Wednesday, October 5, 2016

I Speed at Night

(Extra credit will be issued to those who recognized the post name as the title of a Ronnie James Dio song).

Another summer is gone, and autumn is upon us.  I don't really have a 'favorite' season, but there is so much to love about fall - the cooler temps, the color and smell of the leaves, the undergrowth dying back so that you can see the contour of the land.  But there is that one big drawback - it's dark for more than half the day.

And that drives me nuts.  I have a bag full of bright lights - and I use them - but there are just a lot of things you can't do in the dark (like paddling whitewater) and many places that you're not allowed to use in the dark.  So it gets a lot harder to get out as often as I'd like. But in Ohio most of the state parks allow night time use of the trails for legitimate park purposes, and there are some counties that allow night use of their rail trail systems, so there are some recreational possibilities still left for those of us who feel the need to get out there.

Perfect conditions for a bike ride.
Night riding is always an interesting experience, whether it's on paved trails or dirt mountain bike trails.  Familiar places look new, and a whole different world comes out after dark.  Mountain bike trails take on a whole different feel when you need to keep your speed to within your lightfall.  The daytime wildlife beds down, and the nocturnal animals come out.  And you get to experience all of it in near total solitude, since 99.9% of people think you'd have to be nuts to go out and ride at night.

Gotta watch where you ride at night - drop off ahead, trail turns right.
I have a habit of taking a rail trail ride on the Little Beaver Creek Greenway in Columbiana County every Friday after work.  During the summer it's easy to get in a 20 mile ride before it gets dark, but as fall settles in it gets to the point where I can't even get to the trail head before dusk.  So I put a bike light on my handlebars, and another on my helmet, and I head out regardless.

First tire tracks.
After sunset it seems like the rabbits love to come out and check out the grass on the shoulders of the trail.  I can see their eyes reflect the bike light, and often they just fade off into the undergrowth.  But sometimes, maybe when they're faced more directly into the light, it seems as if the light kind of freezes them, and they just sit there as I approach.  As I draw closer, and the light shines right on them, sometimes they just freak out.  It's as if they think that a predator is right on top of them, and it's time to go into emergency escape procedures, so they make these mighty leaps in random directions in an effort to get away.  It's weird, because they'll jump a yard up into the air, and as soon as they hit the ground bounce off again, but in a different direction.  If they happen to land in the brush, then they just run off.  But if they land on the trail and the light is still on them they'll jump over and over.  At that point I usually yell out 'Hey Rabbit!" and the sound seems to kind of snap them out of it and they dash off.  But it's a strange sight to see.

The paved trails also occasionally attract frogs, maybe because the pavement is still slightly warm.  And these guys just totally freeze when the light falls on them.  That means I have to keep my eyes peeled on the trail, because I'm not too fond of the idea of flattening frogs under my tires.  But it does give me a chance to get a good photo now and again.

What'choo looking at??!?
Other animals come out at night too.  Last year a coyote dashed across the trail about two feet in front of me, surprising me enough that I crashed the bike.  I hate crashing on pavement - that feeling of slamming into the ground, having my helmet bounce off the pavement, and sliding along as you slow down - I've had way more than enough of that.  But the raccoons and opossums that come out and shuffle down the trail at night are a lot less likely to surprise a rider, and can be funny as hell to watch.

Spotted his eyes reflecting my lights on Little Beaver Creek Greenway.
Mountain biking in the dark is whole 'nother thing.  Animals usually don't hang out on the dirt trails, though I do occasionally see a raccoon or opossum.  But there are other interesting things that happen out there at night.

The first thing is reflectors, usually the amber ones that come on bike pedals.  Beginner mountain bikers often don't realize that not only are these reflectors useless in the woods, but they also have a tendency to break off and end up in the undergrowth along the trail.  There they stay, hidden - until someone goes out with lights on for a night ride.  Then the lights pick them up, so every now and then an amber sparkle lets me know that another 'rookie reflector' is littering the trail.

That amber sparkle.
So I've made a game of picking them up at night.  And what's a game without rules? Rule number one is that the idea is to clean up mountain bike litter, not to ride past it, so I aim to pick up all the reflectors.  Rule number two is that I allow myself to ignore ONE reflector a night (a good rule for when you're ripping down a hill and don't want to slam on your brakes to play janitor).  Rule number three is that I can't ignore the first reflector I see - after all what if it's the only one of the night?  Usually I'm pretty slow on singletrack, and even slower at night, so it's usually not a big deal to stop for a second, pick up a reflector, and stuff it in the mesh side pocket on my pack.  Sometimes I get quite a harvest.

Picked up off the trail, and headed to the recycling bin.
Something else I've noticed when mountain biking at night, and it's kind of weird...  Not much else besides pedal reflectors really picks up the light at night.  Very occasionally I'll get a quick flash of white light reflecting from a tiny shard of glass, but that's about it.  But recently I noticed that there were other small reflections that I was seeing, tiny rainbow colored lights that often reflected my lights for more than just the split second that glass shards typically do. Once I consciously realized that I was seeing these reflections, I started to think about them.  It seemed odd that they didn't reflect just in a flash - if it were flecks of mica or something you would expect that flash as the light hit the flat surface.  And the rainbow color - sometimes red/orange, sometimes blue/purple - what could be the reason for that?  Finally I realized what the cause was.

That's right...
Spiders.  Wolf spiders, on the trail hunting for supper.  Their eyes pick up the light, and reflect it back in rainbow colors.  So when I ride down the trail at night and come across an area where I see a couple dozen tiny rainbow reflections I know I'm in a spider hunting grounds.  Their eyes are tiny, so the reflections only are visible from about 10 feet away, and will disappear if they run off.  But every now and then I'll pick up a reflection from further away, one that will first reflect as red, then cycle through yellow, orange, green, blue, and purple as I approach.  That means it's a BIG wolf spider, and he's sitting in the trail watching as I ride up on him.  These guys are fair game, and if they happen to get run over I'm not going to lose any sleep over it!  (By the way I tried repeatedly to get a photo of one of these reflections, but cell phone cameras just aren't good enough.)

No reflections from these guys eyes!  Salamander on West Branch State Park mtb trail.
There is one night riding experience that is something totally different.  It can only happen after the leaves have come off the trees, and only when there's a clear sky and a bright moon.  And that is the no-lights night ride.  If you give your eyes time to adjust and let your night vision come in, it is absolutely amazing how well you can see by just moonlight.  Every fall I watch the moon phases and the weather, waiting for that combination that will give the right conditions.  Last year I rode 20 miles on Little Beaver Creek Greenway with the lights turned off, and the year before I rode the whole lake side trail system at West Branch with no lights.  The soft silver shine of the moon gives everything a slightly different tone, contrasting sharply with the black shadows of the trees.  It's bright enough that every bump, every rock, every leaf is illuminated and after a short time to get used to it I find myself moving quicker and quicker, flying through the night woods.  The feeling is one of pure exhilaration, of being a part of the night time world, and not just a visitor with a bright light.  It's as if it allows me to be, just for a short time, something more, and something less as well, than a human visitor to the woods. It's one of my favorite things about fall riding, and I'm already getting excited about the prospect of experiencing it again in a month or two.

I'm going to finish up this post with a short gallery of night riding pictures from the last couple of years.
Sunset fades over West Branch Reservoir on the drive into the trails.
On the return leg of a Little Beaver Creek Greenway ride. That downed tree wasn't there on the way out.

Twilight over the lake, but black as night in the woods.

Riding up to the tunnel mouth on Sandy Creek Trail, with the reflectors inside visible.

Night riding in the a snow squall.