Adventure After Dark

When is the last time you looked at the stars? Although many of us venture outside on a regular basis to climb, hike, ski, and kayak, even the most intrepid explorers usually tuck into their sleeping bags when dusk falls. As a photographer and naturalist, I do not think that exploration should not end when the sun goes down. The world quiets down at night; nocturnal creatures emerge, and even the shortest walk can have an aura of adventure.

Although I have a slight fear of the dark, I have long been fascinated by the world at night. As a child, I used to take midnight walks in our backyard when it snowed. There was something magical about hiking in the dark forest, my footsteps muffled by the fresh powder. The air would hang still, and the moonlight would reflect off of the snow, making the world look like it was glowing. I’ve kept up this tradition, and I still find the same joy in these snowy, nighttime excursions.

When I started working as a photographer in the rain forests of South America, I took my night explorations to new heights. The forest, a tranquil sea of green in the daytime, came to life after dark. With the help of my headlamp, I found rainbow boas, monkey frogs, and mouse opossums, which had all been hidden when the sun was out. My fascination with nocturnal creatures even led me to go on collecting expeditions with a group of researchers studying insects. We set up blacklights and bed sheets in the dark forest, hoping to attract some of the spectacular insects that exist in the tropics. Within an hour, the sheets were covered in some of the most spectacular, jewel-like creatures you can imagine.

Although I always incorporate nighttime adventure in my travels abroad, I have also found nocturnal wonders close to home. I grew up visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with my family, but only recently learned of the astonishing displays of synchronous fireflies that occur there every summer. A good friend who works in the park agreed to take me out to see this spectacle. Sitting quietly in a dark valley, we watched as a few scattered fireflies began to blink. Within an hour, the entire forest was pulsing with light as thousands of tiny insects blinked together in a simultaneous glow. This natural festival of lights can be viewed each summer in Tennessee, the only place known to have synchronous fireflies other than Southeast Asia.

This summer, I discovered another nighttime marvel just off the coast of Virginia. On a summer trip out to the Chesapeake Bay, I took a midnight swim in the cool water, only to find it sparkling with the glow of dinoflagellates. When agitated by movement, the microscopic creatures emitted small sparks of light, making the water glitter in the dark. This spectacle, which can be found a few hours from Washington D.C., is reminiscent of Puerto Rico’s famed Bioluminescent Bay.

Apart from wildlife viewing, I enjoy kayaking and canoeing by moonlight on ponds or rivers I know well. A friend of mine goes sailing during full moons, enjoying the water when other ships have docked for the night. With safety (and the regulations of public lands) in mind, it is possible to explore many daytime outdoor activities at night.

The night is not just a time to refuel for the next day; it is an opportunity to extend our explorations. You can go on an adventure, or you can simply step out of your tent, look up, and fall into the vastness of the night sky. The stars provide that feeling of smallness that you usually only experience on the summit of a mountain or in a vast wilderness. Wherever you are on the planet, you will feel awed, and that is a feeling we all need once in a while.

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