Frightful Nights Under the Stars

The lure of dark skies often takes us to unfamiliar places where nocturnal animals and encounters with strangers can ignite our primal fears.

Strange Night Sights

A solitary, cigar-shaped aurora appears in the eastern sky last September.
Bob King

Amateur astronomers are an adventurous lot. If dark skies are what we need to see that Hickson galaxy group or an electrifying display of northern lights, we'll be there.

I've driven into gravel pits, down lonely roads far from home, and even set up my telescope on a boat landing to see one thing or another. For me, it might be a comet, nova, or the chance to observe deep-sky objects under a truly dark sky.

Judging from the responses I received from other amateur astronomers on a thread I posted to CloudyNights, I'm hardly alone. Many of us spend time at odd hours alone in dark locales both near and far from home to relish an inky sky or catch a rare conjunction or lunar eclipse.

Strange Places

Light pollution is pervasive, forcing many to leave the security of our homes in suburbs and cities in search of true night. That often involves a drive to the country, but unless you have a friend's place where you can set up a telescope, options come down to pull-outs, gravel pits, and less-traveled roads. I'm often asked for suggestions on where to watch the aurora and feel a bit sheepish directing newcomers to some forlorn rural road. But we live in a world where gates and fences are many and dark locations few.

As familiar as amateur astronomers are with darkness and night, when something unexpected happens, our brains often go into overdrive as the ancient fight-or-flight instinct reasserts itself. It's only natural given our weakened sense of sight at night, as if evolution tried to make up for a lack of sensory information by pouring gasoline on the imagination. For a few moments, we're gripped by fear.

Encounter At Night

A passing car on an otherwise quiet country road may get your adrenaline going.
Bob King illustration

On an otherwise peaceful starry night years ago, a west wind brought the sound of a domestic argument between a man and woman perhaps a mile from where I'd set up my scope on a country road. As it grew more heated, I grew more concerned. When the man yelled angrily and then started up his car, I decided it was time to go. I took down that telescope in record time and never returned to that spot.

I've met lots of nighttime strangers over the years. Snowmobilers, loggers, locals, and even a naturalist on owl and frog counts. Most people slow their vehicles puzzled or curious. Years ago when this happened, my first thought was always "I'M GONNA DIE," but having survived every encounter to date, I've gained some nocturnal confidence.

Still, there are times. Several months back, a large truck rolled up behind my car at a quiet, out-of-the-way observing spot up a dirt road. Headlights blazed, but no one got out. My imagination on fire, visions of death and pummeling danced through my head. Finally, a big guy swung open the door and pointed a fat, black flashlight in my face. With heart pounding in chest, I quietly explained what I was up to.

"Oh," he said, "I thought maybe you were burying a dead body." Turned out it was the sheriff's deputy keeping an eye out for mischief in the township that night. I invited him to look through the telescope for his first-ever look at Saturn and the Andromeda Galaxy. We talked for a half hour, shared stories, and parted friends.

Sometimes people stop because they think you're in trouble and offer help. I return their concern with an offer to look through the telescope. Despite lots of people getting telescopes as children, few pursue the hobby, yet they'll whistle under their breath when you show them Jupiter and rattle off a few facts about its size and distance. Folks you might otherwise think have hardened to the natural world still find the sky AMAZING. Many encounters provoke surprisingly deep questions about life you never thought you'd be discussing with crusty woodsmen in the dark of night.

Animal Anxiety

Animal sounds can sometimes put observers on edge. Raccoon, deer, coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, bird, bugs, skunks, javelinas, owls, and more share a similar fondness for nighttime activities. You can lessen your fear and warm to wild sounds by learning what animals are behind the calls. Here are a couple what's-that-sound websites:

* 7 wildlife calls you might hear in your backyard
* Nocturnal animal sounds

Watchful Eyes

Sometimes you can see the eyes of animals at night. These are raccoon. Their eyes appear to glow because a layer of reflective tissue called the tapetum lucida reflects light back to the retina, increasing the light available to see at night.
Carey Carpenter / Wiki Commons

Snorting deer can evoke sudden surprise and have you reaching for that tactical LED flashlight in a hurry. Even birds and field mice can sound surprisingly loud moving through the brush and leaf litter under the magnification of night. But the more you listen and learn, the more pleasant the sounds become. Coyotes, wolves, owls, frogs, deer, katydids, and the deep, resonant drumming of ruffed grouse — night music all. That said, there are few animals I wouldn't want to run into at night like bears and mountain lions. Or a skunk.

Yes, skunks. Few mammals combine such a lack of respect for boundaries with quiet stealth. I've had two close calls, but have never been sprayed while observing. Jerry Orr of Oracle, Arizona, got as close as possible and still came out smelling like a rose:

"I'm a fire lookout for the Forest Service, and spend my summers alone, except for the wildlife, on a mountain top. A few years ago, I was observing outside my cabin with my 20x80s just doing long sweeps of the summer Milky Way. I was in sandals, and after I had been observing for awhile, I felt something wet touching the toes of my left foot. I turned on the red light, looked down and there was this huge skunk licking my toes!"

Quiet With A Big Stink

Skunks are stealthy but won't bother as long as you don't accidentally bump into one.
Dave Herr / USDA Forest Service

Matt Dixon of Huntington Beach, California, encountered another critter as active at night as we amateurs:

"I was in Joshua Tree back in 2004 and had snuggled down into my camp chair wrapped comfortably in blankets while my laptop ran my imaging. Something nudging my elbow brought me out of a light snooze, and when I glanced down I saw a coyote was checking me out. Naturally I bolted upright, causing the half dozen coyotes that were wandering around my camp to scatter.  Needless to say, I didn't fall asleep again that night!"

Mark in the Greensboro, North Carolina, area wrote:

"When I lived in Connecticut, I was out one night with the telescope when I heard this very loud snarl that I was certain was a cougar! So I called my wife on the cell phone and said "Turn on all the outside lights right away!!!" She was startled by this because why would I be asking her to turn on the lights? So I repeated myself, and she turned on the lights. Pretty sure I never got the 12" faster than that time! Over the next couple of days and some internet research, I discovered it was actually a fox that had screamed out. I had no idea foxes made noises!"

From Jon Kellum, Hartfield, Virginia.:

"Years ago, I was sitting outside in my rural driveway trying to setup my Meade Pictor. After much muddling about trying to obtain focus, I finally was able to relax in my chair and begin to attempt my first exposure. Something just didn't seem right and I looked down and a copperhead snake was making its way (directly beneath my chair) to my open garage door. I jumped up about 5 feet and ran to try and head it off. My garage is, let's say, "cluttered". Fortunately he stopped and I was able to trap him under a five-gallon bucket and toted him a couple of acres away. I have never set up my equipment in that location again!"

No worries, Jon: their bite is seldom fatal.

Scary People

While most folks are goodhearted, some of us have had disturbing run-ins during our nightly perambulations. Here's a delightful, dark-edged tale from Mike Brake of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.:

"In my 20s I worked as a newspaper reporter covering crime. Early one morning around 2 I was standing with a couple of homicide detectives, the medical examiner and some crime lab techs around the recently deceased remains of a well-known drug dealer who had apparently run afoul of a competitor, been shotgunned terminally and dumped in a rural field. At that moment a very bright bolide streaked overhead; the kind that lights up the ground, which most of us only see a few times ever. One of the homicide detectives, known for his dry wit, watched it vanish into the horizon and said, "If this SOB gets up now I am outta here!"

Sky & Telescope Observing Editor S. N. (JR) Johnson-Roehr wrote me about the neighbor who snuck up on her while observing in her own backyard, following her right up to the porch steps to make sure she wasn't up to no good. "Scared the bejesus out of me," she said.

Or how about this creepy one from amateur astronomer Samara Nagle of Ohio:

"It late September, I was out in the backyard imaging. I hear the creepiest voice ever and I could not understand a word because it didn't sound like English. It sounded more like something you would hear on a very scary horror movie. I froze immediately and turned the headlamp on and looked around and nothing. This "thing" talked for a while and it was clear like it was right next to me."

"I rushed inside the house because I thought maybe it was my husband playing tricks on me. As I was approaching the door I heard it again, and my husband was sleeping. I have no idea what happened, I don't have a logic explanation, but it didn't sound human and it didn't sound good either. On that day I decided it was time to buy all things needed to run the scope from inside the house and that's how I still do it today. It was the greatest incentive to automate my imaging rig."

Ed Anderson of Long Island, New York, was out in a field near the woods away from his home one night and heard one too many twig-snapping noises. His imagination conjured up "some scene out of some slasher movie or zombie movie or Alaska wilderness." Rattled, he packed up, headed home and set up in front of his light-polluted house for the rest of the evening.

Ken Fiscus of Albert Lea, Minnesota, did the right thing during his encounter:

"My most memorable/I-hope-it-doesn't-happen-again moment occurred several winters ago. Drifts kept me out of my dark sites, and I set up at a lakeside boat ramp by a frozen lake. I had a very drunk driver stop by to see what I was doing. I showed him the scope (he stayed in his car) and he left. I called 9-1-1 as soon as he left to see if they could find him before he hurt someone."

Prepare well

You could just decide to avoid the countryside and stick close to home. Nothing wrong with that. But if you're compelled to seek out Class 1 Bortle skies there are things to do to lessen the anxiety of strange places.

Bring a bright flashlight that you can flick on to dissuade a potentially curious critter from approaching too closely. Let someone back at home know where you're at in case they have to find that shallow grave the next morning. No, no, just kidding!

But do leave your location and directions. Kick around and make some noise at your site, so the wildlife knows you're about. They're usually happy to avoid human beings, knowing what troublemakers we are, but I like to create a safe space. If a car pulls up, have faith and offer the stranger a look. You might just make a friend. Speaking of which, consider observing with a friend on those far-flung outings.

But if you do get freaked out, there's no shame in packing up and heading home. There will be another clear night.

One thing's for certain, the more time you spend under the stars, the more familiar and pleasurable the nights become.

CATEGORIES
Astronomy Blogs, Explore the Night with Bob King, Observing
Bob King

About Bob King

Amateur astronomer since childhood and long-time member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), Bob King also teaches community education astronomy and writes the blog Astro Bob. The universe invites us on an adventure every single night. All we need do is look up. Check out my forthcoming book "Night Sky with the Naked Eye" (on Amazon and BN) about all the great things you can see at night without any special equipment.

18 thoughts on “Frightful Nights Under the Stars

  1. BlackSir

    I had that scary feeling at Karabi plato (1000m above sea level) in Crimea last December. I was completely alone on the first night I was there. It’s very lone and isolated place, the nearest civilization landmarks was a solitary meteorological station in 5km and a military base in 15km. It was after midnight, and the sky was magnificent. And then I’ve heard a strange sound, like someone scraping stones with metal in about 50-100 meters from me. That was scary! The place was open, almost no vegetation, but it was so dark I won’t be able to see what’s going on. I quickly raised my 10×50 binoculars and began peering in the direction of the sound. What I saw was a huge silhouette of a horse apparently trying to crack the ice on the small puddle near my cite. There are several packs of domestic horses roaming freely on the plato without a herdsman. They are beautiful and very shy creatures. Well, unless they catch you off-guard in the middle of the night 😉

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      BlackSir,
      That’s quite a wonderful story. That’s what I like about the night. You might just hear or see something rare and unexpected.

  2. Gerald-Hanner

    While mountain lions, foxes, and bobcats are around, the most likely wild animal sounds I hear are:
    1. Fox squirrels scolding the dogs.
    2. Eastern screech owls calling
    3. Great horned owls hooting a duet
    4. Crows cawing a great horned owl alarm
    5. Canada geese coming and going low over the neighborhood
    6. Snow geese coming and going.
    7. Raccoons
    8. Coopers hawk young begging to be fed.

  3. Frank-ReedNavigation.comFrank-ReedNavigation.com

    You note that light pollution is pervasive. I just need to SCREAM OUT that it is also becoming worse… rapidly… right now, accelerating dramatically in the past year or two. The boom in cheap (subsidized) outdoor LED lighting is creating a wildfire on parking lots, businesses, public buildings and schools (especially so), and residential backyards, that is wiping out the last vestiges of suburban and even semi-rural dark skies. Twice in the past week I have seen locations with dozens of new, exceedingly bright outdoor lights that have reached that level of “illumination fratricide” where they cycle on and off all night as their light sensors decide that it must be daytime …because they are surrounded by so many bright lights. The night sky is vanishing. It’s BAD. It’s AWFUL. And it’s becoming much, much worse.

    It’s time to start writing an epitaph for the Milky Way. We have lost the war.

    Frank Reed

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      Frank,
      It sounds dire where you’re at. At least in my city, the new LEDs, while TOO brilliant, are shielded. But I know what you mean about the new house security lighting. I visited my brother in his otherwise dark neighborhood and someone had outfitted their home with multiple LEDs that shone outward. It looked like an overlit service station.

    2. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

      The best thing about light pollution, compared to every other kind of pollution, is that light pollution does not persist in the environment. All we have to do is turn off the switch, and light pollution disappears immediately.

      I live in the middle of a badly light-polluted city. Yes, the LED’s are making things much worse. But my immediate neighbors all know about my skywatching habit, and they only turn on their outside lights when they’re using them, rather than leaving them on all night. And when the lights at the local playground were mistakenly left on all night, one phone call to the Recreation and Park Department got the equipment repaired the same day. Very small victories, but it’s better to extinguish a single candle than to curse the light pollution.

      Please don’t give up. Talk to your neighbors. Be a bug in the ear of your local elected officials. Join the International Dark Sky Association and support their campaigns.

  4. Tom-Fleming

    Wasn’t frightening but……… while on safari at Elephant Plains, I paid a little extra to be accompanied by two guides to the airstrip at night so that I could image the southern milky way. They carried rifles and spotlights. Between exposures they would scan 360 degrees for eye shine. No incidents.
    I now carry a good sized canister of Bear Mace for protection from all creatures (bipedal as well). This is pepper mace on steroids.

  5. Larry McNish

    My most memorable comment from a stranger – While trying to observe comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 dive into Jupiter in July 1994, my son and I set up my C8 scope late at night in a very dark location at road pullout in the Alberta “Badlands” near Drumheller. After a visit from an RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) constable in his very well lit truck, and a couple of others that he called in for “support” (to have a great view), his parting words were “Thanks for letting us look through your telescope… and by the way – watch out for rattlesnakes”. We set a record that night for packing up and leaving.

  6. ed-valla

    While coyotes, owls, flying squirrels and armadillos are common nighttime visitors to my back yard observing site in northern Florida, it’s the grunting of alligators in the nearby lake that are the most unnerving. ‘Course, it’s even more unnerving when you don’t hear them….

  7. Len Philpot

    I once had a close but harmless encounter with Floyd the Skunk at the Texas Star Party. While leading my wife and daughter back to our family cabin after observing (well after they were done observing :-), I went down the half-stairway to the bottom floor entrace of the “Penthouse” cabin (a one-way-in-or-out hole in the ground). I heard a noise about two feet in front of me, which my red light revealed as Floyd. We had already seen Floyd hanging around the snack bar awaiting treats earlier in the week, but never THIS close, in such tight quarters. After making some kind of gutteral, primitive noise (which was intended to sound like “MOVE BACK NOW!!! MOVE BACK NOW!”, but was quite unintelligible), my family finally understood and we escaped odor-free. Needless to say, I watched for Floyd thereafter.

    I’ve also shared my observing sites with a snake, racoons and what certainly sounded like a bobcat making a kill off in the nearby woods. The bobcat incident was on my first trip out with my very first telescope… I didn’t know I could pack up so quickly yet carefully!

    Since then I’ve had folks stop by with comments like, “I bet you can see all the way to EYE-RACK (sic) with that thing!”… I usually try to show them something more distant than Iraq. :-)

  8. Marschall

    Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s two friends and I would drive up to the northern Mojave Desert from our homes in the L.A. area to set up our massive home-built “rig” and shoot long exposures. We did this about 20 times over the years (I was 17-21 during this period), gradually working the bugs out, rebuilding and improving our system until we were getting decent images through 200 mm lenses. Comets, galaxies, nebulae… ah, good times, wonderful memories.

    The area we settled on after the first few trips was northeast of Mojave, off the highway and a considerable distance up a barely-there dirt road into the hills to get far away from headlights. There were old mines up there, and after dark it could get creepy. Although there had to have been rattlesnakes and maybe scorpions around, we never saw a single one over those several years. We were young and fearless and, as I recall, never even thought about the prospect, happily slipping into sleeping bags (on foam pads, right on the ground) just before dawn. I shake my head today, thinking of what could have crawled in with us. Decades before cell phones, we would have faced the long and challenging drive down the hill in the dark, just to get to the road, and then we were probably 20 miles or more away from Mohave and any possible medical help.

    One night, as one of us manned the rig carefully tracking a guide star during exposures (we usually had two cameras open at once), my friend Rick and I were standing facing each other, talking about creepy things. Once our young eyes became completely adjusted to the dark, we were amazed how much we could see of our surroundings on a moonless night, just by the light of the stars, planets and Milky Way. We wondered what might be at the bottom of one of these old mine shafts. What if there were skeletons? What’s behind that boarded-up mine entrance, just feet away? “I dare you to walk over there without a flashlight.”

    Just then Rick’s face grew shocked and he let out a loud “OHHHHHH!!!” as he pointed slightly above me and his face lit up in a ghastly greenish glow. Some terrifying thing was suddenly looming up right behind me. I yelled in fright and almost threw myself at him to escape whatever was coming. “No, no, it’s a bolide! Right behind you!! You missed it!!” I was able to turn just in time to see the end of it and a trail that lingered for several seconds. He had a good laugh and I heaved a sigh of relief.

  9. jthansen

    I think it was the famous telescope maker John Brashear who said “I have loved the Stars too much to ever be afraid of the dark”.

  10. Ed-MarshallEd-Marshall

    My aunt, brother and I went up to the top of Mammoth Mtn. years ago one summer night on vacation. I didn’t have my scope with me, but I just had to get outside to see the darkest sky I’d ever seen. It was so dark that when Venus rose, it hurt our eyes! The only way to “see” the Sierra Nevada’s that night was where the stars created a rough outline where they stopped. Well as I was looking up, I kept hearing a rustling in the bushes. I figured it was mouse or something small, but it could of been a bear for all I knew! I decided the best thing to do was to go around the opposite side of my aunt’s van. As I did, I was tapping on it’s side to let her know I was approaching in the dark. Well as soon as I saw her face in the radio dial light, she screamed! She thought I was a bear, I screamed because I thought the bear was behind me, and my brother laying in the back of the van screamed just because we were all screaming! It was a pretty funny moment! Another time as teenagers, a friend and I had my 6 inch telescope set up in the hills north of the San Fernando Valley near L.A. where we used to live. when a dog came over the hill about 30 yards away and started to bark at us. We didn’t think too much of it as it ran away. We could hear it still barking in the distance. About ten minutes later, the dog brought back all his “friends” which was a pack of abandoned pets we figured later. My friend had a good flashlight as saw about ten to 12 dogs starting to circle us growling, getting closer, and more and more brave. I tore down my telescope as fast as I could as my friend asked me twice if we could just leave it and come back to get it later. Well, I said no because I figured the dogs were still 20 yards from us. Since I was tearing down my scope, I hadn’t really seen most of the dogs. He had been throwing rocks at them, which only upset them even more apparently. After I got my telescope in his truck, we got out of there really quick. After we were driving away in the truck, I asked him, “How close were they to us?” He said a few of them got to within about 15 feet! No wonder he was asking me to leave my scope there! The last thing he said about the whole weird encounter was, “Don’t tell my mom!” To this day, thirty years later, she still doesn’t know! Shhh.

  11. Argenta-LeBlanc

    I was surprised one night in my backyard in Houston Texas when all the cricket and tree frog types of night sounds suddenly stopped. A fraction of a second later, the stars in my telescope went dark. I jerked up from the eyepiece of my scope expecting to see one of my teens sneaking up in front of me. Instead, I felt the breeze from the wings of a very large owl flying too close over my head. He made no sound but with a wingspan almost as wide as I am tall – 5 feet – I guessed him to be a Great Horned owl. As soon as the owl passed, the night sounds resumed. Hunched over the eyepiece of my Dob, I imagine I might have appeared to be something small enough for him to carry off and eat. When I jerked up so suddenly, I wonder if that owl was as surprised to see me as I was at seeing him.

  12. astrorev

    Thursday and Friday used to be my days off. One Thursday night, before I headed up to our club’s observatory for a night of telescoping, I decided to stop at the bargain cinema and catch a showing of the movie Misery, a film that I wanted to view before it went off the big screen. Big mistake. The movie was unnerving and when i arrived up in the mountains, no one else in the club was present. I was completely alone. All night long, every noise I heard, every crackle of leaves, every swoosh of wind through the trees made me think that Kathy Bates or perhaps some deranged relative of hers was about to jump out of the forest and come attack me! Needless to say, I finished my observing early and headed home. No more psycho killer movies before stargazing for me!

  13. Marty-Ahrens

    Most dangerous animals will avoid people, and most dangerous people can be controlled through the unexpected use of a blunt, heavy, object, although one uses his own discretion and judgement concerning such things. While I probably shouldn’t admit it, my imagination can bother me more on isolated dark roads and abandoned farm places than anything else. During the day that seems silly, but alone in the dark it’s different. I INTENTIONALLY avoid horror movies, zombie programs, etc, just for that reason.

  14. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

    My astronomy club holds our star parties on Mount Tamalpais, in a part of the state park that is closed to the public after dark. I’m often the last person left in the wee hours, and when I’m alone, I do find the occasional rustling of deer in the grass and underbrush unnerving. I try to console myself with the fact that mountain lions are silent hunters, so anything I hear is not a mountain lion. That works for my rational mind, but the limbic system goes into overdrive in the dark.

  15. aeajr

    We have nothing to fear but fear itself!

    Or maybe the slasher behind that tree, or the bear behind that rock, or the pack of wolves behind that …

    Is it cold our? Is that why I am shivering? It is August!

    Ed

Comments are closed.