people can all seem aglow. The Columbia River at Crescent Bar, cliff faces in Spanish Castle, shadow-laced orchards in East Wenatchee, shrink-wrapped boats in Chelan — all seize the sun and shine.

One cold, bright day I stood on a freshly plowed road near Waterville to watch sunlight play across a harrowed wheat field. A beat-up farm truck rolled to a stop and the driver leaned out.

“Need help?” she asked.

“No thanks. Just looking,” I said.

“Lots to see,” she nodded.

Together we watched clouds part and shadows deepen to outline the field’s rows. For me, a nice winter design. For her, the snowy furrows were a promise of prosperity.

Of course, winter isn’t all gleams and sparkles. Fog veils, storms cloak and too-frequent inversions can dilute winter’s glory for days and even weeks.

But inclement weather often provides a backdrop that masks distant clutter and emphasizes the lines and shapes of what’s right in front of us.

Good examples: Low clouds accentuate a South Wenatchee grain elevator; rolling fog adds mystery to trees at the Quincy rest area; a washed-out sky highlights tree canopy on a Columbia River trail.

Several years ago, on a November afternoon at Lakeside Park in Chelan, I stood on the beach and faced a frigid west wind. Clouds heavy with impending snow blotted the sun; white caps flecked the lake.

A guy walking his dog stopped not far away. “I see a sun break coming,” he said, pointing to the horizon. Sure enough, a hole in the clouds revealed blue sky.

“Give it a minute,” he said. We stood there freezing our tushies off. His dog began to whine.

But then, in an instant, rays of winter light burst through the clouds, bathed the lake in reddish-gold and cast everything — waves, trees, houses, mountains — in stark relief. Like etched metal or a stained-glass window.

We stood stunned for half a minute — even the pooch sat quiet — to let the spectacle sink in. The light clicked off when the cloud hole closed, but my retinas retained the glow for more than a few seconds.

“Well,” said the dog walker. “Was that worth it or what?”

Yes, definitely. Winter’s most intangible offering — the richness of its light — surprises yet again.

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