At dusk, nature trails lead to a mysterious world

Some of area's forest preserves let visitors experience sights and sounds after sunset

The sun had sunk behind the trees. In the fading light, the woods were dusky shadows.

And faintly, just barely, I thought I heard something.

I stood still and listened in the quiet of the darkening forest.

Hoo hoo hoo. Hoo.

An owl. I was smiling as I walked on, then stopped. About 30 feet ahead, two deer were standing next to the trail, staring at me. Then one jumped back into the brush, and they were both gone.

Night was falling at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien, and I was taking a different kind of walk.

Nature at night is quiet, mysterious. It is a place of dark woods and of strange rustlings, of owl hoots and coyote howls.

"The people have gone home; it's the animals' time," said Ray Soszynski, senior ranger with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, who leads night walks at Waterfall Glen. "The nocturnal animals are waking up and starting their day."

Ranger-led programs are the only way to experience night well after dark in area forest preserves; most close at sunset, including those in Cook, Lake and McHenry counties.

But the DuPage County preserves stay open for an hour after sunset. You can stay on the trails as the sky darkens.

Not everyone would want to; some before-sunset walkers I spoke to said they thought the trail would be frightening after dark.

But Gina Early does so several times a week, walking her dog, Champ.

"It's peaceful; it's quiet; and the animals come out," she said.

She and Champ had stopped to watch the deer too. Early, who lives nearby in unincorporated Hinsdale, has seen coyotes and foxes. She has heard owls hoot and seen great blue herons walk across the trail.

And between Champ's company and her familiarity with the trail, she feels safe.

The preserves are safe, said Tom Wakolbinger, chief of police of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. As for evening visits, "if we didn't think it was safe, our preserves wouldn't be open after sunset," he said.

"People should use some common sense," he said. "I wouldn't recommend that somebody go out there at dusk and later by themselves if they're not in an area they're very comfortable with. Every once in a while, we'll have someone get lost at Waterfall Glen. Once that sun goes down, all of a sudden it's really dark."

But "it's a beautiful time to be out," he said, sounding more like a naturalist than a police chief. "It's quieter; there are fewer people around; and right now it's a beautiful time of year."

I found myself wishing I had brought a friend on my walk. Between the dark and the absence of other people, it was a little unnerving for a solo stroll.

On the other hand, the solitude was part of the magic. In the quiet, I heard every rustling and tried to figure out what animal had caused it. And a lone walk that featured tall pines silhouetted against the sky and a single star glowing in the west had a powerful appeal.

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