When I was a kid, none of the older people were afraid of the dark, or at least that’s what it looked like to me. “Don’t be afraid of the dark,” they’d tell me, as if it was something I could just do. Washing my hands before eating, putting my dirty clothes in the hamper, lifting the toilet seat, closing the toilet seat, and saying “thank you” when someone did something nice for me were the sort of things I could just do (when I remembered). Being unafraid of the dark wasn’t.
Being afraid of the dark is an irrational thing. I know that. If I think about it carefully, I suppose I’m afraid that a bear or a wolf or a mountain lion or some other large carnivore is going to emerge from the darkness and eat me. Or maybe it’ll be a serial killer. Or a Bigfoot. Being worried about those things isn’t the irrational part. They could all happen. It’s being unworried about those things when another person is with me that is irrational. Timothy Treadwell was with his girlfriend when the bear ate them both. Two people from Seattle were together when they were attacked by a cougar. And the job description for a serial killer is, well, killing more than one person. But—despite those things—I’m unafraid when I’m with another person. Maybe it’s like the old joke about not needing to outrun the bear when someone is with you. I don’t know. But I’m not afraid of the dark when another person is with me, especially if I can run faster than them.
“Because my mind works like this, I really should avoid being alone in the dark. But I’m a trout fisherman, and I live in Michigan.”
When I’m alone, though, I’m pretty sure that the song of a whippoorwill is actually a signal from one meth addict to another that now is the time to rush the fisherman, hit him over the head with a tire iron, take his gear and sell it for cash to buy antifreeze, white gas, ether, acetone, and other supplies for their backwoods meth lab. Because my mind works like this, I really should avoid being alone in the dark. But I’m a trout fisherman, and I live in Michigan.
Sure, a few of the mayflies in Michigan are exhibitionists, but most are the timid type who prefer to have their sex with the lights off. As the darkness arrives, they dance, mate, and exhaustedly fall to the water, which, as John Voelker explained, “is frequently the last ride, for it is here that the fat tribal chieftains among the brown trout foregather at dusk to roll and cavort.” So if you want to take part in the tribal chieftains rolling and cavorting, you too will need to foregather at dusk with a stout heart and a reliable flashlight.
The brown drakes are your pretest. They don’t mind if a little light comes in through the curtains, so you can catch a few fish and be back in your car before it gets really dark. You can fish well into the darkness too if you’d like, but you often won’t need to. It’s those damn Hexagenia Limbatas—the Titans of winged biomass—who insist that the shades be pulled tight, the doors be shut, and every nightlight be pulled from its socket before they’ll do the whoopee dance. And while you wait for the mood to strike them, you’ll sit on a log in the kind of darkness that will make your hair stand on end, assuming, of course, that you still have some hair to stand.
“I’ve never heard of anyone being eaten by a bear or tire-ironed by a meth addict while they were actively casting to a rising trout.”
No matter how many times you’ve done it, you’re never quite ready for the nerve-testing sound of that first cavorting fish. I suppose you could practice by sitting by a pond at night and paying some kid to throw a stone into the water at a random time, but you probably shouldn’t be paying a kid to come out to a pond with you at night. And for me anyway—after its startling introduction—that first fish serves to temporarily suspend all of my fear. I’ve never heard of anyone being eaten by a bear or tire-ironed by a meth addict while they were actively casting to a rising trout. I’m pretty sure it is usually when they are sitting on a log waiting for that first fish, or when they are walking back to their car. So when the fish start to rise, I know I’m safe.
This summer I drove seven hours from my home to a place below the Mackinac Bridge that people in our state—for some reason—call Northern Michigan. If Rhode Island is on the mainland of the United States then I suppose Northern Michigan can be in the middle of Michigan, but it is odd to drive south to get to the north. I planned to spend most of my time visiting with old and new friends, but June in Northern Michigan means fishing in the dark, so I’d be doing some of that too.
The night I left home I stopped at a cabin on a somewhat local river that a friend lets me use in return for occasionally cutting the grass. It’s the only cabin on a remote stretch of river, and the “road” to the cabin begins with an easement through a farm and then continues for a couple miles on a barely recognizable two-track trail. Outside of my visits and a week during deer season, the cabin is rarely used. It’s rustic, but when the propane-powered generator is running and the gravity-powered water tank is full, you can have lights, running water, and your choice of four bedrooms. When I stay, though, I just use solar-powered lamps and a sleeping bag. I’m there to fish.
Partly to develop my nighttime nerve for the rest of my trip south to get north, I fished into the darkness and was rewarded with a plump rainbow trout that was eating flies that must have looked something like a size 16 Roberts’ Yellow Drake. After that, I retired to the cabin, had a sandwich and a couple beers, then spread my sleeping bag on one of the beds and went to sleep. I thought about leaving the door to the cabin open so I could hear the sounds of the river but I decided that if a bear or serial killer wanted to get me, they’d at least have to break through the door or one of the windows to do it. Being a creature of the night shouldn’t be easy.
At about 2 a.m. I awoke to what I thought was the sound of someone walking slowly on the cabin’s front porch. I probably just imagined that in a dream, I thought, so I closed my eyes and wished myself back to sleep. Then I heard it again. A squeaky plank at first, followed by the dull—but clearly recognizable—sound of a footstep. After all my years of worry, it was finally happening. Someone, or some thing, was about to redeem me for a lifetime of fear. “You should carry a gun if you’re going to spend a lot of time out in the woods,” a friend once told me, and now I wished I had. If for no other reason than to shout “Hey, I have a gun in here.” Instead, I tried to be quiet and hoped whoever—or whatever—was out there would think the cabin was empty. But any person could see that my truck was right next to the porch, and any self-respecting man-eating animal could surely smell my fear. I was screwed.
My phone didn’t have the bars or the charge to make a call or send a text, but, even if it did, a call for help would have been pointless. By the time help arrived I’d be tomorrow’s headline. Instead, if the phone worked I’d have sent a quick text to my wife telling her I love her and that she should put something like “Be afraid. Be very afraid of the dark,” on my tombstone.
My assailant’s next move was to knock on the door. Who the hell knocks on the door before they attack you? Did they really think I was going to come to the door and let them in? The next time they knocked it sounded more like a scratch. Bigfoots have claws, right? Then it sounded like they were chewing on the outside of the cabin. My attacker was gnawing their way in.
I was wide awake now, and the part of my brain that wasn’t preoccupied with the fight or flight dilemma remembered that porcupines had been eating the siding on the cabin. It’s a kind of rustic plywood that—evidently—porcupines love to eat for the glue that’s in the wood. So I went to the door, smacked the inside and yelled something like “Ha, get out of here!” The critter stopped gnawing and waddled off the porch. About the time I got back in bed, though, the chomping started again on the side of the cabin outside another bedroom. So I banged on that wall and yelled “Get the hell out of here!” Then the porcupine moved to another part of the cabin. This went on for over an hour before I finally got the nerve to grab a flashlight and leave the safety of the cabin to confront my nemesis. The battle was on.
Porcupines are really slow—which is something I knew about them—so, knowing that it couldn’t outrun me, this one started to shimmy up the corner of the cabin—something I didn’t know about them—and established its position on a beam that extended from the cabin wall to the roof.
In addition to an irrational fear of the dark, I also have a tendency toward outlandish fears about animals. “It is little wonder people have so frequently been bamboozled into believing tales of porcupines shooting their quills with arrowlike accuracy,” Jerry Dennis wrote in A Walk in the Animal Kingdom, and I am among the easily bamboozled. I was pretty sure they didn’t actually shoot them, but I suspected that if they did, six feet would be beyond their range, so I found a six-foot stick with which to deliver my eviction notice. Getting within six feet of a porcupine allows you to learn something else you might not know about them. It turns out that eating things like plywood siding makes your teeth turn the color of a pumpkin.
My first eviction poke caused the porcupine to revolve around the post and hang upside down. I figured I’d delivered my notice and if I went back into the cabin the porcupine would take the opportunity to head back into the woods. I was wrong. About the time I got into my sleeping bag the gnawing began again. I grabbed my stick and decided that shooting quills and long orange teeth be damned, that porcupine was coming off the post. I lined the rodent up on the end of my stick like a giant quilly cue ball and sent him toward the corner pocket. After he thumped to the ground, I yelled and threatened to chase. The porcupine “ran” toward the woods, and after what seemed like 15 minutes he made the 100 feet and was gone. Then I went back into the cabin and searched every room with my light to make sure no one or no thing had snuck in while I was fighting with the porcupine. There were still two hours of darkness before sunrise, you know.