In June of 2010 I went for a solo, overnight backpacking trip into the Allegheny National Forest just south of Bradford, PA. It was a beautiful sunny day and the ground was mostly dry, which was great because I stupidly brought the wrong boots with me, that didn’t fit. I had to make the hike in the Skechers I wore for the comfortable drive down from Buffalo.
After about five hours of hiking into the Hickory Creek Wilderness, I realized that the trail blazes had appeared to, well, disappear, and so I spent some time backtracking in order to reestablish the trail. I ran out of luck, and the physical trail itself seemed to just end, which isn’t entirely surprising since it isn’t maintained, but is being allowed to return to its natural state. I carried a topo map, compass, and GPS with me, so I wasn’t concerned about getting lost, but I was concerned about my sore feet and back. So, I stopped to take a break and have a bit of food.
Soon my body cooled and the aches began, and I figured rather than continue on the next mile to make camp creekside, the rather flat spot I was already in would do just fine. I cleared an area for my bedding, found a depression in the ground that would help me contain a small fire, and got to work looking for firewood.
Nearby was a fallen tree, the species of which I can’t recall, but I was happy to find that it was a well-dried out hardwood about four inches in diameter. It seemed like the perfect find for a night’s worth of material, so I grabbed my camp axe and took a couple of swings at it. Three actually: chop, chop chop.
I paused, and in that moment was stunned to hear the distinct sound of tree knocking from my 2 o’clock position, to my right, from about one hundred yards away in the woods. If you’re unfamiliar with tree knocking, it’s a communication form common among great apes, and is frequently associated with possible Sasquatch/Bigfoot sightings around North America.
I took a minute to contemplate what I heard, knowing full well that it was no echo, but rather a deliberate action by some unknown “other.” Was this a challenge? A territorial warning? An invitation? Some trickster backpacker having some fun with me? I made three more strokes of my hatchet into the deadfall, and stopped. Instead of a knock in return, I heard a heavy tree crash to the ground in the same location as the original noise. Waiting a few more minutes to see if I could hear or observe anything else, without result, I carried on, assembling firewood, hanging my food in a tree some distance from camp, and preparing for dark.
As the sun began to set, I reached into my pack for the case containing my eyeglasses. I had been wearing my prescription sunglasses all day, and was ready to make the switch to my regular pair. To my consternation, not only had I brought the incorrect pair of boots on my trip, but I left my glasses in my truck, parked at the trailhead, five hours away by foot. Now I was left with the choice of seeing clearly with nearly no visible light, or seeing with my normal, pretty effective night vision, terribly blurred. This newly-found disadvantage, coupled with the isolation of the deep forest and my earlier experience, left me a little edgy. I wished I had brought a firearm, or at least had gone to see if there were any footprints in the area of the tree-knocking sounds. If there were, I might have hiked my way back out the same evening!
Night fell and I crept into my bivy sack, listening to the sounds of the forest. Raccoons investigated my camp, scurrying off as I unzipped the sack to stoke the fire. Suddenly, in the distance, I heard what sounded like a pack of coyotes howling. I pulled out my camp axe and my ka-bar, and laid them beside my bivy sack along with the bright, strobe-capable flashlight I would use to freak out the first wild beast that came to take a bite out of me! The howling and barking continued long enough for me to try to determine approximately how far away they were, once I realized that they weren’t moving. Checking my map of the area, I could see that there was a farm a couple of miles off in exactly that direction, and so I concluded that they were dogs living at that property. What concerned me was that they seemed genuinely alarmed for the thirty or so minutes that they barked and howled.
Then came a real sense of alarm. An owl, in a tree not far from me, suddenly began to hoot. This vocalization was repeated, like an alert call, by this owl and at least four or five others in a network around my camp. At this moment, I heard and felt a very deep “thud” in the earth, as if someone nearby dropped a six hundred pound boulder on the trail. There were no sounds of a dead tree crashing down (the area was filled with deadfall) and nothing else that could readily explain the sound I heard which shook the ground I laid on.
With ka-bar in one hand, flashlight illuminated in the other, and my headlamp on, I quickly surveyed the surrounding forest, only to see darkness at the end of my fire’s light, and nothing out of the ordinary where my flashlights shone.
I did manage to grab a few hours of rest that night, woke up cold and stiff, and had what was probably one of the best cups of coffee I’d ever enjoyed. Looking around in the early morning daylight, I couldn’t find anything unusual or out of place that would suggest I’d been visited by some huge creature. But, the distinct experiences I had were unable to be ignored, and, as is nearly always the case, unable to be resolutely explained away.
On the return hike, I passed a big, burly, older man headed into the woods with his pack, planning on an overnight camp as I had done. We exchanged pleasantries, and I continued on my way, wondering silently if I should have brought up my experiences. I sort of suspect I’m not the first to have heard these things in the Allegheny National Forest.