Cold hearted orb that rules the night, removes the colors from our sight;
Red is gray and yellow white, but we decide which is right.
And which is the illusion?
– Moody Blues
Despite the fact it has been probed and studied for years and astronauts have left footprints on its surface, our moon still retains much of its mystery and magic, kindling deep emotions within us as it wanders slowly across the night sky. In mid-winter when Alaska darkness is at a maximum, and daylight at a minimum, I really enjoy getting outdoors for moonlight skiing, snowshoeing or hiking.
While a full moon at 0.1 LUX is barely a fraction of the full daylight brightness (10,000 LUX), when it’s reflected off snow and diffused across a broad area, a mountainside for example, it can cast shadows and in general, create a very bright setting – sufficient for moving about.
One of the more interesting things about moonlight is that it limits our vision to black and white, or monochromatic view, as noted in the Moody Blues song lyric. The reason is that its luminosity is not sufficient to activate the cone cells in our eyes, which provide color. In low light our rod cells are activated, and they’re only capable of giving us black and white.
This absence of color tricks our brain and sometimes makes us think we’re seeing color when we aren’t. Getting out in low light like moonlight is one of the few times that we can truly experience the close connection of our brain to our optical nerves/photo receptors. I think the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what we’re looking at adds to the allure and magic of moonlight.
I might take along a good headlamp to show me some detail in case I’m in a shadowed area. But generally, I like to allow my eyes to adjust to the low light level and work with what’s available. I’m sure we’ve all experienced how quickly one’s night vision is ruined after turning on a bright headlamp.
Sometimes for navigation in a relatively unfamiliar area, leaving the headlamp off is preferable because its light washes out distant views of ridges and other landforms. On a winter snowshoe trip not far from my home north of Anchorage, during the deep of Alaska darkness, I almost became lost because I relied too much on my headlamp. When I turned it off, I immediately saw a familiar land feature and got back on track.
On moonlight outings (even half-moons are great) I no longer struggle to see what is not visible at that low light level. It makes the trip much more enjoyable. Allow the scenes to come to you, accept what the gray and silvery light will show you. Trust your rods. For me, that’s when it becomes magical, even mystical. Sometimes you’re not sure what you’re looking at, but it doesn’t matter. As the Moody Blues say, it can be your ‘illusion.’
But a caveat: Be sure of your terrain. You don’t want to wander into a glacier crevasse or open water on a frozen river or lake.
That said, once you’re in a familiar area and know what to expect, a moonlight excursion can make the familiar unfamiliar, like you’re journeying into the unknown. And in a way, you are.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River, Alaska.