Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Screaming in the Woods

I spent about six months last year WWOOFing, which is essentially volunteering on organic farms in exchange for room and board. One of the farms I stayed at was actually an off-the-grid homestead near Mt. Hood, Oregon, populated by shamanic hippies (who had some wild stories, themselves!) and while not remote, was deep enough in the mountains that we had no neighbors for at least ten miles in every direction. Beautiful, forested land with an amazing view of Mt. Hood from the garden. I was camping every night for about two weeks before weird things started happening.

The first bizarre occurrence happened not to me, but to a fellow WWOOFer, who I'll call J. Now, I am not particularly outdoorsy-- I grew up in the woods in north Florida and spent my formative years getting lost in places I shouldn't be, but I don't have a great deal of camping experience and only the most basic survival skills. I am comfortable in the woods, but only until sunset. J, a true outdoorsman, had been a forest ranger in the Alaskan bush for two years prior and frequently went on weeks-long solo-backpacking trips. He had shown up at the farm a few days after me and had set up camp over a mile further down the mountain than I had, which I initially thought was a dickish move but later came to appreciate because he played his harmonica at all hours and nobody needs to hear that shit. He was a slow-talking Minnesotan that favored all things logical.

One morning, we met up for breakfast and he asked me if I had heard "all that screaming" the night before. I hadn't. He told me that he had been laying in his tent with his headlamp on, reading a book when he heard a deep, rumbling scream just outside his tent. He turned his lamp off to listen more closely, and realized that his entire tent was illuminated from the outside, as if someone was aiming a floodlight at it. In the few seconds after he turned his headlamp off, two things happened in rapid succession-- the screaming cut off as if someone had flipped a switch, and the light from outside clicked off. He listened for footsteps, but heard nothing. After a few moments of silence, he turned his headlamp back on and left his tent to investigate, because I guess he had never seen a horror movie in his whole goddamn life. He said that there was nothing in the clearing and no movement from the surrounding forest, even though he hadn't heard anything leave and the scream had been very close to, if not within, his camp. Then he apparently shrugged to himself and went to sleep, or maybe he passed out in fear and was too much of a man to admit it.

He told me this over breakfast and I was horrified. He said he'd never heard an animal that sounded like that and could not explain the light, except that maybe a hunter had found their way onto our land. But then where did they go? He listened for footsteps and heard nothing. He didn't seem worried, just a bit perturbed. It was very Minnesota of him.

Everything was quiet for a few weeks after that incident. J left for another farm, and I remained in my old campsite, only about 3/4 of a mile down from the main cabin. I was comfortable in my tent and no longer jerked awake at broken twigs or animals moving through the brush. I was very proud of myself-- look at me, an outdoorswoman!-- which was, of course, when the screaming started.

I was laying in my tent, just on the edge of sleep when it started. It was a deep, low roaring-- unlike any animal I knew to live in the mountains in that region. I consoled myself by saying it was an injured black bear, a fucked up wolf, some kind of Lovecraftian mutant elk. Then, from farther down the mountain, something else began screaming, answering. The two whatevers shrieked at each other for the better part of an hour. I laid in my tent, trying to psych myself up to hike back up to the main cabin, but couldn't quite commit. I laced up my boots and put on my headlamp in case I had to make a run for it. Eventually, the screaming stopped and I somehow managed to sleep.

I woke up somewhere around 4am to something very large shuffling in the bush directly behind my tent. I laid in the dark and listened, absolutely terrified. Elk, bear? It was too large. I could hear it ruffling branches of trees at least six feet off the ground. I heard it take a step, and then another. Bipedal. Human? Hunter? A hunter would never be as loud as this thing was, and I seriously doubt they would disturb an obvious camp site. Besides, in the month I'd been on the homestead at that point, I'd never heard a gunshot. I'd never seen anyone other than the people I was working with this far up the mountain, for that matter. I laid there, considering my options. It moved slowly, like it was picking through the bushes behind me-- which, in retrospect, of course it was, I'd camped right next to wild blackberry. I laid and listened and waited for a long time, almost until sunrise. It was moving slowly down the mountain. I laid in my tent long after the noise died out.

When I finally managed to rally my nerves and leave my tent, the brush behind my tent was obviously disturbed. I thought about investigating, looking for prints, droppings, but decided I'd rather just repress the whole thing and deal with it when I was far, far away from these woods. At breakfast, I asked my host, A, about the screaming. She was delighted that I'd had a run in with the "forest people." She said that years ago when they'd moved onto the land, the forest people would get into their garden and make a mess of things, so she'd started leaving baskets of produce for them as a sign of goodwill. They'd left the garden alone since then.

I camped out for another week before it got too cold and I moved into the main cabin, and never heard anything weird again. Pretty anticlimactic, but I guess real life usually is. Still very bizarre and interesting-- as a lifelong student of all things esoteric, it verified a lot of suspicions I had... mostly that weird shit happens in the woods. It's also pretty telling that everyone I met in the Cascades-- granted most of them were of the shamanic, metaphysical persuasion-- had a Sasquatch story.

There were a few other strange things about that place, but this story is by far the most interesting. Oregon is a weird, wonderful place.

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