The following is based on true events… you can decide where the lines of reality fade.
I had been up that road a million times. The mountain felt like home; full of memories of friends enjoying long summer days and evenings by the fire. I had hiked through meadows blanketed with wildflowers and seen wildlife in the forest but it was what I never saw that would change this place for me. It was an October evening and I found myself heading up the trail alone.
In no time I had camp setup and dinner cooking. With my stomach full and body warmed by the fire, the sun began to set. I was no stranger to the pure darkness of a mountain night, but as the shadows gathered in closer, this night felt different. Bats darted around in the fading light catching their dinner and the air held a chill that I could not shake.
Suddenly, from behind me the snap of a branch sent a stab of fear through my body. I reeled around, flashlight at the ready, to find two, then four silvery green eyes glowing at me. I barely had time to catch my breath before two deer gracefully stepped into the clearing before spotting me and darting back into the forest. Without a second to catch my breath, something large silently swooped over my head. It was not until I heard the distinct “hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo” sound that I knew it was just a great horned owl. I chuckled to myself, it was the same wildlife I enjoyed spotting during the day that was the cause of my unease. My day was winding down, but I reminded myself that the nocturnal animals of the forest like the porcupine, coyote and raccoons were just starting theirs.
Just when I was coming to terms with the idea that the unseen is not something to fear, I heard it for the first time. A deep guttural growl coming from the just outside fire light. The air was still and silence choked the forest. All that could be heard was that menacing growl circling my fire, staying just out of eye sight. I worked up the courage to reach for my flashlight and with a trembling hand slowly raised it in the direction of the growl. I push the button on the flashlight… nothing. Before I could react two red glowing eyes opened up in front of me. The eyes glowed like embers and stared directly at me. I felt a burning sensation and soon it was searing pain. OUCH! I awoke in my camp chair with two embers burning on my lap. The growl, the eyes, it had all been a dream…right? I fought off the doubt trying to creep into my mind and eventually fell back to sleep.
The next morning, while sipping my morning coffee I could not get those eyes out of my head. Curiosity burned and finally got the best of me. I walked to where I had seen the eyes. There in the soft dirt were tracks like I have never seen before; huge with claws as large as kitchen knives. I did not stick around for a second cup of coffee. I continue to explore the mountains and enjoy seeing all wildlife but it is what I did not see that night that still makes me look twice.
Scott Dunn is the Community Programs Coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. He enjoys long walks in dark forests, but always brings extra batteries for his flashlight.