Bill Irwin reined the high-strung chestnut mare up the narrow trail in the dense woods of the Borough of Hanover, Pa., watershed. The only illumination was the hunter's moon.
"You never know what to expect out here," he said. "One time when we were riding, 20 deer, it must have been, burst out of the woods and ran across the trail."
Not this time. Nothing disturbed the night scene. The only sounds were horses' hoofs on the ground and the squeak of saddle leather.
The moonlight rides started more than three years ago on a whim, Mr. Irwin said. Late on a moonlit night, two couples -- Kate and Bill Irwin and Lisa and Tim Shaffer -- were sitting out on the porch at Walnut Creek Farm in northern Carroll County near the Pennsylvania line.
"All at once, someone said, 'Let's go for a ride,' " Tim Shaffer said. So, they saddled their horses and off they went.
"The first ride was fantastic," Mr. Irwin said.
"It was scary," Lisa Shaffer said. "But it was great."
And it was the start of the moonlight trail rides from Walnut Creek Farm. They do it for themselves and for those who share their interests in horses and nature. Sometimes groups are large; sometimes small; sometimes a cookout precedes a ride; sometimes they just get on the horses and go.
"All I need is a good excuse," Mr. Irwin said. Plus a clear night and a full moon. "Otherwise, it's too dangerous."
The latest moonlight trail ride was this week. After several months when work schedules and other commitments had prevented the rides, Mr. Irwin decided in early September that October would be a ideal time to resume them -- full moon on a Sunday followed by Columbus Day.
The weather teased him all day -- spatters of rain, heavy clouds, bTC an iffy forecast. During the afternoon, he fretted and called to check on the ones who were to come to let them know the ride still was on. He was dressed and ready to go before dark.
Mr. Irwin, 42, dresses Western, with an infusion of western Australian, and sounds and looks the part.
Of medium height with thinning hair, he has a thick droopy mustache and this day wore faded jeans, a purple Western shirt, blue sweater, Australian oilskin coat and outback hat with a thong. But he was born in Hudson, Ohio, and lived many years in New Hampshire. When they came to the Baltimore area, he, Kate, daughter Jennifer and son Daniel lived in Hamilton, then moved to Manchester and finally to the farm in 1988.
A former home-builder, he has a shop in part of his barn where he does custom woodwork.
Before 7 p.m., the others had arrived, sitting down to grilled hamburgers and waiting for the moon. By 8:30 p.m., the moon was going in and out of breaking clouds, then popped finally free. The sky cleared. Horses were saddled and warmed up.
"Hello, ladies and gentlemen," Mr. Shaffer said, sitting on the Irwins' paint stallion, Spin-A-Flash. "My name is Tim. I will be your guide this evening." He turned the red, white and black horse down the lane, past a log outbuilding, a persimmon grove and the scattering of walnut trees that gives the farm its name.
Mr. Shaffer, 34, of Hampstead, is a farrier who travels to horse farms in Baltimore, Carroll and Frederick counties and southern Pennsylvania to shoe horses and correct hoof problems. He won the award for widest-brimmed hat of the night.
Behind him as he rode up a hill was Mr. Irwin, on the Thoroughbred chestnut mare
Lisa Shaffer, 28, who works for a downtown Baltimore firm that specializes in customizing promotional items, such as mugs and pencils. She was riding Dubonnet, her red 6-year-old Arabian gelding.
Kate Irwin, 40, a registered nurse in the intensive-care unit of Carroll County General Hospital in Westminster. She rode Sonny, her 7-year-old palomino and white paint mare.
Bob McGregor, 32, of Manchester, who buys, trains and sells horses, repairs tack and harness and makes bridles. For seven years, he worked in a mule-diving act in Florida. He was on Cash, a 6-year-old dapple-gray gelding. This was his first time on the Walnut Creek Farm ride.
The bright moon cast the land in muted light, robbing it of color. Maple and poplar trees turning red and yellow with fall looked film-noir dark but with a creamy glaze.
Mr. Shaffer put the stallion through "the hole," a small opening leading off the Irwin property onto the 400 acres of Borough of Hanover watershed in Maryland.
"We get a permit every year to ride on the watershed," Mr. Irwin said.
The others followed through the hole. Mr. Shaffer rode to the top of a hill and stopped near what looked like an overgrown meadow.
"I can't believe this," he shouted. The jumbled "meadow" had been a thick stand of 30- to 40-foot trees the last time he saw it. Mr. Irwin said the section was clear-cut in the spring. "It's better to see it this way than in the daylight," he said.
The horses trotted around the cut area and followed a grassy fire trail into the woods. A large tree, blown down a while back, blocked the way like a dark wall.
"There's space to get by around the end," Kate Irwin said.
The wide trail meandered through a canopy of trees. There was no wind, temperatures were in the high 40s. The woods evolved into shapes and shadings and sounds -- or lack of them. A horse's whinny became a banshee's cry.
At one point, as Mr. Irwin and Mr. Shaffer waited for stragglers, the chestnut mare suddenly decided she'd had enough and tried to throw Mr. Irwin. He got her under control after a couple of pitches.
"This horse is not making this a pleasure ride," he said.
In a wide place, Mr. Shaffer pulled off the trail to tighten the cinch of his saddle, motioning everybody else to go on. It was last they saw of theirguide until he found them again on the way back.
One section of the trail ended at a dirt road. "The Mason-Dixon line," Mr. Irwin said.
A short distance down, the horses turned off and started climbing that narrow trail, grunting and straining a bit but steadily moving. The riders now were in the Pennsylvania portion of the watershed.
A clearing at a crossroads of trail and dirt road waited at the top. Early on, the Irwins and Shaffers said, they named the spot Hawks' Crossing. Last November, trees were cut from a big portion of the hump-backed ridge. Logs still lay about the site.
"When I first saw it like this," Kate Irwin said. "I wanted to scream; I started to cry."
(Bruce Rebert, borough manager, said the cutting took place because the trees, planted during the Depression, were mature and too closely planted. They were clear-cut as part of a forestry management program in the 2,000-acre watershed.)
"Maybe we should rename it Vultures' Point," someone said.
They headed back into the thick woods, came out again along the other side of the clear-cut area and turned back through Hawks' Crossing toward home.
Mr. Shaffer, the wandering guide, joined the other riders down the hill.
Mr. Irwin already was thinking about the November ride -- a big campfire this time, more people, "We're going to do it right."
By then, he and the chestnut mare had made their peace.
"They say the only thing that's perfect is in the movies," he said. "But this is close enough for me."