Last Friday night I decided to head out on an impromptu camping trip in Central Pennsylvania near where I live. Since none of my friends were available I packed up my gear and got ready to head out. I marked down where I was going on a spare map and left it with a note for my roommates in the event that I didn't return by Sunday morning like I had planned.
Once I made it up into the woods I hiked for a few miles before coming across a nice campsite which had been cleared sometime earlier in the season. The sun was almost down so I decided to set up my tent and start gathering some firewood. I underestimated how dry it was that evening and I burned through almost all of my wood by shortly after dark.
I searched the woods nearby where there was some light from my fire, but there was just not enough downed fuel so I was going to have to head out deeper. I went back to my tent and emptied out my bag looking for my flashlight, but I couldn't find it anywhere. My only other option was to rig up a very short term torch with some gauze from my first aid kit and the small amount of liquor I had packed for entertainment's sake.
All the torch did for me was burn so brightly that my eyes were no longer adjusted to the darkness. As I fumbled through the woods along the sides of the trail the firelight faded behind me. As the torch went out and my eyes were coming back into focus I saw something slowly coming towards me about 20 feet down the trail.
This wasn't the first time I had seen something like this late at night up in these woods. Bobcats, black bears and coyotes are all known to be in the area, but they tend to keep their distance from people. It was a smoky shade of gray and moved fluidly along the trail. I gave a sharp whistle and clapped my hands to make my presence known. By the sliver of moonlight coming through the trees I could only barely make out movement now.
As it came closer it faded into the shadows and left no trace. I convinced myself that it had only been the shadows of the trees playing tricks on my eyes. I gathered up some small limbs to keep my fire going long enough to get prepared to sleep. I woke up with a start later that night, and sat listening for what seemed like an hour. I was certain that I had heard something while I was dreaming. Certain that it had only been my imagination I returned to sleep.
When I awoke in the morning and opened my tent I found my campsite covered in the ashes from my fire pit. The thin layer of ash looked like a fresh snowfall. In the ash between the trail and my tent there was a single line of paw prints leading from the path to the front flap where my feet had been during the night.
There was no trail leading away. I don't know what the forest was trying to tell me that night, but I'm not afraid. If anything I will walk those trails with more confidence from now on knowing that some protector of those woods encountered me and provided me shelter for the evening. I will sleep well in those woods knowing that I have seen whatever spirit guards those trees, and that it has seen me.