Ominous Splashing in the Lake on a Dark and Creepy Night

I let the dogs out for their nighttime potty and went out onto the back deck to look up at the stars. It was a week before Thanksgiving and cold weather was reaching its fingers out for a touch, but this night was warm and rainy.

The deck, which served as our own private jungle for most of the year, had been cleared off for the winter, emptied of the giant cactus plants that towered over our heads, mature philodendrons with twelve-inch leaves, sago palms, ponytail plants, and dozens of others.

Standing on the empty deck, I felt disconnected, lonely, as if it was a stranger’s deck. An overcast sky blotted out the moon, turning the deck into a raft, floating in a sea of light fog.

I looked in the lighted window, like Scrooge being shown a life that wasn’t his by the Ghost of Christmas. The surreal moment passed when Sierra came up from her potty and joined me on the deck to wait for Dakota.

Then came the splash, out in the lake, too loud to be a fish. I quickly sent Sierra inside to safety because the splash wasn’t normal, and my first thought was that Dakota was in the lake drowning. It sounded as if someone was distressed, flailing in the water, but I was too far away to see.

Our back yard butted up to a small, subdivision lake, and we’d trained our dogs not to go in the lake so if Dakota had gone into the water, something unusual must have compelled her. The splashing sound, which was more of a kerplunk, continued intermittently. Kerplunk… kerplunk… kerplunk…

I navigated the uneven ground in the dark, with its dips and holes and exposed tree roots, and headed toward the retaining wall, all the while scanning the water, fully expecting to effect a rescue, but I couldn’t see anything in the lake and I figured I was too far away. Once I got close enough for better visibility, I spotted Dakota near the retaining wall but not in the water. She was okay. She was safe.

The sound continued… kerplunk… kerplunk… Was somebody out there drowning? Could it be a person in distress? I surveyed the water, looking for a break in the surface, but the surface appeared smooth as far as the eye could see on a dark, rainy night. The fog hadn’t settled on the water yet, and streetlights down at one end lit up about a third of the area in front of me.

There it went again, so close that I should have been able to see the source… kerplunk… It was much too big to be a fish and I scanned the dark area for boats. Surely I’d missed something. Was a murder taking place out there? Was someone intentionally drowning either a person or a dog? So many things go through your mind. If we’d been at Loch Ness or Lake Champlain, I’d have thought Nessie or Champ, two well-known unidentified lake monsters, but our small lake was limited to ordinary fish and turtles and perhaps a snake or two.

A strange light glowed from the opposite side of the lake, one which I’d never seen before. Four rows of three lights each made up a rectangle of lights. It was too early to be a Christmas decoration and I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to what it could be. The lights appeared to be near the shore. Was somebody out in their back yard, late at night in the rain, and if so, what were they doing? Were they attempting to drown something?

The splash sounded distressed, and one after another, ominous thoughts blazed bright, and then shot away like a meteor. Nothing good could come of such a sound from the lake on a dark, rainy night in November.

Dakota and I had been outside for quite awhile, me waiting for positive identification so that I could take action. Without a location or sighting there was no point jumping in the lake to rescue someone, especially if it involved a personal risk, as with interrupting a murder-in-progress.

Bear came out on the deck and hollered, “What are you doing out there?” He’d grown worried, thinking it strange that I’d disappeared into the darkness in the rain for so long. Thoughts sped through his mind as well, “Has my wife lost her mind? Literally? Is our dog Dakota in distress? Do they need help?”

I hollered back but he couldn’t make out the words. He came down expecting an emergency but there was just me, standing at the edge of the water, staring out over the lake in the rain, holding Dakota’s collar. He hadn’t heard the sound yet.

“What’s going on? What’s wrong? Why are you out here standing in the rain?” He didn’t say it, but thoughts can be just as loud as words: Are you nuts?

“Something’s going on out in the lake…” and before I could say more, it started up again. Kerplunk… kerplunk… kerplunk…

He joined me in the vigil and offered his first thought. “It sounds like somebody is throwing rocks in the water.”

“No, the splash is way too big to be rocks.”

“Well, maybe somebody is shooting off a potato cannon…”

“Mmmmm… I don’t think so. I’ve been scanning the shore in every direction and I haven’t seen any movement. No sign of people.” Even though I could still see the strange light, a lack of movement made people unlikely. The light was probably just a holiday decoration.

“Meteors falling into the lake?” It was the peak night for the Leonid meteor shower when Earth crosses the orbital path of the comet Tempel-Tuttle.

“That many? That big? And we haven’t seen anything fall from the sky?”

We were perplexed. I was grateful that he’d heard the kerplunks because if I’d stayed out that long and gone back in and tried to explain it, he never would have believed me. You had to hear it for yourself. At least he knew that I hadn’t lost my marbles.

It sounded like cannonballs hitting the water as if shot from a great distance, so he suggested giant hailstones. It wasn’t that type of rainstorm but we were running out of explanations. We also considered beavers because they slap their tails on the water, but this didn’t sound like a slap, and the beavers had been eradicated a few months earlier.

We stood there, side by side, in the rain, trying to solve the puzzle. It was a moment of togetherness, this sharing of the mystery, one which we never did solve that night. No mystery can go unsolved without a pass through Google, and later I searched for recordings of beavers splashing.

Beaver tail slap videos on YouTube sounded close enough to what we heard that maybe it was a beaver after all. North American beavers can weigh as much as 110 pounds, although half that is more typical. Even a 50 pound animal could have made a splash as big as the kerplunk that we heard, if it leaped out of the water and splashed back in as fish do. I hadn’t realized that beavers could get so big.

Searching beaver news in general pulled me even farther out of my comfort zone. The world wide internet throws open the door to news near and far:

  • Chattahoochee River, Forsyth County, Georgia:
    Beaver Attacks Fisherman in Georgia
  • University Lake, Alaska:
    Beavers Get Tough Defending Their Turf
  • Red Deer Three Mile Bend off-leash dog park, Alberta, Canada
    Rampaging Beaver Kills Dog in Series of Attacks
  • Irondequoit Creek, Rochester, New York:
    Beaver Attacks Man Near Rochester: ‘It was like watching a horror film’
    Bad Beaver Pulls Man From Kayak, Attacks (same story)

Now before you get your hackles up fearing or hating beavers, keep in mind that such incidents are rare, and sometimes even provoked. A dog swimming in the water near a beaver dam threatens the beavers, especially if they are protecting beaver kits. A boat encroaching on a beaver’s territory might also be taken as a threat. One man was attacked and bitten when he approached a beaver to take its photo. The bite severed an artery and the man died. Climbing on a beaver dam can also provoke an attack.

In other words, these attacks usually revolve around defending their babies and territory. They aren’t out running around looking for something to attack, and many beaver attacks on humans are triggered by rabies, which causes animals to become aggressive. This phase known as Furious Rabies.

Rabid animals go through stages, and in an early stage they might seem overly friendly. This is sometimes followed by an aggressive, irritable, disoriented, or “spaced out” stage. In dogs, rabies can cause Mad Dog Syndrome, which is another name for Furious Rabies. A normally friendly dog might viciously attack anything that moves, whether a person or object or animal. If caged, he might break his teeth trying to chew his way out, or bite at hands near the cage. Even a scratch can infect you.

I thought about Dakota and the beaver. She had clearly upset it, because beavers slap their tails as an alarm signal when they feel threatened in order to warn other beavers of danger. The loud splash is also a warning to predators. Kerplunk.

Thankfully Dakota hadn’t gone into the water, even though she’d clearly been fixated on it. I thought I heard her growl once, so low that I couldn’t be certain, as we stared out over the lake.

Our dog training held, and that kept her safe. With as many kerplunks as we’d heard, the lake could have been full of beavers. The rising water level with the rain would bring them out, as we’d learned years before when the back yard flooded and beavers chopped down all three of our newly planted fruit trees. It took many years but the trees did grow back.

Perhaps the beavers were out there, eyeballing our fruit trees, lingering near the retaining wall plotting an entry point. Dakota’s late night potty might have interrupted a burglary in progress, because after they chop down your trees, they haul them away. You walk out one morning to find a yard full of one foot tall tree stumps. Kerplunk!

* * * * *

When we adopted Dakota in the summer of 2007, she was a semi-adult shelter dog who was the Queen of Bad Behavior and the Master of Dirty Tricks. I turned her first year with us into a book — Bad Dog to Best Friend. The book takes you from Dakota’s awful beginnings to her amazing transformation into a beloved member of our household.

Dakota’s Story

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