Rangers handed out flashlights to about 20 people gathered in the parking lot near the Willie Browne Trail — and then told us not to use them.

 

Or at least not to use them in the way we instinctively would.

Avoid turning on the white light, they said. Just use the red.

“Red will not mess up your night vision,” Heather Xiong said. “And it’s the least intrusive with the creatures of the night.”

As the sun set and the parking lot filled with glowing red sticks, an owl hooted nearby.

“Good evening ladies and gentleman,” Xiong said. “I’m Ranger Heather. I’m going to be guiding you through your tour tonight.”

She first led a night hike last year for National Park Week. When another “Senses of the Night” hike was announced last month, with a limit of 15 people, it filled up almost instantly.

I wanted to do it partly because it was one more way to experience the Willie Browne Trail and the Theodore Roosevelt Area, one of my favorite parts of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

Before he died in 1970 and gave all of us his land, Browne said, “People have to work in the cities, they can’t live in the woods anymore. But they ought to have a place in the woods they can go.”

I don’t know this for sure, but I’m guessing Mr. Willie especially loved his woods at night. I’m guessing that he would be happy to know that, while other pieces of our local national parks close at night, people can go into these woods after the sun sets and before the sun rises.

As we began walking down the wide path, acutely aware of the sounds — from our own footsteps on the path to the nearby rustling, presumably an armadillo surprised by the visitors — Ranger Heather asked if anyone was getting creeped out yet.

“A little,” someone said.

“People get quite disturbed by being out in nature at night,” she said. “We have this fear of these crazy animals coming out and hurting us when really the folks that are out at night are pretty harmless.”

“Would you say that in the Everglades?” someone asked.

As we walked, chattering with a kind of giddiness that I don’t think you have on a day hike, it brought to mind some of my favorite national park memories, of being a kid in the woods at night. Going to ranger talks. Sitting around a campfire. Crawling into a tent and lying there listening.

It also brought to mind a quote from Edward Abbey: “You can’t study the darkness by flooding it with light.”

After walking a short distance, Ranger Heather had everyone stop.

“Stand still for a second and just listen,” she said.

We stood there, listening to the crickets and birds. That, she said, was the sound of communication, of animals finding each other in woods, using senses other than sight.

She asked a volunteer to bring her a backpack. She pulled out small plastic containers, handing one to each hiker. The containers held different objects and, therefore, made different sounds when shook. For each container and each sound, there was one match.

“Start shaking and find your partner,” she said.

Everyone began shaking the containers, moving about, searching for a match. Most people had found their matching sounds — confirming it by opening containers and seeing what was inside — by the time I found fellow hiker Brian Harris.

“Notice how that was very difficult for us,” she said. “Many creatures of the night are able to differentiate various pitches and slight nuances to pinpoint accuracy.”

She pointed out how the sound of the crickets had gotten louder, noting that not only does sound travel better at night, so does smell. Which a few hundred yards farther down the path led to our next stop.

This time everyone got a container which reminded me of a film canister (which by itself is another flashback). Ranger Heather told everyone to open the tops and smell what was inside.

“What have you got?” she asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It smells waxy.”

“Think back to childhood,” she said.

I took another deep inhale and it hit me like a box of 64 colors.

“Crayons,” I said.

This continued with others smelling what was in their containers. Vanilla, vinegar, coffee, cinnamon, dirt.

Ranger Heather talked about bats and how we tend to think of their ability to use echo location. But it’s because of smell, she said, that a mother bat can quickly find her young.

We continued walking. At the next stop, Ranger Heather asked if anyone had food allergies, then began handing out small plastic spoons and walking around squeezing something — the same thing — onto each spoon.

“Are we going to eat dirt?” someone said. “The dirt did smell good.”

People started tasting and shouting out guesses. Pumpkin, carrot, sweet potato, squash. Ranger Heater said those who had guessed carrots were right, then went from spoon to spoon with something that prompted Ranger Cicely Pontiflet to apologize to babies everywhere: peas.

After finishing on a tastier note, we continued down the trail and did one final test: guessing the type of four trees based on touch.

On the walk back to the parking lot, it was interesting how we continued to use senses other than sight. I noticed the smell of the dirt. At one point, amidst the casual conversation, people noted how the air temperature suddenly changed, going from cool to warm in the matter of a few steps.

Ranger Heather, who grew up in Deland, said she always has liked the night. She’s interested in bats and space and stars.

When we got back to the parking lot, she read a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, “The Light of Stars.”

The night is come, but not too soon …

Then we got back into our cars, with headlights that seemed blindingly bright, and headed out of the woods.

When I mentioned this hike to someone and said how so many of my favorite national park experiences have been at night, from childhood to the year I spent in our parks, they pointed out a bit of irony. I wrote a book with a title tied to the Hawaiian mythology of a boy lassoing the sun – a story of clinging to the day.

I’ve said that I like that story because it reminds me to appreciate each day. But going for a walk in Willie Browne’s woods as the sun is setting is a reminder to do something else. Let go of each day and appreciate the night.