is a true account of a night my longtime friend, and fellow DD contributor, Daniel spent camping on the White Oak Canyon trail in central VA. The pictures were taken during a more recent trip to the same trail.
We’ve discussed this night many times since October 2013, and, as unusual as the events may seem, this is the narrative as we experienced it:
I pulled the car into a small, dirt lot next to the trail just as dark was settling. We got our backpacks on and passed a ranger shack at the start of the trail, the warm glow of a singular orange bulb bolted to its side produced the only light around, other than the headlamps strapped around our hats. We soon crossed paths with some people that were surely returning to the only other car in the lot. We were definitely going to be alone in these woods.
Following the spring that ran next to the trail, there was a noise that stopped us. A loud scratching, shuffling sound that led our distended eyeballs to a tree, 20 yards straight ahead, with a large black blob slipping fluidly down its trunk. Black bear. She dismounted the tree, and we lost sight of her as she scurried up the side of the mountain through the dense carpet of fallen leaves. We heard the bear come to a stop on the ridge and her eyes briefly looked back to reflect our lights at us. Once we, and the bear, were sure that the immediate danger had passed, we all carried about our business.
We came to a 30 foot bridge spanning the width of the stream that provided a nice spot to rest. The way the trail had switchbacked gave us a view of the wooden ranger shack which, when illuminated by that oddly pleasant orange glow, almost seemed to be on fire. The water was loud under our feet as we sat on our backpacks.
Daniel had made me laugh and when I looked up I was once again drawn to the light downstream. I stared for a moment, looked at my companion, realized he was also trained on the light, and looked back. The muted orange color had intensified to a brighter white. The color did not catch our attention as much as its gradual movement away from the shack.
It traveled down the left bank, then crossed the water over to the right bank, maintaining a smooth pace, unlike a light held by someone clambering over the rocky spring. We turned our own lights off and kept watching. The glow moved steadily closer to the bridge and suddenly, the bright white fluorescence was replaced with a much smaller, yet equally bright, red light. Like a lit cigarette. It maintained its course.
Once the light was within 300 feet of us we had come to a tacit agreement to move on along the trail. Standing up and slinging our packs on, we took one look behind before stepping off the steel bridge. There was no sign of the bright, red pinprick we had just seen. The light had returned to the small ranger shack, and had reassumed its inviting orange luminescence. We kept walking.
The trail became steeper and wound its way past several waterfalls, each more impressive than the last. A fog had settled on the trail and seemed to be thickening as we climbed. Eventually our headlights were rendered useless outside of a three foot distance by the amount of moisture in the air.
We found a decently clear spot off the side of the trail and established our camp. The fire built up strong and provided desperately needed light, warmth, and hot food. After our simple dinner, we spent hours talking over the ideas inspired by being deep in the woods, then rolled into our hammocks for the night.
In the morning I stirred the embers from the night before and made a small fire for coffee. Daniel asked if I’d woken up at all last night. I had a surprisingly solid sleep given the cold, wet air and our unsettling experience on the bridge. He looked serious.
Eventually he told me he was woken up in the middle of the night. He sat up in his hammock and looked over at mine. Saying my name a couple times, loudly, produced no effect. I was dead asleep. He looked under his hammock, behind the trees he was supported by, everywhere. Seeing nothing but the damp dark.
He said my name one more time. Finally he sunk back into his hammock and prayed that he was no longer interesting to whatever had been tapping the back of his head.