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Winter Nights Woods Walking

Posted on 1/5/2023
by Dustin Clayton, Naturalist
If you haven't taken part in a winter nighttime hike before, 2023 is your year! Learn more about all of the beauty, wonder, and contemplation to be had underneath the starry winter sky from our newest Naturalist, Dustin:

How often have you hiked at night?

Lately, Pottawattamie Conservation's guided night hikes have been incredibly popular. It’s heartening to see so many fellow nature lovers gathered under the light of the full moon, or on a snowy stormy solstice night, or to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

Winter Nike Hike at Hitchcock Nature Center.
Hikers explore the evening winter woods during a guided full-moon hike at Hitchcock Nature Center in December.

One of the best things about winter and snowfall in the Iowa woods is the opportunity to walk through a landscape at once familiar and strange. The snow and starlight working together to veneer the once brown and barren hillsides in a sort of pearlescent glow that borders on the uncanny.

One of my favorite things in all the world is to walk, solitary, through these woods. Each moment offers an opportunity to drop my thoughts and preconceptions and just experience the vibrant world all around me.

Dustin overlooking Bulldozed Valley at Hitchcock Nature Center in December 2022.
Dustin contemplates the universe while gazing over Bulldozed Valley and surrounding woodlands at Hitchcock Nature Center.

How much more so whilst walking through a newly fallen snow?

And at night?

Even better.

All one’s senses align. The world is presented with such clarity that a barred owl calling two hillsides away can be heard as though nothing at all separates the two of you. Deer moving through the forest, graceful as water over stones, can almost be felt through the soles of the feet.

Maybe it’s that bit of fear that comes with walking at night; fear of the dark, of the unknown, of what lies just out of sight. I think that’s what does it. This fear is a relationship with the world as old as any that humans now possess. It served to keep our ancestors alert and aware of their surroundings. It is also, when viewed from the right perspective, a gift that the night offers us: A gateway into a sharp and visceral experience of the land which we inhabit and an opportunity to encounter the forest and prairie as living wild communities which are, unfortunately for most of us, just outside of our day-to-day experience.

Moonlight forested trail at night.
"Life begins at the end of your comfort zone." — Neale Donald Walsch

Slowly, we begin to adapt and acclimate ourselves to the elements and the environment. At this point the dark and the cold, the crunch of the snow, the smell of the nighttime breeze, and the night sounds of tree and wind and animal all combine to open the senses and the mind to a slightly different perception of reality. In this way, night hiking can be experienced as a contemplative practice.

Personally, I like this. It feels right to stand or walk in constant wonder at the world around us. To recognize in the strange twisting branches of an old bur oak silhouetted against a clear and starry sky, the same wild presence naturally inherent to all the living world.

A bur oak tree under a starry winter night.
A bur oak tree stands majestically underneath the starry night at Hitchcock Nature Center. Captured by Pottawattamie Conservation volunteer Monte Smith.

In a letter to a friend, J.R.R. Tolkien (a great lover of trees) once said,

“I know not a tree, but it is elf bright, and myth woven.”

Four seasons of a bur oak tree at Hitchcock Nature Center.
A bur oak tree portrait captured throughout the four seasons.

Can you picture that? The trees of the forest, bound and woven to human imagination through story. If nothing else, a bit of night hiking provides us with a chance to encounter the world in that old way.

I invite you to take a walk after dark at one of our county parks or your favorite wild place, by yourself or with a small group of friends, sometime soon. Endeavor to walk quietly, eyes, ears, and nose open. Keep your mind and your heart open as well.

See if you can discover what story the nighttime world has to tell you.

You can’t help but come away from the experience having felt something simultaneously new and incredibly old.


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