For several years, my partner Drea and I lived way out in the woods. I have many strange and wonderful animal stories from these days, but this is my favorite.
It was summer. Mid-afternoon. Drea and I were in the clearing where our house stood, building a door which was up on sawhorses. I had a hammer in my hand. The radio was cranked up on an oldies station. The sun was out. The world was good. Until we heard the noise.
It came from deep in the woods — a voice, calling over and over.
“Do you hear that?” I asked. Drea nodded. I switched off the radio. We listened. The calling continued.
Drea thought it sounded like someone had lost their dog and was in the woods, calling – screaming really, furious that the dog had run away – “Ralph!” over and over.
“No,” I told her, a sick feeling sweeping over me. “Listen. It’s someone yelling, ‘Help!’”
As we argued about what it was the person was yelling, the gravelly voice got more desperate. Drea soon agreed that the voice was calling for help.
It didn’t help that Drea and I had seen The Blair Witch Project a few days before. And it scared the hell out of us, living in our tiny cabin way out in the middle of the woods. As we heard the voice calling, we both thought that it was like something straight from the movie. Too much like it. Maybe it was one of our twisted friends messing with us? We discussed this possibility for a few minutes, wondering which of them would do such a thing, such a strange, sadistic, elaborate prank (this was before I knew Deb Eileen). Meanwhile, the calls for help got ever more insistent, desperate.
I became completely convinced there was an old man in the woods and something terrible was happening to him. Drea was still skeptical, but not skeptical enough to risk leaving someone alone in the woods to suffer. So, hammer in hand, terrified, I led us into the woods towards the voice. As we got closer, and I got even more terrified, I suggested we turn back, drive to the neighbors for help. Wouldn’t we be better off going into the woods in a large group? But there wasn’t time. Whoever this was, whatever was happening to him, he needed us right away.
Scenarios went through our minds and we discussed them as we made our way towards the voice: a man trapped under a fallen tree, stuck in a leg-hold trap, being mauled by a wild animal, or tortured by a roving band of Satanists. Or, of course, Satanists setting a trap for us, luring us into the woods for unspeakable reasons.
The calls for help seemed clearer. The voice was old. Raspy. Desperate with panic. An old man in terrible pain.
We called back: “We’re coming! Where are you? What’s happened?”
All we got in response was another series of cries, “Help, help, HEEE-LLLLP!” interspersed with little moans.
The woods were thick, dark and cool, and it was slow going. Saplings snapped at our faces. We tripped on deadfalls. It was like the forest itself was trying to hold us back.
We were close. The sound was just over a little hill. As we climbed the hill, we heard a snarling growl. Drea and I froze. Stared at each other in sheer terrror. I now understood what was happening. I knew that when we crested the hill, we’d look down and see a man being eaten, probably half eviscerated by a wild animal, a catamount maybe. The hammer suddenly felt very small and stupid in my sweaty hand. For the first time in my life, I wished I was carrying a gun.
We crept up the hill slowly, trying to be quiet. Drea was clinging to my shirt, twisting the fabric – or maybe it was the other way around.
As soon as we got to the top, we saw it – a brown bear at the base of a tree. She saw us, growled again, took a couple of swaying steps back.
But where was the person? In the tangled underbrush, no one could be seen. Then, we heard the call again and looked up.
There, in the spindly birch tree, was a baby bear. He’d climbed up and couldn’t seem to get back down. He’d wiggle, then slip, cry out, cling tighter and go higher. And his cries sounded exactly — uncannily — like an old man saying help. Of course, if he (not to mention mom) had been scared at first, he was now in paroxysms of terror after listening to us crashing through the woods, closer and closer, yelling threatening gibberish for the past 15 minutes. Finally laying eyes on us, even more horrible than he’d imagined, made him jump. He made it gracelessly to the ground, and he and mom beat a hasty retreat.
So, a happy ending, and good stories for both us and the bears to tell for many a year.