Here’s the question. If you’re blessed to be working from home these days, how do you get out of the house and go on a daily hike — especially this time of year, when the days are so short?
There are two possible answers. You can go on an early morning hike, before work. Or…you can strap on a headlight and go on a night hike! Yep. That’s a thing.
Before I dish the secrets and mysteries of night hiking, let me begrudgingly extoll the glories of mornings.
You see, I hate mornings. Always have. I’ve been a night owl since I was a kid. But with precious few opportunities to get out of the house during these times, I’ve been setting the dreaded alarm and pulling myself up out of bed at the crack of dawn and venturing into nature. It’s been rewarding.
The hard part is not pressing snooze more than twice. What forces you out of bed is FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out — and knowing that you’re going to thank yourself when the hike is over. You’re going to feel like a million bucks. You’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something, even before the workday has begun. A morning hike may not necessarily “make the day”…but it certainly puts the day on an excellent footing.
Pro tip: It helps to live in the most beautiful place in the world, Leelanau County. Even your drive to your favorite morning hike can be breathtaking. As you reach the top of a hill and spot Lake Michigan in the distance, with the sun rising over the snow-carpeted cherry orchards, you wonder “Is this real?”
If you’re lucky, the earth will be a palace of frost. Discovering mornings has made me realize that frost is one of nature's masterpieces. Branches and fences and everything sparkles with a trillion diamonds before the sun climbs high enough to burn it all up. It’s an ephemeral phenomenon to which you are privy, on the right day, at the right time.
Keep your eye on the clock; you gotta be back home before your workday starts! But if you pressed snooze three times, and now you’re crunched for time…that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it means you’ll have to pick up the pace during your hike and maybe jog for part of it, and your body will get the workout it’s been craving. I hate running almost as much as I hate mornings. But the fear of being late for work makes me run like a gazelle – heedless of the danger of slipping on the packed-down snow. I bob and weave, navigating roots and rocks and downed trees. It feels like I’m mountain-biking. (Speaking of mountain biking, I recently walked the fabulous new mountain biking trail at Palmer Woods...but that's another blog post.)
I start the morning hike wearing three or four layers. Ten minutes in, I’m tying my coat around my waist and stuffing my hat into a pocket. Your body heats up fast when you’re moving. It could be 20 degrees outside, and you’ll feel like it’s 60.
In short, morning hikes almost justify the existence of mornings.
But what if you're so cozy in your bed, with your snuggly blankets, and with the peacefulness of snow falling outside your window, that you just can't bring yourself to get outdoors before work? And yet you’re still needing to get out of the house and get some exercise that day?
Aha! I have a solution for you. I’m pretty sure I invented it, actually. (Some googling tells me I didn’t. Darn it!)
As the days grew shorter this autumn, I had a “wonderful, awful idea,” to quote Dr. Suess. What if I borrowed my friend’s InnoGear LED Headlight and explored a familiar trail in the dark? Would it seem totally different? Would I feel like I’m on the surface of the moon? Would I hear strange animal noises? Would it be spooky, exciting, adventurous? Ah, adventure! That’s something we could really use nowadays.
My friend raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
I know my favorite trails like the back of my hand. It’s muscle memory at this point. The headlight could die on a moonless night, and my legs would guide me back to the trailhead.
“Yes. I’m sure.”
The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is open 24 hours. However, I felt uncomfortable doing my first night hike at a spot where a park ranger might have to come rescue me, so I chose a Leelanau Conservancy hike. That way, no one would have to come rescue me! Well, maybe my eyebrow-raising friend would, if only to retrieve his headlight. I did tell him which trail I would be at that night. By the way, telling a friend where you’re hiking is always a good idea. You never know…
When I started on the trail, the first thing I saw was a pair of glowing eyes reflecting off the beam of my headlight, like something from a Disney cartoon of a forest at night. A deer, I assumed. Hopefully, it wasn’t Dogman (the Bigfoot of Northern Michigan lore). My heart pounding, I walked slowly forward. I scanned the landscape and saw more eyes. A dozen deer were creeping almost noiselessly away from me, taking care not to step on a twig or anything that would draw attention. I didn’t know deer could be that stealthy! When you encounter deer during a day hike, they freeze, and then they leap and run. At night, they were tip-toeing. No leaping. No running. Sneaking.
Only being able to see via the scope of the headlight reminded me of night diving in the ocean, something I did years ago. There could be a monster behind you, or to your right, or to your left. All you know is what’s in front of you.
I was on high alert. This was turning out to be as uncanny and exciting as I’d hoped it would be.
As I glanced from side to side, shadows shifted. Barren branches take on a gothic, grotesque quality when met with garish LED light. I listened carefully. The creaking of half-fallen trees leaning on still-standing trees sounded almost human — a whine, a moan. Every little noise, or hint of a noise, made my muscles tense up. When I reached the Lake Michigan overlook, I aimed my headlight down into the rocky shore, and the patterns of light and water were mesmerizing. It was the coast like I’d never seen it before.
On my return to the trailhead, there was that instantly unmistakable sound: coyotes. Chattering, cooing, whinnying softly. It was different from the familiar hooting and yipping with which I’m familiar from many a Northern Michigan evening. It was like they didn’t know I was there, and they were talking amongst themselves, sharing private information and strategies. The noises were so alien, so bizarre. I quickened my pace, yearning for the trailhead and my car. Were the noises getting closer? They seemed to be. I let out a guttural grunt (something I do in the forest whenever my spidey sense starts pinging). The noises stopped. Silence. They were aware of my presence now. Was the silence a good thing, or a bad thing? At least when the coyotes were vocalizing, I knew where they were!
I reached my car, jumped in, and slammed the door. Whew. That was…awesome!
Whether taking in the wholesome splendor of a wintry morning landscape or reveling in the strangeness of a darkened forest, there’s never a wrong time to be out in nature. Your day always has space for it.