Winter solstice passed a few days before Christmas, almost at the same time that the moon was in perigee—the closest it gets to earth during each orbit. At perigee the moon appears to be some 12 to 14 percent larger than usual. Winter solstice is the unofficial start of our regular night runs on Wednesdays. As others are sitting down to dinner, we are looking for lights, gloves, and fanny packs.
This particular evening, we had left the house about thirty minutes before dark to get into the woods to a trail on the easterly side of the mountain. Frost from two mornings ago still sparkled in shady areas. We crunched along the trail, running upward toward a meadow crossing, checking watches frequently. Stop, I whispered, we’ll wait here. How soon? Soon.
We had barely got still when the show started. The top of the rising moon was almost red as it caught the setting sun’s last rays. The shadows that had run from the sun not an hour ago were now being reborn by the moon. The moon’s shadows—always magical, even more so in the woods—would let us run without flashlights for a while.
We started up the trail and turned onto the first forestry road, striding our way through pools of moonlight. The thickly wooded forest would hide the moon on the trails, keeping it dark away from the road. So we ran on the open road for a few miles, before finally deciding to turn off down one of the trails. We stopped then. It was time to go to work. We had to decide what to start using.
We each had on a headlight; each had a flashlight in a sheath on the fanny pack belt. I had two more headlights and several more flashlights in my backpack. The early sunsets give us time to do night runs without staying up all night. The night runs give us time to test all the new things we might need for later in the year night races. Kathy had a green 3-LED to try; I was trying a hand-held with green LEDs too (but with the choice of 4 or 10 LEDs lighted) and a new headlight.
We had finally become comfortable running with our headlights after those first runs when we took turns blinding each other before we got used to the idea that you don’t turn to look at the person you are talking to—unless you turn your light off first. Headlights are also great for seeing things that aren’t on the trails. You hear a noise, you turn to look directly at—wow, look at all the eyes starring back at you. The record (held by Kathy) is finding five pairs of eyes belonging to a family of raccoons crossing the road.
We turned on the hand-helds and started down the trail. I was switching back and forth from 4 to 10 lights, headlight on, headlight off, just doing some serious evaluation when I ran into Kathy. Why are you stopped? I hear something. Is it big? I don’t know. I turn off my lights. What are you doing? I hear better in the dark. Turn the light back on. Look, over there (as if I can see which way she is pointing). No, over there (see, I told you).
Bobcat? Bobcat! Wow. A glimpse of something spotted and short-tailed is all we get. Gone, I say calmly. All gone. We listen and hear nothing but our wildly erratic breathing. We adjust things; I change to a single bulb blue-white hand-held, turn the headlight from bright to medium, and we head on down to a well-used creek crossing.
At the creek crossing, we can see several sets of footprints: deer, elk, raccoon, and a largish one we pause over. In our woods there are two things you should recognize: poisonoak and …
Cougar? I think so. You want me to pretend I can tell how long ago it passed through here? Maybe feel the print for warmth or something? It is about the same size as my hand. It is on top of one of the deer hoof prints.
We start up the trail away from the creek, reciting all the things we know about cougars, mountain lions, panthers, catamounts, pumas, and woolly mammoths (just in case). We can hear our heartbeats above our footsteps as we move. You always remember the wrong thing. I point out that they are predators, that predators are stealthy; therefore, we won’t hear one if it is stalking us. Oops, that didn’t help.
We run up the other hillside, undoubtedly the fastest we have ever run getting up that stretch, back onto the road, and pause to catch our breath. We assume we’ve left the cougar, or whatever, far below. We decide which way to go and start on around the mountain to the next cross-trail back to the other side. I change to my dual-bulb headlight because it has a light-up-the-sky switch and get the new flashlight back out. Of course, the green LEDs lead to the question of which lights would a cougar see better: the white, blue-white, or green?
About two-hundred yards later, we both hear something moving through the brush just uphill from the road—recalling the won’t-hear-the-predator theory—a remarkable calm is exhibited as we shine the lights on the hillside. Another first for us, a small porcupine comes meandering through the brush. We laugh, watch it for a minute or two, and then, just as we are about to start running again, we hear something big just down from the edge of the road. Big? Sounded big. Yes. How many lights are in the backpack? Two more headlights and three hand-helds. Get ‘em out. All of them? Yes.
Imaginations are strange things to have with you in the woods. We have often wondered what the animals in that part of the forest thought about us as we passed through the night. Two strange creatures with eyes that light up the road both frontward and rearward, and in their paws, eyes on both sides too. One green one, one white one. It was just after solstice on the night of the full moon …
Run gently out there.