What was that noise?

Being back in central NY brought to mind something from many years back, one of those memories that I can’t define why I find it so compelling, I just do.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties (that’s in years – I still haven’t gone fully metric), I used to go out for walks late at night. I was in a rural area, where nighttime traffic was very sparse and streetlights almost nonexistent. It was very quiet, quiet enough to hear animals moving in the brush alongside the road, like the time I encountered a skunk that way. They’re very easygoing animals, because nothing messes with them, and he was well aware that I was following him, but as long as I kept myself four meters away, he was cool. I watched him scavenge dead frogs from the road where they’d been squashed by cars before he eventually wandered off the road again.

I got serious about photography after I left the state, and it took no small amount of time to find an image of the lake in my archive negatives ;-)
I got serious about photography after I left the state, and it took no small amount of time to find an image of the lake in my archive negatives ;-)
I lived about a mile from the northern tip of Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes of New York. Occasionally, when all was quiet, I’d hear a distant boom – just one, all by itself, and seemingly miles away. My imagination played with the ideas of a distant battleground or explosion, since that is what it sounded most like, but my senses told me (initially) that it was probably rail cars being coupled down at the rail line alongside the lake. Later on, as I thought about it, I realized this was unlikely – there was no rail yard nearby, just a line, and it always occurred singly and late at night when switching activity would have been scarce in so rural an area. Curious, but not particularly mysterious.

Until I read an article, many years later, about something called, “brontides.” These are seismic noises that no one has yet determined the origin of, that occur in several different distinct geographic regions. Lewis and Clark apparently heard them in the Rocky Mountains, saying they sounded like distant artillery (though if you’ve ever seen the original, unedited transcripts of their journals, it was probably more like “disttent artyllrees” – spelling was optional back then). But that article also mentioned the “lake guns of central New York,” and abruptly, I knew what I’d been hearing.

Or, that is to say, I didn’t know, any more than anyone else, but I knew now that it was a phenomena that dated back to the Native Americans at least, who provided the earliest accounts. There’s been a lot of speculation over the years – echoed thunder, mild earthquakes, igniting swamp gas, and natural gas deposits, to name a few. I feel comfortable putting the kibosh on most of those. I frequently witnessed heat lighting in the summer, which is simply reflected lightning from distant storms (probably cloud-to-cloud activity), and never once heard a hint of thunder from such shows. It seems silly to think that a single thump of thunder (not even a rumble) could be heard when no storm was present and no flash visible at all. Earthquakes have been reduced in likelihood since no recorded auditory event has ever coincided with seismic measurements, which tend to catch things people have never even heard or felt. And while the northern tip of the lake is known for swampy areas, I was close enough to see a lightshow should any gas have ignited, plus the fact that the sounds always seemed to come from further down the lake, towards open water. Not to mention that the spontaneous ignition of gas is extremely rare, but still shouldn’t be confined to such select areas (especially the Rocky Mountains).

To me, the last option I mentioned seems most likely – subterranean natural gas. No one knows how it could produce such noises, but the area is well-known for deposits, and they’d actually begun tapping them not long before I left. It still remains to be explained how natural gas deposits produce the sound, and why only in a few select areas, but so far, it’s the explanation with the best supporting evidence, at least for the “Seneca Guns” as they’re also called (the effect has been noticed for Seneca Lake as well, the neighbor of Cayuga.)

I just find it interesting that something I’ve heard and wondered about is part of an ongoing mystery. There’s also the realization that, in far too many cases, people assign mysterious, exotic explanations to what are usually mundane events. In this one, the phenomenon is right now more mysterious than I (and many others) had given it credit for.