Getting Scared in the Woods
After almost fifty years working in the woods, I have come to expect that every day in the field brings with it the opportunity to learn something new, experience the unexpected or encounter the downright scary. Scary things can happen quickly and without warning and can range from something as simple as slipping and falling down a hillside to exotic wildlife encounters, mad dogs and hornet nests. However, some of the longest lasting scares I have ever endured as a forester have been weather related.
Being in the woods during violent weather is always a concern and I try to avoid field work when severe weather is predicted. The difference between getting scared and experiencing terror is the duration of the event. It is nearly impossible to decide when the circumstances cross the bridge between scary and terrorizing but the incident has to last long enough for you to recognize that the threats to your survival are multiplying and your situation is getting more tenuous.
Late one summer day in 1998, while working in Tucker County, West Virginia a sudden and extremely violent “pop up” thunder shower broke out catching me and Bear and Sam, my black labs, with no shelter or cover of any kind high on a steep mountainside several thousand feet from the safety of my truck.
When the first part of the storm hit, I was pelted by wind whipped hail and rain that almost instantly soaked me to the skin. I immediately looked for options for getting out of the weather but there wasn’t a ledge or big rock I could crawl under anywhere in sight.
After several minutes trying to work my way down the mountain in the blinding rain, I spotted an exceptionally large tree off in the distance. As I got closer, I realized the tree was a hollow red oak nearly 6 feet in diameter with a large opening on the uphill side. The opening in the tree was wide and large enough for me and both dogs to easily fit safely inside while allowing us all to get out of the weather. As I started to dry off a little bit while standing inside the tree, I was beginning to feel happy and confident about my decision to run towards this particular tree for shelter.
Unfortunately, after a while the rain started to slack off and the wind returned with pulsing gusts that grew in intensity as each wave passed. It was during the gusty part of the storm when I experienced a scare that rapidly evolved into terror.
The particular red oak tree I had sought shelter in was more than 140 feet tall and had a massive crown that spread out to cover over a half-acre of woods. When the first hard gust of wind hit, over my left shoulder, I noticed a small crack in the tree about a half-inch wide. After a couple stronger pulses, I recognized that he half inch width of the crack I had noticed was actually its’ resting width as successive wind gusts opened the crack to over six inches wide. After a few minutes of uncomfortably watching the six-inch crack repeatedly twist open and close, I realized that I hadn’t noticed the other three active cracks, two behind me and one to my right, that were also twisting open six inches with every hard gust.
With the sudden realization of how tenuous the situation was, my mood rapidly morphed from being scared about the violent weather to terror over concerns about the instability of my emergency shelter. I immediately bolted from the tree knowing that I wanted to be at least a couple hundred feet away before I could safely stop running, slow down or look back. It was impossible to set any speed records crossing a steep mountainside with a broken rock and cobble surface covered by greenbrier and patches of neck-high rhododendron but the terror of the moment made it seem like I was floating across the hillside at the speed of light.
A short while after I was a safe distance from the “twisting” tree I paused for a rest and the storm ended almost as quickly as it began. Although the sunshine had returned, I was too drenched to continue working so I continued the slow downhill slog towards my truck. Although the entire storm only lasted fifteen minutes, recounting the terror of the “dancing oak” still gets my heart racing over twenty years later
However, of all my scares in the woods the most significant have been “after-the-fact” situations where an entire incident had taken place and I was still alive and unscathed before I had a chance to recognize or react to a threat. During the early 1990s, I was preparing a timber sale in Braxton County, West Virginia on a woodlot where many of the trees, especially the red oaks were infected with a serious disease that weakened the roots causing them to break and the trees to topple over, sometimes with little warning.
One of the trees I had to measure was a red oak nearly three feet in diameter perched on a rock outcrop at the edge of a very steep bank. Because of the trees’ precipitous location, I had to hold on and hug the tree all the while I was trying to get an accurate diameter measurement. After I tallied the oak, I slid my way down to the bottom of a narrow ravine and crawled my way up the opposite slope to a small flat about 150 feet away. Suddenly, there was a loud crack as the red oak tree I had just finished measuring broke off at the roots and crashed to the ground, filling the ravine I had just passed through. It took several minutes for my knees to stop knocking as thoughts of everything that could have happened or gone wrong flooded my mind, from hugging the tree as it fell over to being in the bottom of the gully a minute later than I was. After regaining my composure and pausing for a while to give thanks for my good fortune in that instant, it was time to get back to work.