I was just skimming the surface of sleep, so I was the first to hear the sticks snapping. I know from experience that in a dark, pre-dawn woods, even small critters can sound like a T-Rex crashing its way across the landscape. But the quality of this sound was different. It was very loud, and it was not merely twigs snapping, but the large fallen branches we had stepped over the previous night on our search for wintergreen. This was a large, heavy animal. In the millisecond before opening my eyes, my mind unconsciously reviewed the different animals I had heard coming into my camps in the past. This was not a deer; I’d had a group of deer get close enough to nose into my tent in the Olympic Mountains, and this was much louder. Raccoons, though noisy, are also much stealthier than this, and in any event this would have to be an entire convention of raccoons to produce the noise approaching my tent.
Snap. Crash. Whatever this was, it was colossally graceless, stumbling through the forest before dawn as if hung over or still slightly drunk from the night before.
My eyes opened. I nudged Travis, hissing at him to wake up. The commotion continued, the sound of snapping wood amplified and echoing over the water. I remembered that Fred was sleeping out in the open, at one of the few available paths to the water. “It’s getting close to Fred!” I exclaimed. I began fumbling around for the headlamp, but my sleep-addled fingers struggled with my sleeping bag zipper. Travis abruptly awoke, grabbed the headlamp and tripped clumsily out of the tent. “Fred!” he yelled. “Wake up! Something’s here!”
Despite the din, Fred continued to snooze. We both yelled at him. My heart was running a marathon, my blood pumping so rapidly and with such force I could feel it in my eardrums. The crashing paused for a moment, but the animal did not retreat. Travis shined the headlamp into the woods. A few more snaps erupted from the dark, as if the creature was shifting from foot to foot, evaluating the situation in confusion, and finding itself uncertain which way to go. Probably not a bear, my rational mind intoned over its internal hysteria. Bears are usually skittish, and would have turned and run off in the other direction by now.
Fred finally stirred. He had been wearing earplugs and was submerged in a deep sleep. He sat up in his sleeping bag, confused. After a few more yells and flashes of the headlamp, the animal apparently concluded that this path to its morning refreshment was more trouble than it was worth. The crashing resumed, but in the opposite direction, and faded rapidly.
On reflection, we concluded it must have been a moose. Moose are the only animals other than bears large and heavy enough to make such a racket. And as Fred later observed, had it been a predator such as a cougar, we never would have heard it until it was on top of us.
“I’m going back to sleep,” Travis announced. And then he did, with no trouble at all. Thirty seconds after nestling himself back in his bag, he was lightly snoring. He is not a man amenable to having his slumber interrupted. I wasn’t so lucky. Adrenaline had harnessed my brain and wasn’t releasing it. I lay in my sleeping bag, rigid and alert, for a long while. I passed the time by staring out the tent window, where the first threads of dawn had transformed the cloudy black sky into dark gray lace.
I thought about how little wildlife we’d seen on this trip, but how very much we had heard: the slaps of beaver tails, the noisy, hectoring squawking of ground squirrels, the surprisingly un-magnificent calls of bald eagles, this moose, even a strange bleating early one morning from an unidentified but obviously juvenile animal. It was strange and somewhat unnerving to see and hear constant evidence of lurking wildlife, but so rarely see the animals themselves. This fact lent the entire place an aura of mystery and unreachability that I found irresistible.
Still, somewhere in my mind I saw a confused moose pausing in the forest to wonder why the humans who had bitched all week about not seeing wildlife had chased him off the moment he was about to wander into view.