Saturday, May 30, 2009

A True-Life Campfire Tale

Andrew Scott Turner is a published author whose blog I recently stumbled upon and found to be a delight. Andrew writes with such "voice" that you can picture everything he's talking about and find yourself touched, amused, and wanting more. Andrew has a post called This Dog Don't Hunt that reminded me of a great story we heard from Mr.4444's cousin Derek a while back. The incident happened to Derek's BIL, Steve, so I called Steve to refresh myself of the details. Steve was happy to share the story of the camping incident that he will never forget.

Warning: If you have a camping trip planned for this summer, you might not want to read this. (Don't say I didn't warn you.)

Steve was a college sophomore living in Washington State. He was attending summer school there, because he loved the natural beauty of the state's many, many breathtaking hiking trails. Steve had friends who also enjoyed hiking, but he always looked forward to solo hiking (Well, solo, except for his canine companion, Golden Retriever, Jackson.) This particular story took place during a 10-day solo hiking trip. The Pacific Crest Trailhead, near Mt. Baker, was so remote that after a friend dropped him off with his backpacking gear, Steve and Jackson had to hike six hours to get to the start.

Steve loved the solitude of backpacking; the peace and quiet of "God's country." To him, there was nothing more peaceful and safe than being in the woods. He'd hike during the day and camp at night in a tent just big enough to fit himself and Jackson inside. The first week of this trip fulfilled every need Steve had for gorgeous views and relaxation. Each day, he hiked until late in the day, made himself and Jackson some supper, and hit the hay as the sun went down, starting again in the morning. Each day, he would come upon a hiker or two, but for the great majority of the trip, he enjoyed feeling like he was the only man on earth. On the 8th night of this trip, Steve bedded down with Jackson and fell into a very satisfying sleep.

An hour later, Steve awoke with a start; a deep, menacing growl from Jackson filled his ears. Now, if you know Goldens, you know that they are not the growling type; this was strange behavior. Steve jumped up in his sleeping bag and cocked his ears, commanding the dog to be quiet.

Dead silence.

Jackson stood at attention facing the tent zipper, listening, too. Steve did not hear a peep, but he waited, heart racing, mind searching for what could have caused Jackson to growl like that: A cougar? Bear? Raccoons? After 30 minutes of listening and not hearing a sound, Steve figured it was a fluke and settled back down to sleep.

He lurched up in his bag again a little while later. This time, Jackson's growl was even more intense; this was not a fluke. Steve was now scared. He fumbled around in the tent for some type of weapon, knowing full-well that he had none. The closest things he had were a few 6-inch, light-weight tent stakes. He sat, motionless, hearing nothing but Jackson's low growl, wondering again what could be bothering him so much. Again, Steve sat stock-still, waiting to hear the cause of Jackson's behavior.

Now, if you know anything about backpacking tents, you know they are very small. When sitting up straight in one, a man's head and shoulders are quite close to the sides and top of the tent. Listening intently, tent stakes in hand, Steve continued to wait, and suddenly, he heard a very quiet, slow, man's whisper, about two feet from his head,

"Can you hear this?"

WTF?! Adrenalin shot through Steve's veins as Jackson went crazy, trying to go after the source of the whisper. He grabbed the dog and held him, paralyzed with fear, trapped and defenseless. He thought about going outside but reasoned that he was probably safer inside than out, without a weapon (let alone a flashlight) to confront the unknown. Heart racing, he listened....and listened. All he heard was silence.

For the next four hours, Steve and Jackson sat in that tent, wide awake and feeling like sitting ducks. At sunrise, Steve cautiously opened the tent zipper and let the dog out. Jackson sniffed around but neither he nor Steve found anything suspicious or anything that would explain the late-night stranger.

Steve says he didn't eat breakfast that morning; just packed and "booked out," hiking quickly, with purpose and little regard to the beauty that surrounded him. That evening, he reached the rendezvous point that he and a friend had previously set up to share the last night on the trail. He shared his story, feeling relieved to have a friend joining him. That night, Steve got very little sleep and was almost relieved to be heading back to civilization the next morning.

Steve says he'll never forget that night and has not gotten over it, even though it was years ago. He tried solo hiking again, figuring he should "shake it off" and get back to doing what he loved, but no matter how he tried, he could not sleep more than 30 minutes at a time whenever he tried. After he got married, he tried backpacking with his wife, but that made it almost worse; he worried about his own safety, and now, that of his wife; the stress was just too great. He does get more sleep when hiking with groups of friends these days but has never felt completely comfortable going alone since that particular fear-filled night.

To this day, Steve has no idea what really happened that night. His wife suggested that the voice was that of a ghost. He guesses that maybe it was just "some wacko" who gets his "kicks" scaring the crap out of hikers. Regardless, that night robbed Steve of one of his favorite joys and instead left him feeling upended, scarred by the experience. On the bright side, though, it also made him appreciate his canine companion even more. Steve credits him with possibly saving his life that night. Jackson (who turns 15 this year) is living proof that a dog can really be "a man's best friend."

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