In winter we are on a constant search for light. We wait for the sun to cast its mid-morning glow on the distant mountains, illuminating clouds that huddle around their flanks.
Nature’s artist first paints the sky with a golden-copper hue that shifts to a pale crimson and darker red. And as the sun reclines behind the horizon in its short arc across the sky, the mountain slopes become electric in a deep, cobalt blue traced with pink. And finally, darkness reveals a canopy of stars we have not seen in many months.
And sometimes, if we’re lucky, we’ll be treated to the aurora’s magical dance as it sweeps across the sky in ethereal waves and curtains.
We wait in anticipation for the full moon’s evening journey across the sky. While a full moon at 0.1 LUX is barely a fraction of the full daylight brightness (10,000 LUX), when it’s reflected off snow and diffused across a broad area, a mountainside for example, it can cast shadows and in general, create a very bright setting–certainly sufficient for moving about.
One of the more interesting things about moonlight is that it limits our vision to black and white, or monochromatic view, as noted in the Moody Blues song lyric: “Cold-hearted orb that rules the night, removes the colors from our sight; red is gray and yellow white, but we decide which is right. And which is the illusion?”The reason is the moon’s luminosity is not sufficient to activate the cone cells in our eyes, which provide color. In low light our rod cells are activated, and they’re only capable of giving us black and white.
The reason is the moon’s luminosity is not sufficient to activate the cone cells in our eyes, which provide color. In low light our rod cells are activated, and they’re only capable of giving us black and white.
This absence of color tricks our brain and sometimes makes us think we’re seeing color when we aren’t. I think the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what we’re looking at adds to the allure and magic of moonlight.
I might take along a headlamp to show me some detail in case I’m in a shadowed area. But generally, I like to allow my eyes to adjust to the low light level and work with what’s available. I’m sure readers have experienced how quickly one’s night vision is ruined after turning on a bright headlamp.
Sometimes for navigation in a relatively unfamiliar area, leaving the headlamp off is preferable because its light washes out distant views of ridges and other landforms. On a winter snowshoe trip not far from my home in Eagle River, I almost became lost because I relied too much on my headlamp. When I turned it off, I immediately saw a familiar land feature and got back on track.
On moonlight outings (even half-moons are great) I no longer struggle to see what is not visible at that low light level. It makes the trip much more enjoyable. Allow the scenes to come to you, accept what the gray and silvery light will show you. Trust your rods. For me, that’s when it becomes magical, even mystical.
But a caveat: Be sure of your terrain. You don’t want to wander into a glacier crevasse or open water on a frozen river or lake. But once you’re in a familiar area and know what to expect, a moonlight excursion can make you feel like you’re journeying into the unknown. And in a way, you are.
During our short winter days we also look for light reflected in frozen, wind-blown ponds and lakes; in frost-latticed tree limbs following a dense fog; and we pause to observe the sunset reflected in the restless, ice-choked waters of Knik Arm and Cook Inlet.
We count the hours and days as the light retreats to another part of the world and now, moving ever closer to a new year, we count the days and hours until the light begins its slow return. In winter we wait. We watch. We search for light.
Frank E. Baker is a staff member of The ECHO News and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank: firstname.lastname@example.org