By Chip O’Brien
“AAAAAAUUUUAAAACK… AAAAAAUUUUAAAACK…” My eyes opened the size of softballs and the sleeping bag I’d been dozing in nearly lifted off the ground.
“AAAAAAUUUUUUUUUUUUUUAAAACK…” The blast of sound exploded across the landscape, through the trees and dissipated over the lake.
“Holy Crap!” I screamed as I fought free of the bag and leapt to my feet. I was a knot of fear and adrenaline, my hands welded into fists, my body assuming a defensive stance against, what? Only my head moved as I strained to see what might be coming for me in the darkness.
A minute passed as I gasped for air, my lungs trying to keep up with my pounding heart. All was quiet, too quiet, except for a gust of wind that rustled through the trees like an unclean spirit. I glared into the darkness, my eyes groping back and forth. The forest all around me was opaque except for the dying embers of a campfire and a million points of light in the sky overhead. Was it watching me?
“Who’s there?” I screamed, my words sounding weak and pathetic against something I suspected was not. Darkness swallowed my words and I thought I detected a mocking tone in the nothing I heard in response. More silence.
I reached behind me and slowly added wood to build up the fire, not wanting to take my eyes off the perimeter of my campsite. Nothing moved but the occasional gentle swaying of trees. My every sense tingled and popped and I cursed myself for not taking a friend’s suggestion of bringing a gun with me. I was defenseless, and all the more so because I had no idea what I was dealing with. Soon the fire was blazing and it offered both comfort and, at least I hoped, some protection. At least it moved the darkness back a few feet.
Defending myself against unseen monstrosities had not been part of my plan for backpacking into northern California’s Caribou Wilderness. Though it seems remote in every sense, the Caribou is only about 20 miles north of Lake Almanor and the town of Chester. I thought I had considered every possibility and planned accordingly to insure a safe trip. This was meant to be a fishing trip, a trip where I could relax and get away from the burdens of everyday life. The care I devoted to preparing for these excursions and considering all possibilities was something I prided myself on. There had been no signs of other humans on my hike in, so there was a good chance I was miles, maybe many miles away from help. Whatever had produced that God-awful roar in the darkness had to be huge. That limited the field to only a few known possibilities, all potentially dangerous to humans. Until I knew more, I had no choice but to assume it meant danger. What was it?
I did not hear the roar again that night, but neither did I sleep. The night was spent cowering by the fire unable to close my eyes, and thinking, thinking, thinking. I had spent countless nights by myself in the wilderness and never heard anything like that. Morning finally came and being able to see the area around my camp lent some comfort. I thought it wise to start with an inventory of the things I knew, however inadequate that might be. I made coffee and started feeling less wretched.
The obvious question was, should I stay, or get the hell out while I could? Danger I could see was somehow preferable to danger I could not. I had survived the night, but against what? Not knowing seemed much worse than any flesh-and-blood threat I could imagine.
Huge sounds didn’t come from small, weak things I reasoned. It was a deep, resonant growl louder than an automobile horn and immensely resonant. It was bass and sonorous, guttural and baritone. What really set it apart was the volume. It was tremendous, much louder than a bear or mountain lion could make. It was not the kind of sound you want to hear close by when you’re camping alone in a roadless wilderness area, especially one with a reputation.
In my reading before the trip I’d been hooked into reading a funky Internet story about someone’s supposedly violent and bloody encounter with a “Bigfoot” in the Caribou. It was lurid and gory and naturally, I thought, ridiculous. Now I was in that very place dealing with something I could not fathom. I’d long before decided that Bigfoot was a quaint myth, but the wee portion of myself that had to admit I didn’t know everything was gaining ground. The night before I had been waiting for death to come from darkness, which was ironic. I had come to the Caribou in the first place to escape death and darkness.
It had been a rough summer with the unexpected passing of my mom back east. Three days after returning home, I was the first to happen upon a horrific single-car automobile accident. Thankfully the young man didn’t die in my arms, but he did the next day at the hospital and sending his best friend to prison for drunk driving. Maybe it’s true about these things coming in threes. A few days later my best high school friend gave in to cancer, the first of our group of close friends to die.
My head was reeling. I was consumed, distracted. It was too much. I knew it was grief and it’s weight was heavy, but that realization did little to dispel the darkness. Luckily, I had a sense of what I could do. As a youngster I discovered a place to go in times of trouble, a place of beauty where the world seemed simpler.
In grade school I had been the fat kid in my class, and when the teasing became too much I fled to the fields, forests and ravines around our home where there was no ridicule. I preferred a world where teasing did not exist. Eventually I sought those places routinely, not because I was running from something, but because I had found something worth running to. The first thing I learned was to feel comfortable with myself out there; that I was smart and capable of much more than people assumed. As I gained knowledge of myself I also learned a lot about the natural world. It was a life or death game to be sure, but the rules were straightforward and made sense to me. As I grew I developed a singular passion, an obsession, for lonely faraway places. I had discovered wilderness, and it became my university.
How predictable I became! In times of stress I naturally eschewed people; but that wasn’t enough. I needed to be out there, gone, disconnected; and discovered a desire to become conspicuously bold with my life. I worked hard at loosing myself in it, and as is often the case, found something of myself in the process. I learned and studied and idolized famous outdoorsmen like Ernest Hemingway and John Muir. I studied ecosystems and forests and mountains and the creatures I found there. My mind was set against a grinding stone to shape it into an instrument I could rely on out there. I pursued everything an experienced woodsman needed to know, and went afield often to gain confidence.
When I went to the Caribou I thought I was well prepared. Instead I found myself cringing like a frightened child in the dark, and was furious with myself for whatever personal deficiency had put me there. There were no guarantees I would even live through the trip. But no, I decided, I would not leave. If I did, I would judge myself a coward and perhaps lose a love for something I had come to cherish. I would figure this thing out.
The enormity of the sound suggested whatever had made it was large. I knew there were cougars and black bears around, but had enough experience with each to feel relatively safe. I knew that whatever had made that God-awful sound was neither a cat nor a bear. It was something else. In looking around I found a chunk of wood shaped like a club and carried it with me as I patrolled the area. A crude weapon, perhaps, but having it made me feel slightly better.
I recognized my own tracks on the trails and got in the habit of seeing them. There were many other tracks around as there often are in the wilderness. There were deer tracks and I had seen a few in small groups pruning bushes. In the back of my mind I reasoned that where there were deer in a remote location, there were also mountain lions. This notion did not bother me because deer and cougars are almost ubiquitous and far more common than most people think. The few I had encountered in the wild before had wanted no part of humans. Besides, cougar attacks were very rare, and I was convinced I looked nothing at all like a deer. The heft of my club felt good as I stalked the woods.
I expected to find black bear tracks, but found none that day. My food was carefully hung from a high limb back at camp to preclude any food fights. Bears were even less fond of humans in their back yard than cats, except where food was concerned. As I hiked I whistled a happy tune not only to amuse myself, but also to give any wildlife in the area plenty of time to avoid me. There were raccoon, heron and goose tracks near the lakes. I recognized where a small snake had slithered across the trail, though I knew I was too high in elevation to worry about rattlesnakes. Strangely, there are no caribou in the Caribou.
I didn’t hear the roar again for several days. The days were bright and warm and a high-pressure system lingered keeping the air still. Properly fatigued at the end of each day, I slept well the next several nights without interruption. Like the careful woodsman that I was, I kept that roar in the back of my mind and never went anywhere without my club.
I enjoyed making a study of the tracks I found each day. By stepping on top of the animal tracks I found, I could assess which animals had passed that way, and approximately when. If there were tracks over the top of my tracks, I knew the creature had passed that way since the last time I was there. One morning I found adult cougar tracks less than forty feet from my camp, but decided that was less disturbing to me than a deafening night noise I could not name.
After a few days I began to relax. That first night wore on me, but time was beginning to create distance from my fear. I was beginning to feel the old confidence coming back, and my recent obsession with death and danger began to fade.
It takes some time to get use to being alone in the wilderness, or more appropriately, alone with yourself. The self-talk you hear every day inside your brain turns into spoken words, and the days turn into an extended conversation with yourself. The birds and squirrels that heard me babbling to myself must have thought I was crazy, and I always curse too much at first. I have to force myself not to. Being alone withyourself is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a great deal like learning to be with anyone else, minus the pretense.
I often judge myself too harshly, and have to re-learn the grace of cutting myself as much slack as I try to cut others. At first there is always a dark voice that saying I can’t or I shouldn’t, that I’m not worth it and so forth. Where does that come from? I eventually sent the negative voice packing, and my peace and enjoyment blossomed. Yet I was unable to relax thoroughly.
I packed a float tube in with me to give me access to fishing the lakes. Since timber grew right up to the edge of most of these, there was really no other option if I wanted room to cast. Since float tubes are nothing less than big, floating easy chairs, this was not an unpleasant way to pass the time while soaking up sun and doing something I dearly loved. I even stashed my club in the tube, which I had to admit seemed a little funny.
Trout fingerlings were dropped into the lakes of the Caribou from an airplane and the idea was for the trout to grow. A friend once described being in the “drop zone” when one of these deposits were made, and apparently only half the trout actually hit the water. The others littered the landscape wiggling and flipping around on the bank and in the bushes while my friend did a Keystone Cops imitation running around frantically tossing fish into the water. Some survived. Nothing like this happened to me, but it brought a smile to my face visualizing it.
The old good feelings were returning and the slower pace of vacation was settling over my spirit. The last several days had been clear and warm without the flicker of a breeze. All was quiet. One of my favorite activities became switching off my headlamp and setting my novel aside to watch the night sky. At 7,000 feet and far away from city lights, the night sky was very dark, but also as brilliant and sparkling as any I’ve seen. There were so many stars that entire sections of the sky were lighter than others. With hard looking you could see these were filled with an unimaginable number of pinpoints of light. I loved the planes that occasionally flew overhead. Most were passenger airlines that flew a fairly predictable route, roughly southeast to northwest, and I imagined it was the Los Angeles-Seattle route. Maybe it was. Sometimes smaller airplanes crossed the sky low enough that I could hear their engines. Airplane lights always blink, I knew, which helped distinguish the high ones from the satellites, whose lights did not blink. They resembled tiny ants making their way across the vast skyscape. A breeze was building and the swish of the trees in the wind was lulling me back to sleep when I heard it again.
Something deep within me seemed to explode. I shucked out of my sleeping back in an instant, grabbed my club and stood swinging it back and forth. Suddenly I wanted blood. I wanted it, whatever it was.
“WHERE ARE YOU? WHAT ARE YOU?” I shrieked into the darkness. “COME GET ME… I WILL KILL YOU!”
I screamed out again into the darkness, only this time something in me was different. I had become a dangerous animal. I could taste rage and wanted violence. It did not matter what it was or how terrible it might be. I would end this torment of not knowing, the feeling of being trapped or stalked by something I could not comprehend or even see. I stood defiantly swinging the club back and forth circling the fire and squinting into the darkness.
“BRING IT,” I screamed. “LET’S DO THIS… COME ON! ARE YOU SCARED? YOU BETTER BE!”
As my words dissipated there was no sound but the breeze in the trees. The swinging of my club slowed and became more deliberate, more deadly. I had never been more dangerous in my life than at that moment. It was all coming out. Enough of feeling like a hunted animal, I thought, enough of living in fear. I was ready to do some hunting myself.
“COME AND GET ME!” I screamed and hurled the club with all my might. It landed with an unceremonious thump on the ground. All was quiet. I circled my camp, fists clenched like a wild man yelling, cursing and taunting until I eventually ran out of steam. The rage lasted only a few minutes, but it felt good.
The next morning seemed like the first day of a different trip. The campsite looked the same. Everything looked the same. I heard nothing out of the ordinary for the rest of the night, and I could find no unusual tracks the next morning. It was me. I was different. The nagging fear of the last few days was gone. It had been replaced with resolve. I knew nothing more of the titanic roar, or what was out there or even if it might kill me. I didn’t care. If I were about to die, by God I would have something to say about it. I would leave my mark. I hated the fact that I had not discovered what it was, yet also was proud that I had not run away. The fear lifted, and my interest in discovering the source of the great roar took a more academic turn. I still wanted to know what it was, and I also wanted to relax. There was one particular lake not more than a twenty-minute hike from my camp that I had not fished yet.
The water was staggeringly clear. Pushing out in my float from shore I could easily see down ten to fifteen feet, as far as the relentless sunlight penetrated. Catching fish would be nice, but I realized I had all that I required in that moment. I was sitting in a comfy float tube bobbing in a crystal clear lake surrounded by beauty. I had a bright blue sky overhead and a pristine landscape all to myself. There was no pollution or any sign of man. While I struggled with the part of me that felt unworthy, there was enough of me left to feel like a king sitting on a throne. I was happy.
The feeling was left hanging. A large trout impaled my fly nearly derricking the fly rod out of my grasp. “Wahoooo!” I yelled in exhilaration. What a pleasant way to spend an evening, I thought. After releasing the fish, much larger than anything I expected to catch, I felt great. The sun was setting and an evening breeze was gaining momentum. Good time to head back to camp. I had no reason to suspect things would change as quickly as they did.
Float tube slung over my back, I hit the trail. Though it was still plenty light out, the sun had dipped below the horizon and it was time to make a fire, some food and a good cup of coffee.
“AAAAAAUUUUAAAACK… AAAAAAUUUUAAAACK…” The enormous sound knocked me off my feet. It was that close. After scrambling to rid myself of the float tube straps I made a quick flip and was on my feet again, club in hand. While the sound seemed to cover the entire landscape, I got a sense it was louder overhead. I looked up, up, up the tall pine trees beside me. There was nothing much to see. There were no bears, no lions, no space aliens or saber tooth tigers, only an ancient tangle of Lodgepole pine trees stretching up toward the evening sky.
“AAAAAAUUUUAAAACK… AAAAAAUUUUAAAACK…” blasted the roar again, and I stood there, my face lifted in absolute amazement. That was it. I had unraveled the mystery, and while I had never quite experienced anything like it before, there was nothing even slightly sinister about it.
There were two great pine trees, one standing straight and healthy, the other older and partially fallen. One tree was leaning against the other about forty feet above me, raw tree trunk against raw tree trunk. The bark on both trees had been long worn away where they came together. Imagine a monstrous violin and bowstring. The wind made the taller, healthy tree sway, while the lower, older tree remained stationary dragging the surface of the one across the other producing an enormous, deep explosion of sound. The wood somehow amplified the sound a hundred times over, and both trees seemed to stutter and shake with the almost sawing motion of the wind.
I continued to watch for a while mesmerized, and I witnessed several more blasts of sound when the wind moved the trees in precisely the right way. Apparently the sound could only be made when the wind hit the taller tree from a particular direction. Since there had been very little wind while I was there, the precise conditions to produce the sound had to be just right.
That night sitting around a cheery campfire I tried to take stock of the trip, and my life. I judged myself innocent of over-reacting to a noise so voluminous and unfamiliar in a wilderness setting. I decided it was being responsible to take it as seriously as I did. I’d never heard anything like it before or since. It was an anomaly and I could not have prepared for it.
The mysterious roar forced me to keep anxiety about death close at hand, which is what I needed to do in dealing with the grief that sent me into the Caribou in the first place. Until I changed, fear taunted me from the dark fringes of my own imagination. I supposed that death, though maybe frightening and unfamiliar, was about as sinister as two trees rubbing together in the wind. When my time came, I decided, I would meet it defiantly, club in hand.