Forest Journal: The sun may be fleeting, but outdoors still beckons
It’s hard to get outside on days when the sun’s light fades before four o’clock. On weekends, I help my squirrely kids into winter puffers and boots after lunch with a new sense of urgency that we find a playground or forest trail. There’s not much time before the sun disappears behind the bare trees.
But, New Hampshire’s shortest day — the winter solstice — hasn’t even arrived yet. This year, the solstice occurs on December 21 at 10:59 a.m. in the Granite State, when the sun is farthest from the celestial equator, giving us about nine hours of daylight. That’s six hours less of sunlight than we experience in June. Sunrise will happen at 7:13 a.m. and sunset at 4:14 p.m.
It could be worse. Whenever I’m frustrated by the early sunset, I remember growing up in Alaska when it felt like the sun barely rose before it set again. Consider that in Fairbanks, Alaska, daylight lasts fewer than four hours around the winter solstice. On December 21, the sun will rise at 10:58 a.m. and set at 2:40 p.m. and the temperature this week hovered around 30 degrees below zero.
Still, I lived some four hundred miles below the Arctic Circle. In the northernmost city in America of Utqiaġvik, Alaska — home to the Iñupiat people — residents saw the sun set last month on November 18 and won’t see it rise again until January 22, 2022.
The northern hemisphere’s longest night has also come to mark winter’s beginning. Here in New Hampshire, we make the best of the darkness with holiday lights, evergreens, and merriment. A family friend of mine holds an annual “yule party” on the winter solstice (yule was a pagan celebration of the winter solstice season long ago) with an enormous bonfire and a reading of “The Shortest Day,” written by Susan Cooper for The Christmas Revels. The poem begins:
And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
Between the winter solstice and the first days of 2022, I aspire to spend as much time as possible outdoors to fight off what Alaskans call “cabin fever.”
And, if — like me — you need an extra nudge to venture into the woods in the cold, there are a few upcoming opportunities at New Hampshire’s state parks and conservation properties to hike with a guide or on your own this winter. You can even bring your dog along on (most of) the adventures.
Since 2012, the national First Day Hikes initiative has encouraged families to get outdoors at America’s State Parks each year on New Year’s Day. The free hikes are taking place this year in New Hampshire at Weeks State Park, Bear Brook State Park, Greenfield State Park, White Lake State Park, and Hampton Beach State Park. The Hampton Beach walk will also include an optional beach cleanup effort led by the Blue Ocean Society.
Separately, at the Forest Society’s Creek Farm reservation in Portsmouth, a DIY scavenger hunt on January 1 will entertain children and the whole family can enjoy hot chocolate afterward.
However you choose to get outside, I wish you a happy solstice season and lots of open spaces and natural places to enjoy outdoors in the new year.
Solstice season activities:
- Take a hike: Visit one of five participating New Hampshire State Parks for a First Day Hike. Free; pre-registration required. Register here.
- Walk where the forest meets the sea: Visit the Forest Society Education Center at Creek Farm in Portsmouth for a DIY scavenger hunt along Little Harbor Loop and complimentary hot chocolate. Learn more.
- Cold is cool: Find information on winter hiking safety and plowed Forest Society reservations, as well as educational resources on topics ranging from ice to wildlife tracking, at forestsociety.org/coldiscool.
- Pack the 10 essentials: Get a list for winter packing and learn the hiker’s code of responsibility at hikesafe.com