The WOLF School Night Hike
by Heather Butler
The night hike is an excellent educational opportunity at the WOLFSchool for students to learn both socially and academically. As individuals, students challenge themselves to overcome fears about the dark, walking outside at night, and using all their senses. As a group, students experience working together to stay safe, helping each other through rough spots, and supporting each other during a situation they may perceive to be scary, or difficult. As a teacher, I have experienced the greatest fear from the students before a night hike, and the greatest success and pride in accomplishment after it. Students repeatedly say that the night hike was the best part of their week at outdoor school. After hundreds of night hikes over many years, the night hike is still my favorite activity during the week.
Beginning the night hike, students are completely briefed about rules and safety. As their teacher, I have assessed them for a day and a half, so I know enough to be able to scale the night hike activities to challenge them appropriately. Chaperons for the group are briefed, and all adults carry flashlights for safety. Students do not carry lights.
The first part of the night hike is about learning to use our senses. We start walking at dusk, observing light levels, shades of color, trying to smell scents and feeling if the air is different as the night falls, learning to walk slowly and how to place our feet carefully. These skills are important learning opportunities and are important skills for safety as it gets darker later in the walk. We learn vocabulary for evening studies: nocturnal, diurnal, crepuscular, adaptations, astronomy, constellation. We list nocturnal animals and their adaptations. We listen for them, discussing where they might be and best ways to see or hear an animal. We use our “deer ears,” using our hands to build ear extensions. We test them out and share what we discover.
Heading out into the forest, we walk a bit, then stop and try to listen for nocturnal life. We walk a bit more and test our eyesight by using colored markers, stop to check out a fluorescing millipede on the ground. The students get a lesson on mammalian eyes and their adaptations, rods, cones, and the difference between coyote eyes and human eyes. We talk about how to walk on a trail with a group, learning to place a hand on the shoulder in front of you, or following the white trail markers. Later we will test our pupils’ reactions to light with a candle activity.
Next, they listen to a story about California Native American groups who used a rite of passage in which children proved their adulthood through a type of vision quest. Kids are often familiar with this concept from their studies and understand the idea that it is a challenge, somewhat difficult and maybe scary, that a child faced to prove their bravery, strength, and ability to enter adult life. They hear a story about a child who goes on a quest and succeeds, learning about herself and earning her new nature name. I challenge the students to participate in a solo sit challenge on the night hike. They have the opportunity to sit still on the trail by themselves for 5-7 minutes (while I wait nearby, but not visible). During that time, they are to silently observe the forest, think about their community and those who have helped them in their lives, how they want to give back to the community, and what they want to do in the future.
Students sit one after the other on the trail like breadcrumbs until their chaperone hikes the trail 5 minutes later and gathers them up. We meet as a group inside a hollow redwood tree, sitting in a circle on the ground. The students whisper excitedly as bats fly overhead. I light a candle and pass it around the circle, while students share their discoveries, their commitments to their community, their solo sit experience and their newly chosen and earned nature name. After we share, we celebrate together in how brave we were, what an incredible experience it is to share the darkness and these experiences with friends and teachers. I tell them a silly story about a falling star and let them chomp on Wint-O-Green lifesavers and make them spark in their mouths. They laugh.
We walk back to camp carefully, listening for coyote howls and owls’ hoots, warning each other of the mud in the trail and the root sticking out, a giggling, shuffling group of young people who have a new respect for themselves, each other, and the forest. We look at the stars, talk about light, identify a few constellations and a planet, and share a star legend. Tomorrow we will revisit the experience as we write and draw about our experiences and thoughts during the night hike. It is truly a life-changing experience.