I wasn’t always a fan of hiking at night. In fact, for most of my childhood and early adult years, I’d grow skittish when I found myself in the outdoors after dark, whether I was by a campfire or sitting on the back porch listening to Supertramp on my Walkman. I was part of that generation who were undoubtedly scarred by the nighttime encounter between Scout and Boo Radley in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. Shadows cast by swaying trees in the evening never failed to bring out the wuss in me.
I was cured of my nocturnal nervousness in my late 20s while on a camping trip to Bruce Peninsula National Park on the shores of Georgian Bay. A hiking buddy, after his third lukewarm Budweiser, had wandered away from our campsite to answer the call of nature and I was urged to track him down when he failed to reappear. Finding Mike wasn’t difficult. With flashlight in hand, I simply followed the Cyprus Lake Trail which we’d hiked earlier that day, and there he was, standing at the edge of the water, peering upward into the skies. I joined my pal and instinctively killed the light. We were instantly plunged into total darkness – and into the utter beauty of the night.
There above us, the Milky Way, an Imax-worthy tapestry of bright, clear stars that stretched into eternity. The northern part of the Bruce Peninsula is known for having some of the darkest skies in Ontario, which of course makes it ideal for stargazing. But, the longer we stood there, the more I was drawn to the sights and sounds that were closer to ground. Scores of fireflies darted about the trees – a nighttime magic that evaporated the second the flashlight was flipped back on. And I became more keenly aware of movement in the shadows, and of sounds. Owls and loons echoed across the lake. Serenading frogs competed with a chorus of crickets. And there was rustling in the nearby vegetation. Deer? Foxes? Porcupine? Retracing our steps back to camp, we were stopped short by a string of twin lights on the path in front of us. Curiosity got the best of Mike. A flick of his Bic lighter revealed a veritable campfest of raccoons: a mama and her four babies staring back at us. At that very moment, a fox, nose to the ground, loped across my peripheral vision.
Under the cover of night, I discovered, hikers can spot all manner of creatures that elude humans in daylight. I established a set pattern the following month in Algonquin Park: Either solo or with friends, I’d hike a trail in the daytime, mindful of uneven or rocky patches, taking note of larger trees and land formations that would become my wayfinders at night, and I’d set out on the same route once dusk set in with headlamp (always set to the lowest brightness) firmly in place. I’d hike slowly and sure-footedly, step after step, hour after hour, without visual distractions or conversation.
With vision diminished at night, other senses are heightened. My nostrils picked up the strong, musky odour of a moose at Arrowhead Provincial Park on one nighttime hike minutes before I could make out its hulking form at the edge of a lake. I also became aware of animal sounds that weren’t part of my daytime soundtrack: hoots, screeches, shrieks, barks and low growls. “Those are just the sounds of nature’s creatures feuding and feeding and fornicating,” one seasoned night hiker explained to me.
One of my most memorable night hikes was along a 15-kilometre section of the Meseta, the expansive flat plains of central Spain that form part of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the ancient pilgrimage route. My iPhone registered 2 a.m. as I set out – intent on avoiding the burning sun and chatty pilgrims – and hiked alone in complete darkness until dawn, accompanied only by the rhythmic tapping of my trekking poles and a chorus of cicadas. I felt an incredible connection to the natural world around me.
Admittedly, we’re a strange breed, those of us who hike at night. There’s something almost voyeuristic about nocturnal peeping toms who spy on flora and fauna under the cover of darkness. I recall the time a fellow enthusiast shook me out of my hammock in Algonquin Park declaring she wanted to show me “Sticky Cockle.” Puzzled (and suddenly shy), I followed her along a darkened trail through the forest until we reached a meadow where she stopped and shone her headlamp on the ground, highlighting a beautiful white flower. More popularly known by its giggle-inducing lay term Sticky Cockle, the night-flowering catchfly is a rarity in that it blooms after sunset and closes its petals at dawn.
Clearly, Mother Nature reserves some treasures exclusively for those who brave the dark.