Moonlight   4 comments

I have to say right here that I love hiking in the moonlight.  Also, cross-country skiing, canoeing or kayaking, mountain biking, and even riding horses under the moon.  Some of my most memorable hikes and ski trips have been lighted by the full moon.  I simply love being out in wild places at night, and when you can see it’s even better.  Last night I joined a group of hikers on a jaunt up to Angel’s Rest, a short steep climb that is the nearest hike in the Columbia River Gorge to Portland.

A near-full moon, here at the Vermilion Cliffs in Utah, does not mean you can’t see stars if the air is clear & skies are dark.

This was the first time I’ve done this in a long time, though last winter I did go skiing in the moonlight (image below).  It brought back great memories.  One of the best moonlight hikes I’ve ever done was on my first trip up to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.  I had hitchhiked up from Portland, planning to backpack up the Hoh River and into the alpine zone.  But I was too late to start the same day, and so I joined a small group of guys I had caught a ride with.  They were headed up to Hurricane Ridge, to camp (and party).  This ridge, which stands up above Port Angeles and Juan de Fuca Strait, is treeless on top and marks the north border of Olympic National Park.  It lies at over 5000 feet and extends for miles of open alpine and subalpine flowery meadows.

If you want a picture of the moon itself, it’s usually best to get it while it is partially lit rather than full.

Arriving after dark, soon the full moon had cleared the ridge.  We decided to go for a hike.  I was a little nervous, having never been there and not really knowing these rowdies.  But I went with the flow and I’m so glad I did.  It was truly spectacular hiking across the flower-filled meadows under the moon.  The moonlight was brighter than I ever remember, so we never switched our flashlights on.

But what makes this a strong memory even now was the incredible view.  You could see all the way north across the Straits to the mountains of Canada’s Vancouver Island, east to several huge snow-covered Cascade volcanoes, west to the rugged Pacific Coast, and south to the glaciated Olympic Range.  The snow- and ice-covered mountains shone with a beautiful silvery light I had never seen before (and have only rarely seen since).  We hiked until almost 3 a.m., then rolled our sleeping bags out on the meadow, not bothering with tents.  I dropped right off despite the bright moon in my face.

Another fantastic moonlight hiking experience took place some years later, when one of my favorite things to do was go backpacking to Mt Rainier National Park.  I would go up in the afternoon, and start hiking in a couple hours before sunset.  Then after hiking by headlamp for a couple more hours, I would camp near the trail.  In the morning I would have a jump on everyone, hiking in to off-trail alpine areas I know about in the Park.  This worked well since I usually had 3-day weekends then.

On one of these occasions I hiked toward a fantastic subalpine plateau called Grand Park, where I planned to camp.  As I approached the meadows, I saw the near-full moon shining on the grassy expanse.  I had heard elk bugling earlier, but I did not see any as I walked in to the meadows.  But suddenly a large bull stepped out from a clump of trees and bugled so loudly I felt my bones vibrating.  Talk about LOUD!  I respect elk on the rut, so I retreated.

When I peeked in again about a half hour later, I saw what must have been a hundred or more elk stretched out over Grand Park.  I walked on, hearing bugling from the far side but no bulls.  But I hadn’t gone far when I was challenged again, this time by an enormous bull who straddled the trail.   I actually could see the moonlight catching his eyes, and they looked mean and nasty.  I decided then to camp in the trees.  This place belonged to the elk tonight, and I obviously wasn’t invited to the party.

The hike last night up Angel’s Rest was not epic like those trips, but it was a gorgeous evening as we crested the bare rock ridge that makes up the summit.  You look straight down onto the Columbia River, and the view extends west downriver to Portland.  A beautiful sunset and perfectly clear evening were our reward as we snacked and snapped pictures.

Oregon’s highest peak, Mount Hood, stands under a winter’s blanket of snow, and a brilliant night sky. View is from the frozen Trillium Lake.

The moon was one day before full, which means it rose about an hour before sunset.  As many photographers know, this is the best time to include the full moon in landscape shots.  This is because as the moon rises and the sun begins to set, the illumination on the moon’s face can approximately match the light in the eastern sky, and on the landscape.  But it helps when the light is right and the foreground is fairly light-colored and reflective (as well as being interesting of course).  It takes a sharp eye to notice the moon is not quite full in the photo.  If you wait until the moon is full, it rises very close to sunset, so the sky and foreground are much too dark to roughly match the brightness of the moon.

This was not happening on Angel’s Rest, where the dark green Oregon forest contrasted too strongly with a moon that was too bright because of the incredibly clear atmosphere.  Of course I could have combined separate exposures later in the computer, but I find that rarely makes for both a natural and dramatic look.  I am always looking for the right scene to capture with a single image.

What a shame it would be to only enjoy our natural world in sunlight.  Being under the light of the moon lends everything a mysteriously beautiful glow.  And the animals who wait until nighttime to roam give you something to think about.  It gives a little edge to the hike when our most-dominant sense, our vision, is challenged.  We are really out of our element at night, and you are forced to quiet your mind and remind yourself that (with a few exceptions) you are the biggest and baddest animal out there.  And this is just as true at night as it is in daytime.

It is certainly wise to use your flashlight or headlamp if there is danger of tripping and hurting yourself.  But I advise avoiding it unless it’s absolutely necessary.  Using a light will ruin your night vision (unless you use a red light, and then it’s too dim to walk by anyway).  It takes about 30 minutes to get it back, during which time you won’t see nuances in the terrain.  Remember you don’t need to see perfectly to walk.  You begin to better feel the ground beneath your feet.

The unusual sensation of moving through the nightscape while allowing your other senses to take over, the challenge of keeping calm when you hear noises, and above all the incredible beauty of moonlit landscapes, this is what makes heading out when the sun goes down so worthwhile.

4 responses to “Moonlight

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  1. I am blown away! Loved the accompanying write-up too. Thank you! Sharon

  2. Reblogged this on Not only for the birds? and commented:
    Take a look at these stunning photos!

  3. Absolutely stunning photos – thanks for sharing!

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