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From the February 2014 Conservationist

Two hikers pause along a foggy mountainside trail

Back Trails

Night Flying

By Dave Nelson

I am flying.

Only my feet know that I am not really flying. But in the new moon darkness, the rest of my body feels like it is.

I have felt this way only once before in my 50+ years, and that was more than 30 years ago. Then, I could ascribe my foolhardiness to youth. Now, I have no such excuse.

Then, it was bicycling across a newly paved parking lot in front of a store that hadn't yet opened. I was coming home from work, at night, in the dark. I had been watching the store go up that autumn, waiting for the time to be right. Earlier that day, I had scoped out the lot on my way to work, and it was perfect. No barriers, curbs, nor even paint lines to break up the lot's newly paved surface.

A pair of black hockey skates on a frozen pond
Photo: Josh Nelson

And then, on my way home that evening, punctuated only by streetlights at either end, the lot lay before me; black against blackness. I entered the lot at one end at high speed. The light from a streetlight in the lot behind me threw my shadow ahead, growing longer and dimmer until it vanished into the pavement.

At the lot's distant other end, another streetlight drew closer, imperceptibly at first.

And in between-total darkness. I knew the pavement was beneath me, but I couldn't see it. With a cold breeze blowing in my face, it felt like I was flying. If I pedaled just the right speed, even my bike was silent.

Tonight, hands clasped behind me, I am reminded of my youth. Leaning forward, I push one foot to the side, and then back, then the other in turn. In a Zen-like rhythm: right, then left, then right again. My skates bite into the ice for just an instant, and then glide in long strokes across the frozen pond's glassy surface.

I am doing my best Hans Brinker impression. Trading his revered canal for my 15-acre beaver pond, I skate in silent darkness. I shut my eyes for several seconds, and continue skating. I am flying again.

I briefly turn on my headlamp against the dark. Checking for cracks in the ice, I make sure there's nothing lying on the surface, like a beaver-chewed stick. I turn it off again.

Tonight is about freedom.

Slowly, I glide to a stop, and listen. For several seconds: silence. A barred owl hoots in the distance; he is my sole companion. The rest of the family has politely declined to join me in my frivolity, preferring instead the warmth and security of the hearth. Only I know what they are missing.

Stars pierce the sky on this brilliantly clear winter night. The Milky Way is incredible. It must be below zero. The cold is heavy.

The ice agrees. Contracting, it shudders underfoot, jolting me back to the present. The booming sound reverberates across the pond and then disappears into the forest. Silence once more. I turn, and head for home. Light streaming through the windows bathes our house in a Kinkade-like glow.

I reach the dock. Sitting, I untie my skates and set them aside; I am alone with my thoughts.

A lifelong fancier of birds, I long to fly. To soar above the tree tops, the wind in my face. One day, perhaps, I will summon the nerve to skydive. Or learn to hang-glide.

For now, night flying will do. Very well indeed.


Editor Dave Nelson skates more frequently on indoor ice sheets with a goal at each end.

Photo: John Bulmer