We had pitched our tent, built a campfire, and were in the process of burning some Spam for supper when suddenly we were frozen in our tracks by a blood-curdling scream.
It echoed from the dark hollow behind us, less than 100 yards away -- a few easy bounds for a prowling river monster, restless ghost of a Confederate soldier, Bigfoot or other fearsome denizen of the mountains.
I looked at Sherborne over the flickering flames and he looked at me.
The thing screamed again, high-pitched and quavering.
We had two choices – run for our lives or go check it out.
We chose the first option. If you’ve never sprinted down a mountain-side on a pitch-black night, carrying an unfolded tent, a tangle of fishing tackle and a hot skillet, it’s hard to describe.
It reminded me of the old joke about two hikers who were being chased by a hungry bear:
“We’ll never out-run this bear,” gasped the first one.
“I don’t have to out-run the bear,” replied the second one. “I just have to out-run you.”
Thankfully, whatever was screaming didn’t chase us. I’d have hated to leave my fishing buddy behind.
Many years later I heard the same scream once again pierce the night. This time it wasn’t on some remote mountainside; it came from my backyard in the suburbs.
By this time I was too old to run, so I got a flashlight and eased out on the deck to confront the creature.
I shined the light into the dark and there, reflected in the beam, glowed two big yellow eyes about 10 feet off the ground.
The thing let out another quavering scream, and my goosebumps got goosebumps. If I dialed 911 what, exactly would I tell them? That there’s a haint in my backyard?
Then I looked closer.
The big glowing eyes belonged to a little screech owl, perched on the limb of a hackberry tree. It was perhaps six inches tall.
It screeched a final screech, then flitted off into the night on silent wings.
Having spent a half-century prowling the outdoors, sometimes in the dark, I’ve heard lots of unnerving noises. Nothing sounds as eerie as a pack of coyotes howling and yipping on a winter’s night. Three or four can sound like a hundred.
I once heard a wildcat squall. It was creepy, but not as eerie as a screech owl.
A fox, during mating season, can make sounds unheard of this side of a Kid Rock concert.
One of the most unsettling sounds I’ve ever heard wasn’t a screech, scream, snarl or squall. It was a woof. It came from a bear.
The bruin was standing outside our tent, which Sherborne and I had pitched beside a secluded lake in the Canadian wilderness. Earlier that day a ranger dropped by to advise us that there were bears in the area and warned us not to clean fish too near our campsite.
We didn’t listen, and now we were being woofed at.
Sheborne grabbed a tin pan, started banging on it, and the bear skedaddled.
I don’t know if it was scared away by the clatter, or by my high-pitched impersonation of a Tennessee screech owl.