Across the lake in Montmorency County, Michigan, we heard the rhythmic bark of some animal. So rhythmic and so prolonged that we turned to the sound to try and make sense of it.
‘Was that a dog?’ my friend asked.
It was a bark to be sure. But.
‘It seemed too fast to be a dog,’ I said. The barks had such little space between them that I thought perhaps it could be an owl barking, thinking of the saw-whet’s escalating toots and how fast they get, a bit like a bouncing ball settling down to the table.
We were just about to conjecture some more when down the shore we heard a great cacophony.
For a split second, I thought it was the loons looning out their warning call: a ghostly yodel which a few days earlier I’d almost mistaken for the bugle of an elk. We were, after all, very near the elk capital of Michigan. Just as I was about to whisper loon, I heard the unmistakable eerie yips of the coyotes answering back to what must have been a family member.
There is something about the presence of coyotes that makes any place feel wilder than it is. Whenever I hear a coyote family, I get goosebumps. I instinctively look behind me, anticipating a threat. These are natural responses. I first heard coyotes answering one another when I was staying with friends in a cabin nestled on a riverbank. We thought some grisly murder was taking place. Or some witches were convening, making a potion, altering the course of history. One friend I was with (same friend as now) said, WHAT is THAT? We were kind of terrified and grateful for the river that stood between us and that awful, intoxicating sound.
Alternately, the ruckus of coyotes can make a wild place feel almost cozy, like home. The last time I heard them, I was at the edge of a playa at night, an empty desert basin that could house two Manhattans under its enormous star-dusted sky. When the coyotes called I felt all that expanse collapse as though we, the coyotes and I (if they’d have me), fit the space perfectly. Theirs was the only noise in the hushed night. They could have been miles into the playa but it felt as though they were whispering into my ear.
Now when I hear coyote families I feel like I’m home.
Looking across the lake, toward the sound, my friend said, ‘That is so freaky.’
I said, ‘I’m so glad we heard it.’ I felt welcomed by the hidden coyotes even though I know they had no idea I was there, or, even if they did, they had no interest in me.
To Jack London, the call of the wolf was the call of the wild.
But who among us will get the chance to hear wolves?
One summer, I lived on a small island on a Great Lake, home to two wolf packs. I regularly slept outside, in their territory, and never heard a peep, let alone that famous moan. Saw one, though. But every time I escape the city, if I’m patient, and when I least expect it, I’ll hear the wild carnal frenzy of coyotes, otherworldly and disturbing, and I feel that final tether to civilization snip and fall away.
‘What if I’d encountered them in the woods? I could have died,’ my friend said. He’d gotten lost on the maze of snowmobile trails that carved through the woods, and had finally found some nice local women named Barb, Janet and Patti to drive him back to the lake.
I said, ‘I don’t think a coyote would hurt you. I think they are too small.’ I hoped this didn’t disappoint him.
I’ve lost many hours reading about mountain lions attacking people near places I love, but I’d never thought to Google how many people have been killed by coyotes.
Turns out, coyote attacks are very rare and they almost always involve children smaller than themselves. And most happen in areas where the line between wilderness and civilization blurs in increasingly complicated ways. A disproportionate number happen in California.
I remember the scene from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial where the kids hear the night-hallowed sound of metal garbage cans banging together and the older brother says, ‘Coyotes come back again, Mom.’ And Mom immediately orders everyone inside. This became quintessential California suburban living to me – a place so newly civilized you feared the animals you’d displaced. I was just a quintessential New Jersey suburban kid (at the time). I now know that there were coyotes in the Jersey wilds, but back then I only ever encountered bats and turtles. But from that movie moment, coyotes gained their wild ominous reputation with me. Something lurking, something to be feared, even though you weren’t quite sure what. It’s funny how small clues in the culture can turn an unformed mind against most anything. Until you learn better. If you learn better.
The thing is that while I’ve heard many coyotes in my life, I can’t remember ever seeing one. I know they are there. I hear them, but they never reveal themselves. And I’m the kind of person who notices animals.
I’m proud of my animal eye. I always see the fleeting dolphin fin, find the toad despite its camouflage, the hawk on the electric pole when we’re speeding past. I’ve seen the animals of North America, the ones you would brag about having seen: bobcats in Oregon; bears in New Hampshire; condors along the Pacific Coast Highway; even a mountain lion overlooking her dominion in Point Reyes. All but the coyote. I remember their sounds, but when I try to conjure their physical form I’m left staring into the dark. Literally. I’m standing on the porch, at the edge of that lonesome playa, looking out into night so dark it feels like the Earth drops off where my porch light strains to reach.
Their calls have gotten closer. They are on the move. Toward me. Then I can hear their fur brushing the hard winter grasses. Their communal huff and whine. Their padded trot against the hard ground. I know they are standing right past the edge of where my porch light reaches, watching me from the dark side. I can hear them so close I instinctively reach for the door. But I can’t see them. It’s perfect. What more could you want from a wild animal?
Photograph courtesy of the author, Summer Lake, Oregon, 2014