I’m lying in my tent on a cold damp early September night. It’s 4 a.m. and a nearby bull elk lets out a bugle that pierces the night. A primal sound, it starts like a high-pitched squeal, then a throaty roar followed by guttural grunts. A minute later a bugle is returned from yet another bull elk coming from an entirely new direction.
When camping out in the wilderness, sometimes fascinating or scary sounds make it hard to sleep. The mind starts to wander. For instance, how long will it be before a competing bull elk will return the bugle? Seems to me about three to five minutes, or just long enough that you don’t want to fall asleep again too soon.
This summer I was camped out near Buena Vista, Colorado. The warmer climate attracts some nighttime insect-eating birds that also occur in the lower elevations of Eagle County. These birds are known as nightjars, as they jar the night.
First of all there was a pair of common nighthawks that circled around our tents very loudly announcing a piercing “Beans!” every few seconds. This is their contact call that keeps a pair in the same foraging vicinity. If the “Beans!” weren’t enough, when the birds pull out of a high speed dive the air is forced off of their wing feathers and makes an eerie moaning sound.
Then there is another nightjar called a poorwill. The common poorwill occurs here and this bird, like the nighthawk is also an insect eater. The poorwill perched in a nearby tree and in absolute silence suddenly breaks into a loud string of “poorwillip, poorwillip, poorwillup!” Although more musical in nature than the nighthawk, nonetheless it jars one from deep sleep much like an alarm clock.
Several years back, my wife Tanya and I were camped out on a beautiful still night on the remote mountain property we purchased and later built our guest cabin known as Raven’s Retreat. Again it was a dead-still night and both of us were sound asleep.
Suddenly I was jolted from my sleep by what seemed like blood-curdling screams. I found myself sitting upright and awake thinking that someone was trying to scare us off. Tanya was also suddenly awake and the blood-curdling scream started all over again, but this time we could really listen.
“What was that?” Tanya asked quietly. In a barely audible whisper I said, “I think it’s a cat”. “A cow?” she asked incredulously. “No, a Cat! Like a mountain lion. Just then a “fudalump, fudalump, fudalump” of heavy footsteps ran just outside and past our tent. Our hair was standing up from the raw excitement, and then it was gone. The next thing that happened was both of us had to go pee really bad and we were forced to go outside the tent in the pitch-black night. Needless to say, we didn’t stray far.
Some years back I was camped out in the Homestake valley and was sleeping under the stars without a tent. It was at that precise moment when I was transitioning into a deep sleep. Suddenly I thought I heard a rustling right near my head. Quickly I sat up and turned on my flashlight to find that a porcupine seemed to be licking salt from my hair. Of course, he just simply waddled away.
Once I was camped out in the early winter in shallow snow and suddenly I heard footsteps approaching quickly. It came just outside of my tent and my heart was racing. As quickly as it came, it disappeared. When I woke up in the morning, tracks in the snow revealed that a weasel had passed by in the night as he was hopping around hunting mice.
Other sounds in the night I’ve experienced include owls hooting, foxes barking like poodles, and coyotes howling all around and yipping like it’s one big party.
Other than the screams of the mountain lion and once having to shoo away a bear that was woofing at us, most nighttime sounds in nature have been fascinating and not scary. I feel blessed to live in a place where the sounds of wild birds and animals is the only thing that I hear as I sleep out peacefully in a wilderness place.