The day the sun stood still: winter solstice

icy branches and sun mainland cliffs

Something important happened in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore at 9:59 a.m. on Tuesday, December 21, 2021. No trumpets blared, no speeches were given, no fireworks punctuated the occasion. It was a quiet miracle as far as I could tell. Where I walked alone through the scant snow along the lakeshore, just a few notes of chickadee song tinseled the air. No other sound but the waves of my own breathing. But don’t be fooled. Despite the lack of fanfare, this was an event of monumental consequence: in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the sun stood still.

Beach ice glistens in the sun
Beach ice glistens in the solstice sun – Jeff Rennicke photo

Solstice, a term that combines the Latin words for “sun” and “to stand still,” occurred in the Apostle Islands at 9:59 a.m. Two solstices occur each year in the park – summer solstice on or around June 21st and winter solstice on or about December 21st. The winter solstice marks the moment the sun reaches it furthest point in its southerly journey and seems to pause, just a moment, before beginning its slow trajectory back towards spring.

It is, for some, the depth of the darkness for the year, marking the beginning of winter and etching in the longest night and the shortest flicker of daylight all year. But, for others, there is hope in that moment of deepest darkness for the solstice also marks the beginning of light returning. It is true that because of the tilt of the earth and the sun’s path, the latest sunrise of the year will occur after solstice, but it is also true that the sunsets will start to come later and that the overall time that the sun is above the horizon at our latitude will grow no shorter, will slowly increase. Think of it as the daylight’s equivalent of the waxing moon. The “days” will now get longer. 

Humans have always traced the path of the sun across the sky – in stories, in art, in myth and legend, even in architecture. The “Solstice Window” in the Temple of the Sun found in Peru’s Machu Picchu is said to mark the sun’s journey, as is England’s Stonehenge. There are no such grand structures in the Apostles that mark the moment as far as I know. I search the shadows in the cliffs from the Lakeshore Trail for hidden clues and deeper meaning but find only ice and sandstone. If something is written there, I cannot decipher its wisdom.

Icy shoreline mainland cliffs
ice-covered cliffs in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore – Jeff Rennicke photo

Yet something has changed in the Apostles, even if it is not etched in stone. From this moment on, the shadows will be a little less lengthy, the sunlight glowing a little bit longer each day in the sky. I think of the black bears deep in their dens rolling over, the turtles suspended in the mud beneath the ice. Something has changed, some promise is being kept. The winter solstice is, at the very least, a reminder that although there is darkness and cold yet to come, the earth and the sun are still locked in their ancient dance through the heavens. The cadence continues. Spring will come, rising like a crescendo a little bit louder every day. The light will shine again, brighter each day. It may not be much, but it is something.

Even the chickadee song seems just a little bit brighter, more hopeful, as I turn back along the trail and head towards the car and home.


Jeff Rennicke is Executive Director of the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. He is also an educator, outdoor adventure travel writer and photographer.