The Forest, at Night

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It was a dark night.

I spend a lot of time walking in the forest at night, what’s dark to most people isn’t all that dark to me, I see better than most, and I don’t need to see well to be comfortable. I know to pick up my steps an extra inch, to roll my foot down onto the uneven ground, to not overly expect that ground to be there and to hold my hand, like a karate chop in front of my face when there’s a chance of branches.

I also have a photographic memory for geography, if I’ve walked a trail once in the daytime, I can walk it safely at night.

But this was a particularly dark night.

In winter, with snow, it’s different. What little light you have gets bounced around, re-used, it does double and triple duty…but when the snow melts you lose that advantage and in it’s place you get wet leaves and soaked tree trunks that literally swallow light.

No moon. No stars. No glow from city lights. Where I hike, it’s near pitch black this night.

To get to my forest, I walk through a well lit neighborhood…when I first get out onto the trail, there’s still some glow, but that fades quickly and 5 minutes in, that forest is inky black.

And quiet.

In summer you’d still hear rustling. In summer you’d hear insects. In winter you hear nothing. I plan to hike for about 2 hours, I could push it in less…it’s a big loop, with a marsh in the middle…in all that time I might hear deer scamper away. I might hear raccoons scurry away. I might startle a bird to flight. And that’s just it…in this part of Michigan…everything…..EVERY-thing runs away. All of the animals and birds and bugs, everything wants nothing to do with a human at night. Everything moves….AWAY.

But something was different that night.

At first, I didn’t see or hear or smell or…..well I just didn’t really know…..I just knew something was off. Then about 20 minutes down the path, I heard it clearly for the first time.
An animal. You can only hear an animal at night if it’s scratching or chewing or, I’ll say it, mating.

Or moving.

And in winter, it’s usually just that last one. Moving.

It’s worth repeating…in Michigan, in this part of Michigan, any animal you’d expect to hear SHOULD be moving………away.

But this wasn’t. And it was big.

Obviously not a squirrel, or rabbit or skunk. Not a muskrat or groundhog or raccon. There are actually a LOT of animals in Michigan, and this sounded like…..none of them.

Bigger than a coyote or fox. Big enough to be a deer but not bounding away. And when you get to animals THAT big in Michigan that’s pretty much all she wrote. Deer. Or bear, but we see a stray black bear down as far as me about once every 20 years. Not impossible, just incredibly unlikely.

And again….moving toward me. Or more specifically, now, following me. As soon as I started moving again along the path, it moved. Then when I stopped, it stopped. Animals really only do that specific behavior for one reason.

It was stalking me.

In this area that’s just not a normal thing. There are rumors about cougars. Mountain lions. But that’s less likely than a bear. A wolf is not impossible, they’ve crossed down to the lower peninsula by walking the frozen Straights of Mackinaw before….but that would leave another 300 miles to wander south.
Everything that came to mind, was just……impossible. But it there it was, stalking me.

I tried walking faster. It kept pace. I ran a short distance, and that seemed to startle it…rather than pursuing it stayed put, seemingly deciphering what I was doing…but then when I stopped and waited….and waited…suddenly it moved very quickly, covering half the distance to me. And it overshot it’s mark.

Til now, whatever it was in the night, stayed about 50 feet back. That’s too far for me to see in the dark. But this time, apparently anxious to catch up, it seemed to stop just 20 feet away, and though I couldn’t make out details, I could make out a shape.

A dark blob.

I lowered myself closer to the ground, giving me changing perspective, and that let me accurately gauge it’s size…..And it was big. It clearly didn’t move like a bear, which should have been a relief, but it wasn’t a relief. It clearly didn’t move like a cat, and that should have been a bigger relief, but it wasn’t.

It moved like a wolf.

It followed me like a wolf.

It behaved like a wolf and now it had the general shape and movements…….of a very large…..wolf.

In lower Michigan, that was just a crazy thing to think. But when it’s this dark….when you’re 40 minutes at BEST from getting out of the forest, or the even less desirable 20 minutes via retracing my steps….when you’re alone and you can’t think of any other possibility…

Well it could be a dog. A very large dog. But if that were the case I’d almost certainly hear a collar. If it had one. Turns out imagining 100+ pounds of WILD dog in the forest, following me, didn’t make me feel all that much safer than the thought of a wolf.

As I started to walk again, it seemed to allow an adjustment back to it’s comfortable 50 foot follow distance, which made me think…I decided to push the issue. I stopped….waited…..then moved TOWARD it. Just a few feet. Just enough to cause it to react, and sure enough, it moved away. I tried a few more feet and it moved twice as far away. I tried one more time but now…

…I had pushed too far.

It held it’s ground. It moved somewhat sideways keeping distance. I thought I heard a growl. It wasn’t going to let me have control.

I decided that as long as I kept moving and it kept pace and distance, I would get back to a lit parking lot with a margin of safety… long as nothing changed, following my normal path around and back was best.

But something changed.

With 15 minutes, or about a mile left to go it adjusted the distance between us to half. I could still stop and it would stop, but it no longer needed to re-set the gap. It was getting braver. And when I could first see the slight glow from civilization…a quarter mile or so ahead… stalker changed behavior completely…

….he flanked me.

He picked up his pace, veered off the trail and came alongside me…..moving parallel….through the brush. And it became horrifyingly apparent to to me….

…I was no longer going to get to the light first.

And then he was gone.

I was a mere 50 feet from clearing the forest, 100 feet from the well lit parking area and in an instant, my shadow was gone. The change was sudden and jarring and caused me to stop and listen.

Nothing. No rustling, no movement, no….anything. It was as eerily silent as when I first entered the forest more than an hour before.

I got lower…almost down to a knee…I slowed my breathing so I could better hear….and I slowly, very slowly pivoted around in a circle, listening for anything alive in the woods. I started to the left, where I last saw the animal and panned to behind me.


I turned some more, moving slower and slower, listening harder and harder until I’d come full circle, back facing the edge of the wood, the gap in the trees glowing from street lights in the distance.

And there he was. Just a silhouette. Blocking the path.

Bigger even than I had originally thought. Darker maybe, though in silhouette it’s hard to tell.

And he was between me and OUT.

The standoff probably lasted less than 20 seconds but it seemed like an hour. Finally, when he wasn’t going to move, I did… step straight at him. No reaction.

A second step. He held his ground.

A third. This time there was a twitch. This time there was a growl. And this time the growl was obvious. A fourth step would be a big mistake.

I thought about working around through the brush, but I also knew better….he would be better than me in the brush. I thought about trying to find a stick or log for a weapon, but here I was in a whole forest and nothing but leaves and twigs within reach.

Then there was a new sound. It was faint. It was from beyond the light. It was a human voice…I couldn’t make out what, but the shadow reacted and turned toward that sound and ran into the light and was instantly gone.

I didn’t wait, I had to be OUT and out I went and I stayed in the light all the way to my car. And just as I was sure the whole odd event was over, he appeared again…running toward me…straight toward me.

But different.

Everything about my shadow had been fear and tension and danger in the forest, but in the light of the parking lot it was completely different. No longer a black blob, he was clearly an enormous Rottweiler. And instead of acting cautious or afraid or threatening, he was kind of prancing and acting playful.

In the light it was easy for me to see he wasn’t a danger.

In the light it was easy for HIM to see that I wasn’t a danger.

He still didn’t come right up to me, and I know better than to push the situation. But he pranced some more and tried to get me to play and then stopped completely with his ears up at the sound of the voice again.

He was being called. And off he went.

I’ll probably never see him again…..which is too bad, I kinda liked my wolf once I knew he wasn’t one…

And the next night I was right back out in the forest…because in THIS part of THIS state, anything you run into in the dark….is surely going to run…..