The Dark Side

The Dark Side

“Just ’cause it’s dark doesn’t mean you have to stay inside,” park ranger Joe Milone says.

It’s 7 p.m., and under the auspices of New Haven’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees, Milone is about to lead a troop of intrepid hikers up the snowy slope of West Rock. It’s dark out, but we have one thing going for us: the light of that night’s “supermoon.”

The parks department often gives New Haveners a chance to be outdoors together when the moon is full, whether to snowshoe, hike or even kayak. Hiking at night is “a different experience,” Milone says. “You have to use your senses a little bit more. There’s always that mystery of what’s around the corner.” After dark, he adds, you’re more likely to hear the owls and coyotes that live on West Rock Ridge.

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What we hear right now, at the bottom of the West Rock Nature Center driveway, is cars zipping overhead on the Wilbur Cross Parkway. From here, we can look up into the north mouth of Heroes Tunnel. Under cover of night, with a bit of imagination, this feels like the start of a treacherous fairy tale journey.

In fact, there is some danger as seven of us cross Wintergreen Avenue and begin our hike up the east side of the ridge, just south of the parkway. The moon lights up the coverlet of snow, but our sight is diminished, and I find myself relying as much on the feel of the path through the soles of my boots as on my vision. The trees are blazed, but in what color is anyone’s guess. I got twisted around in the dark on the drive over, and that disorientation is lingering. Isn’t Judges’ Cave to the right? No, Milone says. This way. We follow him to the left.

At a saddle between two rises, we pause, and Milone points to a small structure above us—the ventilation tower for the tunnel. Based on artifacts found here, he says, indigenous people are believed to have driven deer into this small valley to hunt them from the two hills.

We soldier on up the path. A carpet of leaves frosted with snow crackles underfoot, as we avoid bare rock that might be slick. Warming, I take off my hat and loosen my scarf. No one complains of the cold. Eventually, we break out of the woods onto the familiar loop of road at Judges’ Cave, and Milone tells the story of the “regicides” (“king killers”) for whom the ridge trail is named and who hid for their lives in this pile of boulders after calling for the death of King Charles I. (Of the three regicides, only Edward Whalley and William Goffe actually hid here; John Dixwell was already incognito, having changed his surname to Davids, and merely helped conceal them.)

It’s time for a choice: turn back, or hike to the overlook? Hike, of course! We follow the deserted road for 10 minutes or so. In the broad, open parking lot atop the park’s southern cliff, January’s final breezes brush our bare faces. I zip my jacket tighter.

We stand at the low stone wall of the point and gaze out over our city like sovereigns. New Haven at night is made of light from rectangular windows, illuminated steeples and domes, diffused spotlights, paired lamps of white and red on the move. The moon, like a coin on a yard of gray velvet, slips in and out of an envelope of clouds. In the distance, we find the dark edges of East Rock, Sleeping Giant, even Meriden’s Hanging Hills pasted against the overcast night sky. Everyone raises a camera, attempting to capture the uncapturable.

Feeling the chill, we march back down the road, passing a lone climbing bicyclist. Even at night, the sun’s route is clear from the patterns of snow and bare pavement it’s left behind. We talk about sea horses and clams and eels, showing ourselves to be coastal dwellers even as we pass through the forest. A couple of times, we slow our pace—Did you hear that stomp-stomp behind us? That rustle up in the trees? But this is a jovial group, too noisy for serious wildlife-spotting. Milone tells us he saw three snowy owls at Long Beach in Stratford this winter. Once he saw a great horned owl up here on the ridge. But the owls are laying low tonight.

By the time we return to the nature center, it’s almost nine o’clock. Milone traces our 3.4-mile walk on a map so we can see where we’ve been. Outside, the parking lot is nearly empty, the highway hushed. Crooked branches reach for the opal moon. All is still.

We haven’t seen as clearly as we’d see in the daylight, but nighttime offers its own lines of sight. A familiar place has been made unfamiliar, and we’ve peeked into its dark and secret world.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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