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"Terror In A Mountain Camp"
J.R. Martens

As it happens, this story is true. A night of terror in a lonely mountain camp.

I was reared on a Montana ranch adjacent to the Beartooth Mountains. The property line of the ranch shared the boundary line of the Beartooth National Forest Reserve and I spent hundreds of hours of my childhood with thousands of acres of mountain and forest to roam and explore.

On foot. On horse back. With others. Alone. And if I thought work was in the offing, you know, like ranch work, I would slave like a fiend getting my chores done in the early morning dawning to hurry and head for the mountains before that work started. Being a cowboy did not impress me. Sometimes I would be gone for two or three days at a time.

I became rather good at mountain travel. I could find the right spot in a stream to build a rock dam and then go down stream and chase fish. Beating the water with a pine bough I had cut, herding the fish into a frenzied escape up to my dam where they would try to jump over. Several missing the bend in the stream I had deliberately selected, jumping up on the bank instead…..

Dinner was ensured.

As an alternate menu, the mountains were thick at times with the fools grouse. A silly bird in some ways. You could almost walk right up to one and with a swift stick, or a well thrown rock, have fowl for dinner if you were tired of fish; or even better yet, fowl for dinner, fish for breakfast.

Those mountains didn’t have much in the way of berries and such. At least the area where I usually roamed. Which was probably a good thing. There were bear, but not all that many. The lack of berries for food kind of kept them on other slopes of the mountain range.

This story started at one of the times when I was grounded. No horse. That was my parents idea of grounding me when I was a wee one. So, I took up the back pack I had made for myself and told my Mother I was off for the hills and would probably be gone a day or so. She was accustomed to that, encouragement of independence was part of my early education, so all was fine. Fine, except that I had no idea what fate had in store for me that particular night.

I wandered back into an area I used to like to explore. Many massive rocks to play mountain climber. Lots of fresh snow water in streams everywhere. Days of brilliant sun and warm gentle breezes. Nights with stars that came down and twinkled beside you as you slept. A huge yellow moon to talk to, be a friend and listen to the fantastic tales I would tell it as I created them in my mind.

I was alone that time. Enjoying that special freedom that only a kid can enjoy who is out and totally free in this world. Watching a caterpillar edging its way up a tree. Watching alge waver in the eddy of a stream. Deer or elk grazing in a meadow. Beaver building a dam.

I had killed a couple of grouse earlier in the afternoon and that evening lolled around my little camp fire roasting them on a spit. Watching the night gradually deepen as it came. Probably thinking of myself as Natty Bumpo, Davie Crockett, Daniel Boone, and the hero of whichever novel I was reading at the time all rolled up into one, or perhaps Will James. My favorite author at the time.

The grouse had kind of a gamy and wild taste, but I had never been a fussy eater. It tasted fine to me. I saved a portion for breakfast, then built up the fire and watched the night come on. Doing as I often did. Living a separate life in my mind.

It surprised me after I let the fire die down and got ready for bed that the night was so dark. In fact, more than dark. It was black dark. I knew there were some trees about a dozen feet from me, but I couldn’t see them in shape or form. I had spread my little bedroll not far from a stream and after the night became too dark to see anything, crawled between my blankets. Falling into the sleep of the innocent, to the sound of gently rustling water.

I’ve no idea what time of night it was, but somewhere in the midst of it I could hear breathing. This however was not just casual breathing. Very nearby, huge and powerful lungs were pulling massive breaths of air in long and deeply inhaled suctions. Catching my scent. Expelling it in a pent up burst. Clearing its nostrils for its next attempt at catching a scent. Judging by the sound I felt it was probably about ten feet from me, whatever IT was. That I couldn’t tell, I could not see a thing.

Imagine yourself. Thirteen years old. Miles back into the mountains. Alone. Having seen deer, elk, moose, bear and even a cougar very near at hand. And now this huge creature stalking you. None of those animals, except perhaps the moose, had the lung power to breathe the great sucking breaths I was hearing. This was something new.

It started coming closer. I could tell by the sound that it was moving toward me. Slowly. Ever so slowly it came forward. Its breathing became even deeper.

I tried to control my panic. Oh yes, I was scared. I was terrified. I could not imagine what this thing could be. I only knew it to be large with a great deal of lung power. My imagination ran wild thinking of the fangs in the mouth that would go along with those lungs. And what an imagination I had.

I steeled myself. Somewhere in my pack I had an old flashlight, if I could find my pack, maybe I could find the light. What had I done with the pack?

I had taken my bedding out, dropping the pack on the ground as I spread out my blankets…….. on the south side of the pack. The pack would be north of me. Ok, where in the hell was north?

It was black out. Totally black out. About as black a night as I had ever spent. I didn’t even know which direction I was facing. No sign of moon or stars. No dipper to get a direction from. So from where I lay I frantically started patting the ground. As far as I could reach on one side, then oh so very quietly, roll over and pat the ground on the other.

In the meantime, IT was coming closer. And yet closer. I could actually feel the wind of its breath wash past my sweating face. Smell the fetid odor. I imagined giants. Grizzly bears.

Jesus H. Christ, Grizzly’s! They’re big enough! They have the lung power! They’re in these mountains! How in the hell could I just forget about Grizzly Bears?

The bones of the grouse. The smell of roasted food. A delight to a grizzly. And a thirteen year old kid to chew on when the cast away bones of a tiny little grouse didn’t provide it with quite enough of a meal.

I was almost crying when my hand hit the edge of the pack. Snatching it to me I dug down and pulled out the flashlight.

IT was within about two feet of me by then. IT was snorting right into my face. I felt the wind of its breath blasting me in the face. I could feel the heat from its body. Or else the heat I was generating in my fear.

I pushed the button on the flashlight and prayed. Bears were afraid of fire. I hoped it would think the flashlight a fire and the sudden light would scare it away. And that the light even worked.

And shined the light right into the eyes of a cow. That’s right. A COW. Some rancher was grazing his cattle in the mountains and one had chanced upon my little camp. And wondered what that thing was lying beside the place it wanted to go to for water. Using cow caution, coming up smelling and snorting to see what lay in its path.

The forest is surprisingly silent at night. The whispering of a stream. A tree limb cracking in the distance. Something passing. But rather far away. Probably that cow. Still running and wondering what in the hell it had come on to with that singularly bright and shining eye.


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