John Schandelmeier: On dark, lonely nights in Alaska, you are seldom alone

John Schandelmeier

My leaders, Ambler and Kate, jumped high in the air, screaming to go. The team was hooked up and ready for their first sled run of the season.

There was almost a foot of snow on the ground and it was still coming down. I pulled the snow hook and we were away in a sudden silence. My headlamp lit the untracked trace winding through the spruces. The dog's initial burst settled in to a steady 12 mph trot. I traveled for less than a mile when I realized that we weren't the only ones out and enthusiastic about a run on the first real snowy night of the year.

Tracks! A fresh hare track crossed just ahead. A bit farther on a lynx had been about. His tracks were barely covered and I could see where he had stopped to investigate a bunny trail before continuing on his way.

The team crossed an open meadow where a couple coyotes had been working for voles. A bit farther on we zipped by a bird track that was so fresh it had no snow cover at all. What was a spruce hen doing up, walking, at 9 p.m.? A very dangerous activity for a bird that can't see in the dark!

The heavy snow restricted vision with the headlamp on, so I shut it down. After a few moments, my vision adjusted and I was able to see shapes and shadows. The dogs became two indistinct dark lines but I could see the dark shapes of scattered spruces and was better able to get my bearings once I removed the tunnel-vision effect of the artificial light.

When I first began trapping full time, I rarely was able to keep a headlight working on those old Elan snowmobiles. I got pretty good at finding my way around in the dark and de-icing the old Tillotson carburetors by touch. I came to realize that when traveling in sketchy conditions, it is much easier to get a feel for where you are and where you need to go with no light at all. Lights work well up close but are not so good at getting the general lay.

How do animals get around in the dark? Are their eyes so much better than ours?

All of the critters that are out and about in the night have varying degrees of night vision. The predators are the best at working the nights. Their sense of smell fills in the gaps in eyesight. Many of their prey can see little, which makes the success rate go up for the hunter. The nose is good for the overall view, but there is nothing like good vision for intimate encounters.

Dogs are the animals that I am most familiar with and I have come to understand that night vision varies quite a lot between individuals. There are leaders who cannot run up front at all unless the headlamp is on. Most teams will miss trail turns if it is really dark with no artificial light.

Coyotes and fox tend to hunt the evenings and very early mornings and sit during the full dark of midnight. That leads me to believe that their night vision is similar to that of sled dogs. Lynx hunt all night. You see them crossing the highway at all hours, hunting the roadside thickets.

Rabbits and hares seem to get around fairly well in the dark. Why they need that ability, I don't know, because their real defense against predation is breeding. The grouse family can see almost nothing at night. Like chickens, one can pick them off of their perch by hand if it is really dark. What that spruce hen was doing walking around at night is a mystery.

And it is a mystery I will not likely solve. But it is the real point of getting out on a wintery night instead of sitting inside and worrying about how the roads will be in the morning. Scratching my head over the spruce grouse might be a better use of my time.

It matters little whether one is 40 miles back in the sticks or 40 feet from the side of a four-lane highway. Life is going on all around us that has little to do with our life. Get outside tonight and take a look. Bring the headlamp for close work. Bring the dog for fun.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a two-time Yukon Quest champion and a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman.


Daily News correspondent