While camping in the foothills of Colorado earlier this month, we were serenaded by a bull elk. We first heard him bugling in the distance at dusk while we were setting up our tent. The elk called off and on throughout the night and we were delighted. He was far away, over the ridge from us, so his call sounded like a high-pitched note from a clarinet or wooden flute — pure and unearthly, like a lone soul singing to the stars.

Click here to listen to a bull elk bugling.

Bull elk on a grassy hill side next to a tree.
Elk seen in Estes Park, CO, 21 May 2023
Photo by Kit Dunsmore

The first time I ever heard an elk in rut wasn’t as magical. The campground at Yellowstone National Park was full so it wasn’t as quiet or dark as I would have liked. I was still sleeping on the ground, though, breathing fresh air and looking forward to stepping out into a breath-taking landscape when morning came.

Bull elk feeding next to a dirt road and pine tree.
Elk, Estes Park, 21 May 2023
Photo by Kit Dunsmore

Late that night, I heard a piercing squeal bordering on a scream. I lay in the dark, my heart pounding, wondering who was being attacked. The cries came and went and there was nothing else. No one yelling for help, no stampede of rangers racing to the rescue.

Bull elk feeding in front of a house.
Elk, Estes Park, 30 May 2023
Photo by Kit Dunsmore

When I learned it was a male elk making all that noise, I was flabbergasted. The high-pitched whistle was the last sound I would expect a bulky animal to make. But my ignorance of natural sounds dates back many years.

Bull elk walking down a dirt road.
Elk, Estes Park, 30 May 2023
Photo by Kit Dunsmore

Over three decades ago, I camped at Hickory Run State Park in Pennsylvania. When I got up during the night to go to the bathroom, I was terrified by a screeching sound high up in the trees ahead of me. I stood in the dark, heart pounding. The rustling leaves covered any sounds a moving animal might make. Just when I was ready to resume walking, there would be another blood-curdling screech.

Again, no one was yelling or shouting, or reacting to this strange noise. I couldn’t imagine what could be making such a terrible sound. My crazy 3-AM brain decided it was probably a man-eating owl. I kept scanning overhead for glowing red eyes. I made it to the bathroom and back unscathed, but it was a long time before I fell asleep.

The next day, I examined the trees on my way to the bathhouse. There was no sign of any creature, no tree limb dripping with blood or glaring red-eyed owl perched on high. I walked on, wondering what I had heard the night before.


I looked up.

My nocturnal terror was two tree limbs rubbing together in the wind. I laughed at myself, simultaneously embarrassed and relieved.

It’s funny how being in the dark can change our perception of sounds. Once I could see what was making the noise, all the terror was gone. The darkness lifted and I was no longer ignorant. I knew what was actually happening, instead of being a slave to my anxious middle-of-the-night imagination.

Despite the scary sounds I sometimes hear in the night, I will keep camping and I will keep listening.

Do you have any stories about noises in the dark?

4 thoughts on “Enchanting or Terrifying? Noises in the Dark”

  1. One night on patrol at a state park in Washington, a coworker and I tried to track down an unfamiliar scream/screeching noise that, at times, sounded like a wounded dog. We were not able to find the animal, which led us to believe it was not a wounded one. The best we could figure was some kind of fox sound, but we didn’t have foxes in the park so… mystery.

    1. Mysteries are good. It’s amazing how alien some natural sounds can be. Like, I don’t think I know what a fox sounds like. But there are a lot of wonderful things in the world for us to discover.

  2. I think not knowing what is making a noise is what scares us sometimes. Once we know, it’s not so bad, unless it’s a nearby grizzly or something like that.

    1. This experience made me realize why we equate ignorance with being in the dark. Not knowing is definitely the issue.

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