Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. The sun rose over the Keweenaw at 8:37 this morning and it will disappear behind the western horizon at 5:37 this evening, offering us a scant eight and a half hours of daylight.
Winter's short days and long nights are not a good reason to stay indoors, however, even on a weeknight - provided Heikki Lunta gets his act together. Mr. Lunta has a role to play here because a blanket of snow covering the landscape is necessary in order to experience the world of night hiking or - better yet - night snowshoeing or - as some prefer - night skiing.
On a night when the sky is overcast, lights from even the small villages of the Copper Country will project ambient light a fair distance into the forest. The white snow provides such stark contrast with the trunks of maples, with the dark patches of conifers, that the woods become quite navigable.
In town, the light comes from various sources in myriad colors: yellow porch lights on houses; harsh white lights under gas station canopies; red neon in tavern windows; yellow streetlights craning from the tops of electric poles; and (this time of year) multicolored lights on Christmas trees, snowflakes and Santa Clauses bolted high on the telephone poles along main street.
By the time this light reaches the forests on the edge of town, it's been ricocheted back and forth between the clouded sky and the snow-covered ground; it has scattered and recombined. In the woods, the light has achieved a quiet homogeneity. The sky is suffused with pale orchid light.
In this diffuse light, the forest takes on a wholly different character from its daytime appearance. It becomes abstracted into a narrow spectrum of warm gray tones. Perspective is diminished: a stand of tree trunks loses some of its three-dimensionality; solitary evergreens blend with the trees behind them into amorphous, shadowy shapes.
On nights when there are no clouds in the sky, the moon makes it possible to explore nighttime forests, including woodland remote from villages and their artificial lighting. On a clear night, a half moon will cast light enough to navigate a snow-covered forest.
In moonlight, the color spectrum narrows once again. This is a colder light. A bluish light. In moonlight trees stand out in striking relief from the snowy ground surrounding them. The lines of their trunks are accentuated. They cast sharp-edged shadows.
At night in winter, whether in the cast-off light of streetlights or the pale blue light of the moon, the woods have a new and subtle mystery.
This is good reason to hike at night, but also good reason to observe a few precautions: stay on familiar paths (the subtle mysteries of the night forest can make it a disorienting place) and carry along a flashlight or headlamp with extra batteries, just in case (if nothing else, these will make it easier to retrace your tracks in the snow to the place you started from).