SC EP:511 It Was No Damn Bear

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A listener writes “I was a Deputy Sheriff in a rural county. Things were pretty quiet as cows outnumbered the people who lived there 5 to 1.

In the late fall we had out of town hunters and campers, so we did get busy with bad checks, a few deer camp party’s that got out of hand, a DUI or two, and of course the occasional lost person to keep us active. By early December the main job was checking empty cabins for break-ins and seeing to it old folks had enough wood put up.

But while autumn was still in the air there was one other big problem we faced. Wildfires.

Whether it was an untended campfire or careless cigarette didn’t much matter. Wildfires could raze hundreds of acres in just days with any kind of wind to move it. It was fueled by the falling leaves, dried grass, and rotting timbers. I’ve seen bad ones burn homes and even kill people. We took fire seriously there in the fall.

It was one such year that I was helping with fire watch duties by picking up and dropping off forest rangers and park personnel to where they could walk to their fire watch towers. An around the clock fire watch was established one windy and unseasonably warm week, as the entire region was considered high risk for fires. The Rangers were “hot-swapping” watch duty on a local fire tower, working 12 hours on and 12 hours off. My self-appointed job was to pick them up at the station and drive up through the big pines to a trailhead at the end of a little gravel and dirt logging road. We were a half dozen miles off pavement and at some of the highest elevations in the state.

I got to know a Ranger named Dobbs (not his real name) who was a Mason like me and also was a prolific fisherman like me, so we struck up a friendship. He wore a big 44 Magnum “for wild hogs and such” on his hip, and amongst his “fire watch kit” he had assembled into a backpack were good binos, observation logs, a helmet and goggles, survival knife, and a sturdy walking stick…

As I rested a second I leaned against a tree and opened the thermos I’d brought for Dobbs. It was quiet, even for this time of year. Usually you’d hear something. The quiet wasn’t natural. It was as if the entire forest was holding its breath. Once I noticed the silence, it became creepy. I strained to hear anything.

And of all things, I had the uneasy sense I was being watched. I’d felt it before in the river and a few times since. Years of hunting and tramping through the outdoors taught me what felt right and what was out of place. It was just a feeling you had, and hard to explain. But right then, for maybe the first time in my life, I had the uncomfortable feeling it was me. I was the thing out of place here and something was watching me.

The unfamiliar woods at night could get to you…”

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