26 December 2015

Forest Excursion - Night-time

I walked some of the same path as the previous post in the dark. Conditions were clear, starlight for illumination. The moon was half full and not yet up. Obviously, there are no photos, as they would not have looked like anything (or, if I used a long exposure, just more or less like an overcast day - this is occasionally surprising to people, as our perception of night is so different, but really it's exactly the same but darker).

First, some general thoughts. While I'm far from an experienced woodsman, this is land I grew up on, that I've walked countless times. I fumbled and lost my way occasionally, even on the path. Even on familiar ground, in a world with no monsters, it was a little unnerving traveling through the woods in the dark. I was glad to have a stout stick with me, silly as that sounds. I'm sure that unreasoned fear would fade if I often traveled by night, but I have grown city-soft from living in Toronto.

The quiet was overwhelming, especially for someone who's lived in the city for ten years. I could hear a leaf fall out to perhaps thirty yards. I could hear hunting dogs barking and howling that could not have been closer than a mile (for that's the nearest neighbour in that direction), and that were probably more like 3 or 4 miles away. I could hear branches break for hundreds of yards.

Once my eyes were adjusted, I could follow the path fairly easily, although I soon learned to keep my arm up to ward off the odd branch that hadn't been pruned back, and to use my walking stick to feel for obstacles. I was able to make a fairly normal pace, only straying from the path and getting caught in thickets a few times.

The denser pine forest, difficult terrain during the day, was impassable at night. During the day, it is noticeably dim under the pines. At night, it was completely dark. No starlight filtered through. Anything hiding in there would have been able to remain completely undetected without the slightest difficulty. I could have passed within ten feet of any number of unspeakable horrors, completely ignorant of their presence.

At one point, something dense and heavy fell from a tree near me with a dull thud. I have no idea what it was, it sounded like it weighed perhaps four pounds and was made of something the consistency of suet. Perhaps a small creature breathed its last breath and fell dead from a tree...

After the end of the path, in the more open deciduous forest, there was enough light to make my way fairly easily, although I don't think I could have sustained a normal pace without a fairly high probability of wrecking my ankle. If I was navigating, the stars were visible, as would be the moon (if it was up), but that was only the case because it was autumn and half the leaves were down.  In the summer, the cover is about 70%, and getting a good view of the stars would be pretty much impossible. The silence was worth noting again - I could easily hear a twig snap, or a small creature moving a hundred yards away or more. I could see dimly about forty yards, it felt like, although movement would probably have been visible a little further away.

And silent movement was completely impossible. Anything within several hundred yards or more that was listening would have been well aware of my progress. The ground cover was dead leaves that rustled with the slightest movement, and it was impossible to take more than a couple steps without crunching a twig or branch. Lest you think "oh, just don't step on them", firstly, you cannot see them, and secondly, sometimes they are beneath the leaves and cannot be seen even in daylight. Branches and small bushes, invisible until it was too late, were constantly getting in my way and rustling or snapping.

An ambush would have been trivial. Concealment wouldn't even be necessary, merely crouching at the base of a tree and remaining very still would hide you until I got within probably ten yards or less - you would just blend in with the tree.

When I turned around to head back for the path, I immediately lost my way. I hadn't gone very far from the end of the path - perhaps a hundred yards - but I couldn't find my may back. I stumbled around, getting caught in thickets, and making an ungodly ruckus for maybe ten minutes before finding the path back into the denser woods.

Back on the path, as an experiment, I used my cell phone screen to approximate a torch for a bit. The light was definitely comforting, although also a little unnerving. In addition to making noise announcing my presence, I was now also waving a huge sign saying "HERE I AM". It didn't really improve the distance I could see, although it made it much easier going - I could step without fear of hurting my ankle. Obviously, it also made me nightblind and totally dependent on it. When I put it out, I could see nothing, where before I could see dim shapes.

All in all, I covered almost exactly a mile in about half an hour, mostly using a path, over familiar terrain, under starlight, stopping occasionally to listen around me. I achieved about 60% of normal walking speed under fairly ideal conditions (it wasn't overcast, it wasn't muddy or raining, no wind, comfortable shoes, well rested and well fed, confident that there are no monsters). The only possible improvement would have been to have a strong moon.

If I had been on unfamiliar ground, without a path, I would have made far, far worse time. I can't imagine I could have managed a half kilometre in a straight line in those 30 minutes I was out. In all likelihood, I would simply have ended up lost and bumbling from thicket to thicket.


  1. I did a lot of this once upon a time when I had access to the great outdoors and a deep interest in amateur astronomy. Froze my butt off in summer many a night for hours picking out galaxies and clusters with a telescope.

    Sobering, is it not? Knowing how vulnerable the outdoors makes us? As a fellow Canadian, Charles, you know we carry an inbred distrust for the outdoors. Northrop Frye argued that this is central to the national mindset. While Americans conceive the wilderness as something to be conquered (it's warmer there and that gives a longer season for conquest), we know better. Our wilderness is not the sort one trusts or takes lightly.

    1. I didn't know that about you, Alexis, that's neat! Sounds like a good way to spend a night.

      And it's indeed sobering. There's no sympathy, no kindness in the outdoors.