Night hike | Sycamore Canyon with Blue Sky flashbacks
San Diego is King when it comes to hiking variety, but the fact is that many of the best hiking trails - which are located in protected parks and reserves - close at sunset. And I mean close like with a gate and a chain and a lock, as in: you're not driving your car out of there past dark.
One day when you are going about all of your other typical and boring daily business, you may catch wind of a Night Hike happening. If you do, stop whatever it is you're doing and pounce on this opportunity! While there are multiple guided hikes every other day of the year, the night hikes number less than ten a year, total. I'm not quite sure why but I would guess it's because of all the shady stuff that goes down when the sun does.
In our case I got myself (me +1) on "the list" literally the moment I heard about this hike in Sycamore Canyon. The lists always fill up and you don't want to bother with the waiting list. I had intended to go with the old man, but his flight back into town was delayed... so our son was the happy beneficiary of what he now recalls as the "Best Hike Ever."
First things first: forget whatever time estimates they give you for this hike. We were supposed to begin hiking at 7pm and finish by 8:30, which was when I was supposed to pick up my eldest daughter from a Girl Scout event. We actually started the hike at 7:30pm (after quite a bit of bullshitting with the docents) and didn't end until after 10pm.
There was no "running ahead to the car" because in addition to them not letting you, your car was locked up. YES, they lock your car in during the hike to prevent someone entering the parking area after dark. Thank God for the whole "it takes a village" mentality shared by my friends and fellow Poway moms, otherwise my daughty wouldn't have made it home until after 10:00!
Now for the next and most important thing you need to know about guided hikes in San Diego: the docents are THE BEST. I have yet to find the exception here. I've been on hikes where they help you learn how to track animals. How to find edible plants. How to notice the birds which tend to elude other hikers. Even a hike led by an entomologist where he helps you catch and identify insect specimens (also a night hike... more on that later).
This docent is Zach and he found this Rosy boa not two minutes into the hike. He let people touch it (though not hold it), and told us all about it. Hugo was elated.
He called over the other docent, Maria, who apparently is also some kind of herpetologist. I'm hoping you know that's an expert in reptiles. She later revealed herself to be a bit of an ornithologist and arachnologist too. I wish I could assume that you know what those terms mean, but since I probably can't, it means she knows a lot about birds and spiders too.
Here is where I would insert the photos of the night sky replete with stars, thanks to the lower levels of light pollution deep in this 2,272-acre preserve. But they didn't really turn out. I'm not exactly Herb Ritts with my camera phone.
Another great thing these docents did was to capture a wild tarantula - last week - from this canyon, in premeditation of this Night Hike. This is him.
They wanted to make sure we "saw enough." I mean how thoughtful is that?
Don't worry, they released this little guy and he still had all eight legs and everything. I can't speak to any emotional trauma he may have suffered, but I will say that he was fed crickets during his imprisonment and those crickets didn't have much of a chance at all because there were glass walls preventing them from ever being able to escape this hungry spider.
If this was somehow against the Docent Rules, then just forget I said anything.
This is Maria holding this beautiful little guy. She explained a bit about their internal organ structure:
She then recounted the Greek myth about Arachne, for which arachnids get their name. It is a story that is both beautiful and horrible, like so many of the best stories from history. Why do we need such twisted stories to entertain us? They seem to be the only ones which stand the test of time:
Finally it was time to watch him walk away. He did so pretty casually. You can call it a swagger or you can wonder if he was just shell-shocked, but the fact is that you will never really know what was going on inside his cephalothorax.
After they let him go, they finally let us go. By that I mean that they literally unlocked the gate so that we could leave. Although it was over three miles in total, my son who is eight still deemed it the best hike he's ever been on. I would attribute that to the snake and spider appearances, and also just getting to be out with the crickets and wild things well past dark.
This makes me recall the other two night hikes we've been on (outside of camping): both by renowned entomologist Michael Klein in Blue Sky Reserve, which he seems to do one night every year in the summer. We did one in 2012 with our eldest daughter, and another in 2013 with all three kids.
This one is from 2012 with Girl Scouts. Our eldest was about eight here, and she's holding an acrylic box which she's used to capture an insect.
This is the incredibly knowledgeable entomologist Michael Klein - who is quite generous with his wisdom and kind of a celebrity in the world of entomology. Google him and be prepared to wonder what you've been doing with your life and your career, because it's nowhere near the scale of what Dr. Klein has been doing in his chosen field - I can tell you that.
You know that feeling of exuberance that comes over you in the presence of someone talking about something they are very passionate (and hopefully, also knowledgeable) about? That is what happens when Dr. Klein leads you into the Blue Sky Ecological Reserve at night, throws up a couple of white sheets with black lights trained on them, sets up what is essentially a rickety card table and produces a bundle of acrylic boxes that shine like ice cubes in the light of his dim camping lantern.
Then he says, "Go over to the white sheet and start capturing whatever is crawling on it, drawn to the light, in these boxes. Bring them to me and I will tell you about them."
The kids caught most of the quarry, but I got a couple in, too. This is a type of Geometer moth, though I believe he called it a Geometric moth. The cute thing about them is, when they are caterpillars, they are those adorable inchworms. Google Inch worm Highway if you don't know what I mean.
His special passion is butterflies, and in case you didn't know, moths are the butterflies of the night, so get to appreciating them.
This is an Emerald moth.
Willa didn't need one of those clear boxes to catch it!
This is a Nocturnal wasp or Night wasp. Cute and harmless-seeming, until you realize that they can and do sting!
This is a Velvet ant, capable of a painful bite! By the way, I LOVE the website linked to this guy (whatsthatbug.com). I have checked there often when I have an insect I'm trying to identify:
And this is from our 2013 trip out to Blue Sky with Dr. Klein. Can you imagine the patience he has, with all the kids clamoring around his unstable card table, thrusting their acrylic bug-filled cubes in his face, begging for an identification greedily? Oh yeah, that's our son in this picture, bumbling into his elbow.
Ten bucks if you can ID this one. My overall guess is "beetle," but what kind???
I make no guarantees as to who the issuing government of my $10 prize to you will be. Could be the government of the United States of America. Could just as easily be the government of the United States of Hasbro.
Close to 100% of the scientific details of these insects would go completely over the heads of these kids had he not "dumbed it down" for them, for lack of a better term. Well, I guess a better term would be "simplified it" ... but either term gets to the heart of the matter. This guy knows how to talk to kids without making them feel like you did when you read the word, "herpetologist."
Don't take your kids (or yourself) on this hike if they are squeamish about bugs!
DO take your kids on this hike if they love getting dirty, and you've had enough kids to stop caring about their cleanliness and/or dustiness.
OH MY GOD this creature was discovered after we left the safe presence of Dr. Klein's stewardship. I almost jumped up into a tree. But then I thought of the pictures! And I got excited.
Then lo and behold... what's this? Wow the flash on our camera phone was powerful.
Who knew Blue Sky was crawling with tarantulas during summer nights? We saw four of them.
Hope you enjoyed our Night Hike tour.
Thanks for looking! :)