In the summer of 2012, my wife, Krista and I were transitioning from being the proverbial starving college kids to the not-quite-starving-but-making- it young married couple, and had been married a little over a year at the time.
Though we currently lived and worked in the Columbus area, we had both attended Ohio University in Athens, Ohio and while dating had spent many weekends hiking and camping in the nearby Wayne National Forest, which was still an easy drive for us to make when we needed a little recreation. Beyond whatever food we packed, it was a free activity, so it fit our budget perfectly.
The trail we chose was the longer version within a trail called Wildcat Hollow, and despite its name, there are no wildcats. There aren’t any four legged predators in the park. There are no bears, wolves or anything else. It’s part of what makes the park so relaxing and carefree, so camping along the trail never gave a need to be vigilant of anything other than the two-legged predator lurking around at night, and I have to say – we had ran into a few of those over the years, but that’s another story.
We had made it around the nine mile mark of the trail, and set up camp in a grove of pine trees. It was, by the way, an actual campsite that was well used along the trail, lest you think we went off trail. We did not.
We were surprised that no one else was camping in the area, but as there are numerous campsites along the almost 15 mile trail, it wasn’t unheard of in September. We actually considered it a bonus. Being more than half way through the trail meant that tomorrow we would only have a little less than five miles to complete the loop.
We had set up camp near the stone fire ring there, and had a nice fire going after we had warmed up our two cans of beef stew for dinner. We were sitting there, talking when we heard branches breaking that seemed to be coming closer. Now, as I mentioned, we had had trouble with the two legged variety of predator before, so we were a little on guard.
Whatever it was, it had stopped just far enough back in the darkness that we couldn’t see it. While I was slipping a handgun out of my backpack, Krista, my wife, grabbed the flashlight from the tent and started shining it around the treeline.
I almost wished she hadn’t.
After a second or two of systematically searching the treeline, the light landed on a large, hairy form on two legs standing near one of the pines. The beam of light stayed on it for half a second or more before it turned and retreated deeper into the pine trees beyond the reach of the flashlight.
To say we were frightened would be a fair assessment, but, part of me really thought perhaps someone – probably college kids – were playing a prank. I had slept peacefully too many times in that forest over the years to know that there was nothing dangerous there other than humans.
I said as much to Krista, and had her believing it, too. We actually made jokes before turning in for the night about it, and right before we crawled into the tent, Krista yelled out to the forest, “That’s a NICE costume you have there – don’t wear it out before Halloween!” We chuckled and snuggled down into our sleeping bags.
I didn’t know exactly what time it was when it came back. I was semi-awakened to the smell of something that smelled like a wet dog that had rolled in its own waste. It was strong, but in my half-sleep state I remember turning over to spoon up against Krista and buried my nose in her neck and hair, trying to hide from the smell.
“Adam” She whispered. I came more awake, and I realized that Krista’s body was tense and rigid. “It’s right outside the tent” My eyes were wide open then and I was fully awake.
I could hear it. It seemed to be just on the other side of the nylon near our heads. I could hear a huffing and then a sniffing, then a few more short huffs.
I suddenly felt like I was five years again, so terrified that someone was standing next to my bed, but too frozen to look and see. Remember that gut dropping, sweaty feeling? Yeah, that’s what I was feeling.
I remember telling myself that it must be a bear, that somehow, there were bears in the park, now. I also knew that all conventional advice said to make yourself appear larger than you are, make noise to scare it away and to try to put distance between yourself and it. But I had no plan – it was literally inches from us – too close to do anything, I thought.
I sat up as quietly as I could and felt around for my backpack. I had never fired that gun anywhere but at a firing range, and while it made me feel better to have it, I wasn’t sure it would do much damage to a bear.
There, in the darkness, I discovered for the first time that backpack zippers were as loud as freight trains, no matter how slowly you pulled them.
I had the zipper open enough to slip my hand and was trying to do so when I heard the bear, or whatever it was, walk around to Krista’s side of the tent. Krista was sitting up now, too, staring at the tent wall and backing away from it to my side of the tent. I had the gun out of my backpack now, but wasn’t sure when was going to be the right time to use it. I did NOT want to kill anything – I was no hunter, and I really believed that the things in the forest belonged there and that I was an intruder. But at that moment, I was thinking a little differently.
Just as I had decided I was going to shoot just to the side of where I thought it was in order to scare it - again I was really thinking it was an errant bear – it started moving again. We could hear it walking to the front of the tent – and kept going.
Chancing it, I unlatched the top frog of the tent and looked out. The fire was long gone, but I could still see a large, bipedal shape moving around the stone fire pit – it seemed to be looking at the glowing embers.
That was no bear. And it definitely wasn’t some college kid in a costume. In the firelight, it looked to be a ginger color, with long fur. The face was large and took up a lot of space on the head from side to side. The eyes didn’t look human to me – there was a heavy brow ridge above the eyes, making them look more deep set and hooded – like a gorilla, yet larger. It did have a nose – sort of flattened and wide, but yet the nose struck me as being almost human more than anything else on the face.
It just stood there, looking at the fire embers for a few seconds. I heard Krista start to speak my name in a whisper – I knew she wanted to know what I saw. I tried to hold my hand up and quieten her. But the thing at the fire had heard, too. It looked right at the tent and even though I had sat back on my heels and was not close to the open portion of the tent flap, I knew it saw me.
We absolutely made eye contact.
I expected the worst, but it turned and melted away in the darkness.
“What was it?” Krista asked again. I still couldn’t answer her. I didn’t know how to. Before I could stop her – and I did try, but my reactions were delayed, probably from shock – but Krista crawled over to the tent opening and looked out, but saw nothing. I was thankful for that.
After a few minutes of us listening for the *bear* and hearing none, Krista was crawling back into her sleeping bag, happy to go back to sleep. “I think – I think I’m going to rebuild the fire.” I said, saying I wasn’t the least bit sleepy now. And I wasn’t.
And after a few minutes, I did just that – with the gun within reach at all times, and I was thankful that we had gathered extra brush and limbs to burn when we first set up camp in anticipation of sitting up late, which we ended up not doing, and I was able to quickly bring the fire back up from the ash and embers.
I knew the fire wasn’t much help, but it made me feel better. I could now see my watch – it was just after 4 am. Krista, who had no idea what I had seen, went back to sleep, blissfully unaware. I stayed up til sunrise and kept watch.
The only other incident came around 5:30am – I heard several what I now know to be woodknocks. They came from only one direction, so I don’t think there was another bigfoot in the area.
I still wonder how that one wandered into the Wayne National Forest. To this day, I am not aware of any other sightings in the area, so maybe it was just passing through.
I woke Krista just before the sun came up – but not before I scuffed over and tried to obliterate the few prints that were visible as it got lighter. Although the prints weren’t the deep, sunk-in prints you often see, there were clear prints in the dusty, loose areas of dirt in a couple areas.
I was already packing our things up as she was coming awake. I told her I didn’t want breakfast – that it wasn’t a good idea to cook anything with bears in the area. I knew she had packed the pre-measured pancake mix and a bottle of pre-measured water to mix it with, but still – I convinced her that NO cooking smell was a good idea and that we should just get going, and that’s what we did.
I don’t think I’ve ever hiked five miles so quickly, or so on alert. I saw and heard nothing the rest of the trail. When I told one of the park officials we saw at one of the camgrounds near the trail head that we thought there might have been a bear in the area, he assured me I was mistaken. Of course, I knew it wasn’t a bear, but I was just probing to see if anyone else had said anything.
It’s been six and a half years, and I have still never told Krista what I saw at our campsite that night. Otherwise, she’d never go hiking or camping again. And, yes – we do still go hiking and camping, but I’ve always found a reason not to return to Wayne National Forest for any overnight stays, and I NEVER camp anywhere there are no other people.