The sound of car doors slamming shattered the still night. My eyes strained to decipher the outlines of people walking toward the beach, but in the heavy darkness, there was nothing. No shapes, no motion. As I pulled a PFD over my head and buckled my helmet, I thought there very well could be a bear beside me for all I knew. Or a werewolf.
I felt like a werewolf.
The night was still young. A shiny sliver of moon was just beginning to glimmer above the trees. While the rest of the world slept, I was gearing up to kayak the South Fork of the Holston River. Despite the sultry summer air, goosebumps tingled my forearm. A chill ached at the base of my skull. Someone, or something, was watching me.
I couldn’t shake it.
Probably because I couldn’t use a headlamp. We had vowed to guide ourselves downstream by the light of the moon, a romantic idea, no doubt, but one that seems downright foolish when you’re barely able to make out the bow of your boat.
I stood on shore staring blankly at nothing or no one in particular. It wasn’t that I was scared, necessarily. I had paddled this river enough times to navigate it in my sleep. But what if I paddled right up under a strainer and got stuck? Or what if someone swam and I had to rescue them? Or what if a werewolf leapt from shore and gouged out my eyes?
Okay. Maybe I was scared.
When I finally lowered myself into the cockpit, my apprehensions subsided. A fierce calm washed over me, as if the roaring of the, albeit benign, class II rapid downstream beckoned to me like some unmet challenge, some unexplored territory destined to be conquered. Emboldened, I scooted the stern from land, taking one purposeful stroke after another into the velvet black current.
My fears and bravado were hardly warranted. The higher the moon rose in the sky, the deeper my monsters retreated and the smaller the rapids became. A headlamp and paddle were the sole victims that night, the latter of which was later recovered. But it was partly that mystery of the unseen, a tango with the unknown, which has kept me coming back full moon after full moon.
Of course now, nearly seven years since that first night paddle, I’ve heard tales of evening excursions that put my full moon floats to shame. Take Astral Designs Marketing Department Assistant Ty Caldwell for example. Caldwell’s one of an elite group of Asheville boaters who take to the class V rapids of the Green River Narrows by night.
“Some might think it sounds crazy, but we know the river like you know how to make it to the fridge in the dark for a midnight snack,” Caldwell says, which might be comparable, were there an 18-foot drop between the bedroom and the kitchen.
In the 10 times he’s night-paddled the Gorge, though, Caldwell’s never had any close calls, which he attributes to a combination of strong skills and choice in crew as well as an intimate familiarity with the river. Yet even he will be the first to admit that adventures at night, though awe-inspiring and magical, often tread that thin and unforgiving line between risk and reward.
“An out of boat experience could end up dangerous and potentially deadly,” he says.
Professional ultrarunner Krissy Moehl can speak to the dangers of nighttime and the elements that come with it. On December 9, 2006, just before midnight, Moehl and nearly 60 other runners toed the line to Hellgate 100K, a notoriously grueling ultra in Fincastle, Va. With temperatures in the low teens, and a wind chill factor to boot, the racers set off down the leaf-strewn trail, eager to keep moving forward.
Moehl was near the front of the pack, nearly seven hours in, when she started to notice some irritation in her right eye. As the sun crested over the trail, Moehl stopped at the nearest aid station and asked the crew to assess her eyes.
“It felt like I had a lot of eye boogers,” she remembers. “I kept wiping at them, which probably aggravated it.”
She continued on, chalking up the discomfort to a scratch or microscopic piece of dirt. But just 13 miles from the finish, Moehl’s eyesight went completely blurry.
“It was like looking through foggy goggles,” she says. “I couldn’t stay on the trail. My field of depth was gone and fear was setting in, but I had to keep going forward.”
Then the hallucinations started. Stands of trees turned to people cheering alongside the trail. Construction signs became photographers crouching to snap a shot. Still, Moehl stumbled forward, managing to set the women’s course record at almost 13 hours even.
Though she didn’t know it then, Moehl had suffered from a case of “Hellgate Eyes,” which is common in runners who find themselves out at night in the cold and wind for hours on end.
Which begs the question, why do it? Why run, or paddle, or bike or hike, at night? What is it that makes those like Moehl and Caldwell forgo the security of the sun for the thrill of the night?
For Asheville-based rider Daniel Sapp, the answer to that question might not be as poetic as you’d expect.
“I ride at night because it’s dark, not necessarily because I enjoy it more,” Sapp says. “Days are short. If you’re working during the day, and you’re trying to ride, sometimes you just gotta get shit done.”
Sleep, eat, work, bike. That about sums up Sapp’s existence. When he’s off the clock, he’s on a bike, no matter the weather or time of day. Of course, Sapp can’t help admitting riding at night can be fun on occasion, assuming you’re not caught in the woods 10 miles from your car without a headlamp.
“It brings a different element to things,” he says. “[Riding at night] allows you to be pretty focused on what’s ahead of you instead of everything that’s in your peripherals.”
Unless, that is, you’re riding under a full moon in the Sedona desert, surrounded by nothing but low-lying shrubs and open air. For Sapp, and co-ripper “The Mangler,” that night under the big western sky ranks high on their list of best rides ever. Because even those like Sapp, steadfast in dedication to their sports, ride, or walk, or paddle, or run, because it brings them closer to the natural world and the mysteries therein, no matter the time of day.
Even adventures by day can be risky business. Take away the sun, and situations can go from bad to worse in a matter of seconds. If you’re going to ignite the night, do it right with the following seven tips from Ty and Krissy!
1. BE CONSERVATIVE
Thinking about a 50-miler? Scale it back. Want to paddle class IV? Try class III. Especially if it’s your first night outing ever, better to play it safe than sorry. A short five-mile hike may seem easy during the day, but there’s no telling what you’ll encounter when the sun sets.
2. TELL SOMEONE
Don’t be Aron Ralston. Inform a friend or family member as to when and where you’re going and what time you expect to be back. This is a smart idea for any adventure, be it day or night.
3. KNOW YOUR CREW
It’s not enough that you are in the company of others. Feel confident in the skills and abilities of those you journey with. If you don’t, try outings during the day to build that trust. Nighttime is not the time to find out how people react to adversity.
4. BRING EXTRAS
Extra layers, food, water, light, batteries. It may be more weight, yes, but a few simple items can make all of the difference in the event of an emergency.
5. SCOUT BEFORE YOU GO
Night adventures aren’t for getting your PFD (personal first descent). Know the river or trail before you go, and know it well. Make sure you’ve had a visual on the area, too, in the event recent storms have caused downed debris or missing signage.
6. FORMULATE PLAN B
Even our best-laid plans often go awry. Have escape routes, backup plans, shuttle drivers on standby, and a flask of something waiting to celebrate when you’re safe and sound and the sun is rising.
7. BRIGHTER IS BETTER
The better you can see, the better you can move. Even if you’re using the light of the moon, there’s no avoiding the green tunnels of Appalachia. Invest in a solid headlamp and you won’t be disappointed.
8. BE ONE WITH THE NIGHT
Even if just for a minute or two, go deep into the woods, turn off the light, and just be. What’s the point of recreating in the night if you’re just going to illuminate it anyway?