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Hair-Raising

It is the end of October, Halloweeney is Sunday.  I guess that means it is time for all things scary.  Earlier this month I speculated about the reasons we like a good scare now and then, Scary Stuff.

Since then, I have seen a few discussions of spooky experiences outdoorsfolks have experienced while out in the “wild”.  Might as well throw in my $0.02-worth. . . .

I have spent a lot of time on the water after dark, quite a bit of it by myself.  Can tell you some amazing stories of the scaled monsters in the water and the carnage below the surface on those evenings.  Thankful I was not a leopard frog or fathead minnow, but the threat to my person standing there in a pair of waders has been nil.

I have no ghost stories, no saxsquatch sightings to share with you.  Oh sure, I can tell you lots of experiences with wild critters, lots of sounds and noises, even a bright light or three, but none of them made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

I have blogged about some funny experiences with raccoons after the sun has gone down (e.g. Bandit Brownies, Raccoon Racing), but those were way more comedic than tragic.

A whiff-kitty wandered right behind me one night, and I have a phobia about stumbling into a skunk in the dark.  I gag at the thought, but again that has produced no shivers up my spine.

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I love to hear coyotes howl, even better to listen to foxes bark back and forth.  A couple of mink mixing it up down the bank in the dark will get your attention; there is a lot of screaming.  I have heard of old folk stories concerning owls hooting your name, but again, I love that sound every time I hear it.

No, I would have to say if you want stories that raised my hair, I would have to tell you some experiences while hunting. . . .

Let me start in the beginning, back when I was a wee little lad living on the edge of the sandhills in the panhandle of Nebraska. . . . That was a long time ago, long before electronic callers.  My Dad, Grandpa, and Uncles had already discovered predator calling.  They even had handheld calls they had to blow into!  Like most boys, I wanted to be with my Dad no matter what he was doing.  However, the scream of a predator call and the thought of a coyote coming to look for something to eat was a little disconcerting for a little boy.  I was torn.  On one hand, I wanted to go hunting with Dad.  On the other hand, I was not so sure a coyote was not going to get me.

Predator calling has always had me on edge.

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Flash forward several years, enough years that my own son and I have our butts back up against a brushpile.  It was a clear, calm, cold, full-moon night.  Snow covered the ground.  I was screaming on a predator call, just like my Dad used to.  The moon was bright and even after dark a person could see forever.  Just over the horizon, maybe a half mile away, I could see a great horned owl flying our way.  It had heard the screaming rabbit and zeroed-in on it.  It is flying directly at ME.

There was business in its eyes, mean, deathly business.  You may have seen photos of me wearing my muskrat hat.  It is one of my prized possessions.  Well, it was a cold night, and that hat was perched on my head.  The owl had heard something attacking a cottontail, it was vectoring straight to me, it could see that brown furry hat on top of my head.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up.

The owl kept coming, straight. purposeful, intentional.  At about a hundred yards I started hollering.  What do you say to make an owl abort its bombing run?

At fifty yards I started waving my arms.

No, I do not have scars from owl talons in my head.  It flared off.

I no longer wear a fur hat while I am calling predators.

I have hunted turkeys in the spring in some beautiful, wild, Nebraska places.  Often, that has meant an early morning, pre-dawn hike in the dark.  As I said earlier I have a phobia about bumping into a skunk at those times.  That has happened a time or two, but I was always able to see enough to keep from getting gassed.

I suppose some of those places were home to much larger predators, I hope they are!  One of these days I want to see a cougar (and maybe that will raise the hair on my neck?)!  So far it has been nothing worse than a pair of coyotes. . . .

I had just crossed the creek; was up on the grassy flat just above.  If I do not have to use a light, I do not.  I am not afraid of the dark.  All of a sudden, I could sense a presence in the grass, something near me.  Reaching for my mini-mag flashlight, I flipped it on.  Two sets of eyes glowed back at me.  Coyotes, a pair of them, both standing, facing me, not much more than 10 yards away.

Do you talk to the animals?  I do all the time, especially when I am alone.  We stood there, looking at each other.  I whispered “good morning” to them.  They nodded.  Then, we all turned and went our separate ways.  The coyotes did not run, they were not scared.  It was the passing of fellow hunters in the pre-dawn, both hurrying to get to our hunting spots.  We wished each other “luck”.

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One last story, the spookiest one I know. . . .

Another Nebraska canyon, a ridge line on a foggy, winter afternoon.  It was foggy enough that a person could get turned around and lose track of where they were.  Dad and I were calling coyotes again, both of us snuggled up beside cedar trees.  A coyote was on its way, Dad had seen it several hundred yards out.  We were trying hard to keep eyes on the dog while it trotted between cedar trees and around the terrain.  I still was not sure where the coyote was.  Dad and I both gawked through cedar branches trying to see it.  An eerie sound started from what seemed to be right behind us.

I do not know what was making the sound, but I know exactly what it sounded like. . . . It sounded like something popping its jaws.  I have heard stories of bears popping their jaws when they were upset, irritated.  That was what it sounded like, and it was loud.  It lasted for a minute or two.  There are no bears in Nebraska, what was I looking for as I glanced behind trying to see what was making the noise?

It was not the coyote we were calling.  Eventually, that dog ran out from below us, stopped on the hillside a hundred yards away, and Dad made the shot.  The popping sound had stopped by then.  I never saw any other living thing near us.  I have wondered to this day what was making that sound?

Again, I believe the unknown, the hair-raising experiences are an integral part of the wild.  I believe those experiences are an important part of wild places being wild.  They are big reasons that we keep going back.  I hope you get to spend some more time in the field or on the water this weekend, this fall, and I hope you experience something that scares you!

Walt1

About daryl bauer

Daryl is a lifelong resident of Nebraska (except for a couple of years spent going to graduate school in South Dakota). He has been employed as a fisheries biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for 25 years, and his current tour of duty is as the fisheries outreach program manager. Daryl loves to share his educational knowledge and is an avid multi-species angler. He holds more than 120 Nebraska Master Angler Awards for 14 different species and holds more than 30 In-Fisherman Master Angler Awards for eight different species. He loves to talk fishing and answer questions about fishing in Nebraska, be sure to check out his blog at outdoornebraska.org.

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