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Nights along the Poudre River are full of mystery and wonder, and maybe even a vampire or two.

We’re fortunate in Poudre Park, a tiny mountain hamlet along the river in the northern Colorado Rockies, to live without bright city lights. Two-thirds of the U.S. population unfortunately cannot clearly see the Milky Way, if at all, because of light pollution.

I’m outside at various time late at night, keeping guard on my dog Amber when she goes out to do her business. Amber is a 29-pound sweetheart, a perfect snack for any mountain lion that might wander by. I’m unsure what I would do if a mountain lion did come for dinner, but it’d probably involve a lot of yelling and screaming.

On clear nights, the stars are twinkling gems that seem so close I should be able to jump straight up and grab one. But my grasp never exceeds my jump, so safe are Cassiopeia, Cepheus the King, Orion and the Seven Sisters.

On a clear night right before the start of a Feb. 21-22 snowstorm, there was what astronomers called a dance in the sky. It was a rare occurrence. Venus, Mars, Uranus and the crescent moon were all visible together, to be seen by the naked eye. Mars was a glittering ruby.

moon_owl_300WThe owls

Regardless of the time of night or the season, Amber and I are invariably greeted by the hooting of Great Horned Owls in the nearby pine forests.

Often, owls perched in a half-dozen different locations carry on a hoot fest at the same time. Each has its own pitch and intensity of sound, and intervals between hoots. This has something to do, I’ve read, with mating, hunting and warning away interlopers. Owls mate for life, so sometimes spouses talk back and forth.

It’s the orchestra of the night, and the owls don’t even seem to care when I join in. Their hooting pauses for a few moments and then picks up again. I suspect some of their hooting is their way of giggling over my stupid hoots.

There have been a few times—when the moonlight is just bright and right enough—that I’ve seen an owl suddenly swoop out of the darkness, headed straight for me, and then veer away at the last moment to avoid crashing into my face.

It’s an owl’s maneuver to protect territory. And, for a human, it’s a formidable encounter. Great Horned Owls have wingspans up to four feet, and they make no sounds as they descend upon victims. They arrive out of nowhere.

The vampires

When these sudden events occur, my wits shatter, primal fears take over, and my terrified thoughts always race straight to Bela Lugosi, the Count Dracula of the 1931 vampire movie.

Compared to today’s standards of cinematic horror, Bela Lugosi’s vampire was a cuddly kitten. Nonetheless…Bela_Lugosi_300W

I remember—as a young kid in the mid-1950s—sitting on the living room couch, scared and shaking, as my mother and sister screamed in fright when the big, flying vampire bat suddenly transformed into the fanged count, evilly stepping forward, his black cloak enveloping his next victim.

Since then, somewhere in my mind, the sudden appearance of a big, flying creature in the black of night equates to a Bela Lugosi vampire. Oh, how random thoughts twist together so wildly.

There are bats along the Poudre—gentile, unintimidating Little Brown Bats with short wingspans—but they fly only in warm weather. In the winter, they hibernate away.

They are not scary. Bela Lugosi would enjoy their cuteness.

Out of the blackness of night

When I was a young man, I went cross-country skiing at night on a trail farther up the Poudre Canyon. The snow was soft powder, coming up as high as my knees. The trail meandered through meadows and forests. The full moon was low in the sky, at an angle that cast black shadows off trees.

I was about a minute ahead of my companions. I crossed a meadow—the terrain was smooth and graceful—and I was almost into the thick shadows of the forest when what my mind imagined was a giant vampire bat swooped straight out of the blackness, aimed directly for me.

Bela Lugosi, come to drain my blood!swooping_owl_400

I was so startled that I lunged to the left, plunging head-first into the snow.

It’s always awkward getting up with cross-country skis on, but I quickly managed it with all sorts of grunts, groans and curses, lest my companions catch up and have a good chuckle over my clumsy predicament.

The moment I stood, my balance teetering, another vampire bat darted out of the black shadows, coming straight for me, Count Dracula again.

This time I ended up face-first in the snow to my right.

As I lay there, tangled up in skis, snow wadded into my nostrils and icicled into my eyeballs, I knew good and well that the second damn Great Horned Owl was the same as the first damn Great Horned Owl. It had just circled around and come back, trying to scare me away from its territory.

And it was having a good laugh at my expense, too.

My companions arrived. “Trouble standing?” one asked wryly.

I swallowed the snow that had taken up residency in my mouth, and mumbled, “I just saw Bela Lugosi.”

 

Poudreriver.org is written by Gary Kimsey, a guy who likes bats, except for those that transform into Bela Lugosi. Gary’s email: poudrewolf@aol.com.

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