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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

It's Only Natural

Acquainted with the Night

By Tamia Nelson

August 27, 2002

I have been one acquainted with the night….
Robert Frost

For most of us, the night is the foreign country nearest to home. Shunned by most "respectable" folks, it's the natural habitat of lovers and hunters. The lovers' fascination with the night needs no explanation, of course, but the hunters I'm thinking of aren't chubby gents in pumpkin-orange suits. Not at all. Nocturnal hunters are predators of an altogether different type: quiet, efficient non-human killers, hunters who must kill to live.

Love and death. Passion and slaughter. The night embraces both. It's a happening place.

Unfortunately, as most lovers soon discover, we humans aren't really creatures of the night. Take our eyes, for example. Not to put too fine a point on it, our eyes just don't have it. They're rich in color-sensing cones, to be sure, but they're poor in light-gathering rods, and they lack the amplifying reflective layer—the tapetum lucidum—that gives the eyes of cats, coyotes, and other nocturnal hunters their eerie shine.

So, no matter how proud we naked apes are of our daytime accomplishments, we're taking our chances when we venture out into the night. At best, after-hours ramblers risk getting lost. And at worst? A sharp branch driven into an eye, perhaps, or a fatal tumble over an unseen cliff, or even—in some places, at some times—an encounter with one of the few surviving predators large enough to consider a human being as a midnight snack.

Canoeists and kayakers face still more hazards. While a silent paddle along the margins of a calm, moonlit lake is always enchanting, even the easiest and most familiar rapids can be death traps in the night. It only takes one unseen sweeper or forgotten ledge to turn a carefree outing into a life and death struggle. But fortune is said to favor the brave, and careful, competent paddlers who become "acquainted with the night" will find untold rewards there, as well as many dangers.

Does the idea appeal to you? Then here's how to rig the odds in your favor.

Rule Number One (while all safety rules are equally important, this rule is first among equals for nocturnal paddlers): Stay off moving water. If you simply must explore a river by night, at least begin your odyssey by paddling upstream. It's harder to get swept over a falls that way. (Make sure you're well-insured, too. Your beneficiaries will thank you.) And even on flatwater, heed all the Good Advice offered to daytime paddlers. Don't venture out alone. Know your limitations. Pay attention to the weather. Wear your life jacket and dress for the water temperature.

You'll also need a reliable, waterproof flashlight or headlamp. In fact, the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea require that any "vessel under oars"—a category which apparently includes kayaks and canoes—"shall have ready at hand an electric torch or lighted lantern showing a white light which shall be exhibited in sufficient time to prevent collision." This requirement applies on inland waters, too, and it's embodied in most state and provincial navigation laws.

Don't imagine that you can light up the night with your little electric torch, however. It's primarily for letting other boaters know you're on the water. Keep a flashlight handy to alert speeding runabouts to your presence, by all means, but don't rely on it to help you see. For that, you'll have to make the most of your natural equipment. To begin with, give your eyes a chance to adapt to the night. Be patient. Half an hour is not too long. Dark adaptation takes time, and the older you are, the longer you'll need—and the less good the ultimate result, too. (Maximum pupil size diminishes with increasing age.) At least you'll save money on binoculars. By the time you've reached your fifth decade, a pair of 7x35s is every bit as good a "night glass" as a pair of heavy, expensive 7x50s.

Whatever your age, though, once your eyes are giving you all the help they can, protect your hard-won night vision. Don't stare at bright lights: even the glare from your flashlight can temporarily blind you. You can get red filters that purport to protect your night sight, of course, but despite their long use by professional mariners, these really aren't worth much. It's light intensity that does the damage, and it turns out that green light is better than red. If you must use a light, therefore—to read a map or chart, for example, or to make an entry in your log or journal—use the weakest beam that will serve. A green LED is ideal.

Remember that your flashlight beam can blind others, as well. If you're trying to warn another boater of your presence, do NOT shine a light directly in her eyes. And if you paddle near busy shipping lanes at night—it goes without saying that this is a Very Bad Idea!—please don't think you can wave a container ship or supertanker away from you with your flashlight. Even more than during daylight hours, the Gross Tonnage Rule applies: little boats must always get out of the way of big ones…or else.

In any case, whichever side of 50 you're on, trying to pierce the gloom of a moonless night with your eyes is an exercise in frustration. Don't give up and huddle by the fire, though. You've got other tools in your tool-box:

Dark night, that from the eye his function takes,
The ear more quick of apprehension makes;
Wherein it doth impair the seeing sense,
It pays the hearing double recompense.

Shakespeare's math may have been a little off, but the much-abused Hermia in Midsummer Night's Dream was on to something. Your ears come into their own after the sun goes down. The night is usually quieter than the day, and humid night air transmits sound very efficiently. So listen up! You'll be amazed at what your hear. The soft plash of a submerging beaver, the subtle plucking noise of feeding fish, the plop! of a flying squirrel landing at your feet, the rustle of a shrew shouldering his way through leaf litter in search of his next meal, the shrill squeak of an owl-caught mouse…. There's a lot going on in the shadows.

Want to extend your reach still further? You can boost your hearing with the sort of parabolic microphone used by birders—just as you can supercharge your night vision with an image intensifier. In most instances, however, the improvement simply isn't worth the extra cost, not to mention the added fussiness of batteries, wires, and variable gain controls. Electronic aids are worthwhile additions to specialist and professional gear, but they make little sense for the rest of us.

OK. Now you're all eyes (and all ears, too). What's there to see and hear?

Begin by looking up. Once you've left the city lights behind you, you'll discover thousands of stars that you didn't know existed. The night sky is the world's greatest free show, after all, and there's a new act on offer every evening. You don't need a telescope. All you need is a good guidebook and a little patience. Study your guidebook's star charts at home, and learn the landmarks of the heavens first. In the northern hemisphere, you'll want to begin with the Big and Little Dippers and the North Star, then continue on to Cassiopeia's chair, the Swan (or Northern Cross), the great square of Pegasus, Orion the Hunter, the Water Snake with its attendant Cup and Crow, the Lion with his Sickle, the Archer, and the Scorpion. That's just a start, but if you learn these few constellations, you'll soon be finding your way about the heavens with no more trouble than you negotiate the roads around your home. Binoculars add to the fun, but they're by no means necessary. The "wat'ry moon," the northern lights, the five nearest planets, the great meteor showers—all these and more are open to anyone with eyes to see them.

There will come a time when you've had enough of starry skies, though. You may even be oppressed by the vast emptiness of infinite space. That's when you'll start looking for something with a little more life to it. You won't have to look far. Just rest your paddle and drift quietly, or beach your boat and establish a "listening post" by the water's edge. Your ears will do the rest, bringing you the gabble of nearby geese, the wail of a loon, the snort of a startled whitetail deer, the hearty chewing of a hungry beaver, or even a chorus of coyotes on a distant ridge. There's more drama in a forest night than you'll find in any soap opera. Love and death. Hunter and hunted. Hunger and repletion. Keep your ears open, and within minutes you'll be tuned-in to everything that's going on.

Then, whenever the creatures of the night fall silent or the soundscape palls, shine your flashlight into the shallows beneath your boat. Perhaps you'll see the amber eyes of a foraging crayfish staring back at you. Now shut off the light and wait for your vision to return. If there's a moon, you may glimpse the silhouetted forms of bats snatching insects from the air over your head, or catch sight of a skunk digging for grubs in the soil exposed by a newly-fallen riverbank tree. You might even see an otter eating a fish on the floating tree-trunk itself.

These are only a few of the possibilities, of course. A night spent in watchful waiting is the best introduction to a secret world that most paddlers ignore. There's no reason why you have to join them in dreaming each evening away next to the fire, though. The wonders of the night are within the reach of nearly everyone. All it takes is patience, silence, and attention. Cultivate those simple habits and you, too, will soon be "one acquainted with the night." I think you'll find it's an acquaintance well worth cultivating.

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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