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I’ve always been one to promote the therapeutic benefits of a walk in the woods, and while I spend a ridiculous amount of time doing just that, many folks tell me they don’t have enough time to spend tramping the woods. Between work, school and related peripheral events and responsibilities it is difficult to find a spare minute between dawn and dusk, even on weekends. With these folks I’d agree – your days are busy enough. So, why not go out at night?
Most people don’t realize that it is perfectly legal to be in the Maine woods after dark. Of course, other than night hunting for coyotes (with your $4 permit in hand) you can’t be out there with a firearm or bow, but no law says you can’t take a hike under the stars. Even better is when the moon is full. It’s so bright out there you can see without a flashlight!
Because my night vision is about as bad as it gets I wait till there is snow on the ground before I head out for a nighttime stroll. It’s easy to see logging trails, snowmobile trails and other established paths even in pitch dark. And, when walking along brooks or streams it is easy enough to find my way around by using game trails and the vague, open edge between the alders and the hardwoods.
One of the best things about night walking is that, by 9 p.m., most folks are done with their running around for the day. The roads are quiet, the barking dogs are in for the night and all is serene and peaceful out there.
I like to stop at a high point and just look and listen for a while. It’s a rare night when I don’t hear owls hooting in the distance or the high-pitched howl of a coyote. The night hunters are generally quiet but there’s enough noise out there to keep things interesting. If you’re lucky you’ll hear the squall of an unlucky hare being caught by a bobcat or fox, a blood-curdling sound that brings home the realities of life in nature. Eat or be eaten – a simple equation!
On a recent walk I was amazed at how active the woods were after sunset. I heard deer get up and start moving around on the crusty snow about 30 minutes past dark, some headed for the orchard, some headed for the cornfield across the road. Others walked slowly across the ridge above me, no doubt browsing on acorns and twigs.
I’d stopped by a small brook to make my obligatory cup of tea (it slows me down and warms me up!), and just as the water started to boil a gray fox ran past, glancing at me suspiciously as he trotted upstream and out of sight.
Below me was a large rock pile, perhaps left there since glacial times. I heard a familiar shuffling and whining that told me porcupines were getting ready to leave their den and head out of a night of munching on hemlock boughs. I could see two of them moving slowly along their dirt-paved trail to a hemlock stand near the top of the ridge. Some loud scratching on the bark of one of the hemlocks suggested that at least one porcupine had gotten there ahead of them.
In the distant swamp I heard the tell-tale scream of a fisher on the prowl. Big, bold and efficient, fishers don’t seem to care whether their prey hears them coming or not. I had a feeling the porcupines were going to have a visitor before the night was over. Not only can fishers climb trees as well as any squirrel, they are known to eat porcupines, too.
For a few minutes I heard a brief chorus of owls in the hardwoods at the point of the ridge. Great horned owls area already laying their eggs (in February?) which means they are likely to be very busy during these late winter nights. I am not sure what the discussion was about but perhaps they were deciding “whoo” was going to hunt and who was going to be stuck sitting on the egg. The decision was made in a hurry and the woods were quiet again for a few minutes.
I moved along up the brook and over the side of the ridge where the full moon shone as bright as day on the frozen snow. I picked a spot near an old clear-cut and waited to see what might happen.
After several minutes of pure silence I heard scratching on the crusted snow. Twenty yards away a red fox ambled by. He saw me instantly and swerved away, his raspy bark echoing through the valley for 20 minutes or more. He was likely more interested in finding a mate than in hunting the snowshoe hares that abounded in the clear-cut. First things first!
I sat for about 30 minutes, watching the stars fade away in the bright moonlight, and finally saw what I was looking for. Just at the edge of the clear-cut a “shadow” began moving from stump to stump, poking along at a slow pace but visiting every tender shoot and twig that wasn’t covered by ice or snow.
The hare was oblivious to me, and even with binoculars I could not see him clearly, just a ghostly shadow a shade darker than the snow beneath him. He spent close to 20 minutes feeding in the low brush, and I knew the place would be covered with tracks in the morning. It might look as if a dozen rabbits had been there, but all those tracks were left by one very busy hare.
Somewhere around 9 p.m. the woods quieted down and activity ceased. Most of the night critters get their work done quickly and then rest for a while before heading out again in the hours before dawn. Finding food is always a challenge and many times these night foragers come up empty.
On my way out of the shadowy woods I hear coyotes howling far in the distance. They’re still hungry, still working – it’s going to be a long night for them.
I feel fortunate to head for home where there is a warming wood stove, welcoming lights and food enough to last all winter.
If only the wild things could be so lucky!
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