Night hiking: Take a walk on the dark side at Gordon’s Park

by Lori Thompson

TEHKUMMAH—Let’s face it. The nights here on Manitoulin Island can be dark, very dark. Humans don’t have very good night vision and make up for it with the heightening of other senses. Every noise is intensified. A squirrel running through the forest can sound like a large beast. A deer stepping on a twig can sound like a gunshot. Nighttime can be frightening. It can also be both exhilarating and meditative. Smelling the earthy smell of the forest floor. Hearing the satisfying crunch of leaves beneath your feet. Bright green eyes watching you watching them.

What better way to experience the night than with a guided group hike on well groomed trails? At Gordon’s Park in Tehkummah, you can do just that. Grace Schmidt, eco-tourism coordinator at Gordon’s Park, has put together an interpretive night hike designed to educate participants about the sights and sounds they might encounter. One might even learn to enjoy sharing the darkness with things that go bump in the night.

This is the first year the guided night hikes have been available. Ms. Schmidt, an avid camper and outdoors person, has put together a list of nocturnal animals that inhabit the park and has further researched their habits and preferred habitats to provide a educational and engaging adventure.

This past Saturday evening, a group that included a family from Newmarket, a threesome from France, and an Islander, met at the nature centre at Gordon’s Park where Ms. Schmidt explained what nocturnal animals were likely to be seen and heard on the trails and on Manitoulin in general. The nature centre has a comprehensive collection of animals, skeletons, bones and teeth that provides a well-rounded visual learning experience.

What are some of the nocturnal animals you might find on a night hike here? There are toads, crickets, fireflies, bats, flying squirrels, barred owls, skunks, deer, fishers, bobcats, lynx, coyotes, and foxes, to name a few. While many people are afraid of running into bears at night, they are not typically nocturnal (the exception is urban areas, where household garbage is a big temptation).

After the introduction, Ms. Schmidt led the group to the park’s flying squirrel feeder. Flying squirrels do not fly so much as glide, she explained, showing how the squirrels would glide from a tree to a high perch to the feeder, and from the feeder to a lower perch from which they could glide back into the forest trees.  If you were to encounter a flying squirrel at night, you might be startled by their eyes, which are very large and round. This allows more light to come in, enabling the squirrels to see at night.

Ms. Schmidt then turned on her red headlight, explaining that it takes human eyes about 30 minutes to adjust to the dark. Using a red light does not affect night vision and so is a better choice for enjoying the outdoors at night. The hike began. Many trees are turning colour already and parts of the trail were lightly covered in fallen leaves. For several minutes the only sound was footsteps in a steady, meditative rhythm.

At a fork in the trail the group stopped and Ms. Schmidt played a recording of a flying squirrel call. In return there was only silence. At a later stop, she attempted to call a pair of barred owls that reside in the park. They also failed to respond. You can’t predict ahead of time with any accuracy what animals you will hear or see. On this Saturday night, the only sighting was a toad on the trail through the dark sky preserve. The group trained their flashlights on the toad, standing in a semi-circle watching it until it hopped off into the grass at the side of the path.

“Every once in a while you get the animals to talk to you,” Ms. Schmidt said. “It’s more fun, that extra wow factor, if you get the animals. Though if it’s not cloudy we can always rely on the stars.”

It was a clear night and as the sky darkened the stars gradually revealed themselves. Ms. Schmidt pointed out some constellations, including Cassiopeia, the Big Dipper, Scorpio, and the summer triangle. As an added bonus, several meteors were observed, the last of the Perseids for this year. While she has always found astronomy interesting, Ms. Schmidt said she has learned a lot from listening to park manager Paul Beduhn’s guided sky tours, recommending Thursday astronomy night at the park for a more in-depth astronomy experience.

In addition to the variety of wildlife, the group size for night hikes has varied, so each one is unique. “Whatever pops up that night, you think on the fly and go from there,” Ms. Schmidt said. “This walk I was able to talk and walk a little bit at certain points. With the really large groups, or if I have a group with a very young child, I just make sure when we’re talking that I’m paused at a location and they’re all gathered around and can hear.” She tries to determine where on the trail a certain animal would be and pauses at that location to explain its habits and what to listen and look for.

Beyond the dark sky preserve, on the return loop, there was a pond where stars reflected back from the still surface of the water. The group paused here to listen to a chorus of crickets and frogs. It is moments such as these that one truly feels the magic of night.

For those people who enjoy the outdoors but are somewhat nervous about the dark, this guided interpretive walk will help alleviate your fears. The things that go bump in the night are less intimidating when you can actually identify them.