I never was one to get emotionally attached to things, but it really is easy to love your old truck when you have spent the last hour or two wondering if you were going the right direction as the darkness settles down in the woods. I should probably stop watching Bigfoot videos the night before I go hiking.
Bigfoot is a myth you say? Not long ago they said that of the Panda and the Mountain Gorilla. Of course, I have never seen one, but I have a sneaking suspicion they do exist. I have been reading about them for years, and the number of sightings and stories of encounters is somewhat staggering. The one experience I have had that caused me to wonder about them was years back when I was in my twenties.
I should say first that I have spent a considerable amount of time in the woods and had a few encounters with wildlife that spooked me. Some years ago, for instance, we had put some young steers out to pasture on a remote piece of land. We came out to count them a few days later and found one was missing. We searched half the day before finally coming upon a half-eaten carcass where the wolves had their feast the night before. Having no buildings or otherwise secure facilities to keep the animals in overnight I decided I would sleep out in the pasture to keep watch for the night.
As anyone who knows me could guess I did not prepare for the night in any real sense of the word. I went out shortly before dark and walked into the woods about two-hundred yards with my sleeping bag and a 22 calibre rifle. One could probably kill a wolf with that particular gun if one pressed it tight to the wolf’s head and fired a few shots. Wolves tend not invite that sort of thing. In retrospect, a flashlight would have been a good idea.
Anyway, I built a fire and rolled out my bedding next to it, underneath the open sky. I settled in, gazing up at the stars as the light from the fire danced in the aspen leaves, and the frogs sang in the swamp nearby. I could not have imagined a more romantic scene from my childhood daydreams. We had walked miles that day in search of the missing animal so my musings were cut short by physical exhaustion and I fell into a deep sleep.
The fire was out. Not so much as a glimmer remained. The howls came from every direction at once! The hair on the back of my neck went in only one direction. I scrambled out of the sleeping bag to get on my feet, frantically searching for the useless rifle as I did so. I was sure they were within a few feet of me! I pointed the gun into the sky and squeezed off a shot! The wolves fell silent. In the silence, I worked feverishly. First cursing at myself for not having thought to bring a flashlight and then rekindling the fire. It didn’t take long for me to get the fire back up and the wolves to finish their headcount after my shot. They started howling again from a few hundred yards back and the cattle milled in around me. I had a flashlight in the truck, so I stumbled back out to get it. It was two in the morning when I got back to the truck. I got my light and walked around for a while trying to seem aggressive and threatening before returning to the fire and settling down to doze till morning. By the time dawn came, I had decided there were too many wolves.
A few days later we bought a donkey, and he protected the cattle from the wolves for the remaining months of the season. Donkeys, for those who are unaware, are excellent guards for cattle or sheep as long as they bond with the herd. They protect against wolves as well as coyotes. They are less useful when it comes to bears.
A week or two later the first bear made his intentions known. He had managed to get claws on a few steers, and we had to put one large animal down. Then he discovered that the young ones were more accessible targets. He quickly took to killing just to eat the heart and liver before moving on to the next calf. We loaded the young calves and brought them home but still needed to find the carcasses for compensation purposes, so one evening I was looking for the last one when I saw him coming toward me over the open meadow. I had a machete with me to clean up fencelines while I searched but had left the gun at home. Our young border collie was with me, but the grass was well over her head, so she just tagged along to keep me company. The bear was headed my way directly, and with my eyes on the ground looking for his victims I had forgotten about the possibility of becoming one of them.
Bears have inferior vision, and this one was no exception. I stood and watched as he approached while the dog wandered about oblivious to our impending doom. I contemplated my odds of surviving the deathmatch with the machete. I was always a lousy gambler, and even I knew to bet on the bear. At about seventy-five feet he finally caught a whiff of the dog or me and stopped. He stood up and sniffed the air as he sized me up. I guessed he was mulling his own odds. I don’t actually know how intelligent bears are, but I did know his math skills wouldn’t have to be university level to reach the same conclusion I had. I screamed at him and ran toward him waving the machete. The dog noticed that I was behaving more crazily than I usually did and jumped up as high as she could to see what the commotion was about. I saw the bear turn as the dog became visible, and seeing that I had an ace up my sleeve opted out of the game and headed back the way he had come. As luck would have it the carcass, I was looking for was a few feet away. Bears don’t like to give up their lunch, so I suspect the dog saved my life that day.
So those are two examples of frightening encounters I have had in the woods. I am not an exceptionally courageous man, but I am not given to sudden panic without real reasons for it. When I was in my twenties, I had occasion for sudden unexplainable terror in the wilderness.
I was probably about twenty-five or so and my wife being ever-supportive of me pursuing my interest in nature, (some might argue she was just trying to make me leave the house, but I am sure they would be wrong.) had given me a set of snowshoes as a Christmas gift. I was thrilled with the gift since it meant I would no longer be kept from the woods by the deep snows of winter. At the time we lived on a farm that backed up on government land. Beyond that, lay a mile of a swamp with forest on the other side of it. There were no roads in or out for about seven miles.
Sometime in January, I went on my first trek to try my new snowshoes. I had never attempted snowshoes before and so, as usual, I tried something more challenging than I should have. I wanted to explore the forest on the other side of the swamp. I walked out crossing our farm and then made my way through a wooded pasture behind it. Two miles from home I had to go through a dense band of brush about a quarter mile wide before coming up on the swamp. I started out across the marsh and found it to be slow going. The snow was softer since the grasses kept it from crusting on top, so each step sank in almost a foot. As I neared the far side pine forest one of the leather straps fastening my snowshoe to the boot snapped. I was about three and a half miles from home. I knew that without the snowshoes it would be springtime before I got back home walking in three feet of snow. Winter days are short in Canada, and I noticed with some alarm that the sun was well down toward the horizon. I pulled nylon laces from my jackets and sweaters and tied the snowshoe to my foot. I was fortunate to be able to step in my old tracks and moved quickly heading back. The forest wasn’t going anywhere. I would explore it next time. Soon I was safe in my warm house resting my aching legs.
It was almost a month later before I would take another run at it. Crossing the swamp in summer was out of the question so the far side forest would be out of my exploration range if I waited for spring. I had made up some new leather straps and taken extra rope, laces, and duct tape in case I had problems. I was determined to make it into that forest this time. I left earlier in the day with a few sandwiches and beautiful weather. The winter had been cold, and the snow had frozen thicker, so I had little difficulty with sinking till I got to the swamp. I could still see my tracks from the previous attempt since the wind had blown fresh snow off the surface around them, so I followed them in. I got to the first part of the pine forest and sat down on a fallen log to eat a sandwich. I saw the cloud moving in across the western sky, but I calculated I still had four hours before dark. I got to my feet and made my way through the first band of woods before starting across a small swampy area between it and the more abundant forest. I approached the woods heading for an opening I could see into the dense tall trees. Thinking back I realise that at that precise moment I was in one of the most remote and unexplored places in southern Manitoba. I was at least three miles from any roads in an area where no living person is likely ever to go.
I stepped into the opening, and suddenly I froze! Terrified!
I couldn’t move forward. I tried to figure out why I was terrified, trying to get a hold of myself. There was no sound. No birds. Absolute silence! Then I was running! Running in snowshoes is no easy feat. I got back to the first brush of pines and collected myself enough to look back. The forest still seemed exactly the same. Nothing had followed me. The birds were still silent. I was sure death waited in that forest. I ploughed through the woods and then across the swamp toward home. Every few steps I looked back expecting something to come for me. I didn’t know what I was afraid of. The bears were asleep, and I had seen no wolves, or even so much as a rabbit. Aside from my repeated glances back I didn’t stop to rest until I was safe in my house. I never went back to that forest. I never wanted to.
It was some years later while reading about bigfoot that it dawned on me what might have been the cause for that seemingly unreasonable terror.
I am not sure what I sat down to write about, but it’s late, and I am not starting over, so this time you will have to settle for my “The Time I Didn’t See Sasquatch” story.