I’ve spent a lot of time in the outdoors in my life. Both of my parents had me camping and traveling since day one. On a camping trip in late fall in Minnesota, it snowed and I peed my snowsuit—I’ve always thought that this is what made me love winter so much, nothing quite like northern exposure. From then on it was family camping trips even after my parents divorced. When I’d visit my father, we’d go camping, road trip across the country, fishing etc. And with my mother we’d road trip across the country soaking in the sights that included hikes and treks to beautiful vistas, bike riding and still, plenty of fishing.
I remember one trip to Montana, my father and I were mountain biking and came face to face with a grizzly and two cubs. Luckily that ended well and without violence but that was an outdoors experience I’d care not to relive. I’ve heard plenty of noises of animals going bump in the night as I lay in my tent with my imagination running wild. Was it a bear? Or a raccoon? I’m sure many of us are familiar with this feeling. I’ve spent many nights in the Badlands, north woods, mountains and deserts camping and becoming quite familiar with the local wildlife for years—ALONE. Part of one’s outdoor growth is becoming acquainted with all of that. You get used to it and become accustomed to hearing those sounds until you don’t even really realize them any more. I was familiar with all of this until I arrived in the Ozarks once again and began my photographic pursuit there.
The Ozarks are a mysterious place. Running from Saint Louis southwest through Arkansas and into eastern Oklahoma, they are ancient mountains that contain many secrets and mysteries. They are older than the Rockies and the Appalachians. Civil War battle sites dot the Ozarks, where in divided states like Missouri, brother literally fought against brother. Those Civil War roots run deep. Old cemeteries hide in the dark corners of hollers where sometimes daylight doesn’t even seem to reach.
Aside from the Civil War and poverty, the Trail of Tears runs right through the hearts of Missouri and Arkansas as it snakes its way through the hills and hollers to Oklahoma. The Ozarks are beyond rich with history and a lot of it is a seemingly dark history. Disappearances are known to occur frequently, the infamous James Gang and their robberies, and endless stories of murders and slayings, and witchcraft. Alongside all of this are mythological creatures such as skinwalkers, Ozark howlers, hellhounds, the list goes on. Under these mountains is a series of caves of which a majority have not even been discovered or explored, aiding to one’s imagination about the existence of these creatures or even creatures which may have not even been discovered yet.
There is naivety and inexperience in the majority who travel into the outdoors. This is particularly present in those who maybe only get to state parks, or local trails once a week on a Saturday—this does not allow full immersion into nature—a true wilderness or backcountry experience. When one spends enough time in the forest that naivety goes away. Experience piles up, confidence increases yet also decreases. Preparedness expands and risk-taking evolves into well thought out adventures leading to more remote areas that are harder to reach and further from civilization.
I do not care if you walk away from reading this story as fact or fiction. Just remember there are things in the forest we need to leave alone. In February of 2019, I set out to do some winter night sky photography at a small lake deep in the dense Mark Twain National Forest.
The story goes as follows:
Tonight I set out in search of some starry night skies. The weather was perfect (for me). Cold enough you had to dress for it, but not quite that cold that starts making things uncomfortable. I had traveled about 2 hours from St Louis to explore an area I thought might be one of my new hidden gems.
In the depths of Mark Twain National Forest passing old cemeteries and the Trail of Tears, south of Salem, I made my turn down an old forest road. The trees hugged the road and suffocated my headlights. A couple of trees were down across the road, a storm blew them over I remember thinking, or were they put there by the USFS to dissuade visitors. Nothing to worry, the Tacoma did just find as I drove straight over them. The condition of the road deteriorated, becoming ruttier and ruttier, pockmarked with deep holes until I reached my destination: an old abandoned campground.
Each campsite was overgrown with grass and brush. Some I could barely make out the fire rings. There was no trash in any of them which honestly is pretty typical around these parts. I really find that a bit odd. Clearly the place hadn’t been used in quite some time. The whole place just gave off this really strange vibe. I felt it as soon as I turned off the truck. I stepped out of the warm cab of the truck, my breath visible as I exhaled. I lit up a cigarette.
Then, a noise. A loud noise. Splashing coming from directly behind the tree line ahead of me, a tree line that I could only see in the beam of my headlamp. The splashing stopped, then started again a handful of times. Each splash echoed through the cold air. I kept shining my headlamp down there, toward the sound. I see nothing, nothing but trees in my way of viewing whatever beast lay beyond. The strange vibes I felt upon my arrival returned. The kind of vibes where you begin questioning whether or not you should be in that place. Pfft, nah, it’s a beaver or something.
I wait just a few minutes to see if the sounds stop. They do. I extinguish my cigarette. Must have been some deer or other animal, maybe a beaver or something I thought again. I grab my tripod and camera gear and nervously with a small bit of confidence make my way down to the lake. My footsteps and breath louder than ever. With each crunch of my feet hitting the frozen pine needles I felt I was giving away my location. I felt like I was being watched from beyond the light of my headlamp. In the shadows and dark of the forest. I trek on.
The walk seems like a mile, even though it is maybe 1/8th mile to the lake. As I approach my shooting location, I noticed the lake has a thin sheet of ice over it. How could whatever was splashing in the water not have broken this thin ice? My imagination was certainly not going overboard. I was not getting lost in my own thoughts. I am a very rational human being. But this, without question, made me feel a bit vulnerable. Repeat, like I was being watched.
I hear splashing again. The same splashing I heard before. This time, across the lake. I must add, this lake is small. More of a large pond really. My headlamp just barely reaches across. I look up to where the splashing was coming from—nothing. Nothing there. No visible ripples in the water. Oh ya, it is covered in ice, of course there wouldn’t be. But wait, the ice is thin enough surely it would have broken from whatever was splashing around. Nope. Wrong. Still covered in ice.
A chuckling laughter comes from over the ridge just to my left. Coyotes, that’s all. Nothing to worry about I always hear those when I’m out. They stop their yipping and howling. A loud splash, as if someone threw a soccer ball sized rock into the lake. My headlamp picks up nothing. Then, a chuckle I can’t put a finger on. Not coyotes, not human, is it a beaver or something maybe? I’ve never heard a chuckle like that. It is maniacal. A splash again, and a chuckle. It almost sounds hyena-like to me. But still not quite hyena. I’ve been to Africa on safari, I’ve heard hyenas. Not a hyena, but close.
About this time a shooting chill blasts up my back into my neck. My back to the trees, something behind me was watching me. I could FEEL it. It feels as if something is piercing me, staring into my soul. I muster the courage to snap ONE photograph. Then another real quick. Just a few exposures to get SOMETHING for my time. I hear something swimming out ahead of me, coming toward me. Not a single ripple in the water, nothing but a layer of thin ice. A loud splash just a dozen feet ahead of me jolts me and follows up with a flutter as if a bird launched itself out of the water and flew toward me. With my hand on my knife, I yell loudly as said subject seems like it was going to collide with me. And in a split second, it’s over, gone.
Quiet. Deafening quiet.
With chills I’ve never had before rushing up and down my spine, I grab my camera gear and rush back to my truck. I vow never to return to this place again.
When I returned home that night, my wife knew something was up. Her words were she’d never seen me that shook up before. As I’ve said, I’m one of those who spends a lot of time solo in the woods and I’ve never experience anything like this. The chill and vibes I had carried over and stayed with me for days. My takeaway from this is that the forest is a deep and big place. Some things happen out there that are unexplainable. I’d suggest you keep an open mind whenever you go out into the forest.
I wish you all a safe and happy All Hallow’s Eve.