A Scream in the Dark


Fear brings about more fear. I love watching horror movies, but I think they give fodder to imagination and make it easier to fear the unknown. Maybe that’s why I’m writing about fear again so soon after my last post about bearanoia. Or maybe it’s this Dirtbag Diaries podcast I heard last week about a runner being followed by a cougar for four miles in the darkness at the end of a run around Mount Rainier.

Between riding my bike alone across the Southeast and the last few summers of hiking, I’ve done a lot of solo camping. Sometimes being alone allows more time to appreciate landscapes. I can trace the folds of the horizon and watch the sun sink into the distance without pausing to concentrate on conversation. And sometimes I really wish I had a friend along.

Anyway, here’s something that happened to me in the Indian Heaven Wilderness in September:

Everyone knows the feeling of being in a warm bed with a full bladder; relishing in the soft warm comfort of a bed and suppressing a growing need to pee. In a tent, the cold makes the contrast between a comfortable bed and the world outside of it greater. And there are more obstacles – zippers and a need to put on shoes, for example – between you and the bathroom.

That’s the struggle I awoke to early one morning in the Indian Heaven Wilderness, a high volcanic plateau between Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams. I was on a solo backpacking trip while researching my upcoming Hiking Washington guidebook.

I ignored my bladder the first couple times I woke up. But by the third time I awoke I knew the urge to pee wouldn’t be cured by rolling over and burrowing deeper into my sleeping bag. I groped around for my headlamp and then went out to relieve myself. I got back in the tent and slept fitfully. I don’t know how much time passed between crawling back into my sleeping bag and being awakened by the shouting – I could have been half asleep for five minutes or it could have been an hour.

My campsite was near the edge of a lake in the northern end of the Indian Heaven Wilderness. The Wilderness is relatively flat and covered in berries, open fir forests interspersed with grassy meadows, and countless lakes. After hiking in the day before I explored a few lakes in search of a private spot, but ultimately settled on the first lake I saw. I had one side of the lake to myself. Across the deep blue water there was another couple tents tucked into the woods next to each other.

I think the shouting came from one of those tents. It was a man yelling at the top of his voice, “Get out, go now, I mean it!”

At first, a little adrenalin pulsed through my body and I immediately decided to ignore the scream. But seconds later I was wracking my brain for a reason why anyone would be screaming four miles from a trailhead in the early morning dark. The cry was just ambiguous enough to not have a clear meaning. Here are some things I thought it could mean:

  • Someone was playing a (really loud) joke on their friend.
  • A violent Sasquatch was attacking and they were warning me, since they had seen my tent across the lake.
  • An axe-wielding psychopath was hacking limbs off backpackers and the survivors across the lake were trying to warn me.

Alone in the dark world of my tent I imagined a few other possibilities. They all involved the campers across the lake trying to warn me about something sinister lurking in the dark. Minutes later I risked giving away my position by clicking on my headlamp and preparing to make a quick escape. I put some extra clothes in the bag that I was using for a pillow and put my wallet in my pocket. Then I turned off my light and waited.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep much. I drifted to sleep periodically and woke up with my heart pounding after hearing a stick breaking. After a while, I decided I wasn’t in danger anymore. But I still didn’t sleep much until the sun came up and I finally dozed for an hour.

When I unzipped my tent to peer across the lake at the other campers, their tents were still there and nothing seemed to be wrong. The sun shined on the lake and birds were singing. A calm breeze wafted the smell of ripe huckleberries to my campsite and blew my fear away. I felt a little foolish while walking through the south end of the Indian Heaven that day, passing lake after lake and tramping through meadows of ripe berries.

I still don’t have a good explanation for the scream in the night. Time turned the memory from a terrifying experience to a funny mystery.

Indian Heaven Wilderness in daylight – the opposite of scary.
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