Only By Moonlight

Date January 31, 2007 at 11:00 PM

Categories Outdoors & Recreation

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“Light is overrated,” declared Geoff Goins, General Manager of Enchanted Forest Cross-Country Ski Area. I agreed with him, and asked another question, but my mind raced back in time to when I first discovered the joy of being outdoors after dark.

Back in 1986–spring semester, second year of college–several inches of snow had piled up during the holiday break. Returning students were greeted by a nostalgic scene fit for sleigh bells, new birds and Parson Brown.

It was almost midnight when I heard the knock. He stood in the doorway wearing his clunky Sorel boots and that old fitted wool hat I hated. A half grin and the way he twirled the keys to the outdoor program building let me know I was in for a challenge.

My first crush in college–a shy outdoor enthusiast who was not aware of his romantic charm–fitted me with cross-country ski gear. Ours was a whirlwind of passion, insanity, and adventure, and this night was another reason for my infatuation.

Soon I was standing tall on skinny skis, the baseball field like a white blanket stretched out before me. Off in the distance I could see snow-covered roof tops and the campus twinkled with light.

While roommates slept, I learned the basics of the diagonal stride. I found the rhythm in it–step, glide. The only sound was my quick breathing and the soft swish of skis over crisp powder. I remember the sky clearing slightly and a faint gleam of moonlight escaped from the clouds to spread across my tracks.

More than 20 years later, I have graduated from ball field to the high mountain trails of northern New Mexico. That spontaneous love of my youth is now just a ghost that skis beside me on winter nights.

Although Thoreau wrote of walking, not skiing, I like how he described his experience in Night and Moonlight. “Chancing to take a memorable walk by moonlight some years ago, I resolved to take more such walks, and make acquaintance with another side of nature: I have done so.”

And I have done so. Now the instigator, I persuade friends or my sweetheart into the backcountry with stories of snowy forest roads illuminated by moonlight and promises of homemade chai and chocolate.

Imagine gliding under a spruce-fir canopy to San Antonio Hot Springs, or across the Valles Caldera, a collapsed volcano, millions of years old, or down from Tesuque Peak through dense stands of leafless Aspen. It is magical–at night with only moonlight and millions of stars.

The wind rustles, a tree branch snaps, the faint penetrating hoot of an owl interrupts the silence. Rocks and trees appear as apparitions in the dark forest. Familiar sounds resonate differently and your senses become more attuned with nature.

Because of flat light, you lose depth perception, making it hard to see the dips and bumps. While slightly unsettling, you feel it instead. Goins offered some good advice. “Relax. Your brain knows how to balance and react, let it do its job.”

But before trying this at night, take a lesson during the day. A progression of exercises can transform walking on toothpicks to that elongated sliding motion of the classic stride. The Learn to Ski Package at Enchanted Forest includes instruction, a day-pass, and equipment.

Another way to get more comfortable on your skis is through a local club such as the New Mexico Cross-Country Ski Club (NMCCSC) or the Southwest Nordic Ski Club (SWNSKI). NMCCSC offers instruction, informational programs, and local day trips, and SWNSKI offers occasional ski clinics and moonlight ski outings, as well as 8 kilometers of Nordic trails just north of Pajarito Ski Area.

If you are an accomplished beginner, you can catch the last moonlight ski tour of the season at Enchanted Forest on March 3rd at 7 p.m. No lights, just the moon. Guides lead you over 5-6 kilometers of meandering forest trail, then it is back to the lodge for cookies and storytelling.

The Valles Caldera, just west of Los Alamos in the Jemez Mountains, is a bowl-like crater of a volcano that imploded millions of years ago. Today the old ranch property is being developed as public land and the national preserve has set aside dates for Moonlight and Dark Night Skiing. The events cost $15 (no guide) and run from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. on February 3rd and March 3rd (Moonlight) and February 17th and March 17th (Dark Night).

While Goins said that the moon shines 13 percent as bright as the sun, the waxing and waning cycles will impact your outing. Barring any clouds, the new moon is darkest of course and you will need a strong headlamp. With a little research, you can time your night ski to maximize the moonlight.

Go to www.timeanddate.com. Click on World Clock, then click on Search and input the town. Scroll down to Moon and click on Finding rising and setting times for other dates. Modify the parameters to show the month of your planned outing to find moon cycles and moonrise.

For instance, in February the moon is full on the 1st and the days before and after will be relatively bright (the charts provide percent of illumination for each day). This particular full moon rises at 5:08 p.m. and Guy Miller with NMCCSC suggests adding 6-8 hours to make a departure time (midnight) that will give the moon time to rise above the Sangre de Cristos.

Whether it is a romantic rendezvous with your beloved, a bonding adventure with friends, or a solitary trek to savor vacant trails and some stargazing, consider taking along a copy of Thoreau’s Night and Moonlight to read by headlamp.

“Night is certainly more novel and less profane than day. I soon discovered that I was acquainted only with its complexion; and as for the moon, I have seen her only as it were through a crevice in a shutter, occasionally. Why not walk [or ski] a little way in her light?”

SOME PRACTICAL TIPS

  • Dress as if you were headed out for a run at the night temperature–thermal underwear and synthetic fleece under a windproof jacket and pants, plus hat, neck gaiter, and gloves. Layer so you can constantly adjust.
  • Ignore the hype and variety of equipment choices, ranging from lightweight racing to expedition backcountry, because about anything will do. The best place to start is with a $15 rental from an outdoor store or ski shop.
  • Choose a professionally groomed area, which allows you to concentrate on skiing, not breaking trail. A good track set by a machine provides a consistent surface, keeping the ski gliding forward and eliminating balance problems for many beginners.
  • Be sure to check the weather, and always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. Take other safety precautions such as packing extra warm clothing and food and drink, carrying a first aid kit and cell phone, and having an emergency plan.
  • Pack along a thermos of hot drink, preferably homemade chai. Bring 3 cups of water to boil along with 2 teaspoons cardamom, 3 cinnamon sticks, 1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger, and 1 teaspoon each of allspice, nutmeg, cloves, and black peppercorns. Reduce to low for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add 3 black tea bags to steep for 8 minutes. Strain and serve with equal parts milk or soymilk, plus a teaspoon of chocolate sauce and a bit of honey per cup.
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