Dancing in the Dark
It has been a minute. Maybe you’ve been here the whole time. Perhaps you’re just getting back to Cape May after being away for the winter. Or maybe you’re reading this several months after it was published, as you cool off from the hot summer sun and rifle through the stack of Cape May Magazines under the coffee table at your summer rental. In any case, let me set the stage for you: it’s winter here in Cape May, and it’s cold.
I mean, it’s Cape May…so it could be cold; one day it’s 19F and blowing a gale, and then, as it did last January, it’s 55F and sunny and people are surfing in only board shorts. Winter is a cuckoo time for weather here in paradise, and if you haven’t experienced it, I highly recommend it.
Sure, at some point during the winter you might want to escape, or at least I do, pining for tropical oases by February and early March. But winter in Cape May is also quite fascinating. Once we eclipse the New Year, Cape May becomes a bit ghost-town-esque, made more -esque by my recent fondness for running. You see, I started running in earnest a little over a year ago (by the time you read this), and I say “in earnest” because to run “in earnest” means that you’re likely to run at inopportune times of the day to reach some earnest goals.
And winter, oh baby, those days are short, and unless you work from home and make your own hours, you’re likely running in the dark morning or the equally dark evening. Luckily, I’ve found a community of dedicated runners in Cape May who help motivate me on cold dark mornings. Several days a week we meet at the Cove well before sunrise and run down the promenade toward Poverty Beach. Depending on how many miles we want to get in, we might go a bit farther or cut it a little shorter. The streets are mostly desolate, save for one or two other people we might see bundled up and getting in some early morning steps. The dunes often hold a raccoon, opossum or (more likely) a stray domestic cat, and every once in a while, a song sparrow, northern mockingbird, or yellow-rumped warbler is startled from the dune bushes and flutters up the path.
On most mornings the sound of the waves on the shore keeps rhythm with our pace, which can vary from a soft soothing ebb and flow to a loud crashing repeater, depending on the wind speed and direction. Running on the promenade has the benefit of being lit by street lamps, even if only lightly, which means you don’t need a headlamp or other flashlight (although it can be helpful). Lucky for us, though, there are many equally desolate roads and trails on the island worth exploring in the dark that do require some personal lighting but offer a more intimate experience with nature in the dark.
One such place is the Nature Conservancy’s South Cape May Meadows, a one-mile loop from the parking lot, south down the west path to the inner dune trail, then back up towards Sunset via the east path, and then parallel to Sunset back to the parking lot. Another less-traveled path is the roughly 1.5-mile trail marked with red and blue blazes from the north dead end of Bayshore Road all the way to the overflow parking lot for the Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area on New England Road. That one is spooky after dark, but on many nights has the benefit of audible Eastern Screech Owls, Barred Owls, and Great Horned Owls—sometimes all three at once.
If you’re adventurous, you can extend that trail into the Higbee Beach WMA where maintained trails line several fields heading south, and eventually lead into the Davey’s Lake section. From here, soft sand trails lead you once again to a maintained path through the old Magnesite Plant and Sunset Boulevard. You may be familiar with these trails by day, but under the inky sky riddled with stars, it’s a whole new world. In fact, if you haven’t been there during the day, it’s always best to do a daytime dry run before heading out at night, just to get a lay of the land. While Cape May is exceedingly safe, if you do decide to run (or walk) these trails in the dark, it’s best to let someone know your plan. And bring a light that has enough charge to last you beyond your intended outing time. The beauty of our little island is that while you can feel like you’re in a wild and secluded paradise, you’re never that far from a road or coastline, either of which will help you find your way in a pinch.
So, get out there and explore, and soon you too will be looking forward to, instead of dreading, those shorter days of winter for their long and glorious nights!