When my family and I arrived at a lakeside cabin last Friday night, the sky was threatening: it was dark, clear, and full of stars. I had hoped for a few clouds at least, but no, it promised to be a sunny March weekend in the Pacific Northwest.
I decided to make the most of it by watching the sunrise from the dock the next morning. Maybe I'd see some birds. At 6:30, the sky looked gray and clumpy. I tiptoed outside, to end of the frost-covered dock, into the clouds.
The sky and the lake were full of low, soft gray clouds. In between, against the dark hills of the far shore, pillows of mist floated past. Below the mist, the lake held the reflection of the hills, mist, sky, and clouds. I inched my feet to the edge of the dock. I peered down into the lake.
The water was clear, but I couldn’t see beyond the surface where the clouds floated and rippled. I let my gaze wander, following the clouds across the lake, into the mist, up the hills to the horizon in front of me where the clouds began and to the imposing wall of firs behind me where the clouds disappeared. I turned and looked at the cozy house whose rooms held my still-sleeping family, whose glass façade held two stories of reflected clouds.
What were all these clouds? The mist, being mist and not fog, was not strictly a cloud. There were patches of hilltop-hugging stratus. And well above hills were low clouds that appeared in layers, clumpy layers, wispy layers, and wispy clumps. A mix, in other words. I have learned that if I say "a mix," I usually mean stratocumulus.
Stratocumulus clouds are the second most officially varied of the ten cloud types (next to altocumulus) and occur in three species, seven varieties, and in colors from white to gray to dark blue-gray. Their shape, arrangement of cloud elements, and their color are all variable. They may arise from the break up of stratus clouds, the spreading out of cumulus clouds, or the remnants of cumulonimbus. They might develop into stratus, cumulus, or altocumulus clouds. They are easy to confuse with stratus, nimbostratus, and altocumulus clouds. Stratocumulus embody cloudiness—they are varied, dynamic, uncommitted, and hard to pin down. Though they are one of the most common clouds in the Pacific Northwest, they have always rebuffed my attempts at identifying them with any certainty in the field—a fact that makes them my favorite problem cloud.
So when I write that the mix of early-morning clouds I saw from the dock were stratocumulus, what I meant was that most of the clouds I saw in the hour I was watching seemed to behave like stratocumulus. What does this even mean? It means that I did my best and, once I had done my best, I moved on. Someone else’s best might have turned my stratocumulus into stratus or altocumulus and perhaps with good reason. Here are mine.
My stratocumulus appeared to be undecided about their altitude. One moment they seemed low enough to be stratus or fog—a form they could have metamorphosed from earlier in the morning. The next moment they seemed high enough to be considering a future as altocumulus. During the forty-five moments I watched them from the dock, they never did scream stratocumulus.
It wasn’t that kind of a morning anyway.
Everything was quiet and fluid.
It was time to move on.
The pale sky took on a pink tinge.
I isolated one wispy puff of cloud in the sky and then tried to find its match in the lake. Other than being a mirror image, what, I wondered, were the differences in the two clouds? Did the reflection of the clouds in the lake reveal something about the clouds that was hidden in the sky? I thought I remembered something about the tricks polarized sunlight, refraction, and reflection played on the human eye, but couldn’t recall the details just then.
I caught the wobbly call of single loon. I watched three fly low across the water in front of me.
The turned the clouds a bright white on their east side and cast gray shadow on their west. The once-flat clouds took on dimension and depth.
I looked down at my sandaled feet. I stood in a circle—a small circle my feet had melted in the frost-covered wooden dock. Maybe in the summer when the dock is warm I will dive into this lake and into the clouds.
The sun began to glint over the ridge to my right. I looked west and saw the tall trees that caught the first light. When the sun reached my feet, I decided, I would go inside, make a cup of coffee, rattle around, wake everyone up and lure them outside to greet the day. I had no idea how quickly the sun would travel across the lake. I was in no rush.
I heard a kingfisher in the distance. I watched a bald eagle fly from behind me toward the opposite shore. A dozen small birds twittered above the lake, turning together like schooling fish. A raven called from the ridge behind me saying something in a language I felt I should know.
The clouds seemed intent on becoming something more simple and distinctive. Had my stratocumulus become cumulus or had they been cumulus all along in a different light?
My feet were in sunlight at 7:15. I turned go inside. I had already lived an entire day.
Everything else was going to be gravy, icing, gilt, luxury.