North Fork Outdoors: Winter lights provide quite a show

Just after midnight this morning at 12:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (Dec. 22), the sun dipped to its lowest point as seen from the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice. If we check the sun at noon today, our parent star will be less than 23 degrees above the horizon. When we worked years ago in Hamburg, a city whose latitude is that of Labrador, the sun just cleared the horizon after 10 a.m. and was only half the angle of our Long Island noonday sun at the solstice. No wonder folks further north, where the sun is even lower, complain about “the dark of winter”!

Low light angles create spectacular effects after sunrise and before sunset, and whenever you can enjoy the rays on sunny days, you really do appreciate them. Wildlife feels the same way about winter sunshine. Our favorite game birds, the bobwhite quail of the Eastern seaboard (yes, there are still a few coveys out on the East End), the ruffed grouse in forested coverts of the Appalachian states, and the ever adaptable pheasant love sunny, still winter days, emerging from roosting cover or protected screens by mid-morning to feed and loaf, and usually favoring south-facing slopes.

Winter trips on the water seem cold and forbidding, especially in a season when party packets leave the docks well before sunup to search for cod and tautog on wrecks and rubble piles tens of miles off Montauk or off the South Shore. But when the sky turns to gold and the sun rises from the water in the southeast, the day definitely starts to brighten up. Often the best fishing of the day occurs early and late when sun angles are lowest, and sunrise is generally a lot easier for anglers, simply because coastal winds tend to drop off overnight before rising during the day, a simple consequence of circulation. Afterwards, if you’ve had a successful day of offshore fishing, nothing beats watching the winter sun slip back into the ocean while you nurse a hot drink in a warm cabin. Sailor’s grog, hot toddys, and Irish coffee are highly recommended.

Ski hills have a real advantage when it comes to enjoying the winter sun because south-facing slopes catch the rays at a more direct angle throughout the day. If winds are light and you’re spending more time on trails than you are riding gondolas or chairs, you get warm relatively fast. In bygone eras when mid-century skiers rode “T-bars” or “Poma-lifts” and exertion was part of the game getting to the top of a hill, you shed layers continuously during a mild winter day. The flip side of the coin, naturally, is snow depth, which tends to be better on shaded north-facing trails because melting is much reduced.

Still, savvy skiers realize that, no matter how good your goggles are with green lenses giving way to grays, then yellows and reds, the light intensity drops dramatically everywhere by mid-afternoon. When the sides and backs of mountains fall into shadow, contrasts disappear, and it’s awfully hard to make out the wrinkles and bumps, especially on ungroomed surfaces. Choices are pretty simple a couple of hours into the p.m. On shaded trails you either throttle back sharply, restrict yourself to the few trails with waning sunlight, or head back to the lodge for hot coffee and pastry before packing up. Folks who feel they have to get in that last run, a quick run on a shaded black diamond trail, just before the lifts close in order to get their money’s worth are tempting the ski gods. But that’s what keeps the ski patrol busy.

If you like to gaze at the heavens during winter months and you have a telescope you can assemble quickly or even a good set of high-powered binoculars, the low daytime arc of the sun means just the opposite at night, a high arc for the planets as well as for the constellations that lie along that path, the ecliptic. You’ll never have better viewing of Jupiter (in the west before midnight), Mars (in the east well after midnight), Saturn (in the morning sky) and Orion’s glowing gas cloud. If you dress like a skier or a duck hunter and get onto the object you’re looking for quickly (sky charts have been superceded by computer software and even “Google Sky” to make life easier) you won’t mind the temperatures.

But back to the daytime now. It’s general knowledge that artists and photographers favor “northern light,” setting up studios whose windows provide uniform illumination lacking in shadows. (I was really impressed by this feature of Andrew Wyeth’s studio on a tour of the Chadd’s Ford Museum last summer.) Nevertheless, when it comes to winter, I’ll take a nice south-facing porch with sunlight flooding the room!

Enjoy the solstice, Christmas and the holidays! We’ll see you in 2012.