Night gathers, and now my watch begins…

I am the fire that burns against the cold,

the light that brings the dawn,

the horn that wakes the sleepers…

(G.R.R. Martin)

I have never worked a night shift.  Ask anyone who knows me – I keep Grandma-hours: early to bed and early to rise.  So, when I was assigned the graveyard shift during field work last week, I knew it was to be an experience to shake up my Grandma-ways (well, for a week anyways).

Last week’s field work was an opportunity to serve with others in a larger restoration project, with about 20 people in our camp, and somewhere around 40 – 50 people in a neighboring camp about 3-5 miles upstream.  All of us were assigned different tasks, usually in an 8-12 hours shift, paired with at least 1 or 2 others.  I was on the midnight to 0800 shift, during which I would collect water samples every hour on the hour and do about 15 minutes of work to get some data on the sample.

From what I could gather, this shift was one others would, let’s just say, prefer not to have.  However, being new to this realm of work, and having never worked a night shift before, the whole thing seemed novel and (misguided or not) exciting.

view during daytime sleep attempts

view during daytime sleep attempts

The thing about working a night shift on such a project is that you, in a way, “don’t exist” on the project.  You become a ghost, a myth, and somewhat anonymous.  You have a purpose, but that purpose, if done well, becomes invisible.  Your data and notations are the evidence you leave behind of your existence, but other than that, you operate largely unseen.  You are asleep when others are awake, and awake when others are asleep.  For some, that would be a somber consideration, but if you are an introvert and an introvert with books & your notebook, this really isn’t so bad a sentence, to be somewhat alienated from the rest of camp.  All that is to say, I was a well-chosen individual to be tasked to the graveyard shift, and didn’t even have to pretend to be very much “ok” with it.

reading friend for the night shift

reading friend for the night shift

So, somewhere around 1500, I would take my Daily Dramamine pill to get myself into a state of potential sleep, and then get into my tent to read, setting my alarm for 2315.  At the sound of my alarm, I would then put on every layer of clothing I brought (we were working at around 9000ft elevation, so in the dark hours, it isn’t exactly “warm” out) and then stumble in my Dramamine haze down to my work station near the stream to join my crew.

Then, each hour on the hour our timer would go off.  Our 2-3 person crew would put on our head lamps, and shuffle down to the shore of the creek.  Then one of us would lay down on their stomach on a rock on the shore, and reach their arm with a rubber-gloved hand to dip a glass bottle into the thalwag (deepest channel) of the stream to gather our sample.  Headlamp Science.


The shift goes surprisingly fast.  And before you know it, you are gathering your 0600 sample in sunlight, and you don’t need your headlamp anymore.  Then the scent of breakfast arrives on the morning breeze, and 0800 rolls around and your shift is over.

The experience of this week has not converted me to nocturnal ways.  But, I will say there is a lot of blessings to be gleaned from working in the Sierra wilderness at night:

  • You really grow to appreciate moonlight, and notice how the intensity of it changes from night to night.  You take time to look up at this moon, and the stars, because…you are up at night for hours with few other distractions, so why wouldn’t you?
  • You begin to notice how the wind’s rhythm changes throughout the evening, and even begin to hear the subtle differences in notes as it blows branches of different types of trees.
  • The song of the creek you work next too is so impossibly soothing, that you are hard pressed to consider any sort of man-made music a superior alternative to that which you hear in the running water.
  • You get a childlike enjoyment out of seeing your breath in the lamp light, not even trying to stifle your smile at this observation, and hence don’t so much mind the chill of the night air because of this.
  • It allows you to see the wilderness as few others see it, and allows you to see yourself in a new light too.

And, if nothing else, you think to yourself what an amazing way this is to spend a “work day,” and get a kick out of doing a “day’s work” all before breakfast, before everyone else awakens from sleep.

And now my watch is ended.


2 thoughts on “nightwatch

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