After spending 40+ nights with your tent, you begin to think of it as a permanent home, with homelike qualities. Four crooked walls, a place to lay your weary head, a tiny, smelly bubble, protecting you from the outside world. You start to feel safe, secure, confident, dependent even, in that thin piece of double-walled fabric separating you from the wicked weather, bloodsucking bugs, creepy crawlers and other creatures of the forest
And then…night falls.
Though my possibly-not-so-irrational fear of the Creatures of the Night was most likely triggered by legendary tales of Big Foot roaming the Northwoods of Wisconsin after dark, I can pinpoint the exact moment those childhood fears crossed over into my adult life.
A few years back, I dated a dude from Minneapolis, about a 4.5 hour drive from Madison. Life can get pretty busy for adults with jobs (so they tell me), so instead of either of us driving 9 hours round trip in a short weekend, sometimes we’d meet in the middle, in the great Wisconsin town of Black River Falls.
What’s there to do in BRF, you ask? Aside from visiting the nudist colony (intriguing, but no), and jumping into Lake Wazee, the deepest lake in all the land, not a whole lot. So we’d squeeze my truck down some random narrow opening in the forest, until we found a flattish, openish spot, pitch a tent, and stare at the stars.
I know, awwww, right? And it was pretty nice. Until the Hyena Deerwolf.
There we were, peacefully falling asleep in the tent with the rainfly pulled back, just the mesh fabric separating our tiny tent world from the great outdoors, when I heard It: a hyena-like squeal, my only reference for knowing what a hyena sounds like (an animated one, at that), coming straight from one of the greatest movies of all time, The Lion King. My eyes shot open, ears perked.
I heard It again. If you’re like me, you don’t just hear sounds, you hear sounds and create a mental image of the sound-maker. So far, I had a hyena with red glowing laser eyes, focused right on the tent, and he gotta have a wildebeest. The BF, unconcerned, said it was probably just a deer. But what if it’s a wolf!? (I thought it best to keep my hyena theory to myself). On cue, the Hyena Deerwolf blew air out of it’s nostrils, hard, like an angry horse.
WTF was this thing? Even BF was curious now, but I had long ago moved from curious to terrified, mostly fearful of the giant freak animal in my head, pawing at the ground, ready to charge, but equally worried about any animal randomly stumbling into the basically camouflaged tent, accidentally crushing our faces in the process. I never went to bed.
Fast forward to a few days ago.
Emily and I were camping totally alone for the first time on this entire hike, at a random site a few miles before Marion, Virginia. We had hiked almost 23 miles that day without seeing a single soul, which was a wee bit unusual. Did everyone else know something about this area that we didn’t? Liiiiike, don’t be caught here after dark if you want to live? As we were both settling into bed with our books, I heard It.
I know the silence of the night amplifies sound. I know distance is easily misjudged out in the wilderness. I know tiny creatures can produce sounds 10000 times their size. I know imaginations run wild. I know it probably was just a late night chipmunk happily bounding through the woods, rushing home to make curfew. But to me, it sounded like a huge elephant with a machete foraging through the brush right next to our tent. Or even more terrifying…the Hyena Deerwolf. It found me.
“Emily,” I hissed.
“Did you hear that?”
CRASH, CRASH, CRASH
If this were a neighborhood, the whole lot of it could hear that.
She clicked on her head torch and peered out into the darkness. Darkness peered back. Don’t get me wrong, I am one of those weird people who actually likes being scared. I like watching scary movies, being in scary situations, and that adrenaline rush that comes along for a free ride on the creepy train. But I have zero desire to be cornered by a gang of rabid squirrels, or trampled by any creature of the night.
“Uhhhh, should I blow my whistle?”
Emily nodded, eyes wide. She had definitely heard It, and her eyes told me It was as big as I imagined.
So I puffed out a little diddy on my emergency whistle: Tweeeeeeeeeeeet! Tweeeet tweeeeeeeeeeet! Tweet tweet tweet tweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet!
CRASH CRASH CRASH
“It’s still there,” Emily needlessly verbalized.
While she started talking to The Noise (Hello? Hellooooooo?), I fumbled for my phone and scrolled through videos until I found the one I wanted; one from my most recent visit to Finland: 30 happy Siberian Huskies howling on the gang line.
I should explain.
Just before we entered the Smokies, we stayed at The Hike Inn with Jeff and Nancy, and Jeff was kind enough to give us the Smoky Mountain “critter talk,” which basically went like this: Don’t night hike, the wild hogs will eat you; if you come across a bear, bark like a dog. Apparently bears in the Smokies are hunted with dogs and barking scares them. This was an excellent excuse for Emily and me to practice our ferocious barks during the five-day hike through the Great Smoky Mountains, which I am sure was appreciated by all who heard.
I played the video five times.
CRASH CRASH CRASH.
“I think the dog thing only works in the Smokies.”
“I know, I know. You’re right,” I whispered. Why was I whispering? Could the night creatures understand English? Did I think they would discover our non-plan to scare them off? Wasn’t the whole point to make sure It knew we were there?
And then I decided to do something I still can’t really explain: I barked. I barked my well-practiced dog bark of the Smokies. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. But I would like the record to show, I sounded much more convincing than a bunch of friendly huskies all amped up for a run.
I can’t remember how many barks I let out, and I highly doubt it scared any Hyena Deerwolves away, but my idiocy did manage to scare some of our own fear away. We spent the next few minutes debating whether we should close the rain fly vestibule for that one extra layer of protection from the creature of the night, but risk being unable to see our attacker in time to defend ourselves, or leave the vestibule open to be more aware of what’s happening, but risk coming face-to-face with our predator just before it ate us.