Looking At Night In A Whole New Light
By Annette McGivney, BACKPACKER Southwest Editor, April 1997
It's not that I'm afraid of the nighttime, mind you. It's just that, like most humans, I'm not designed for nocturnal endeavors. Case in point: about five years ago my husband, Mike, and I planned to scare ourselves silly by spending Halloween night in rarely visited Haunted Canyon, deep within Arizona's Superstition Wilderness. We got caught in rush hour traffic, took more than a few wrong turns, and arrived at the trailhead with darkness descending. Determined to sleep in the eerily named chasm, we pulled out our flashlights and started hiking, the feeble columns of light barely illuminating the prickly pear and perilous drop-offs. As I listened to gravel tumbling into places I couldn't see, I became frighteningly aware of my limited sensory capabilities. Eventually we wandered onto a cattle path and then lost the trail completely. Branches grabbed at my pack and face, thorny bushes clawed my legs, and I felt clumsy and embarrassingly spooked. We finally set up camp amid a sea of cow pies 3 miles, we later discovered, from Haunted Canyon and our intended loop hike.
It was your classic night hiking mishap, one I'm sure almost every red-blooded, light-loving backpacker has experienced at one time or another. A backcountry walk in the dark is almost always unplanned, not much fun, more than a little awkward, and usually a tad scary. Even so, the more evenings I spent relegated to the confines of my campsite, listening to the wilderness come alive with the sounds of creatures that are quite comfortable with the night, the more I wondered what I was missing out there. We go to great lengths to negotiate other difficult environments, so you'd think we could also adapt to the night, right?
I decided to embark on a well-researched, strategically planned journey to the dark side.
Fear of the dark spans many cultures and thousands of years, according to anthropologists. Our ancient ancestors weren't at the top of the food chain and didn't want to become a midnight snack, so they probably stayed in evenings. Even Native Americans living in the Southwest desert, where lack of water and soaring
temperatures made daytime treks dangerous, historically have avoided night travel. The Hopi, for instance, "believe in ghosts and witches, and generally feel it's not a good idea to be out at night," says Miguel Vasquez, a cultural anthropologist at Northern Arizona University. "It's been that way for a long time."
If you aren't afraid of ghosts, there are other very real concerns, such as getting lost, stepping on a poisonous snake, or impaling yourself on a sharp branch or big cactus. While my imagination is pretty much untrainable, I figured the best way to keep myself clear of such corporeal hazards was to become more adept at finding clear paths through the seemingly impenetrable dark. And who better to offer such advice than Sharon Crawford, the reigning champion of night orienteering?
The objective of orienteering is simple: Use your navigational skills to zip through the backcountry and reach a
predetermined endpoint before other compass-wielders do. The question I had for Crawford was, why in the dark?
"It's fun to be out at night," she enthused. "Knowing you can successfully navigate at night gives you a whole new level of confidence. It's very rewarding."
Crawford does much of her nocturnal navigating with the aid of a headlamp, but she frequently turns it off to get a more far-reaching view of the landscape. "You can do a lot with starlight," she said, adding that you can stay on course by paying close attention to the topo map and following "big linear features" like a ridgeline or creek drainage. And yes, she's been lost plenty of times on moonless nights. The key is to stay calm and to get to an identifiable feature so you'll have a general idea of where you are on the map.
"People who aren't used to walking at night are intimidated, but they just need to get out and try it," she told me. "The night is an ally, not an enemy."
Despite Crawford's confident urging, I still wasn't ready to strike out on my own nighttime ramble. So I joined Mike Rabe, an Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist who specializes in bat research, for an evening in Coconino National Forest's Sycamore Canyon.
"People are spooked pretty easily when they're out at night," Rabe said as we sat in the dark next to a pond, waiting for bats to land in a net he'd set up. "You hear a sound and can't see what made it, so you get scared. A small rodent rooting around in the leaves can sound like a big, fat bear."
Rabe ventured into the uncommon discipline of bat research because he likes to look at the little buggers up close ("they're so cute, so odd, like creatures from Mars"), but he also clearly enjoys the backcountry at night.
"Did you hear that owl?" he asked on a velvety black, moonless evening. He picked up sounds that didn't register to my ears, which isn't surprising, since disembodied night noises are exactly what I've trained myself not to hear. Just moments earlier he'd pointed out how to distinguish various species of bats by the faint peeping of their sonar.
I didn't hear the owl and I can't say I found any of the bats Rabe snagged in his net to be cute, but I did realize I can learn a lot from nocturnally astute people like him. While I've been lying in my tent all these nights, reading a book and marveling at the long life of certain brands of headlamp batteries, human night crawlers are out exploring the backcountry, experiencing the many sights and sounds and smells I've been missing.
That did it. Empowered by my evening with the bat man and the lingering words of Sharon Crawford, I decided to take the plunge into the shady business of night hiking.
My first forays were tentative-short hikes near home through a densely wooded oak-and-juniper forest (ouch!), and down a dry creek bed (much easier). Finally, I worked up the confidence to try what I considered the ultimate in night hiking: an overnight in New Mexico's White Sands National Monument.
The night I arrived, the moon was full and brilliant in the soft black sky; so bright, in fact, that I could see my own shadow (like a hiking partner) as I postholed up steep slopes of sand. I pitched camp and set out exploring. Crisscrossing lines of rabbit tracks barely scratched the surface. Frozen condensation made the dunes glisten like far-off forested ski slopes dappled by the midday sun. I found myself squinting in the brilliantly reflected moonlight and anxiously looking back to make sure I could still see my tent, or my tracks. Despite the little moments of wonderment, I still felt awkward and out of place, like a desert tortoise in the middle of a rain forest. I turned around because something just wasn't clicking.
"If you want to see a different world," Rabe had told me, "you have to become nocturnal." Easy for the bat man to say, but the fact is, compared to owls and other nocturnal animals, most of us humans are decidedly disadvantaged when it comes to piercing the black curtain.
The eyes of mammals have two distinct types of nerve cells: rods and cones. Rods are highly sensitive to light and essential for night vision. Cones detect colors and allow the eye to focus. Since most mammals are creatures of the night, their eyes are loaded with rods and lacking in cones. This enables them to see in very low light situations, but they are usually color blind and don't have the 20/20 focused vision most humans possess.
We day-adapted humans have far more cones than rods. The light-sensitive nerve cells that we do have are clustered at the periphery of the retina, away from the cone-filled center that facilitates our regular, focused vision. Maybe it's some kind of evolutionary remnant, like the little toe that keeps getting smaller over the millennia because it doesn't get used, but humans do have traces of night vision. We can see in the dark, ever so slightly, out of the corners of our eyes.
With this in mind, two guys from Taos, New Mexico, decided to see if making better use of peripheral vision can make you a better night hiker. They attached a foot-long metal rod with a fluorescent bead on its end to the bill of a baseball cap. By staring at the bead while walking, they found they could essentially turn off their focused-sight capabilities and let their light-sensitive peripheral vision take over. Things were fuzzy and in shades of gray, but they could "see" just fine without a flashlight.
"One time there was no moon and the sky was completely overcast, but we had no problems," recalls Nelson Zink, a Taos psychotherapist and half of the duo. "There is always enough ambient light in the night sky to see."
Zink and partner Stephen Parks found that being in a peripheral state had other benefits. "Once people realize they can see in the dark, their fears of the night, and everything else, are relieved. Night walking alleviates anxieties," says Zink. "This kind of hiking allows you to become part of the night, not an alien. This isn't magic. Everything you need to travel at night is in your evolutionary roots. It's been a part of human physiology for a long time. All you have to do is use it."
None of which is news to bat man Rabe. After years of staying up late at night doing field research, he seems more comfortable in the dark than he does in the daylight. He can travel through the blackness of a ponderosa pine forest to find where bats roost in tree snags. He knows how to identify a deer by its bark and an elk by its snort. And in this age of instant gratification, he's developed the patience necessary to sit for hours in the dark, waiting and watching. Once in a while his patience is rewarded and a notoriously elusive animal, such as a mountain lion, will pay him a visit. "When it comes to seeing charismatic mega fauna, like bear and lion and bobcat and fox," says Rabe, "night is the time to be out there."
But there's more going on under the cloak of darkness. Mammals of all shapes and sizes are on the move, hunting, mating, even fighting. In various regions, cactus flowers bloom, snakes travel, toads sing, northern lights flash, wolves howl, and turtles migrate en masse from sea to land. The dark world we so often ignore is an ocean of activity and intrigue.
Rather than miss out, I decided to give it one more try, and I headed for the Sonoran Desert on a moonless night. The lush landscape of cactus, bird song, and sweet smells after a rain is one of my favorite places. Yet I've never hiked there at night, probably for fear of bumping into a cactus.
After dinner, I struck out on a trail that wound up toward a mountain pass. I was guided by starlight only, but the trail became increasingly visible as the miles flew by. I tried to fix my gaze on a particular star to better utilize my peripheral vision. It felt like I was driving a car, looking at the trail ahead rather than what was underfoot. My feet felt their way over rocks and across gullies without faltering.
My senses awakened in the night air and I saw the darkened desert in a whole new light. The starlight cast colorless shades across the landscape. The saguaro were towering silhouettes, like giants with outstretched arms. Creosote bushes were aromatic gray puffs, and the teddy bear cholla were luminous white, every sharp spine gleaming in the nearly undetectable light.
I didn't run into anything. I didn't stumble. The only time I used my flashlight was to read a sign at a trail junction. I walked through pockets of cold air followed by warm, then through the strong, musky odor of javelina. I was having fun. I was finally enjoying night hiking because at last I believed I could do it, that I could see in the dark.
Then I remembered that bumbling Haunted Canyon trek years ago and how flustered I was. I couldn't help but chuckle. You could say that back then, I was living in the dark ages.