Intruder in the Night (Personal Experience)

This is true story of backpacking alone in Michigan’s upper peninsula. Looking at it now, a couple dozen years later, I can find numerous little changes to make the story better, but the editor who bought it liked it as it was, and he published it unedited. It is a good little story, and I still like it myself.

Intruder in the Night
Michigan Out-of-Doors, April, 1991


Morning woke unwillingly, as though it wanted to sleep longer. The cloud it used to shut out the sun blanketed the forest where I was camped, forcing me to wait to find out where, exactly, I was.

I heard raindrops making popping sounds on the canopy of leaves above. the drops would collect into a single large drop on a leaf, until the leaf no longer could bear the weight. Then the bloated drop would fall to the earth. Drops together fell onto leaves accumulated over decades; the damp leaves decaying smelled like mulch filled with earthworms. I looked out on the scene once from my tent but stayed in.

I had wanted to be alone. My last year of college would begin in a few weeks and I wanted to pull away for a while. I had wanted time to myself, time to reflect, to think, to rest without interruption or diversion. I had found a place after months of studying maps, an uninhabited area of a national forest in the far north of Michigan.

I had headed north thinking I might find adventure in addition to the solitude. In hiking a couple of miles into the woods, I found both. The topographical map of the area had said my water source flowed east, but the stream chuckled happily toward the south, bending now and then to the west. I had wanted to scout about and find a landmark, but daylight had begun to fade, and I heard the popping of rain. I had been forced to set up camp, letting the laughing stream confound me.

The drops fell all morning but finally scattered at midday, allowing the sun to warm the damp. Released from my confines, I roamed south and found the river. From there, I determined my true location. As soon as I had done this, gray blankets again returned to separate earth from sun. I pulled my last, dry hooded sweatshirt over my head and headed back to camp.

I had decided not to hang my backpack in a tree again. Bears were reported to live in the area, but I had not seen an animal all day, so I left it leaning against the trunk of a tree. Not seeing the need for my glasses or the flashlight, I left them in the backpack. I resigned myself to my tent and waited for the day to end.

Darkness came slowly, imperceptibly, permeating all sight, diffusing light. The fading of the light could not be perceived. I tried to watch it vanish, could not, then found it had gone. The roof of the tent alone glowed blue, but cast no light. It looked as though it were suspended in black liquid.

I heard it. Never did I see it.

I heard the sound of an animal in the woods. This was nothing unusual; I had once laughed at experienced woodsmen who spooked at sounds in the night. But this one stayed around awhile. It walked the length of the tent, brushing against the wall with its side, as though it wanted in. It brushed another side, then a third. Beads of sweat began to form on my forehead. The zipper of the door was broken, and I could not see. If it pushed against the fourth side, the front, the thing would be at my feet. Doubt chased its tail inside my head. What would happen if it found me in the tent?

It headed for the backpack, and I momentarily forgot my fear. Driving the thing away from the backpack while sightless was not possible, but I determined it would not get my food. I groped for the first aid kid, in which was packed a whistle, found it, tore open the Velcro fastener, and felt metal. I put the whistle into my mouth, took a deep breath, and shattered the stillness with a blow. The thing paused, then continued toward the backpack. I blew again. It was if I called it. The thing turned around and came back toward the tent. It felt around the entry and found the opening. Then it squeezed in.

Terror pinned me in my sleeping bag. I breathed hard; clammy sweat covered my skin. What was this thing in my tent? Where was it? What was it going to do with me?

Moments passed. Or was it only moments? Since it entered, how long had it been?

With the remaining courage I had, I searched around with my foot. My toes found the weight of the thing on the end of the sleeping bag. Fear gripped my skull like a hawk crushing a rodent. My mind screamed, “GET IT OUT, GET IT OUT, GET IT OUT!…” At once I was pushing, kicking, blowing the whistle, my mind screaming, “GET IT OUT!” It backed, hesitated at the door, then fled.

I lad back in the bag, knowing nothing. At some point reason returned. I tried to relax, then began waiting for sleep to take me.

Morning dawned slowly. I awoke. Almost at once the memory of what happened the night before seized me. I looked around to see if anything else ventured the night with me, but I saw only my clothes. I dressed and checked the backpack. Maybe the thing was a raccoon, a thief which came back later while I slept to pilfer items in the pack. Everything was there.

I found my glasses and returned to the tent to check around for anything that might tell me what the thing was. I understood when I entered the tent. Six quills stuck out of the end of the sleeping bag, like an old man’s whiskers, The thing was a porcupine. It had wanted shelter from the rain and found a warm, dry place. I had pushed it out in fear.

I can only imagine what could have happened if I had let the animal stay inside. More than likely I would have made a friend. I would have liked that, rather than pushing him out. The porcupine probably would have liked that, too.