Night Screams, Gunshots, Mystery Guests, and Other Sinister Nighttime Visions

If you’ve never slept in the deep woods, perhaps you are not familiar with just how eerily quiet it can be. At home, my husband and I both have white noise to cover the silence. A fan or the air conditioning or the furnace is often running. My son has the sound of his aquarium and the soft sounds from his CD player to lull him to sleep. But on a still, windless night in the woods, you can hear the silence. And because you are straining to hear anything at all, when a sound does present itself, it can feel strange, larger than life, and sometimes a bit threatening.

During our three nights on the trail, I heard the echoing chorus of coyotes, the hooting of owls, the call of sandhill cranes. I heard the pattering of rain and falling leaves. I heard the crash of a waterfall and the swish-swoosh of wind in the trees.

But that first night was very, very quiet.

Until the screaming started.

My sister and I both heard it and we both had the same thought: Is someone getting murdered out here? We had heard gunshots earlier, but my perusal of Michigan hunting season information suggests that these shots were likely directed at wild turkeys, not humans.

I listened very closely each time the sound occurred and was comforted that it was exactly the same each time. So no, no one was getting murdered — screams would be varied in tone, pitch, and volume if you were under attack. This was the call of an animal.

I assumed at first it must be a screech owl, but as I listened to many recordings of screech owls (and a bunch of other owls) I realized that this wasn’t exactly what I heard. So I branched out and found this:

Yeah…that’s what I heard, all right.

Here’s another one (the scream starts just after the 0:25 mark):

We heard the jarring and disconcerting sound of what I now know to be a fox perhaps half a dozen times, then it stopped. And we went back to sleep.

Sometime later, I heard much quieter sounds…much closer. A kind of heavy ambling sound, accompanied by a looming but dim shadow over my head on the tent. A soft scuffling. Then silence, but with what dim light entered the tent from the moonlight on this cold, clear night I thought I saw the tent material getting closer and closer to my face, as though someone or something was pushing it.

I quietly extracted my arm from the straight jacket of my sleeping bag and pulled my pistol from its holster, which was resting within easy reach. Five years ago when my sister and I had hatched our yearly hiking plans, my husband had insisted I get my CPL. People got murdered on trails sometimes. A bullet wouldn’t stop an angry grizzly bear if I was out West somewhere, but a quick succession of them could certainly slow a black bear (provided you’ve got more than a .22 caliber, which I do).

My heart pounding, I waited with my hand on that gun. Waited for the terrifying sound of someone unzipping the tent or the slash of claws through the nylon near my face. But nothing happened. And nothing happened. And nothing happened. Had I dreamed it?

Eventually, I calmed down enough to go to sleep.

Now, sleeping on the ground is uncomfortable, and the first night especially I think most people tend to wake up a lot. And I did wake up a few times after the incident with the shadow and the shuffling footfalls. And every time, I heard my sister’s light snores from the other side of the tent — and the steady, low breathing of something on the outside of the tent, maybe only a foot from my head.

My nighttime visitor was still there. And I could assure myself that it was indeed an animal because a person certainly wouldn’t be sleeping out there in the 35 degree night air. It was a large animal with a deep lung capacity. Because it was just sleeping, I wasn’t worried. I went back to sleep.

At about 3:00 AM, my sister woke me up because she needed to go to the bathroom and I was blocking the door of the tent. I stopped her and told her of the sounds, the shadows, the low, deep breaths.

“Something was sleeping out there — a deer or a bear — and I don’t want you going out there and surprising it.”

She confirmed that I hadn’t been dreaming — she’d heard whatever it was arrive as well, and at different time, she had been awakened and heard it breathing. But at that point, neither of us heard anything and nothing was going to stop her from going to the bathroom. Alison checked her surroundings, used the forest facilities, and we went back to sleep.

When morning finally came, it was so cold that neither of us really had much desire to leave our sleeping bags. But then I remembered our nocturnal visitor, got my camera, and got up to search for signs of what really was on the other side of a few microns of nylon. I looked for hoof prints and fur, though I knew in my gut it wasn’t a deer — they just don’t sound like that when walking. I saw no fur, which deer tend to leave behind anywhere they’ve been, and no hoof prints, which are the easiest wildlife footprints to identify.

What I did see were some long, straight scratches — the longest probably about the length of my index finger — and a few shallow marks of foot pads. Here is just a sampling:




Now, except for cheetahs, felines have retractable claws, so they would not leave claw prints. Also, the only cat big enough to make that size print — a mountain lion — isn’t found in the lower peninsula. So I had two choices.

This could possibly be a canine, like a fox (too small), coyote (also probably too small), or wolf — and again, you don’t really find wolves the lower peninsula. Plus, anyone who has ever spent any time with dogs could recognize how a dog or doglike creature sniffs and moves. This creature was not doglike.

The only other possibility is that it was a bear.

Why not a large, sluggish raccoon or a porcupine? Well, a few reasons. The shadow was too big, the sniffing in too low a register, the claw marks too big, and also raccoons and porcupines sleep in trees, not on the ground.

So I am 99% sure my sleeping companion was a black bear. Probably a younger individual just because of the size of the prints and claw marks. And my theory as to why it decided to sleep with us? 1.) It was a very cold night and the tent had to be warmer than the air around it because our bodies were in it. 2.) Perhaps it is this youngster’s first season away from mom and it was looking for companionship.

You may come to some other conclusion, but for my money, I slept with a bear Friday night.

Hiking the North Country Trail Side of the Manistee River, Day One

I left Lansing Friday morning after breakfast with my husband at the Good Truckin’ Diner for a two and a half hour drive I intended to take three hours to make.

Driving North on I-127 in late October

I padded my drive time so I could pull over now and again and take pictures on the way up.

Driving north on I-127 in late October

Because while we’re still a week away from peak color here in mid-Michigan, I knew it wouldn’t take long before I started seeing some nice, full color as I headed north.

Driving north on I-127 in late October

It was cloudy but colorful, and the further north I got, the more the sun broke through. As it turned out, I was actually a wee bit late meeting my sister at the Marilla Trailhead of the North Country Trail (circled on the map below in red).

Our plan was to jump onto that red dotted line you see that indicates the North Country Trail and head south to the second of two creeks to set up camp for the first night. The fellow below was waiting a few steps onto the path to welcome us and bid us best wishes.

Garter snake at Marilla Trailhead, North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan

The trailhead path began as a gently sloping descent toward the NCT, which would take us up and down and along narrow ridges pounded out of the painted hillsides by generations of feet.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Leaves of yellow — poplar, maple, birch — were sprinkled here and there with orange and red and rusty brown from other types of maples, beech, elm, and oak.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Most of the ferns were dried and brown, though that first hour we got fairly wet with drizzly rain which fell intermittently and not enough all at once to really feel like it was raining. Every once in a while along the first part of the path, we were treated to overlooks like this…

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

The light spots in the distance are parts of the hillside on the other side of the Manistee River that have collapsed, leaving sand faces that look like dunes. In a couple days, that’s where we would be hiking.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

The sun peeked out from the clouds regularly to set our surroundings glowing.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

And I was glad that circumstances and schedules had pushed our trip so late in the season.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

We got supremely lucky that Michigan’s fall colors were late in coming this year.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

It sometimes seemed as though they must have known, must have held back until Alison and I could get up to see them. And after holding back, they had to let go in the most brilliant way.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

And even on this cloudy day, we could see for miles. This would be our home for four days and three nights.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Though we marveled at the grand sweep of the forest, we were careful to notice the little things as well. Mushrooms and mosses of many kinds. Lichens and bearberry.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Eventually we turned away from the big river and spent much of our time weaving our way through ravines choked with trees.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

The first creek we crossed was Eddington Creek. Alison and I are both fans of creeks.

Eddington Creek, North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

The sweet singing sound and the ambling way they cut through the forest are enchanting.

Eddington Creek, North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

But this was too soon in the hike to stop for the night. There was another set of creeks (unnamed, but very clearly on the map as squiggly blue lines) further along the trail and it was my intention that we would camp near one of those.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

So we hiked on. We crossed paths with other hikers, with mountain bikers, and with friendly dogs wearing saddlebags and broad dog smiles.

North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

We saw innumerable beautiful trees. We talked about our jobs and our families and our nation. And eventually we realized that the creeks we were searching for were either left far behind or not there to be found. We ran into another couple hikers, compared notes and maps, and discovered we were at least two miles further along than we thought, and we were also at the highest point on the trail. My explanation is that the streams we never saw are likely only running in spring when the winter snows are melting.

Campfire, North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

Luckily, we had plenty of water for the night. We chose a spot just off the trail, made a fire, and set up camp. It got steadily colder and darker until it became clear that the best thing to do was to layer up, don our warm hats and gloves, and tuck ourselves into our sleeping bags to capture our body heat. Even so, our toes and noses would be freezing in the morning. The night would be very cold indeed — 35 degrees Fahrenheit (less than 2 degrees Celsius, for my international readers). And very quiet…for the most part.

A cold night (35 degrees) camping along the North Country Trail, Manistee National Forest, Michigan, October 2016

But we wouldn’t spend the entire night alone. Keep your eyes on that spot to the right of the tent, between the tent and the tree. Because there, in that space, we would have a midnight visitor…

[to be continued]

Another Great Hiking Trip in the Books

My sister and I spent the last four days hiking the gorgeous Manistee River Trail/North Country Trail during peak fall color.

Watch this space over the coming days for pictures, tales of close encounters of the Ursidae kind, freaky night sounds, and more!

A Silver Opportunity: On the Set of Silverdome

This weekend I had the opportunity to take some of the last photos that will likely be taken in the Pontiac Silverdome, home of the Detroit Lions from 1975 to 2002.

A dear friend and talented writer, Ted Kluck, asked me to take stills of the production of his first feature-length film, Silverdome.

My husband and I were delighted to join him and his wife Kristin in Pontiac for a few hours. Ted and Kristin are our closest friends and they moved last year to Tennessee.

Silverdome is the last film project to get to shoot at the stadium before what remains of the structure is demolished to make way for new development.

The building that cost more than $55 million to build was finally auctioned off in 2009 for just $583,000. That’s 1% of its original value, for anyone counting.

I only ever saw part of one Lions game at the Silverdome. I remember little about it — just walking around the concourse with my father, seeing glimpses of the players in their Honolulu blue jerseys through the entrances to the seating areas, like passing a huge TV and then another huge TV and another, the sound of the game ebbing and flowing like the regular rhythm of tires over concrete seams on the highway.

I know others were there. My sister, perhaps. My uncle and my cousins.

Which makes me think it might have been Thanksgiving, because that’s when we went to Detroit to eat the holiday meal with family.

On second thought, maybe my sister wasn’t there. She’s never been allowed in the room when the Lions played on Thanksgiving because every time she came in, someone would fumble or there’d be a turnover or a field goal would be missed. Then everyone would yell at her to leave and not let up until she did. Poor Alison.

I don’t remember sitting in any of the 80,000+ seats the one day I was there.

I don’t remember walking into or out of the stadium.

All I remember is walking around the outside of the action, apart from the game, which the Lions were (predictably) losing — with or without my sister’s presence.

Being just outside the action is a frequent feeling for me. Lurking at the edges of the party. Loitering at the door of the gym. Looping around on the margins, rarely walking straight in.

I’ve lived in Lansing for eleven years and I have never been to a Michigan State football game. I can hear the muffled sound of the announcers and the roar of the crowd from my back yard. And it gives me a warm, pleased feeling.

But I never go.

Crowds make me vaguely uncomfortable.

I hate jostling for a place in line, hate trying to get in and out of busy parking lots, hate moving in a river of humanity from one place to the next.

I much prefer solitude.

Or perhaps the company of a few good friends.

But solitude in a place that was meant to be filled with crowds of people is a very specific kind of solitude.

Sad and nostalgic and mingled with regret.

It’s days you will never get back. Memories that become harder to hold onto.

In 2013, a particularly bad storm tore apart the deflated canvas roof of the Silverdome. Nature had begun the process that I think most of us knew had to happen eventually: deconstruction.

Plans for revamping were scrapped in favor of plans for a shovel-ready site that someone might actually want.

Beyond football legends like Barry Sanders and basketball legends like Isaiah Thomas (the Pistons played in the Silverdome before The Palace of Auburn Hills was built), acts such as Pete Townsend, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Michael Jackson, graced stages erected in the stadium. I even work with a woman who saw Elvis there on New Year’s Eve of 1975.

It’s hard to imagine, let alone estimate, how many people over the past forty years have walked through these doors and sat in these seats.

And now, these are the only people left.

The last men standing.

This is not an ocean

Lake Michigan, Whitehall, MI

But it may as well be.

After camp, I spent five gorgeous days at a resort in Whitehall, Michigan, with my family and my incredibly generous in-laws. It sits on Lake Michigan between White Lake and Duck Lake and my husband and I have decided that if we can’t retire on Thumb Lake (where our beloved Camp Lake Louise is) we’re retiring here. Now we just have to get super wealthy to afford it.

Just imagine for a moment having coffee every morning right here…


In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing lots of photos from both of these lovely places so you can enjoy them from afar.

A 90-Degree Walk in the Marshlands

Not far from downtown Bay City, Michigan, is the body of water from which it derives its name: the Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron.

A low, marshy area, it has a strip of sandy beach that in many places is only reachable by boardwalk.

On the horizon lies the power plant that supplies the area with electricity.

There’s something about this sight that feels quintessentially Bay City, but I’m not sure I can articulate why.

Perhaps it’s because so much of the natural environment was so fundamentally changed when white people finally settled here. When the area was first surveyed it was determined unfit for human habitation. Nothing but swamps and unbearable swarms of mosquitoes.

The story goes that much of lower Michigan was settled only after East Coasters were essentially tricked by unscrupulous land agents into buying land they hadn’t seen in person when what they were actually buying was swamp.

You can’t build or farm on a swamp, of course. So you drain it. And you start a mosquito control program.

And the land becomes something it was never meant to be. It becomes farms and shipyards and sawmills and factories.

But it still wants to be a swamp.

It wants to be a place where water is slowly filtered through a network of soils and plants and microscopic creatures.

It wants to feels the wriggling tadpoles in the warm shallows and the sliding fish in the deep places.

It wants to feed the roots of poplars and birches and the cottonwoods that were sending their confetti down all around me as I strolled along the margins of the marsh.

It wants frogs and toads, red-eared sliders and snapping turtles.

It wants to sustain little forests of lily pads that, as the mother of an eight-year-old son, I can’t help but see as a colony of green Pac-Mans.

Even during this incredibly hot day, the breeze from the bay tickled the leaves on the trees and bid them send their shade upon Earth’s weary creatures.

Between horizons on either side, I could believe that I was in a very wild place.

But a glance to the left revealed dozens of waterfront houses. And a glance to the right…

That power plant that I never knew I’d depended on when I lived in the Essexville/Bay City area as a child.

Still, if I looked in the right place…

I could see something beautiful and quiet and wild.

And that’s what I’m always looking for.

Merry-Go-Round…and Round…and Round…and Round…

I know some of you are already gridlocked in holiday traffic (I-75 North, I’m looking at you) so you’ll enjoy distracting yourself from the utter contempt and frustration you are currently feeling for your fellow man by scrolling through colorful pictures of carousels. At least those painted animals are going somewhere, eh?

The Detroit Zoo has a great carousel full of awesome animals to ride…

But I prefer the wetland creatures and cool tones of the Detroit Riverwalk carousel…


Now, strictly speaking, I have never seen a sea serpent or mermaid in the Great Lakes…

But then, I haven’t seen everything there is to see…

I thought for sure this was an old carousel because it just had a been-here-since-1915 feel to it, but the Cullen Family Carousel was actually handcrafted in this century. Read all about it here.

And enjoy your Memorial Day Weekend, taking some time out to remember and be thankful for the fallen soldiers throughout the history of this nation who sacrificed their own lives that liberty might live.