This happened to me about ten years ago while I was attending college at West Virginia University. At the time, I was really into backcountry camping, which for reasons that will become obvious, I am not into anymore. One of the benefits (actually probably the only benefit) of attending college in West Virginia was the easy access to many beautiful and remote wilderness areas. Just south of the college was this vast area of mountains and forest called the Monongahela National Forest. This region is so remote that the Government had set up a huge telescope in the region due to how dark it is because of lack of human population.

Anyway, this particular backcountry trip occurred during the Thanksgiving break in classes. I had decided to stay in town and not head home for Thanksgiving that year and a college buddy of mine, who I would often go on camping trips with, also ended up stranded in town. We had decided to use the break to go on a three day trip down to a region of West Virginia that we had always wanted to explore but had not had the opportunity to do so before due to it being a little further away than we would usually go.

This region– known as the Cranberry Wilderness– had been talked about as being as about as remote as one could get in any area east of the Mississippi. There were also lots of stories about campers, hikers, and fishermen going into the Cranberry Wilderness and never coming out– with no trace of them every being found. There was another story that I remember about a plane crash in that area– with the plane being found, but no trace of the three passengers– alive or dead ever turning up. I would be lying if I said that this little bit of local lore didn’t make the idea of the trip even more exciting. At the same time, I thought a lot of these stories were apocryphal or could easily be explained.

As the trip drew nearer, the weather forecast kept getting worse. It had been a very mild autumn up to that time, but the forecast looked like it was calling for ice and snow up in the mountains. Eventually, my buddy dropped out because of the forecast. Foolishly and stubbornly, I decided that I would go on my own. I had done a few solo trips before and at the time this didn’t really bother me.

My plan for the trip was to do about a 10 mile hike on the first day and then camp, do about another 10 mile hike on the second day and then camp, and hike about 5 miles back to my car on the third day. The first day of my trip was rather uneventful. In line with its reputation, I did not see another person. The only eerie thing that happened was at night I heard coyotes howling from the surrounding ridges, which is never a comforting sound when camping alone.

On the second day of my hike, nothing went as planned. The trail that I was hiking on was much more rugged than I expected. At one point, I was supposed to turn on a connector trail to get to my second campsite, but this trail, which was on my map, was simply non-existent. This led me to having to take a much more circuitous route and adding about 5 miles onto the hike. Again, like the first day, I did not see another person. I reached my camp area for the second night, at the ominously-named “Hell for Certain Branch,” just as it was starting to get dark. The temperature had been dropping all day as well, and as soon as I was able to get my camp set up and my fire started, it had started to snow.

When backcountry camping, I use a camping hammock, that had been modified for winter camping, because I find it much more comfortable (and lighter to carry) than a tent. You can’t help feel, though, that when you’re in the hammock, which unlike a regular hammock, surrounds you completely with material and a rain fly, that you are just hanging bear food. Exhausted from my extended hike and wanting to get out of the snow, I climbed into my hammock and as the last light of the day left, I drifted off to sleep.

I slept like the dead until about 2 in the morning when this loud noise jolted me awake. Confused and not know what had happened, I turned on my flashlight to look out of the small mesh opening in my hammock. I could tell by looking at the ground that it had snowed about an inch overnight but I couldn’t see more than 2 feet away from my hammock because a thick white fog had descended upon the forest. I was thinking that maybe I had just had a bad dream, when I heard this indescribable, unworldly howl. I couldn’t place where it was coming from as it seemed to be coming from all around me. At this point, I was scared shitless and lay in my sleeping bag in my hammock paralyzed and not knowing what to do. I listened intently, but the woods around me were completely silent after the howl– I could not hear any thing moving.

I didn’t hear that howl again. I laid there probably for about 3 hours not knowing what to do and sure that I would get lost and never be found if I ran off into that thick fog. At around 5 a.m., I finally got up enough bravery to get out of the hammock. After lying there for the past 3 hours, I had finally rationalized that howl as some form of sleep paralysis. I had experienced sleep paralysis before, where you wake up, but are still dreaming, and cannot move and have weird auditory and visual perceptions. It seemed that the fog had started to dissipate a little bit. My first order of business was to take the piss that I had been holding for the past 3 hours. With my headlamp on, and my handheld flashlight and lightweight hatchet in hand, I crept away from the hammock into the nearby stand of trees. I shined my lights ahead and could now see out about 20 feet and saw nothing amiss. More confident now that my experience could indeed be chalked up to sleep paralysis, I relaxed and began to empty my bladder. I then noticed that my stream was landing into an indentation in the snow. Examining this indentation closer, I noticed that it looked like a footprint from a bare human foot. I quickly zipped up and started examining the snow all around my hammock much closer. All around I noticed hundreds of footprints and what looked like human hand prints in the snow. Needless to say, I freaked out and without packing up the hammock started running the last 5 miles to my car.

I haven’t told many people this story, for fear that they will think that I’m crazy. At the same time, I’ve tried to rationalize the whole thing and say that maybe it was just sleep paralysis and that my clearly agitated mind hallucinated the foot and hand prints and that maybe they were just coyote prints, but I can tell you for sure that I have not been camping, whether alone or with a group, since that day and do not ever plan to go camping again!