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