A cold front, a hike, a reminder that summer is passing

The weather people said a cold front was coming. They said the air would be drier. They said the daytime highs would drop into the mid-70s and that it cool off to 60 overnight. After weeks of soggy, sweaty days in the low 90s, it was easy to be skeptical. But when front finally hit it was easy to drop whatever and reunite with the outdoors.

Wednesday evening, after seeing that the temperature had dropped to 73, I did just that — abandoned whatever it was I was doing and headed to Umstead State Park. A 10-minute drive, the 5,700-acre forest in the heart of the Triangle is a handy escape, especially at times like this.

By 7 on a summer’s weeknight the parking lot is usually near empty, a half dozen cars, 10 tops. This evening, there are 30 cars in the lot. Many are trail runners (I cross paths with several on the trail). Some are cyclists (at least based on their car racks) and the rest are hikers. Some of the latter, bearing heavy packs, appear to be training for backpack trips, but most seem like me, taking advantage of the first cool summer weather in a long while to enjoy eventide.

At this time of year, the evening forest light is indecisive. The summer solstice is nearly two months past, and the grace period when we’re not getting perceptively short-changed on sunlight is starting to pass. Yet we’re still not to the point where the end of every day signals the imminent end of after work daylight. For a good hour the light is consistent, muted by a milky cover of high clouds. Occasionally, there’s a break and the treetops take on a brilliant glow. Little direct sunlight reaches the forest floor; creeks run dark, underscoring the cool of the evening.

The canopy remains a healthy green, the understory as well; thus, despite the cool air the woods retain a summery feel. Listen, though, and you’ll pick up on another hint of fall. On a typically hot summer evening these woods, near the creeks and ponds, would be humming with a chorus of frogs. Tonight, only a handful — less, probably — of northern cricket frogs can be heard, their distinctive chirp, a glick-glick-glick, penetrating the quiet. Come October, the occasional, chirp of a lone holdout is one of the truest signs of fall.

Somewhere down the trail I remember the trailhead sign advising that the park closes at 9 p.m. In another couple weeks, the diminishing daylight will close the gates at 8; come November and throughout the winter the park’s official day will be over at 6, eliminating these after work escapes altogether. I check my watch and estimate how much farther I can hike and still make it back to the car by 9. I’m not wasting a moment of this evening.

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