My Birthday Present

(© Ian Plant) A few days ago—I’m not going to say when—it was my birthday. I’m not bringing this up to elicit “Happy Birthdays” from everyone (please don’t bother). Birthdays are essentially meaningless to me; in fact, I had totally forgotten it was my birthday until I got a scattering of calls from the few friends and family who know the date. As it turns out, however, I had picked the perfect activity for the day (without even realizing that it was the day): hiking on frozen Lake Superior to photograph some of my favorite sea caves in the Apostle Islands, locked in the icy grip of winter.

“Ice Cathedral”—Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, USA. Canon 5DIII, 16mm, ISO 400, f/14, double exposure blend of 0.5 and ten seconds.

It was a bitterly cold day, with a slight wind coming from the mainland—just enough to freeze the few parts of my skin exposed to the air. Although well protected from the elements, Lake Superior in winter is not a pleasant place to be, and hiking long distance over ice is a treacherous proposition at best. It’s been a very cold winter, however, so the frozen surface of notoriously mercurial Superior was about as safe as it will ever be. It certainly beats kayaking in ten foot waves. And winter access to the frozen ice caves of the Apostles is a rare thing. It’s been years since the last big freeze, so I wanted to take advantage of it as much as I could. Unfortunately, I have been swamped the past few months with international travel, and the few moments in between trips have been gobbled up by business and personal commitments. That left me with only a spare day or two for shooting on the lake—not nearly enough time to really explore my options, but these days, I’ll take what I can get.

“Glacial Aspirations”—Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, USA. Canon 5DIII, 16mm, ISO 100, f/11, 3.2 seconds.

Life is short. The older you get, the more you become (often painfully) aware of this basic, immutable truth. It is often said that one should “live life to the fullest,” but unfortunately we can’t spend every waking hour pursuing our dreams. Reality gets in the way. We have to spend time doing all of the things in our lives we would rather not do, in order to carve out a little bit of time for the things we want to do. But it is important to make that time, as much as you can. Time spent on the necessities of life will quickly slip away from memory, but time spent on the things that really matter will sustain you until the end of your days.

“Ice Age”—Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, USA (self-portrait). Canon 5DIII, 16mm, ISO 400, f/11, double exposure blend of 1/15 and 1/4 second.

So, despite looming tax and business deadlines and yet more international travel coming up soon (it sounds glamorous, but constantly being on the go can take a serious toll), I decided to carve out some space for myself, in order to visit an enchanting world of ice and cold beauty. After hours of winter walking and crawling through narrow passages of ice, I was cold, numb and a tiny bit frost-nipped. But I couldn’t have planned my birthday any better than I did, even though I had forgotten the event altogether. Birthdays make me uncomfortable, because they remind me that the moments of my life are passing by like a runaway train careening down a hill. But this birthday, spent alone on a frozen expanse of ice, reminded me of all the great moments that have come before and of those that have not yet come to pass. Life is short, but it can also be sweet—if you take the time to make it so.

Best birthday present ever.