Hot breath perfumes single-digit air as a small, single file line of students, families and locals left the Whitehouse Nature Center and looked onto the trail, laden with snow. Peering out at the rising bare trees jutting out tight, we stepped in. No lights were there to guide us, only mittens and boots — just ourselves and the wild.
Only moments before, we were making our way up the dirt path, the lights of the nature center breaking the deep darkness and inviting us in. Greeted with the open arms of Director Dave Green, we huddled around him like a campfire, coats still zipped on as he told tales of creatures of the night and the hike we were about to embark on.
Whispers lingered as we stepped onto a bridge branching across a black-watered river rimmed with white. Green’s voice broke the silence, recounting sightings and splendors found along and within the water. Then we moved on, hushed by the crunching of snow and the awe of this strange, wonderful, alien world we were treading on.
Soon the last lights of Albion twinkled out as the moon shone down with a crescent smile, illuminating the snowy trail beneath us. The wind spoke in ways we had never heard; the creaks of the trees sang.
The hike continued like this, broken by a few whispers, Green’s vibrant demonstrations and tales, a few chuckles, then silence as we gaze with open mouths. Occasionally, Green’s owl calls – “Who cooks for you, who cooks for us all?” the call seems to say – rifle through the air. Behind, a few of us called with him.
Then, after a sparkling demonstration on triboluminescence — when breaking chemical bonds creates light — with Wint O Green Mints, hushed excitement falls over us as a silhouette of sharp feathers lands on a branch not fifty feet away, answering Green’s call. Another mimic and it flies even closer. Then, it answers back and continues to do so even as we breathlessly leave the pine trees for the inviting lights of the nature center that have again come into view.
Green is like a mythical character. He can hold his breath for thirty minutes, knock down trees and poke his entire head through a circle his finger and thumb make. If this sounds impossible, go on a night hike with him.
Unfortunately, walking in the woods past sunset summons fears in many.
“A lot of times when people think of going out into the woods at night,” Green said, “they think about some of the movies and shows that they’ve seen that always portray the outdoors at night in a negative light.”
But how else can you hear frogs and toads chirp and croak in choruses? Or see nocturnal insects scuttle among leave? Or stumble across glowing fungus? And, of course, see and hear an owl? Nothing can compare to it once witnessed in person.
It is a different landscape at night and a different world that draws people into a night hike. Devoid of humanity and artificial light, one is left only to the darkness, their senses and the stark beauty of bark and grass. “During the day, you pass up a lot of these things without even knowing it,” Green said. “But at night, the darkness causes you to slow down a bit.”
On March 18 from 8:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. or April 20 from 9:00 p.m. 10:30 p.m., you should perhaps take a break and slow down from the college grind, and immerse yourself in the magic that has been six years running.
Photo by Clare Kolenda