Even in the coldest of winter, getting outside is a possibility and, for some, a necessity. Curling up inside is appealing, but after a time I must go out and “get the stink out”. And this time of year, it often means at night. Outside adventures at night are a choice made more from practicality than anything else. Even though we have surpassed the longest night of the year, dark still comes early in winter. To do anything outside after the responsibilities of the day, I’ve grown okay with, and even enjoy, being out at night.
On these nights, we head out after dinner, snowshoes or skis strapped to our feet to trop through the snow covered landscape. These adventures are a time to move the body and nourish the soul. Headlamps, and if we are fortunate sometimes the moon, light the way. The untouched snow glitters like a million fireflies when the lights catch it just right. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a glitter too. Is it eye shine? Just as the light reflects off ice crystals on top of the snow, light reflects off an extra lens in some animal eyes. This layer, the tapetum lucidum, helps them see better in the dark.
The occasional reflections I catch are not from animals but from snow piled up on any available surface- bushes, branches, stumps, leaves. But it does makes me consider who else might be out here too. The night quiet makes me feel we are alone. That is probably true in regards to other humans. No cars in the parking lot. No whine of snowmobiles. However, the constant crunch and shuffle of our movements mask the softer, more subtle sounds of the animal world. Who else is in the woods just out of reach of the circle of our light? Who belongs to this snowy, dark world?
What tree holds the owl, listening and watching for its food to scurry through the snow below? Animals have been out, that is certain. A blank canvas, the snow reveals these things. Tiny tracks alongside the trail tell of the presence of mice. But snow can also cover up. The tiny ribbon-like trail disappears down a half inch hole. A door to a world under the snow. The mouse may not be visible to us but the owl can still find it. A keen sense of hearing allows the owl to sense the nocturnal movements of small mammals under the snow. What will happen in this space after we pass by?
Two green eyes pop out from the woods. I am surprised but not afraid. They are the dog, following scents unknown to us. Bounding through snow, choosing her own route, she is the very manifestation of freedom and joy in this night landscape. Also loyalty, I think, as she comes back to check on us -her “pack”- every so often. I wonder if she smells her wild relatives that may be roaming the edge of the field. A line of paw prints crosses our trail in a straight line from forest to field. A coyote or fox, I can’t determine, was very deliberate in their travels. Conserving, rather than burning off energy. A clear difference between the wild and domesticated canine.
Further along a porcupine had crossed the trail. Its short legs can’t get its prickly body above the deep snow so it leaves a trench plowed through the snow with waddling footprints inside. This trench is almost always here. It must be a regular route. I am tempted to follow the tracks to see if they lead to a tree, where the porcupine has chosen to spend the night, but we move on.
While not naturally nocturnal, I glory in these night adventures. Especially when skies are clear. Though the clouds keep in some of earth’s heat, their absence allows the stars and moon to be seen. An opening in the tree canopy is a window to the universe. The sight invokes wonder at where we are in this moment, this forest, this planet, among so many other celestial bodies.
I can’t deny I look forward to returning inside, shedding outer layers and putting my feet up in front of the fire. I look forward to sunny days and warmer weather. But there is something secretive and special about being out at a time when many others are in. So for now, I go outside. I give thanks to be able to use my body. To feel my leg muscles propel me forward in the snow, and the cold air fill up my lungs. I am grateful to have company to lessen those fears that only emerge after dark. And to bear witness to the life still going on around me in these frequently unloved times.
The dark and the winter lasts but for a short time. The Earth will rotate us back to face the sun. But while we are faced away we all must continue to live. Is there a way to find joy in the cold and darkness too?
Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.