It was not a sound I had ever heard. I lay perfectly still.
In my mind I had already subtracted the sound of the nearby river coursing its way around granite boulders, their rounded surfaces upsetting the intent of the ice cold water. I eliminated the wind in the aspens above. That left something I couldn’t identify. Something dark. Something deeply disturbing.
I lay perfectly still. Scared still. Terrified still.
I counted the seconds as they slipped by and then realized it was my own heartbeat that I was counting. The pounding echoed inside my sleeping bag. I would have slid deeper into the down bag but I dared not move. I feared that the pounding in my chest - if not the sound of it then certainly the vibration - would alert whatever had made that noise.
I would have given anything for one of those fancy rolling camper trailers - the kind you see rolling down the interstate and I suspect never too far from it. Even a tent would have provided some level of protection from this dread creature whatever it was. Not tonight though. Tonight it was nothing but me and a sleeping bag with ten billion stars overhead - twinkling with laughter as I lay paralyzed in fear. The moon disappeared hours earlier and I was now straining with eyes as wide as saucers hoping to gather enough light to learn what made that noise.
My mind raced through the catalog of sounds I’d heard in the mountains over too many years to recall. I knew the grunt of a buck deer tending a willing doe. I knew the sound of an irritated moose raking his antlers on a willow sapling. I even knew the horrible sound of a grizzly gorging himself on an unfortunate member of the elk herd too old or too sick to keep up. Tonight was different, though. Tonight’s sound was deep - dark - emanating from somewhere below reality, somewhere possibly below sanity.
Time crept by as I strained to hear it again, strained to see it. It was out there. It was waiting for my next move - with a patience not found in the human race. No, this had to be something wild. Something horrible. I was sure of it.
After what seemed like hours I decided that my continued existence depended on getting away. I had to make my move. Slowly I tightened the muscles in my legs and arms hoping that the blood would flow and that the fibers of my being wouldn’t fail in my getaway. I had laid so perfectly still for so long that I feared my strength was gone. I feared that I would leap from my sleeping bag only to crumble flat to the ground, easy prey for the taking.
I drew my legs slowly, silently, under me until like a compressed spring I was ready to explode.
Then I heard it again. Terror, followed by more silence.
I remembered my flashlight. Gently I slid my hand under the edge of my sleeping bag where I had stored the trusted light. I knew it would kill my night vision. I also knew that it would have the same effect on whatever -- or whoever -- was out there. Whoever. This was the first time I had considered the possibility that the noise - that awful, horrible noise - had come from a person. Another human being intent on causing harm - or worse.
Who could want to hurt me? What had I done to anyone? I wished it was a bear. I prayed it was not a person. I didn’t want to consider the possibility that there could be a reason behind the horrible things that were about to happen. I desperately wanted it to be a wild animal - any animal - because that meant there would be no evil involved. And the thing I feared the most was evil in whatever form this part of mankind had shaped it.
There was no doubt that I had heard a sound. It was too dark to see in front of me and I had not maneuvered to see what was behind - though it was too dark there as well. The only other sense I could call on was my nose. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of this before. Perhaps I had not been breathing but now, suddenly, I became acutely aware of a piercing odor.
The smell of the mountains is distinct. The night air is cool - even in this warmest part of the summer. The pungent aroma of wildflowers had filled the air earlier as I setup camp. I could even smell a bit of freshly cut alfalfa from the valley several thousand feet below me. But now it was different. Again the catalog of memories. Elk musk? No. Moose dung? No. Was this smell human? Possibly. I remembered a train ride many years earlier in Denmark where I discovered that European bathing habits didn’t suit my smelling habits. Again, not the same.
The breeze was coming from behind me as I lay on my right side and I reasoned that whatever it was that made that horrible noise had to be upwind of me - if indeed the noise and the smell belonged together.
Three, two, one. I decided to count down in my mind before springing forward away from what had to be instant death.
Three, two, one. I repeated the words in my mind, too scared to move.
And then it happened....
Sailing through the air, time stood still. I could almost see myself in slow motion - the volume muted. My legs had propelled me with an adrenaline laden force I had never before experienced. I was airborne in a general direction away from where I thought “it” was when my trajectory suddenly changed.
Minutes passed. Hours passed. Or, maybe it was just minutes. I’m not sure.
The next thing I knew was that my eyes were burning and my head was pounding. Whoever was beating on my head with a club needed to stop soon or I was really going to get upset. I tried to lift my head up to look around but collapsed in a pile in the damp grass. Slowly it came back to me. Something had scared me. Something had caused me to rocket out of my sleeping bag in the dark. Something had stopped my flight in midair.
My eyes began to focus as the burning was relieved somewhat by a continuous stream of tears and a lot of rubbing. It was daytime. And judging by the intensity of the sun in my eyes, it was well past midmorning. I had slept for hours - though I don’t really count it as sleep when you are knocked out cold.
The first thing I noticed other than the level of pain in my head was that I had become somewhat wrapped around the base of a small tree. I ran my fingers through my hair only to discover a bulge whose size and shape could only mean blunt force trauma. I could also feel the dried blood encrusted on the side of my face. Had I been attacked? And left for dead? I jerked around quickly to see if my assailant might still be there waiting to finish me off. But there was nothing. Nothing - except a single line of blood staining the trunk of my companion tree.
As sanity displaced the fog in my head, I concluded that the pounding I felt in my brain was from the bump on my head. It was not much in the way of deductive reasoning but it was all I could manage. I also began to realize that the tree must have been the source of my trauma - at least the part on my head. It was starting to come back. Something scared me. Something had caused me to rocket out of my sleeping bag in the dark. The tree had ended my drama.
But what made the noise? What was it that smelled so horrible?
I slowly pulled myself up. First to my knees and then painfully to my feet. I looked around but everything looked like it did the night before. My sleeping bag was still where I’d unrolled it right next to the small tree with the blood stain. My backpack, still zipped with my tripod hanging on the side, lay undisturbed. I looked down my backtrail and could see that my food bag was where I’d left it - high enough to be out of reach of the pesky black bears that hang out in this area.
The pain was beginning to subside but the questions all remained. I began to look around for clues - signs of wild animals or maybe footprints from some unknown evildoer. About 40 yards up the trail from my campsite and a few steps off to the side, hidden under some debris that had probably piled up during the last snowmelt, I started to unravel the mystery. I couldn’t tell for sure what it was but there was no doubt that it was dead. The stench as I moved downwind was unmistakable. It was like a kick in the stomach - I recoiled violently. I quickly moved around to the other side for a better look away from the windblown path of the horrible smell. It was the carcass of a small elk, partially rotten, mostly devoured, almost completely hidden under a tangle of branches and rotting logs.
I stepped back and was immediately aware that I had trespassed into the feeding area of a large carnivore. I remembered the wind being strong the night before - strong in the direction from my campsite toward the horrible cache. I also realized that the wind had died down about midnight and the breeze had started to swirl as the night air cooled and began to sink to lower elevations.
What kind of animal would have hidden its kill? And was that what had made the sound that had ended my restful night after a long day’s hike?
I circled the site a couple more times looking for tracks that would tell me what beast had done this. Twice my heart jumped to its new place in my throat when I saw tracks - tracks that I quickly realized were my own. I decided it was time to get smart and get out of there. No need to press my luck. It didn’t really matter what had killed this elk. If it found me messing with its prize, well, I might just be next.
I rolled up my sleeping bag as quickly as possible. I ran back down the trail and cut the rope - there was no time for untying knots - and lowered my food bag that had been suspended high above. I gathered the rest of my things and quickly moved up the trail past the rotting elk. I had gone about a hundred yards when I slammed on the brakes. Right there in front of me - right in the middle of the trail - was one giant footprint. It was headed to my left, probably having come up the bank from the river below.
It was making sense now. I turned back to look at where I’d been. I had not smelled the carcass the night before because of the wind direction. When the wind shifted during the night, the smell had made its way into my camp. When I awoke to strange noises, the shifting wind had also protected me from the meat eater that had made this track.
The track - a large pad with four giant toes - was definitely not a bear, but that was not a particularly comforting thought. The black bears that frequented that area were almost never aggressive as long as you stayed away from the cubs and they were generally more afraid of people than they needed to be. I guess it was comforting to know that it wasn’t a grizzly bear, though there hadn’t been any confirmed sightings of grizzlies in this mountain range in over fifty years. Of course there were reports from tourists every year down at the gas station about giant grizzlies they’d seen. But all of them turned out to be color-phased black bears, usually cinnamon, sometimes blonde.
Definitely not a bear. No, THIS was a canine track. At first glance I thought mountain lion but this track had claw marks and cats don’t leave claw marks in their tracks. After studying the track for about three milliseconds, I knew this was not a coyote track. This track was wolf. Almost five inches from toe to heel, this was the track of an adult - probably male - wolf.
Wolves were not a part of my experience. They’d been reintroduced ten or more years ago in Yellowstone but that was hundreds of miles away. Was it possible that a pack had made it this far?
My mind and my heart raced together. I looked a little farther ahead and found more tracks - a whole wolf pack had passed through this spot. I had been sleeping less than a hundred yards from a pack of wild beasts - wild killing machines. I had been sleeping only 40 yards from the rotting elk they wanted. Had they killed it and hid it there for later? Was it a mountain lion kill and they stumbled on it just like I did?
Was this what I had been DREAMING about?
Suddenly the fear was gone and my professional instincts kicked into high gear. I pulled out my camera and started documenting the previous presence. Never in the mountains without a camera, I was especially glad that I had packed the entire complement of lenses. I shot every conceivable angle of as many of the tracks as I could find. I noted the dimensions of most of the tracks and took lots of shots of the tracks with a coin or two located nearby for scale. It was exhilarating. Not only was I documenting the presence of a pack of wolves in new territory, but it was now a very real possibility that I could get actual photographs of the pack.
My previous camping plans drifted away with the mountain breeze. I was now on a quest. This was better than the elk rut - better even than the time I stalked the mountain lion with the three kittens. Wolves. Twice before I’d planned trips to Yellowstone to photograph the wolf packs and twice I’d been thwarted by family responsibilities. I’ll never forgive my sister for giving birth that week back in ‘02 - even though she named the kid after me. And then there was the next year when Granddad got sick. He would have loved the photos I was taking. Many times he told me about hunting wolves as a boy. Growing up in sheep country, his perspective was a little different on things like this.
My thoughts turned back to the task at hand. I’d need a plan. I pulled out my topo quad and started work. Quick study of the map showed all the surrounding features - river, saddle, cliffs, meadow. I oriented myself with the compass and the map and began working out the details of an ambush. I knew what it took to bag a trophy - I’d hunted all my life. You had to think like your quarry and you had to anticipate its needs. Food, water, cover, “companionship” - that pretty much summed up the needs of most animals.
This time it would be different, though. I’d given up the rifle and the bow in favor of the camera a few years ago. It wasn’t a change in sensibilities. It was just a change. I’d found the camera more challenging. The way I saw it, I had to do all the things I did before plus make it all happen when the light was just right. It was infinitely more difficult. I had worked on my new craft in the parks. Yellowstone and Grand Teton were great practice. Lots of animals and some of them weren’t bashful. Again, this would be different. This was a wild place. I was on their turf and they did not have to tolerate me. In fact, they could eat me if they had the notion.
My mind went back to the night before. The noise. Was it the wolf pack I heard? I concentrated hard to remember. It was a deep, mournful sound. Perhaps it was a howl. Maybe it was a signal from the alpha to the rest of the pack, its deep meaning hidden forever from human intelligence. Now that I knew what it was, it was less scary and more exciting. At least that’s what I told myself.
I went back to the elk carcass, careful about where I walked and what I touched. This was now my bait pile and I would need to treat it very carefully. No human scent. I opened my backpack and pulled out the scent killer spray I carried for times like this. I sprayed it on my boots just like those crazy eastern whitetail hunters. They swore by it and I’d had pretty good luck with it last year during the elk rut. My proof was on the cover of Elk Hunter’s Journal - my first cover photo.
By now it was mid day. My objective was to get myself concealed in a place where the wind would not betray me and then wait. Remembering the previous evening, I moved around the carcass to a spot downwind about a hundred yards. I wasn’t worried about the wind shifting after dark. I was hoping for a shot in the daylight - hoping that the pack would return - hoping my Three Stooges imitation from the night before had not spooked them away forever.
Minutes turned into hours. Nothing - except a couple of picas, a ground squirrel, and a symphony of songbirds. I was definitely in the right spot - the smell was horrible. I was downwind from the carcass but hopefully far enough away to intersect the path of the wolves.... if they returned.
I checked my watch. 7:30pm. I knew it had to be getting close to dusk. The sun had disappeared below the mountaintops quite a while earlier but the sky remained bright. Official sunset time was about 8:35pm but I knew that wildlife photography would be very challenging long before that hour.
Everything was perfect. The magic hour was here. All I needed was one cooperative pack of wolves. I shifted my weight slightly to look through the viewfinder for the thousandth time. The light was fading so I adjusted the exposure settings. As I eased back away from the camera and tripod I suddenly noticed two important things. It was perfectly silent. And the hair on the back of my neck was standing straight out. The birds had stopped their song. Something had changed. I didn’t dare move.
I strained to use my peripheral vision but it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t stand it. Slowly I turned my head to the left. Nothing. Back to the right. Nothing. Then I heard it. It was almost like the sweet whimper of a child and it had come from my left just beyond the range of my last scan. I eased my head around and saw movement. In a scene filled with vertical lines, I had seen horizontal motion. Now I was looking for more horizontal lines, the kind that run along the back of a deer, the tail of an antler, or the back of a wolf.
I strained into the depths of the forest. If my eyes had voices of their own they’d have been screaming by now. And there they were. As if appearing from vapor, two young wolves emerged, slightly off the path a mere 35 yards upwind from me. One was almost black and the other a mottled gray color. I forgot to breathe.
I leaned forward toward the camera, made the necessary adjustments, and was about to trip the shutter when both of the wolves jerked around to look behind them. I knew this behavior from years of hunting deer and elk, so I waited. Something was coming. The wolves became more uneasy and more vocal. The squeals and whimpers became louder as their excitement built along with mine. Then He appeared.
The alpha male of all alpha males stepped into the open. The other two cowered in his presence almost bowing. He moved forward with a silent ease that reminded me of our old house cat who could walk across the room and jump into your lap without ever giving away her presence. In the fading light of evening the big wolf’s coat almost glowed. He was dark - sinister looking - but the tips of the hair in his coat were silver. His eyes, as he surveyed his domain, glowed like the embers from my fire the night before, with a depth that went far beyond his age into the annals of wolf time.
I was already behind the viewfinder. Aperture: 2.8. Shutterspeed: 1/100th. ISO: 400. Heart rate: 250 at least.
I gradually increased the pressure on the shutter button. The autofocus zipped to the perfect spot and I continued the pressure toward the shot of a lifetime.
Nothing. Crap! What had I done. My mind raced. Was it the memory card? The battery? Had the camera gone into sleep mode?
I pressed it again and this time CLICK!
Suddenly I was surrounded by sound. My world exploded in random motion. My arms were flailing wildly. I was drowning in a sea of unbearable noise.
Then just as quickly - silence.
And then I heard a voice: “Honey, you get the kids going and I’ll start breakfast.........Were you dreaming again? What was it this time? Wildebeest or the World Series?”
And with a lighthearted giggle, she slipped on her robe and left me in my torment.
Note from this author: No photos with this one. This was just a short story I wrote a few years ago. Let me know if you liked it.