Kim Nelson: Wood Lake

I’ve spent the night at many campsites in many landscapes–forests, deserts, alpine mountains, sandbars in the middle of a river–but none of them felt like the one at Wood Lake. My husband Kurt and I were hiking in the wilderness area north of Yosemite, outside of the normal rules of the National Park System. During our previous week in Yosemite, we often saw rangers in the backcountry, ready to check our permits and make sure our bear canisters were regulation. But out in the wilderness area, we wouldn’t see a single ranger the entire week.

On our fourth day, we arrived at a tucked-away spot called Wood Lake. We accidentally took the long way there, crossing a dam of fallen logs, balancing carefully in hiking boots while top-heavy with backpack weight. 100 yards off the edge of the water, we dropped our packs and began to set up camp. It was early afternoon, the California sun hidden behind clouds. The sky was gray and the lake reflected the same muted shade. There was the slightest chill in the air. The small lake was surrounded by towering pine trees. When I tilted my head back, I could see their tops swaying in the breeze while they did a middle-school slow-dance with the wind.

Something about this spot felt different; I couldn’t put my finger on it. I scanned the ridge looking for potential bears triggering my latent hunter-gatherer’s intuition, but saw nothing. Perhaps it was the silence; at every other site, there were birds in the trees chirping their songs. One especially vibrant blue bird had a call that Kurt pointed out sounded like the first few notes of “She Wears Short Shorts,” and we laughed every time we heard it. But at Wood Lake, the sky was quiet.

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As Kurt looked for a tree with a knob to hang our water filter from, he discovered something strange and called me over. Caught on a piece of bark was a clump of long, black strands of hair. My own hairs stood on end as we both stared at the unsettling find. After a beat, a thought struck me.

“It’s probably from a horse being tied to the tree. I saw manure on the trail near here; I bet someone used this as a stock campsite.” I touched the strands and they felt coarse, exactly like a horse’s mane. Although there was no cause for concern, an uneasy feeling hung in the air.

The cloud cover remained into the night, blotting out the moonlight. It was the darkest night we had seen yet. I had grown used to the moonlight reflecting off the rock formations at night, which had allowed me to walk around without a headlamp. But Wood Lake was so dark I couldn’t see anything beyond our campfire. When I turned on my headlamp, the innermost circle of trees became visible, but everything beyond that remained dark. It was a textured darkness, and heavy, like black velvet. Embers flitted up from the campfire then snapped and glowed in the blackness like jewels in a box.

I accidentally hit my headlamp button twice, causing it to go into strobe mode. The intermittent light and blackness instantly reminded me of a scene from a David Lynch movie. My eyes and imagination began to play tricks on me, and I started to picture human shapes moving towards us in the darkness beyond the trees. I scrambled to turn off the headlamp; I could feel my heartbeat in my throat.

When I camp, I don’t usually get scared over the thought of ghosts or other things that go bump in the night. I’m usually too busy thinking about the actual things actually bumping in the night–bears, cougars, hanta virus. But at Wood Lake, those thoughts were all pushed out of my head, and my fears regressed into the primordial fears of my childhood–the things that lurk in under your bed and in your closet. Now, they lived in the trees, just beyond the light of our campfire.

The darkness hadn’t gotten to Kurt. He was his usual laid-back self, lounging around the campfire studying hiking maps in the soft glow. I was the jumpy one, constantly swiveling to take in a 360 view of our surroundings, squinting into the darkness daring a supernatural being to take form. When it was time to go to bed, I burrowed into my sleeping bag. Our tent was a dark cocoon of mesh and nylon, our only protection from whatever lived at Wood Lake. I went to sleep listening to the rustling of the trees, expecting at any moment to hear footsteps. Or paw pads. Or cloven hoof clops.

In the morning, we packed up our gear and got back on the trail. 10 miles later, we reached our next campsite at Grouse Lake. It would be our last night in the backcountry. At Grouse Lake, I wouldn’t get scared again. My fears stayed behind at Wood Lake like a forgotten tent stake. I wondered what had made that place feel different for me than any of the other spots we had camped at on our trip. Maybe it was the partial eclipse of the moon messing with my women’s intuition. Or maybe, something happened there once, and the darkness of it lingered like the smoking coals from an extinguished fire, clawing to regain purchase.

After getting off the trail, we drove back to San Francisco and found an internet deal on a hotel room in the Financial District. Among tourists and business travelers, we stood self-consciously in the registration line in the lobby, smelling like dirty backpackers–an eau de toilette of firepit, hamster cage, and Taco Bell. We took the best showers ever, then ate the best burgers ever. Outside our hotel window, the city lights twinkled. We were fully enveloped in civilization. Our phones were plugged into it, charging. Our bodies recharged on real beds with white sheets.

Back at Wood Lake, 200 miles away from the city, the long black hairs entangled on a piece of tree bark danced lightly on the breeze.

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