Man it's a wild world out there...wait till nighttime
The lure of dark skies often takes us to unfamiliar places where nocturnal animals and encounters with strangers can ignite our primal fears.
Astronomers/Astrophotographers are an adventurous lot. If dark skies are what we need to see that galaxy group we'll be there. I've driven into gravel pits, down lonely roads far from home, and even set up on a boat landing to see one thing or another. For me its the chance to observe objects under a truly dark sky. Judging from the responses I received from others 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.
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, options come down to pull-outs, gravel pits, and less-traveled roads. I'm often asked for suggestions on where to watch I really don't like 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 night last summer, wind brought the sound of a domestic argument between a man and woman perhaps a mile from where I'd set up on a country road. As it grew more heated, I grew more concerned. The lady left thankfully
I've met lots of nighttime strangers over time. Cops, locals, lost people, and even a naturalist. Most people stop their vehicles puzzled"Dude what are you doing". 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.Getting ready for a fight, Finally, a big guy swung open the door and pointed flashlight in my face. asked me what i was doing, I explained what I was up to.
"Oh," he said, "I thought maybe you were burying someone." 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 camera. 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 camera. 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 a random in the dark of night.
Animal sounds can sometimes put you on edge. Raccoon, deer, coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, bird, bugs, skunks, boars, 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. This doesn't always work like last night. I am pretty sure Medora has werewolves, or Bigfoot or both
Snorting deer can evoke sudden surprise and have you reaching for that flashlight in a hurry. Case in point a buck snuck up on me one night, I am pretty observant but i was too into it. I seriously thought i was gonna die.
But i pulled out the
Al Harrington's Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man thingy.And we both decided it wasn't worth it
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 out.
Quiet With A Big Stink
Skunks are stealthy but won't bother as long as you don't accidentally bump into one.
The Shadow people
While most folks are goodhearted, In this day and age you really have no clue as to what is out there, drugs, drunks, and so-forth I've never really had any run-ins mostly it's urbex that i run into the wackjobs and honestly I'll take a mountain lion over a tweaker anyday.
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! Not really
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 the nights become.