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The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition -- September 5, 1996

More People Take Up Skating
By Starlight, Twilight Tennis

By MICHAEL J. MCCARTHY
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Under a full moon, 21 kayaks embark on a trip down the Potomac River outside Washington, D.C. The paddlers are an otherwise sedate group of workers and executives from federal agencies.

"I used to be a couch potato," says kayaker Judith King, a 56-year-old editor. As cicadas serenade and lightning splinters the black sky, Ms. King says, "I can't believe people sit home and watch TV when they could be doing this."

Grown-ups everywhere want to play after dark. Nighttime is bringing out joggers, cyclists, backpackers, skaters, swimmers and canoeists in growing numbers. Outside Gainesville, Fla., twilight canoe trips have recently been drawing as many as 100 people a night. On the streets of San Francisco, the Midnight Rollers, a Friday-night in-line skate group, draws so many people (650 sometimes) that police have warned that they will disband the group if they get out of line.

Nobody keeps reliable figures on the late-late trend, but hiking and boating tour operators report growing demand for nighttime excursions. A new "personal-safety lighting" market is emerging, with manufacturers adding reflective devices to clothing and introducing glow-in-the-dark accessories. Meanwhile, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, convinced people are pedaling more after dark, this summer began a study on whether bicycle reflectors offer riders enough protection.

Many of the nocturnal athletes work odd-hour days; the percentage of U.S. workers not employed on a 9-to-5 shift is nearly 20% and growing. Then there are those who work such long days that only nighttime is left for recreation. Some working parents can exercise only after the kids have gone to bed.

"Last night, I just worked late," says Demetrius Bassiliadia, a 31-year-old physicist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who is easing down the Potomac River with the kayakers. As water drops trickling off his oar punctuate the silence, he adds, "This is more fun."

Health clubs started staying open around the clock years ago to accommodate professionals with long hours. But many nighttime athletes, after long days at the office, want more than exercise: They want to go outside. "People are tired of being cooped up," says Gerald Celente, director of Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y.

Streets free of daytime crowds are inviting to joggers and bikers, and, for jaded city dwellers, the darkened outdoors can represent a new frontier. Those seeking unusual glimpses of nature can take the "Leave it to Beavers" hike in McHenry County, Ill., which offers backpackers the chance to tramp along marshes where beavers perform their twilight chores. Or they can take the "Bonkers For Bats" walk at Maryland's Black Hill Regional Park, in which naturalist Glenn Cumings steers hikers to the mysterious creatures with a bat detector that tracks ultrasonic chirping. For a "Moonlight Madness" hike, he carts out a telescope and tells lunar legends. Dessert is Moon Pies.

"No one is satisfied with the common outdoors experience anymore," adds Richard MacNeil, a professor at the University of Iowa's Department of Sport, Health, Leisure and Physical Studies. "Night makes things more adventurous."

It also makes things more dangerous. Nearly half of all bicycle fatalities occur at night -- even though only 12% of bicyclists ride after dark.

To make New York's Central Park safe for the rising number of evening joggers, the Road Runners Club organizes group runs at 6:30 and 7:15 p.m. For later-hour jaunts, the club offers to pair up joggers who have the same preference for distance, pace and start times.

The risks of night recreation have sparked a new high-visibility business. For late-night joggers, Reflective Technologies Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., this spring began selling IllumiNite jackets and shorts, with tiny, highly reflective disks woven into the fabric. Two seasons ago, Nike Inc. made reflectors standard equipment on its running shoes.

For nighttime skaters, there are "Comet Wheels," whose minibatteries power rotating lights on in-line skate wheels. Night-vision binoculars, with names like NightRanger and Night Quest and price tags as high as $2,500, illuminate shadowy wildlife. TV commercials hawk the $29.95 Luminator football and soccer ball, always aglow for nighttime play.

Direct Safety Solutions, an Orlando company, recently introduced blinking lights with names like Laser Red Eye and SLIMLight that clip onto skates, clothes and bikes. "We're not advocating people recreate at night," says Joe Durek, Direct Safety president. "But we realize they will."

Copyright 1996 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.