Friday, January 11, 2013

In the Woods...At Night

Remember what mystery the woods held when you were a kid?  Remember what it was like, the first time you walked in the woods at night with a flashlight...and then turned it off?  The darkness, the closeness of the tress, the damp of the night air closing around you.  Only to be able to get back to that feeling. Luckily, living and playing in northern Minnesota I have had the chance to do that many times over the years.

Eight or nine years ago, my wife and I did an adventure race that started near Tofte, Minnesota.  Adventure races generally include mountain biking, orienteering, paddling and often some sort of climbing or rappelling, and require competitors to navigate the entirety of the course using a map and compass.  This particular race started at 11:00 pm and would continue until we finished sometime in the late afternoon of the next day.

Almost immediately upon leaving the lights of the starting area and the glow of the large fire that was burning, we realized the northern lights were in full effect.  They shimmered and danced for two hours or so as we pedaled our bikes on back roads and trails into the night.  Soon after they stopped we saw the Perseid meteor showers and caught glimpses of those throughout the night.  We felt so fortunate to be seeing these things, which we surely would have missed were it not for this great excuse to be out overnight.  The wonders of that race didn't end with daylight though.  Just as the sun was coming up, we got back on our bikes, shivering from a paddle and required swim in a chilly lake.  As we turned a corner we were greeted by a large moose cow and two calves.  Though we were racing, we stopped for a few minutes to enjoy the spectacle.  They disappeared into the deep brush and we continued.

Since that race I have spent many times in the woods in the dark, but another race, brought the true joy of the experience back once again.  A good friend of mine chose to enter the Superior 100, a trail running race on the Superior Hiking Trail in northern Minnesota.  I have done a few long trail races--a marathon, a 50 kilometer and a 50 mile on the same trail--and when I did it the support I got from my family was invaluable.  So when he told me he planned to run it, I offered to run with him through the night-time hours.

This is not a race report, but it is important to say that my friend was extremely impressive.  I met him about 14 hours into the race (10:30 p.m.) and in the next 10 or so hours we spent together hiking the trail, he was off his feet for no more than 30 minutes.

If you have spent time moving through the deep woods in the dark you know your immediate visual world is only as large as your headlamp or flashlight is bright.  With the ruggedness of the trail, and him leading the way, his eyes were on the roots and rocks immediately in front of him, and I spent almost the entire time looking at his lower calves, his shoes, and the ground over which he had just trod.  As the saying goes, "The view only changes for the lead dog."

But what was amazing were the details we caught as we moved along.  Late in the night we both confessed that there were multiple times we cursed the runners in front of us for dropping wrappers or toilet paper on the ground, only to discover it was birch bark reflecting back at us.  (May have been a little sleep deprivation there, too.) He would point out interesting rock formations or gnarly tress and we would pause slightly to take them in.  These details seemed to stand out in particular in the glow of the flashlight.  I wonder if we would have enjoyed them in the same way in the daytime.

Then there were the vistas. The Superior Hiking Trail provides some stunning views from tall ridges during the day, but experiencing the wide open sky at night is something special as well.  The stars were brilliant and the moon, in its last quarter, was in close proximity to Jupiter and Venus.  After a couple long climbs we turned our headlamps off and took a few minutes to enjoy the view.

Sometimes, I end up out at night because I have no other choice.  If you live in northern regions and work traditional hours, it's plenty dark when you leave work.  The other night I went for a ski on our local trails after work.  It was a beautiful night and really dark with no moon visible through the clouds.  I could actually hear the wolves howling here at the Center as I began to cross a marsh.  Then I caught two eyes in my headlamp.  They were brilliant and I couldn't take my eyes off them.  Suddenly, I heard a noise and caught one more eye bounding off into the woods.  Deer.  I spent the next few minutes in a stare-down with the one that didn't move.  I snorted at it, stomped my skis and did my awful impersonation of a deer wheeze.  It wouldn't move.  Finally, I decided it won the contest and moved on with my ski.  I finished my ski and once again felt fortunate to have had the chance encounter in the woods at night.

As we strive to learn more about the natural world and wolves' connection to it, I believe it is important to experience it in as many ways as possible.  Moving through the woods at night I can't help but think about the wolves that are moving through them too.