The thin ribbon of sound came threading through the darkness. A sharp ululation—faint, possibly heading my way.
I held my breath, listening intensely.
Minutes earlier, recurrent back spasms had drawn me from a warm bed. I needed to sit awhile until the pain eased. It was 3:37 a.m. according to the clock’s green led numerals. I’d heard the distant keening while adding chunks of ash to the woodstove before relocating to the adjacent recliner.
The sound neared, the volume increasing. A raucous melee of yips and yowls. Coyotes! The cries of the neighborhood pack on the hunt.
A frisson of energy, like a low-voltage electrical current, coursed up my spine and into my scalp, setting hair follicles a’tingle. A primal reaction. Not fear. But an instinctive sympathetic response to the ancient drama of hunter and prey—the shivery certainty that for some unfortunate creature, this cold, starlit night held terrifying danger.
Whatever was being chased tried to escape its pursuers by dodging across the shallows bordering the far bank, crossing onto the downstream island.
These low, narrow islands—three or four of them, depending on whether a small, bisecting cut is open or temporarily filled with sediment and debris—begin a hundred yards below the cottage. They extend a quarter mile upstream—a tangled, sycamore-studded maze of thick brush and jumbled driftwood. My place is situated roughly midways up the chain, separated by the river’s 100-foot wide main channel.
Alas, the quarry’s escape tactic didn’t work. Vocalizations abruptly changed from excited pursuit to brief kill frenzy…then silence. Mealtime.
As a child of the Boomer Generation, I grew up watching cowboy shows. Heroes rode fancy saddle ponies, wore white Stetsons, and wielded blazing six-shooters. Coyotes were a part of that fictionalized Old West. Cute caricatures. Invariably depicted singly—a lone little song-dog, sitting atop a canyon rock, reared back and howling at the moon.
No one ever imagined we’d one day have coyotes in Ohio! Neither movies or TV shows taught us that, like wolves, coyotes sometimes hunted in packs. So when I encountered my first pack of coyotes on the hunt, I was totally unprepared.
The incident took place decades ago in northern Michigan. It was early spring. I’d jounced and coaxed the truck several miles along a network of sandy two-tracks, to the banks of a certain brook trout stream. About as deep in the northcountry boonies as it’s possible to go. Remote is an understatement.
I was there to fish. Alone. And more than a little miffed when I arrived at this supposedly secret hotspot and found another fisherman had already set up his tent in the same corner of jackpine wilderness. What effrontery!
As it turned out, I knew the guy, having met him on another trout stream a few years earlier. Not a bad fellow, actually—in fact, a kindred soul who simply wanted to go his own way and fish solo. We quickly agreed: downstream was his exclusive province, upstream mine.
“Oh,” he said, as we parted to head our separate ways, “a pack of coyotes moved into this area over the winter. You might hear them.”
Thank God for his friendly afterthought!
Lacking both explanation and warning, who knows how badly I might have embarrassed myself when, about midnight, the pack came clamoring directly through camp. I won’t go into details. But I’ll tell you this much—those old cowboy shows did not ready me for their wild cacophony!
The whole bloodthirsty bunch of ‘em suddenly cut loose en masse. A sound somewhere between a coven of banshees and a gaggle of homicidal sasquatches. Wild, savage…close! I sat bolt upright in my tent. Heart pounding, totally panicked.
Like any good Boomer, when faced with quandaries involving shaky courage and an appropriate manly response, I ask myself: “How would John Wayne react?” The Duke always knew what to do!
Well, apparently not…at least his spirit failed to communicate any rescuing flash of inspired wisdom. What saved me was the abrupt cessation of the snarling, barking din just beyond the thin canvas wall. As swiftly as they’d begun, the coyote pack suddenly hushed—falling worrisomely silent.
I spent the rest of the night listening to that silence.
The next morning I shared an account of my close-range baptism with my neighbor. His tent was located perhaps a hundred yards downstream. I had to restrain myself from begging him to move closer.
“Never heard anything like that in my life!” I confessed. “Scared the wits out of me!”
“Ahhh-h,” he said, grinning. “That explains the rumble I thought might be distant thunder…guess it was just your thumping heart.”
I’ve since heard plenty of coyotes on the hunt. The pack which regularly courses along my home stretch of the Stillwater usually works the woods and fields on the opposite bank.
Sometimes the pack crosses over. Occasionally the excited pack has chased their quarry directly through the yard. If we’ve opened the bedroom screen, you can catch the sounds of them growling, panting, whining—hear their nails scratching on the leaves, and the soft swish when they plunge through flower plantings directly below the window.
Though they no longer frighten me, that’s still an adrenaline rush! Hearing the night hunt is always a thrill.
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org