Though I have slept in the woods for more than 300 nights during my trail work career, sometimes sleeping alone in my tent in the middle of nowhere is terrifying. On my first true wilderness backpacking trip at the age of 19, I had a complete, undeniable case of “bearanoia.” Every crack of a tree branch, every scuttle of a small rodent, every rock falling in the distance was absolutely, undeniably a bear. My heart raced at each sound, and I hiked in terror the entire trip.
Now, six years and five seasons of working in the backcountry later, I thought my nights of sleepless angst were behind me. My daytime hours in the woods are no longer filled with bearanoia since I work with 10 other people. The nights, however, are a different world. This is especially true on San Luis Peak, which is located deep in the La Garita Wilderness. Tambi Gustafuson, the local Forest Service wilderness manager, said, “During my three years working here, I’ve seen more wildlife in the Cochetopa drainage than in any other area on the Gunnison district.” She has even seen a mountain lion on the road to the San Luis trailhead.
After weeks of peaceful dreaming this summer, a three-night-long horror episode took over my tent. The first night I woke to heavy breathing that wasn’t my own. Snorting, chortling and grunting sounds right outside my tent. Bear. For sure it has to be a bear, I thought. I grabbed my knife and prepared for battle in case this giant beast decided to lunge at me. But as I listened more closely I heard it pawing at the ground where I knew I had peed before going to bed. After listening even more intensely, I determined it wasn’t a paw, it was a hoof, a giant hoof tearing at the vegetation. It must be a moose. But I never had the courage to unzip my tent and make a positive visual identification. I’ll give some light to the possibility it might have been just a deer.
On the next night, a coyote running briskly woke me up as it ran against my tent and right next to my body. I knew it was a coyote because it sounded just like a dog running through the woods, and there are no dogs at our basecamp. Also, most nights on San Luis we hear the coyotes howling and yipping nearby. Their calls echo throughout the drainage and are quite eerie. But mainly the coyotes keep to themselves, or so I thought.
What pushed me over the edge, however, was the third night. This night I’d slept more soundly than on any of other this summer. I was passed out, dead to the world. Then suddenly I awoke and thought, “That felt great. I must have slept through nearly the whole night already.” I instinctively reached for my alarm clock to see that it was only 1 a.m. Before I could complete my next thought—“This was the exact same time the animals came to my tent the last two nights”—a bobcat pounced onto my tent. My tent caved in, just long enough to support it where it landed. Then it pounced off and I couldn’t hear it running away. This is how I knew it was a bobcat, since they weigh anywhere from 10-28 pounds.
Three nights in a row! Really? And it didn’t help that my co-leader, Devin, was reading “Winterdance” by Gary Paulson, a book that tells of dogs being trampled to death by moose. OK, so it is about the Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska, but it could have happen to me.
Needless to say, I moved my tent before the fourth night. But moving did little to curb the damage caused to my psyche by the three-night episode of horror. I will be sleeping with earplugs from here on out.