Last night, as I went out onto the front porch of the lodge to get some air and let the dog do her thing before bedtime, I heard the closest thing to a real life monster that I have ever heard in my 43 years!! "Sookie" went out a bit into the yard and started grappling with her soccer ball wanting a quick little game of "kick it!" She can't really get a good grip on it with her teeth so she mauls it around with her feet until she eventually maneuvers it close enough to me that I can kick it…stir, repeat. Last night she was going in the wrong direction getting farther away from me towards the barn, so I decided to go give her a little help since I didn't want to be standing out there all night. It had been pretty warm that day at 35 degrees F, but the late evening had dropped it down to about 20 degrees.
I stepped off the deck and walked about a third of the way between the barn and the corner of the lodge. About 20 feet or so; and as I bent down to pick up the ball, out of the darkness, from the closest barn door to where I was standing, just out of the dim stretch of light shining from inside the living room something grunted a warning at us that sounded as if it came from the bottom of an empty water tower. Not a leisurely moan like what I heard in "Didn't You Hear That!?!?", but an actual semi-roar! Unmistakable danger from a real live presence in the night, and it was close. Let me tell ya, the temperature of the blood in my body immediately equalized with the surrounding air and every drop drained into my stomach. With my skin drawn tight as a tick, and muscles already twitching I looked at Soo, who was just standing there looking into the darkness, not sure what to think. "I" however, knew exactly what to think…"Get back into the GD house NOW!!" was what I was thinking!
I spoke aloud in a strong, confident voice for her to "come" and as she turned to comply I heard the small swinging door of the first barn entrance rattle in the night, followed immediately by an even louder, more determined sounding cross of a grunt and a growl. I turned slowly and calmly walked towards the edge of the porch, my steadiness being tested with each labored step in the deep snow. Just as I stepped up on the edge, right where I keep a hand ax stuck into a log for splitting kindling, the animal cut loose again, this time, it seemed to have moved closer. Right passed a split in the fence that allows you to slip through to get to the barn, but too narrow for horses to exit the corral during the warm season when the ranch is alive with guests.
"Closer!?!?" "You're not supposed to come CLOSER!!!" I thought as I instinctually turned and grabbed the ax by the handle and raising it above my head began yelling my own warning back into the direction of whatever had taken such an interest in me and my dog. I brought the ax down so hard onto the top of the log that the cold metal head snapped completely in half. I began to jump up and down, stomping my feet as hard as I could on the wooden deck, banging the now ruined ax on the log, confidence growing in the safety of my own ruckus, mimicking the ape that discovered the bone hammer in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
My display shook the entire structure as I hollered at the top of my lungs "I'M MEANER'N YOU!!!", and "GIT OUTTA HERE YOU SOB!"; more out of stark fear than any belief that I was actually qualified to take on whatever had made such a violent and terrifying sound. The sound of a death threat is how I interpreted it, a possible challenge even, and with the side entrance still 15 feet away, "Fight or Flight" had kicked in and right, or wrong, I'm not much for runnin'. It has always seemed to me that running from an enemy is rarely the right thing to do. Most of them will catch you anyway if that is what they intend to do. If something is going to eat me out here it's going to have to eat me head on.
The wind had died out that day for the first time in about a week, and I could hear faint breathing as it crossed the yard directly in front of me. A fourth and final bellow from the beast resounded off the wooden structures that dot the property. It was moving away now, this time admonishing me from in front of the "Willow Cabin" just 30 or 40 feet away, still just out of reach of the light; still way too close for an animal who should be "intimidated" by the wild flailing's of a madman wielding a broken ax. Was this thing lingering!? Assessing?
Sookie, who by now is completely alarmed not by the animal, but by her lunatic owner who had apparently suffered some type of psychotic break, was at the back door looking at me intently unsure of what she should be doing. I decided to go inside and take a better and more importantly safer viewpoint from a small balcony built off the upstairs bedrooms. I grabbed a flashlight and turning off the lights as I went through the house. I made my way back outside onto the veranda. Shining the light downward towards the direction of the Willow Cabin, I scanned the area looking for trace movements, or even the disdainful stare of an interrupted forager. The flashlight had seen better days and barely illuminated the front door of the cabin. I could see tracks going from the barn across the yard, but Sook had been out there running around all day, so I could not tell what were "new" and what had occurred during the daylight. I yelled some more just for good measure. "This is MY house!!" I began to laugh off the stressfulness of the situation, feeling safer from my high perch; my own comforting echo being the only response coming back to me from the still blackness.
Once I finally shook out the last of my adrenaline rush I sat down at the computer and began searching Mt. Lion sound-bytes. I had seen so many fresh tracks I felt sure this huge cat was plenty big enough to have made such a sound. Although I have seen two different Mt. Lions on two separate occasions I have never "heard" one. I came across http://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/wildlife-sightings/mountain-lions/mountain-lion-signs which allows you to hear a Mt. Lion compared to several other creatures of the night people have mistaken this feline for. Owls, rabbits, deer; nothing came close to what I had heard until I listened to the Bobcat. Even as close as this animal sounded to what I had heard, it still seemed unimaginable that this small cat could make such a huge sound with seemingly little effort.
It was snowing slightly when this all happened and I was certainly not interested in investigating the tracks the animal was surely leaving in the dark, so this morning I went out and looked for anything that appeared to be "new" from the night before. For the last few days animals of all sizes had developed random trails through the fresh snow bearing a resemblance to the confused highways under constant construction by man's endless effort to decrease the distance between A and B. The only real difference in detail being that these trails would all soon be covered over by the next layer of fresh snowflakes. There was definitely a fresh through-way made by moose, two of which I had witnessed the day before hiking up to the High Cabin to retrieve some of my camping gear. I have been politely asked to no longer stay so far from the main buildings of the ranch, so unfortunately the "High Cabin Journals" will be no more. These two have been coming through the yard on a nightly basis for the last three nights. Could a moose have made those sounds!? I have never heard one, so I really don't know. I know nothing of Moose, but it seems to be a female and a young bull with a small rack developing. Was it a warning sound from mother to son? I just do not know.
I also found some smaller "cat" tracks tight around the barn leading up into the woods, but they looked old and as I said there was about a quarter inch of fresh snow blunting everything visible in the snow. Also, there is the domestic cat that lives out there. I did find one, small, clear track that seemed too big for the house cat, and definitely not the size of the Mt. Lion prints I have been encountering. I compared the relatively tiny track to the voice it carried and found it implausible that one owned the other in this case. Could it have been a Bobcat? Creeping around out there looking for an easy meal; or maybe even some good ol fashioned domestic cat lovin' on a chilly Wyoming night? I know they sometimes breed with barn cats and that tough little cougar looks like she might be able to deliver. What about a wolf? I have been courted by one singing its mournful tune at me from just over a hill as I returned from the High Cabin one morning. Would it have been sneaking around out there, alone, trying to catch that cat? Or has it been observing the nightly habits of my dog, and testing the waters?
I have lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of West Virginia, and am familiar with the Shenandoah Valleys and Appalachian chain, I've also been living in the Rockies for many years, and have spent a good deal of time in the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. I have never been this far north, this is my first time being in "Grizzly" country (who should all be cozied up in a den somewhere by now, I would think), or wolf territory, or moose land for that matter; so there is a great deal of unfamiliarity with the wild life on my part. There is only so much one can learn listening to thin audio recordings on a laptop and reading about a place. It is one of the reasons I chose this job, to encounter and experience a new region; one that I was not accustomed to.
New animals, new terrain, new weather, and usually I like to meet new faces too, but this particular remote situation eliminates that to a great extent. That, too, is a new sensation to be so far away from civilization, crowds of people everywhere talking, driving, getting by, thinking they are safe from dark noises. Now, I am not roughing it by any stretch of imagination with a nice lodge to keep me warm, comfy bed to sleep in and stocked freezers and cabinets, hydro-electric power and slow, yet bearable, internet access; it can certainly be considered a more primitive environment, one where I am not necessarily the King of the Hill in relation to the food chain. To me that's living off-grid. This is living closer to the earth than I have in a long time, and I find it comfort in uncertainty.
I don't know what that was last night, or what its intentions were lurking around out there in that cold barn, but an experience like that will let you know your place in the world real quick. It's a fragile purchase these lives we cling to no matter where we decide to cling to them from. It is not the passing of days, safely spent inside of cars, houses and office buildings that I find fulfilling. It is uncertain nights like last night, when you come face to face with something unknown simply surviving, and surviving simply. A natural life happening beyond the scope of my own sight, allowing a small peep into its existence, animals surviving the way animals do, the way we once did. I'll take a snarl from the darkness over a city of lights where danger strolls and rolls blatantly unrecognized by most people any day of the week; preferably for weeks, or months on end. That's what I like. Living for the next time I'm exhilarated by something new and natural, finding out for myself the what and why; not lying stagnate and solidifying somewhere between what I know is out there and what I am being told is out there, and thinking I am safe from it "in here". Next time you are outside in the dark, listen for the sounds that make you feel alive. If you don't hear them then maybe you're in the wrong wilderness.