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    > Night Hike and Family Campfire at the Headlands Institute

    Night Hike and Family Campfire at the Headlands Institute

    I want to eat some more s’mores! Photo by Frog Mom

    As we dug with our fingers in the wet sand at night on Rodeo Beach, I didn’t expect to feel quite that excited – and yet. After I raked out a handful of wet sand slowly, there it was in the shallow trench. A tiny speck of blue light that came on and off in the blink of an eye. I barely saw it before it disappeared. Bioluminescence it’s called. I had never heard the term before but I’ll never forget it. Glow-in-the-dark plankton – sort of.

    Thanks to the clever family night hikes of the Headlands Insitute, I discovered new aspects of the Marin Headlands I had never thought about and I am so glad we went despite the early rain weather forecast. All it takes for a great night experience is a cool guide, kids willing to walk in the dark and the ability to use your senses against your better judgment.

    Why the Headlands Institute?
    I signed up for tonight’s Headlands Institute program because my 2nd grader went to summer camp there last year and loved it. Impressed by the activities she told me about, I had no doubts an evening family program would be fun for our entire family. We pulled over in the parking lot of the Headlands Institute at 5.30pm and at the greeting table, Jen the naturalist looked at my daughter. She smiled and said, “I know you! Don’t tell me your name.” And sure enough she remembered her name. I was blown away. The naturalists sure get to know the kids during summer camps. My daughter was in heaven and this was the best start ever to an evening out.


    Raccoon up in the tree. Photo by C.G.

     Creatures of the Night
    Waiting for other families to trickle in, we had our first nocturnal animal encounter: a big fat bold raccoon. Aren’t they all, though? Big and fat and bold. My husband pursued him around the building for a nice close-up portrait and eventually got what he wanted – up in a cypress tree.

    All families checked in and at 5.45pm, we started heading out for our hike. The plan was to hike around the lagoon and be back for a roaring campfire and s’mores around 7.15pm.

    The rules of the hike
    It was dark by now and Steve, our naturalist, gave us one clear instruction. Tonight we would strive to complete the hike without any light. Of course, everybody had brought flashlights or headlamps or both. We put them away, switched them off and got accustomed to a limited nocturnal vision. Funny how we’re so used to artificial light at night that we forget we don’t necessarily need it. It was hard fighting our natural instinct to switch on a light – just any light.

    Walking along Mitchell Road was challenging at first. When cars drove by, they blinded us temporarily and we had to wait for them to leave so we could find our bearings again. We heard fun stories about great barn owls nesting in cypress trees and about croaking frogs by the lagoon. We learned with mixed fascination and horror how female angler fish absorb their male mates after attaching them to their skin and slowly digesting them from the inside out. It was all fun and Steve knew how to explain difficult concepts to a young audience. Without us noticing, we finally descended the Coastal Trail down to Rodeo Beach. 

    Rodeo Beach at night – really. Photo by Frog Mom

    Noctiluca at Rodeo Beach
    This was our bioluminescence experience. We asked Steve the optimum conditions to repeat the experience by ourselves and he said: low tide pulling out, no moon, preferably in the fall. Tonight we had the two first conditions checked and we weren’t disappointed.

    Twenty feet or so from the waves, we got on our knees and gently dug the sand. I took a photo of all of us, hoping that I’d be able to capture the white foam cresting the waves on the dark sand. I think the result is more of an “inspired by Soulages” photo as my husband says. If you look close enough, you’ll see the shades of black I wanted to show and you may even discern the waves crashing hard closeby.


    Dinoflagellate that exhibits bioluminescence.
    Photo by Maria Antónia Sampayo, Instituto de Oceanografia,
    Faculdade Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa

     However if you really want to know what we saw, I got this pretty photo of a photoluminescent plankton off Wikipedia. It was taken at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon in plankton-perfect conditions. Not at Rodeo Beach tonight. In the sand that’s not what they looked like. I’ll try to describe our experience.

    Imagine being in a dark room and suddenly a tiny blue star flickers and goes off. Then another one. Then perhaps ten at once. You keep digging the wet sand, try your luck a foot closer to the edge of the water and several more appear, like a luminous curtain. It was just magical. My 5-year old was beyond herself. “Mom mom, it’s like fairy dust.” It was.

    Adults and children had so much fun looking for the plankton that we reluctantly got up to continue the hike. Ah well, we’d be back another day. So we left and guided by Steve, avoided the decomposing carcass of a dead sea lion stranded on the shore. As soon as we were “in the wind”, there was no mistaking the dead animal smell. “Eeuw!” went the kids. I took the opportunity to throw in a little life lesson to my 5-year old and explain this was the smell of dead animals. “It stinks” she said. Sure enough.


    The second raccoon – or was it the same one?
    Photo by Frog Mom

     Close to the Headlands Institute, we spotted two deer grazing on the grassy slopes between the buildings. “A mountain lion was seen reported last week on the ridge,” said Steve. For being so close to a major metropolitan area, the Marin Headlands feels remarkably wild. We smelled the fire before we saw it and sat around the campfire to enjoy roasted marshmallows, Simon Says games and silly songs. Another raccoon came by, said hello and stayed in the bushes.

    All in all, it was a great evening. Wish we could have stayed longer at the beach.

    If you want to enjoy a fun family program out in nature, here are the details of the next family program at the Headlands Institute.

    Life on the Edge at Point Bonita Lighthouse

    • Date: Sunday, February 13, 2011
    • Time: 9:30-11:30am
    • Description: Gather your family for a one-of-a-kind experience touring the historic Point Bonita Lighthouse. The 1/2 mile hike to the lighthouse is filled with stunning views and fun adventures through a tunnel and along a footbridge. Keep your eye out for seals sunbathing on the rocks below. Learn what it takes to be a lighthouse keeper and the importance that the lighthouse still provides for navigating ships. Meet at the trail head to the lighthouse at 9:30 am.
    • Cost: $10/person, pre-registration required
    • Accessibility: This is a moderate hike along unpaved trails. Carriers are recommended for children 4 and under. No strollers. Sorry, no dogs on this hike.

    4 thoughts on “Night Hike and Family Campfire at the Headlands Institute

    1. Laure, I wish I could see well enough in the dark to experience the magic of what you and your family saw.

      See you next month!

      Marcia Keyser

    2. Thank you Marcia. It was really incredible. Wish I could have photographed it but it was simply impossible. Too dark, too ephemeral, too tiny. There’s a famous poem called The Conquerors by Cuban-born Jose Maria de Heredia with the following lines: "Each night they slept in hope of epic quest,
      the tropic seas’ soft phosphorescent blues
      cast spells on golden dreams, – a siren muse,". The "phosphorescent blues" refers to the same plankton. It seems to be quite common.

    3. Bravo pour ce saut dans le monde de la nuit. Il est intéressant de voir que ce qui apparait comme la nuit n’est en fait qu’une diminution de la lumière mais pas le noir complet d’une cave qui peut faire peur. Cette nuit relative ne semble d’ailleurs pas géner des animaux comme les racoons qui eux sont habitués à cette ambiance. De là à penser qu’il faut éliminer les éclairages nocturnes, je n’irai pas jusque là.

      Bravo encore


    4. Hi nice to meet you. Jody here from Oakland. What a wonderful experience! My kids go to the headlands on a school trip but we haven’t done it properly yet – and this has inspired me to organise it!

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