Dawn’s Early Light

keep to your circadian rhythmsOne of my favorite things about backpacking  is the way your body shifts over time to fall in line with natural cycles of dark and light. There’s nothing like snuggling sleepily into your sleeping bag at 8pm (which somehow feels like midnight) and waking up in time to watch the first golden pink blush of dawn diffusing across the high country peaks.

I’ve always wondered: why do we fall asleep so soon after sunset and wake so much earlier when we are out in nature?

It turns out that this has been the subject of a lot of scientific research. The answer is rooted in our biology: Cycles of light and dark have governed metabolic cycles of activity and rest since the first intrepid little bacteria ventured forth in our sweeping oceans. Sunlight provided a source of energy for their activity, while they used the  period of dark as a time to rest and repair. Even as life grew more complex, it retained this basic “circadian rhythm”.

Around 400,000 (or possibly more) years ago our ancestors started their friendship with fire and began to share the night with its comforting red glow. Nowadays, gathering around the campfire has been replaced by gathering around the TV, iPhone or computer. But the glowing blue light of the various screens in our lives have an entirely different effect on us than the warm red spectrum light of our old friend fire.

bright screens disrupt circadian rhythmsThe production of several key hormones is tied to our amount and type of light exposure. Red spectrum light does little to disrupt our biological rhythms. Unfortunately, bluish light can really throw a wrench into our hormonal balance.

Cortisol is normally produced first thing in the morning to help crank up our insulin and blood sugar and wake us up. As we go through our day, it slowly tapers off and we begin to wind down. As night falls and the world around us darkens, our bodies respond by producing melatonin- a natural brain antioxidant, and a very important signal for our body to go to sleep and repair.

Melatonin production can be cut short rather abruptly with exposure to bright lighting- especially in the blue spectrum. Strong blue light exposure only occurs in nature around noon. So every time we stare at a brilliant screen after dark, the glowing blue light shining into the back of your retinas from your TV, computer or cell phone is telling your body that it is midday. This signals your body to stop producing deep sleep inducing melatonin and instead switch over to cranking out wakeful cortisol.Cortisol sleep

“But I fall asleep just fine to the TV!” you protest. It’s not just the amount of sleep, but the quality. If your body doesn’t produce enough melatonin, then you may fall asleep, but you will not sleep as deeply, not reach the more restorative stages of sleep. You will also rob yourself of the production of healing (and youth prolonging) human growth hormone. Lack of truly deep sleep can also compromise your immune system, insulin and blood sugar regulation – and that can take your weight and your other hormones (like estrogen and testosterone) on a roller coaster ride.

soltion for blue screen light at night

Even if we don’t want to live like we are backpacking all the time, we can take some key lessons about how to manage our biology better from backcountry trips. You can mimic our old friend fire to light up your nights- use low warm reddish light at night; either from a fireplace or at least dimmer amber colored bulbs.

Stop exposing yourself to blue light from your devices/TV at least a couple hours before you go to sleep. Apple has included a new feature “night shift” that shifts the color spectrum of the display to a warm red spectrum (make sure to choose the most warm setting and enable it automatically from sunset to sunrise).

And remember to get exposure to the early morning sun to help reset your clock to your local morning. Getting reconnected with nature’s rhythms can be an amazingly useful tool to help us manage our own health.

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Guided By Nature

Finding your way in the woods without a map or compass can be a daunting task, yet our ancestors travelled their wild world, sometimes hundreds of miles on foot, without a breaking a sweat… How the heck did they do it??

Being guided by nature is based in reading the subtle patterns in nature that modern domesticated humans normally ignore. The directions of the world are worn into the very rocks, reflected in the undergrowth leaves reaching towards the sun and in the gnarled branches of trees twisting their way to the sky. Our ancestors could read these natural patterns as easily as you read a street sign, guiding them to their destinations and back again.

So how do we (re)train ourselves in this ancient human skill? There is no one fail safe, true in every location “trick” to natural navigation. Finding your way naturally relies on understanding of the larger natural patterns of the area you live in- the amount and direction of light, prevailing wind(s), level of moisture… These cumulative forces cause subtle asymmetries that you can learn to interpret. In short, you must spend time out in nature, observing and interacting.

Here are some handful of rough directional patterns to get you started:

1. “Into the light”. In an effect known as Heliotropism many plants orient themselves towards the greatest source of light. In our forest one of the more sensitive (and obvious) Heliotropic flora would be our lovely fiddlehead ferns. Ferns in direct sun will tend to orient much of their growth southwards to catch the most light. Note: make sure to look for obstacles to light that can change the fern’s orientation. Under heavy tree cover, heliotropic plants will orient towards the nearest bright opening in the canopy, no matter what direction it is. Open meadows may be your best bet.

2. Look for a tree’s “Heavy Side”. Lone Trees tend to be “heavier” with more leaves and branches to the south side (in our northern hemisphere) in order to catch more of the life giving sun. Take the time to walk around the tree and view it from multiple angles. Note: this effect can be muted or overridden in a grouping of trees as their shadows interact with each other.

3. Branching out. Sunlight also directs the growth of individual branches. Southern branches tend to grow more horizontally (towards the sun), while the shaded northern branches tend to grow more vertically in their quest for more sunlight. This can be most easily seen when observing the tree from East/West. Once again, individual trees are easier to read than groves.

4. Moss and moisture. Isn’t moss supposed to grow on the north side of trees? Yes, but… for the record, moss does not always grow just on the north side of trees. Where moss grows depends mainly on the level of moisture, and this is not always on the north side. Also, disregard growth in the first 2 feet up from the ground around the trunk – which tends to be influenced by the evaporating ground moisture.

Interested in exploring this further? For an engaging guide to these skills look for Tristan Gooley’s book “Natural Navigation”. There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of more tips to explore and many more of your own to discover as you go out and start looking for your own patterns in nature.

(NOTE: This does not give you an excuse to go out into unfamiliar territory without a map!)

Happy navigating!

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Pine Pop Quiz

Have you ever asked yourself…

Why do pines have both big and teeney tiny cones?

The answer lies in the basic biology of pine tree reproduction. Every conifer tree species produces male and female cones (usually both on the same tree!). The male cones start out small and stay small, usually going pretty much unnoticed by the unobservant public.

These diminutive male cones fall off the tree soon after they do their job in pollination and will never really open up into what we often consider a “real” decorative cone. Meanwhile, the female cones grow ever larger and larger- maturing to their full size in a matter of months up to several years depending on the species.

Why do Ponderosas smell so darn good?

Ever catch a mysterious whiff of baking cookies as you stroll through the woods? No, you’re not out of your gourd. You’re probably just passing near an old stand of Ponderosas, or their cousins the Jeffery pines.

These trees perform a fascinating trick as they age. When a Ponderosa or Jeffery reaches around 110 years old (a mere teenager!), their bark changes color from black to yellow-tinted and they start producing a special chemical in their sap that emits an absolutely delicious aroma when warmed by the sun.

So look for these older “yellow-bellied” trees, stick your nose into a deep crevice in their bark and take a good, deep sniff …ahhhhh… Now go home to satisfy your sudden craving for some warm cookies and cold milk!

Are sugar pines really all that sweet?

Actually… yes! The Sugar Pine exudes a sweet gummy sap which hardens up into rock-candy like shapes, just ripe for the picking. The Native Americans prized this sugary sap as a delicious sweet treat. The “sweet” in the sap comes from a sugar alcohol named pinitol which is under investigation from modern medicine for possible insulin sensitizing and muscle building properties.

Don’t just decide to go out gathering pine sap though, unless you are prepared to get covered in sticky goo. and remember, sap serves as part of the tree’s immune system against pests like the bark beetle and gathering it can put the tree at risk.

So, get out there on the trail and enjoy a new view (and smell) of our old friends, the pines!

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Natural Wonders…

Have You Ever Wondered?

Hiking around these mountains there’s all sorts of things in nature that just seem designed to boggle mind. Have you ever wondered…

1. Why is your pine tree foaming at the mouth in the rain?? Don’t be alarmed, it doesn’t need rabies shots!

This foam is caused by the formation of a crude soap on the bark from fatty acids in pine sap/resin. Over a drought a mix of sap salts and acids accumulates and coats the bark surface to form the basics of a rough detergent.

When it rains, these ingredients mix with the water and start sudsing up. The froth (foam) is from the agitation of the mixture as it runs down the rough bark during its flow toward the ground.

So it’s a perfectly natural thing when a pine suds up in the rain- although if it does so excessively, it may indicate that there is some insect or other damage that is causing it to “bleed” more sap.

3. Why are there sticks walking around at the bottom of the stream?

Next time you’re down by the creek in the summer take a look at the bottom of the small pools and you’ll see a collection of small sticks that seem to be crawling along against the current.

These little guys are caddisfly larvae. They are sheltered by a shell of pebbles, bark and other debris that they have built-up and “glued” in place around them with a form of silk that they excrete. It’s a great protection and camouflage all at once. Some types of caddisfly not only form shells with the silk, but also make nets in order to collect food and build hideaways.

2. Do you know how to tell who ate your pinecone? Lots of critters like to munch away at pine cones to fatten them up for the winter, but each has a distinctive way of chowing down.


You can always tell where a squirrel has eaten lunch, since they leave a clean pine cone ‘core’ (like an apple core!) and a big pile of stripped pine scales on the ground behind them. (Didn’t their mom ever teach them to clean up?)

Woodpeckers and many other of our feathered friends also peck away at pinecones. They use their pointy beaks to pull out the pine scales, one by one. This leaves a ragged, “pokey” edge (the scales of cones eaten by squirrels have clean-cut edges because of their sharp teeth).

So next time you’re out and about and you run into a strange natural phenomenon (or just something you’ve always wondered about), take the time to do the research. There’s almost always a fascinating answer that can help you understand more about natural patterns around you- and it’s great hiking trivia!

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