Even to the most seasoned outdoorsman there are sounds in the wilderness that are weird, often mysterious and frequently unexplainable. Most of the time, however, they are as reassuring and comforting to him as the warm fire glowing from his open fireplace. The common loon which, for example, can frighten the wits from strangers to the woods with its maniacal laughter or long sorrowful call symbolizes the wilderness and forms the very essence of the woodsman's long dream of the coming of spring. Loons, he knows, are the last to leave the wild lakes in the fall, and they show up in spring almost simultaneously with open water. The calls are heard at any time of day or night, and it is the loon that often breaks the lull to announce an approaching storm.
Whining and moaning noises, generally at night, can most often be attributed to coons or porcupines. Young coons fight and play among themselves and are punished by their parents for infractions of local house rules, with a fine collection of outcries invariably resulting.
Snuffling and grunting could be a bear. Heavy footfalls and the crash of an upset or flung garbage pail are corroborative evidence. They say a bobcat screams, and oldtimers have sworn to it. It is written that a mountain lion really does and that at certain times of the year a bear will squeal like a pig. I have not personally identified any of these wilderness sounds; and I would have to see the bobcat in the act of screaming before I would believe it wasn't an owl.
A fox barking can make you pretty nervous the first time you hear it. So can a deer blowing. And it is true that a fox and a deer sound similar. The deer blowing makes a very sharp and forceful whew! It is explosive and alarming—but the deer is the one who is alarmed. The whew! is made by the deer expelling air from its nostrils preparatory to drawing in fresh air—in which it will clarify the scent of man or danger, which to the deer are often synonymous.
The fox's bark also sounds like whew!, except that it is drawn out a little longer and has a faintly metallic whine for further differentiation.
The nearer sounds, the tiny sounds, are confusing, especially at night when anxieties are intensified. The sound of footsteps that you might think are coming from the back of the woods isn't after all. It is four feet from your ear, and it is a mouse prowling through the dead leaves along the outside cabin wall. You learn to judge distance by ear, just as by eye.
In the dawn hours, I have been alerted by the doings of strange invaders on the cabin roof. These invaders are certain to be robins and red squirrels—a signal that it is time to light the fire in the cabin stove. But if I doze again, I might awake to hear the little wind of morning—and with it a low groaning and creaking down by the lakes. There is a thumping, as of heavy bodies. The waves are moving the dri-ki on shore, and it rubs and bumps against the rocks and against itself. Dri-ki is the Indian name for driftwood, and on a windy night in high water, it can sing a mighty dirge.
The shrieking whistle of an osprey, the steam explosion in a wet log on the fire, a thousand mosquitoes droning outside the window screen, the sharp slap of a beaver's tail on the lake, the ghoulish squawk of a raven, the guttural thumping noise from the throat of the heron—called thunder pumper—all contribute to the stranger's apprehension till he has them filed and classified in his anguished ears. Then he loves them, as I now do, and he waits for them.
Long Jim Hendryx, an adventure writer of the '30s, tells the story of camping on the Magpie River with my friend, Frank Reck. A whippoorwill, cousin to the nighthawk, landed in a tree near their tent and started sounding off: "Whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will...."
Frank described the sound as "unceasing incessance," and the bird kept it up for two solid hours until the campers were half out of their wits. Then, suddenly, the bird cried and stopped dead right there. The last syllable never came. The effect was more devastating on the men's nerves than the cacaphony that had preceded it.
I know an oldtimer who awoke in his cabin one night and heard someone under his bunk. The sound was unmistakable. The stranger under the bunk was wounded unto death and uttering groans. There was a bad moment while the oldtimer investigated. But the dying man turned out to be his hound dog who had crept under the bunk, gone to sleep and was having a bad dream. Some explanations are that simple.
The weirdest sound I ever heard in the wilderness was the ringing of a telephone. As always, I was looking forward to getting back to my cabin in a remote part of Maine and had written to Al Poster, my nearest and only neighbor: "Only 166 days to the first loon call, and wood smoke from the chimney."
One day, about a week after I had got back to my cabin, I was splitting cedar for kindling when I was suddenly stunned by the ringing of a telephone bell. And the nearest telephone was—and is—29 miles away. Al Foster, who was hiding under the cabin porch, said I rose four feet off the ground. Al was lying there with an old doorbell he'd hooked up to some dry cell batteries. He had been planning the gag for months.
In the wind-moaning darkness, tree limbs rubbing on the cabin roof or against other tree limbs can produce some somber and distressing noises. But a big sound, one of lonely power and violence, is that of a huge tree falling on a silent, windless night. The stresses and strains, the laws of gravity and decay, have finally tolled the bell. The big tree goes down, crashing the limbs of smaller trees, rending and tearing, its great weight making a climactic thunder as it smites the earth that grew it.
Through the years I have learned to identify most of the weird or startling noises I hear in the wilderness surrounding my cabin. But now and then one fools me completely, as in the case of the loud, metallic bang which occurred one night. It sounded like someone hitting an iron washtub with a crowbar, and it happened twice within a very few minutes.
Our washtub was under cover. So was our crowbar.
"It's the gasoline drum, contracting in the cool air," I said.
"No," said my wife. "We took the gas drum to town last trip."
The sound remained a mystery that haunted us for days. But like most strange noises in the forest, its origin was harmless—at least to man. It seems that my friend Al had left one of his Grumman canoes a hundred yards down the lake shore from our cabin. In the night, a couple of dead limbs from a rotting beech tree had broken and conked the aluminum hull. Even to us old hands in the woods the bangs proved a little too eerie for comfort.