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By the Light of the Moon

Blue-white light washes over the peaks of the Three Sisters and bathes the snowy forest around them. The mountains loom larger and the shadows run deeper than they do by daylight. Silence wraps the cold night like a quilt. For Dave Nissen, this is the magic hour.

When the full moon waxes over the Cascades, the Bend outdoorsman and tour guide thinks strapping on snowshoes is the best way to enter a realm few experience — the nighttime mountains in winter.

"Just being out at night in the forest is an extraordinary thing for people," he says. "People's jaws drop when they get out there."

Nissen's company, Wanderlust Tours, offers two ways for visitors to experience this side of Central Oregon. One is a guided moonlight snowshoe tour. The other is a short snowshoe trek call Bonfire on the Snow, complete with cocoa and other goodies.

Both trips come as packages that include the use of snowshoes, transportation from a central location, refreshments and guide service.

Geared for novices, the excursions attract teenagers to active seniors. Both types of outings make good date nights for couples, Nissen says. At least two men have proposed to their fiancées since he has been doing the trips.

Moonlight snowshoe tours happen December through April in the mountains west of Bend. For three to five nights leading up to the full moon each month, small groups and a guide trek through timber and glade by the light of the moon. The trips cover about a mile and a half, although they can be tailored to the skills and abilities of clients.

Light is not a problem. A full moon reflecting off snow provides enough light that fine details become visible. Falling snow doesn't mute the light too much. Wanderlust Tours has canceled trips just a couple of times because of weather. The evening runs from 7 to 11 p.m.

Nissen or one of his employees helps clients with the basics of snowshoeing. They also hold forth on the history, botany, geology and wildlife of the area. Nissen says people who do this type of outing generally want an intellectually as well as physically stimulating experience.

The bonfire trips provide a less-energetic but no-less-aesthetically enjoyable way to experience the nighttime woods. These are half-mile treks on snowshoes that end at a bonfire on the snow. There awaits dessert, coffee, cocoa and maybe a bit of schnapps.

Clients hang around at the fire, talking, telling stories or maybe stargazing and generally having a good time. The trips also last from 7 to 11 p.m. They are offered several times a winter, with the schedule posted on the company's Web site.

Wanderlust employees go out ahead of time and dig an amphitheater in the snow. They drag in firewood on a sled and get the fire going. By the time customers get there the fire is roaring. Their first view of it comes as orange light flickering among the trees as they approach.

"From 300 yards out it's just magical," Nissen says.

He uses the word magic often when describing these jaunts. The allure of the winter forest at night still hasn't dimmed for him after 13 years leading trips in the central Cascades.

Wiry and weathered and yet youthful, Nissen has guided outdoor adventures most of his adult life. In addition to these night snowshoe trips, Nissen and Wanderlust Tours lead a variety of daylight winter trips as well as a full schedule of canoe trips, hikes and caving trips through the other seasons.

Wanderlust Tours started moonlight snowshoe trips in December 1994 as an outgrowth of Nissen's general philosophy for his company. He and his wife, Aleta, had worked for others in the tourism business. In the 1980s, he guided people who were content to view the Canadian Rockies through bus windows. But tourism has changed.

"I think our society has become more interested in the outdoors as our lives have become more urbane," he says.

People coming to Oregon in general and Central Oregon in particular want to experience the environment more intimately, Nissen says. That's one reason his guided trips seldom involve more than a half-hour bus ride from Bend.

Participants need to dress in layers. These should include moisture-wicking undergarments; thermal layers that retain heat when wet, such as wool or synthetic equivalents; and a moisture-resistant but breathable outer shell. Nissen considers powder pants a necessity — ditto for snow boots. Wanderlust Tours rents these for $5 and $7, respectively.

Steve Lundgren is a freelance writer from Redmond.

A snowshoer gazes skyward during a High Cascades Moonlight Snowshoe Tour organized by Wanderlust Tours in Bend. - Photo courtesy of Thomas Boyd, Wanderlust Tours