Night Paddling

River of the month #40

author: Pat Reilly
date: August 2001

In keeping with the precedent set over the last two years, here we go with another non-specific river column for August. This time, about paddling after dark. Don’t laugh. Some of us do the majority of our paddling after the sun sets. That’s right, the majority, as in ‘more than half’. For me it’s been a case of an increasing number of training trips to keep pace with paddle racing events. Regular year around exercise trips are key to staying competitive, especially as you age. With some 200 times a year in the water I can’t expect each time out to be on a sunny day. During winter, after-work trips are always at night since it’s dark (or nearly dark) by the time I get off work.

Now enter little Tony, my son. After he was born in July of ‘99, training trips got even later, as I waited for Tony to go to bed before heading out to paddle. No sense letting exercise trips rob valuable Tony-time, right? As a result some 90% of training trips are now after dark. And many local excursion trips occur after sunset as well.

Numerous unforeseen problems and overly optimistic timetables have resulted in the logging of countless unexpected nighttime paddling hours in addition to all the planned night trips. All these on-the-water in-the-dark experiences have led to a few ideas that I can share.

First off, I want to state that nighttime paddling is not only feasible but can be very enjoyable. Many canoe outfitters (including our local friends at BMO) are starting to offer night trips. Moonlit river scenes can be downright beautiful. Pity the paddler who has not experienced a summer moon rising above a peaceful river on a warm August night, serenaded by the rhythmic chirping of cicadas.

Wildlife often is more visible at night as many aquatic species are nocturnal. Beavers have recently returned in large numbers to Pennsylvania’s waterways and while sightings are frequent, they generally occur only at night. It’s now a rarity when I don’t see a beaver on a nighttime Susquehanna trip, or at least hear the familiar tail slap. Muskrat, raccoon and mink, as well as some wading and shore birds are all active at night. I’ve often experienced great blue herons circling above my boat, noisily squawking in protest of my intrusion. But only at night.

Distracting crowds, whether on land or water are likely to be smaller or non-existent after dark. This really comes into play in the area where I often paddle - the small but very crowded impoundment above the Harrisburg dam. Most of the motor boats are gone at night and those remaining usually cruise at slower speeds, creating less wake. More importantly, all the personal watercraft are gone! Jet Ski jockeys are confined by law to daylight hours. In addition, highways that frequently parallel Pennsylvania’s rivers are less traveled and less annoying at night.

In summer, the heat of day subsides after sunset. And all year around, bothersome winds often calm when the sun goes down.

Okay, you say, I’ve made a case for night paddling, but how does one see? Well, on big calm open water like the Susquehanna, you can rely on moon or star light. It’s surprising how well you can see once your eyes adjust. At times, when the moonlight is just right, those slight disturbances on the surface of the water that signal a rock lurking below are actually easier to detect than in bright daylight! I remember paddling the Lehigh Gorge after dark under a half moon. It was a clear winter night, with the moon directly overhead and the water level quite low. I had no problem at all making out the many riffles, rocks and rapids.

Okay, but what if it’s cloudy? Well, if you’re near civilization, you can actually see better when it’s overcast! Really! Maybe not better than when there is a full moon, but better than an average night. City, suburban or highway lights will reflect off of a cloud cover and diffuse over a wide area making sufficient light to paddle. This holds true far out into the suburbs, farther than one would expect. Like out to the Swatarta near Hummelstown, or the Yellow Breeches around Spanglers Mill. While you may want to shy away from truly rural creeks, like Shermans or Muddy on a cloudy night, you can always paddle the popular runs on the Susquehanna. Or, thanks to the booming development along the Carlisle Pike, the Conodoguinet is always boatable from Carlisle to the mouth no matter how cloudy it gets.

The Susky and Cono are wide rivers with plenty of open air above them. Creeks like the Yellow Breeches, with overhanging trees enveloping the water, can only be night-paddled in the colder months when there is no foliage. But even if leaves have fallen, one needs to be aware of tree species. On a winter trip down Clarks Creek, Kris Wolpert, Dave Ertel and myself got stuck out on the water long after sunset. With tall evergreen hemlocks lining the creek, no light at all was getting through, in spite of clear moonlit skies. It was darn difficult trying to follow Kris who held our group’s only light, a mini flashlight, in his teeth as he paddled.

Can’t one just wear a headlight? I’ve found that they don’t really do the trick. For one, most just don’t give off a lot of light. And even if they do, it can be hard to gauge distance and judge where the water is going. The shallow angle of the beam on the water can make for a confusing reflection combined with obscure shadows from overhanging trees and brush. Also troublesome is the way vapor from your breath wafts directly up into the beam, blocking and diffusing the light. This may sound strange but it’s a real problem in colder weather. I always have a headlight with me when night paddling (you need a light to be legal) but learned to rely on it only for emergencies and up close inspections (like noting what species of spider is crawling up your arm from that last cobweb you didn’t see). When no other light is available a good headlight will get you down the creek.

Lastly, don’t get lost! How does one get lost paddling down a river? Well, I didn’t think it possible either until a December trip down the whitewater section of the upper Conodoguinet near Roxbury. A too-late start was compounded by a long delay when my paddling partner got stuffed under some undercut tree roots and took a swim. When we finished picking up the pieces she decided to walk out, as it was almost dark. After helping her and her boat through a huge wild raspberry patch, whose thorns had no problem piercing our paddling clothing, I decided to finish the trip rather than face the thorns again.

Paddling with a headlight for the first time, I found the vapor problem surprisingly hard to deal with. Exhaling out of the corner of my mouth helped somewhat. Luckily I only had about a half mile to go through a thick evergreen woods. A strainer caused some anxious moments but I soon found myself going under the Rt. 997 bridge that signaled the spot where I had parked the car. I climbed out of the boat but the car was nowhere to be seen. In fact nothing at all looked familiar on river right where I thought I had parked. As I was wondering just when I had paddled into the ‘Twilight Zone’, I noticed a light and parking area far off on river left that did look familiar. Somewhere in the darkness, unseen with the headlight, the creek had braided and I ended up on a braid that I never knew existed until now. I packed up and hurried off to get my partner who was wandering up and down Roxbury’s other street, Rt. 641.

So, don’t let the fact that you’ve run out of daylight finishing up your chores cause you to retire to the couch, remote in hand. Break out that boat and get on the water, the creatures of the night are waiting for you and you just might have an adventure. Besides, you can probably use the exercise.

Pat Reilly

Copyright © 2001 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.