Anyone who has followed my Facebook page (or now my blog) knows that I spend lots of time outdoors. I’ve always been drawn to the woods, to explore and play as a child, to hunt and fish and hike as a young man, and to seek silence and solitude when I’m dealing with stress or facing difficult decisions as a busy professional. The woods are good for all of that and more, like forming bonds of friendship, building self-confidence and awareness and for seeing things you aren’t likely to see from your classroom, your office or your couch.
When I was still in high school, I really liked partridge hunting, and would spend time hunting the network of dirt roads on the southeast side of the Big Narrows with my friend Jamie. No bird dog in those days, so just hours slowly walking side by side, listening and looking and hoping to catch a bird crossing the road or more than likely, foraging in the tall grass along the ditches. I admit we didn’t harvest that many birds, but we did plant and nurture a friendship that grew one quiet step at a time in the dusty gravel of our youth. And while we headed down separate roads after high school and have rarely seen each other since (maybe five times in thirty years?), I’m certain if Jamie and I went partridge hunting on one of those lake roads tomorrow, we would simply fall into a comfortable pace and talk quietly about the things we hold important.
In those brief windows of time when I didn’t have a practice or activity to attend after school, but also didn’t have lots of time to head further from town to hunt, my favorite quick hunt spot was the access road between Lincoln and I-95. There was a dirt logging road that made a mile-long loop on the south side of the access road. It’s still there, but you’ll need to look hard to find it now as the alders and balsam have reclaimed it for their own. I would park my car off the pavement and try to walk as slowly as I could and still finish the loop before dark.
Usually, I would get back to my car in that grayish light that comes right before it gets too dark to see. A friend of mine, a now-retired English teacher, taught me this time of night is called the “gloaming”. It’s a Scottish word, and old, but having spent many an hour heading for home after sunset, it is the perfect word. The edges of the sky are still glowing with the fading lines of sunset, but anything from the horizon to your feet is dark and gloomy and mysterious. Maybe even a little scary. Especially when you are a kid, just starting to spend time alone in the woods at this hour of the day.
In the gloaming, when shadows have gotten long, those shadows can look like, well, like anything your 16-year-old mind can imagine. A bear or coyote would suddenly appear and make my heart race and freeze me in my tracks. I would hold my breath and strain my eyes, looking for movement trying to determine if I should run or hide or fight. After staring long enough and not seeing any movement, I’d screw up my courage and take a few tentative steps closer and the threat would usually (and somewhat magically) disappear into the shape of a stump or a frost-bent clump of goldenrod. After a while, I learned to separate the visual image from the imagined one. I didn’t realize it then, but as hundreds of startled “wait, is that a…” moments accumulated in my youthful experience, I was gaining confidence in being alone in the woods after dark, and growing skill at making quick and accurate, and usually unconscious, decisions when given a fairly limited set of information. A useful skill to start developing at 16, but it wasn’t foolproof.
My junior year in college, Mike and I once again found ourselves on the CP tracks at the end of a long Saturday of bow hunting. As I mentioned in “It’s Only Ankle Deep”, the area we liked to hunt was hard to get to, so we would stay all day, usually walking back up the tracks to the power line and then back up to the truck after sunset. The half-mile walk on the power line was tricky, even in full daylight. Where we parked our truck was high and dry, but the trail itself was nothing more than a foot path winding through a boggy area, with head-tall cat tails, alders, and black spruce, along with moss and shrubs hiding the foot-deep standing water underfoot. In the dark, with only the moon or stars to shine the way, it was slow going. And loud too. Branches cracking underneath our boots, feet plop-plopping as they pulled up and out of the water with every step, dead cattails and fir branches smacking against out bows. Ninja warriors we were not. But the hunt is over, no need to try and be quiet. Just get to the truck and get the heater on.
On this particular evening, Mike was leading the way as we wound our way through the cattails single file. Of course, we walked single file. It was hard enough to not trip and fall walking down the center of the narrow trail - trying to walk side by side, especially in the gloaming, would have been stupid. And we weren’t stupid. Not yet, anyway.
If you’ve walked along a trail like this before, you know the deal. Keep your eyes on your feet to avoid catching a branch or shrub and falling on your face. A quick peek up every few seconds to make sure you’re still on the trail, then eyes back on your feet. So, it’s no surprise that when Mike stopped short, I walked right into his back. Face first. Ouch.
“What the hell?” I muttered to him while I was rubbing my nose.
A raspy, shaky whisper back from Mike “There’s a bear in the trail!”
We had just emerged from the section of cat tails and were right on the edge of the bog where we could see up the trail for 30 yards or so. I peered over Mike’s shoulder, and sure enough, a bear, well, not just a bear but a huge bear, was slowly waddling down the trail in our direction. In half a breath, I was a little kid again. My heart pounded. My feet were frozen. I couldn’t move, and didn’t, for a long few seconds. Neither did Mike.
We were standing close together. Ok, we were practically sharing a pair of shoes at this point. I was still right on his back, looking over his shoulder, and with our faces close together we found enough nerve to risk talking. I don’t remember every word, nor who said what exactly, but it went something like this:
“I don’t think it sees us”
“No, not yet, but he’s still coming right at us”
“Jesus, I wish we had a gun”
“God, its huge!”
“Should we run?”
“Run? In this shit?
“Hide then, we should hide”
At the word hide, like two scared five-year-olds, we instantly squatted down, still so close together that my chest was pressed against Mike’s back, his shoulder now with two heads. Brilliant. We were still right in the path of the oncoming bear, just now at eye level. I mentioned we weren’t exactly ninja warriors, right?
As I watched the bear getting closer, getting bigger (how is it getting bigger? My god its huge! He’s got to see us by now, what will it do, what should we do?) my heart was pounding out of my chest. I’ve never felt my heart beating so fast, it felt like a hammer. Can a 20-year-old have a heart attack? Why does my heart feel like it’s beating twice every time it beats? Then I realized that I could feel Mike’s heart pounding too. Knowing he was as scared as me did very little to alleviate the fear I was feeling. More shaky, hoarse near-panicked whispers
“We can’t stay here!”
“If we move he’ll be on us”
“Can we knock our arrows at least”
“Maybe if we move slow”
So, let me ask you this. Have you ever tried to nock an arrow as quietly as you can, in the dark, squatting in a foot of water, while your hands are shaking so hard you can’t really get your thumb to touch your fingers, all while not being able to take your eyes off of a huge black bear that is now about fifteen yards away and still coming?
No? You haven’t?
Let me see if I can think of something you might be able to try to get a sense for the impossibility of the physical challenge facing us. Try this. Hold your breath, run up and down your cellar stairs five time, then stand on your left foot, and tie the shoe laces on your right foot using only your pinky fingers. Hard, right?
I couldn’t get an arrow nocked. I dropped the first two arrows and was fumbling in my quiver for a third when I noticed Mike has set down his bow and is holding an arrow with both hands, broadhead pointing toward the plodding, oncoming bear. My god, what courage! I set my bow aside and grasp my own arrow, aligning the broadhead next to his. Ok, we may not be ninjas, but my best friend and I are side by side, weapons at the ready, awaiting the charge. Deep down I knew we were doomed. Time stopped, my mind didn’t.
We are trapped in a Japanese horror movie. Godzilla is coming!
Is this what the peasants with spears and swords felt like as the Roman army advanced?
Can this be what those young Union soldiers surrounded on Cemetery Hill went through
as Lee’s infantry charged?
Time for one last exchange with my fellow warrior:
“He’s almost on us”
“Jab together when he hits us”
The gloaming was over and as the seconds ticked down, as the plodding bear kept getting closer, darkness had enveloped us, and we were immersed in total darkness. The shadow, looming larger, was almost on top of us. I tried to steady my hand, could barely see the broadhead a foot in front of me. This is it. He’s almost here, Death has come…
An hour later we walked through the front door of my mother’s house. As it always was in October, the house was bright and warm and inviting. And, as it always did when Mike and I got home from a hunt, it smelled of pie. Pumpkin pie, hot from the oven, cooling on the side board, mmm.
My mother says, “The pie should be cool enough to cut, help yourself!”
My stepfather asks, “You boys see anything?”
Mike replies, “Nothing. Well, a beaver in the trail on the powerline”
“A really big one. He ran off when he saw us” I added.