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My first experience hiking in the dark was in the 6th grade, at camp. To say I did not enjoy the experience is putting it lightly. In fact, the whole experience frightened me to the point that I vowed to hike only during well-lit times of the day from then on.
For those of you never fortunate enough to “experience” something like this in your own childhood. let me give you the rundown on how it works. Take a group of kids, hike out into the middle of nowhere, sit in a circle, tell ghost stories and tales of wild animals for an hour, then one by one release them to walk half a mile down a trail without a light so they can “better appreciate nature.”
I admit it. I got 20 yards down the trail before imagination and irrational fear took over. I swore I was being stalked by a wild animal. Rather than go back to the group, admitting apprehension, I sat down, faked an ankle injury and waited for the next kid, who looked just as happy to see me.
That experience, combined with my realization I was farther down the food chain than I had thought (we really need to stop putting those food chain diagrams in science textbooks with man at the top) led me to a life content with avoiding any type of hiking that involved me, wilderness and the dark.
That is, until I got into landscape photography.
Funny, but the good lighting is mostly available right before it gets dark, or right after it has been dark. Photographing anything original from a location other than a roadside viewpoint requires hiking, in the dark, to or from your location.
I prefer neither hiking to a location in the dark nor from a location in the dark, and have come up with a few ways to help get myself through these experiences.
— Prayer. Praying that God will feed his beasts with something other than my untasty white flesh always makes me feel better. I even go as far as to add a clause that keeps me from even SEEING an animal. I figure there are plenty of wildlife photographers who need to have subjects to photograph. They can have my experiences.
— Light. A luxury I was not afforded in my elementary school years, light has a nice way of making you feel better. I use a headlamp and flashlight. DISCLAIMER! Lights with dim beams can have negative effects. There have been a few times where my light has illuminated a set of glowing eyeballs staring me down from the forest. The dim beam does not allow me to discern the type of creature the eyes belong to. It is more than a little unnerving.
— Friends. I prefer to hike with groups of people I can outrun. That way if the food chain gets put into action, I’m not the first taken out.
— Spear. Yup, I hike with a walking stick/spear. The way I see it, if I do go down in a “When Animals Attack'” moment, I hope I taste good with that hole in your face, Mr. Bear.
If hiking at night didn’t have amazing rewards, no way would I continue to do it, but there’s something special about watching a sunrise or sunset from a location you have to yourself. One of the best hikes I’ve done was to the top of Brokeoff Peak in Lassen National Park to watch the sunset and the full moon. The hike gives you amazing views of the valley at sunset, and plenty of time to better understand nature on the three-mile hike down, which will be in the dark. Not only did I make it down in one piece, but I’m considering doing it again. If you’re really out of shape and slow, let me know. Maybe you can come with me.
Editor’s note: This a best-of column that was originally published September 24, 2008.
Brian Rueb is a north state writer, photographer and educator. Click here to see more of his photography.