(For the first part of this story about a night on a solo backpack trip in the Bighorn Range, check out the previous post on the Adventure Blog.)
Shortly after this, a new noise, very close to my tent, began to rise in my not-too-conscious state. It reached the point of recognition, and suddenly I was wide awake. The new aural experience included soft footfalls on the ground combined with short, troubled whines and an occasional grunt. It is amazing how that combination of sounds, when you are camped alone in the high country, can produce such rapid clarity and alertness out of a state of sleep. As I listened, paging through my records of animal sounds, the closest sound I could find was that of a young bear, uncertain of the human smells but highly interested in the other camp smells. From my tent, I could see my food canister in the starlight, some 80 feet away. It was so far unmolested. I spoke loudly, and the noise seemed to move away to the south. That should scare away whatever it is, I thought. Back to the business at hand, which was getting some well-deserved sleep.
Nope. The grunting whiner returned about an hour later, and I could hear it moving in an arc around my camp. Again, I spoke, this time as loudly and firmly as I could squeak out without shaking. The whiner answered with two well-spaced, low grunts. It sounded annoyed. Remembering the picture of the laughing bear describing a human in a sleeping bag as being “like a soft taco,” I grabbed my light and crawled out to meet whatever was out there. When I stood up and looked around, no animal was in sight. I walked around a little, looking with my light at the perimeter of my camp clearing. Nothing. Apparently, the role of the whiner in the sadistic plan devised by the hooligan elks was to lure me out of the tent without being seen. It succeeded in that mission several times during the night. The ability of this creature to lure me out of the tent and then vanish was remarkable, and a bit unnerving.
My crawling back into the tent was apparently the cue for the elks to begin their horn practice again. Imagine how relaxing it is trying to sleep with this racket while trying not to imagine what it would be like to be a “soft taco.”
Eventually, I drifted off to fitful sleep again until somewhere around midnight. That is when the coyotes stepped up for their role in the sadistic plan of the elks. Their howling began in earnest, filling the alpine valley with echoing sounds incompatible with sleep. As I lay awake, imagining the deal making that went on between the boogie-woogie bugle elks and the coyote glee club, I became aware of yet another new sound. It was very close to my tent, and sounded like a large animal eating meadow grass. Rip, crunch, crunch, chew, chew. Repeatedly. I thought about this for a moment, with great intensity I might add, before deciding that most herbivores are not harmful to humans if left alone. I decided to leave it alone, roll over, and try to sleep.
That is when the rain started. It lasted about 20 minutes, and it did make the elk shut up. For a while. How did the sadistic elks talk someone into adding rain? Elks. Coyotes. A mysterious whiner making laps around my tent. Noisy grass-eaters. And now, rain. What next?
Stay tuned for the answer….