Fall Break is likely a weekend more anticipated by teachers than by students. The opportunity to have four full days away from school – and to find the time to simply breathe – is a commodity that can never have a price put on it.
These precious hours of freedom from work and exhaustion are an opportunity to cram in everything that you are too busy to do at any other point in the year — from concerts, to trips, to movies, to games of ultimate football at sunset — Fall Break is our opportunity to unwind.
A few of us decided to take this opportunity to be away from it all and head out to Skiatook late for a few hours on Saturday night. We packed up and loaded the cars (some of us packed more than others, and loaded quicker than others) and drove off into the sunset (literally).
It was amazing how fast the city ended and the farms began. Within minutes, the bustling downtown was a mere memory, and in its stead was open, green, hilly land as far as the eye could see. It was instantly refreshing. The air was warm, but it was clear, and the stars began to dot the sky as the sun slowly sank over the horizon.
Within a twenty minutes, we made our final turn onto the road that would lead us to a night of campfires, fishing, songs, and simply breathing room. However, when we arrived at our final turn-in, we came to find that the gate to access the road was locked — so we drove around it (not a very strategically built gate – in hindsight). We got of at the top of a gravel road and began grabbing our supplies to carry down with us when we quickly realized that we had all neglected to bring anything that was capable of producing fire (a necessary ingredient in the creation of a campfire – if you were unaware). So, Jordan and Kris volunteers to stay behind and build a torch that would eventually carry our flame through the woods and light the fire on the beach.
The rest of us went down to set up and take some time to chat. The scene was beautiful, as an explosion of colors in the sky reflected in a mirror image off the placid surface of Lake Skiatook. It took us some time to realize that Kris and Jordan had still not arrived with our fire. A few of us began to download fire apps on our phones (okay, just me) to take the stead of an actual fire in case they were to take much longer. When we finally got a hold of them, they told us that they were on their way down – torch in hand.
We looked up to see Jordan’s headlamp making its way down the hill – and expected to see them within five minutes — but nearly fifteen minutes later, there was little sign of them. As our speculation grew about what had happened to them (many of us predicting that they had set the forest ablaze), they finally emerged from the tall glass, trying desperately to keep burning a tiny ember atop a stick that they had carried down with them along the trail.
Their efforts proved futile, and they decided to make their way up the trail, back to the car to try again – and asked me if I wanted to join.
As we started off, they mentioned, as if almost in passing, that they heard things moving around in the woods — big things. They weren’t sure what, or even exactly where they were… but Jordan and Kris were scared.
My mind immediately went into, “I swear, if this is a joke” mode – but as I saw Jordan grab a large rock for ‘safety’, I decided to do the same.
We walked up, through the tall grass and into the woods. I listened as they described to me their experience on the way down.
“There was something in the bushes.
We couldn’t see what it was.
It was big.
It was just watching us.
I got chills.
… I think it may be a Mountain Lion.”
My heart began to beat faster and faster, as I still toyed with the notion that they were taking part in some consorted joke — still, I gripped the rock tighter.
The trail we were walking on consisted of uneven dirt and rock. To one side was a ditch – filled with tall grass that sloped down toward the lake. To the other was a steep hill, laden with thick brush and dense woods. And, as night fell, it was nearly impossible to see far beyond the foliage, even with a flashlight.
We rounded a curve and Jordan stopped to say “This is where we heard it – right up here”.
As if on cue, we all heard something moving maybe 20 feet up the hill. We heard its footsteps, the crunch of leaves, the methodical slinking of its body through the underbrush. We moved quickly onward, fighting to get to the car before it got to us.
When we at the road, we kept an eye on the woods, and kept rocks in hand — while we put to use the most ingenious method of fire creation – wood, dry grass, and jumper cables.
Sparks flew from the metal as Kris’s car hummed in the background, lighting a fire on the dry underbrush that we had piled on top of two small pieces of wood in one last attempt at creating our torch.
When the wood lit, and the torch was a success, there was a moment of celebration — a moment that was stunted as soon as we pivoted around to face the woods once more. We knew we had to go threw it again, to go past it again – whatever ‘it’ was – not once, but twice.
As we started down the steep and dusty slope that lead us to the main trail, my sight became blurred by the smoke coming from the torch. I shone the flashlight on the path ahead of us — as my hands shook and breath quickened with every step we took closer to ‘the spot’. As soon as we got to the hillside again, it began to stir. Slowly at first. We yelled out to it, still hoping that it would have proved to be a deer or a bear – and would run away at the sound of our voice. However, instead of retreating, or even stopping, the noise the brush grew louder — its pace grew faster — and it got closer. It was coming down the hill, and it was coming toward us. I backed away as I shone my light on Jordan. Nothing could have resembled a horror film more perfectly. The flashlight our only illumination, Jordan standing in the frame as the noise from a creature made invisible by the dark and the brush grew louder and louder.
We began our retreat toward the beach, convinced that if we got closer to people, we would be safe. Jordan blurted out on the way down the hill – “I think I saw its head pop out from the bushes”. We walked faster.
We made it to the beach, fire in hand, and immediately went to light the campfire — not for celebration, but, in this instant at least, for safety.
Our friend Zach and his buddies from college had made the decision to leave a little earlier than the rest of us – and so we felt it necessary to convey this news to them. As Kris began explaining what we heard, and the fear that we felt as we traipsed through the ‘jungle’, ,I handed out rocks to the guys in preparation for departure. Zach’s immediate reaction seemed to be my initial one – “You guys are full of it.” But as we remained stone-faced, our tone serious, it became clear to the four of them that we in no way making light of this situation.
Everyone’s nerves were frayed, and we watched as our friends cautiously stepped off of the beach and into the brush, our parting words to them — walk slow, listen carefully, keep your lights on, be safe – yell if you need us. Our eyes were trained on their flashlights as it peeked through the treeline. We followed them all the way up the path, until we heard the honk of the car horn, and got the text signifying that they were okay — but there was definitely something out there.
After they had made it safely off of the beach, we made the conscious effort to not let this intruder ruin our evening. We began talking, playing the guitar and singing songs – but even the smallest crunch of a leaf or snapping of a twig caught our attention, and sent beams of light racing toward the forest, scanning the darkness for any sign of life.
The noises stopped, we gave ourselves the all-clear and began playing again – trying to keep out of our minds that we had to make one final trek up the long pathway toward our cars. The songs would roll, the mood would lighten – Kris even began to cast a line or two into the lake… and then the noises began again. The quickened pace of footsteps, the rustling of brush that came at points when the breeze was non existent — the noises of a creature moving through the woods. Only this time, instead of being on the hill nearly a quarter mile up the path — the noises were coming from the brush by the beach.
We scanned with our flashlights – the noises stopped – we played on, ignoring them for a time until they died down – sure that the fire and the music would keep it from coming any closer. Our blood pressure dropped, the mood lightened again – but I decided to keep my light trained on the woods from here on out. It wasn’t long until the noises started again – I kept singing to calm my own nerves, but refused to take my eyes off the treeline. I didn’t know where it was, but I knew it was close. I moved the light from the driftwood pile behind us, down the beach – following the rustling of the brush at a slow and steady pace — until my light came to a dead stop and I stood frozen at the sight in front of me.
Not 50 feet up the beach by the line of tall grass that separated the path from the water, I found myself staring into two, large eyes – glowing in the reflection of the flashlight. The eyes hovered at least three feet from the ground, and were set wide apart from one another. I immediately nudged Jordan whispered “I see eyes.”
He got up from his seat, picked up a rock, and started throwing — I immediately followed suit. The eyes disappeared, but we heard no rustling of the brush. The animal hadn’t retreated into the woods… it was hiding in the shadow of a slope in the beach that began roughly 30 feet from where we stood. Jordan could still spot the eyes as we threw more and more rocks. I called Kris over from his fishing pole, and asked him to use his quarterback arm to help us in throwing. We continued to pelt the shadowed area with stones – waiting to hear the creature run into the brush. Instead, as Jordan and I knelt down to pick up another item to pitch in its direction – we heard a loud and frustrated hiss emerge from the shadows.
Jordan was right – we were standing on the beach – in the dark – face to face with a mountain lion.
We had to make a decision, keep the fire going and stay around it until we felt we were in the clear… or until dawn… or put it out, pray, and move through the woods to get back to our car.
It was abundantly clear that the fire, the music, the large group of people was doing little to deter this animal from approaching us, so we realized we had no choice but to leave, and leave now. As we were putting out the fire, I was helping Maggie put some things away when we both heard what sounded like an unmistakable growl coming from the dark side of the beach. It was time to go.
A few people researched Mountain Lions on their phones, and we came up with a game plan – the best option we could think of, based on what we knew, but there was little chance of telling if it would work. We all carried either a flashlight, a rock, or a large limb (along with everything that we had brought to the beach). Kris and Christa would take the lead in the front, shining light to see in front of us, two more would take the middle – walking sideways and facing out into the woods and shining light to the side and the back – and Jordan and I would bring up the rear – walking backwards and keeping our eyes out for anything that may decide to come at us from behind. We would work as a team, and travel as a pod. No one would go off on their own, or stay behind. No one would have their back to the woods. We would not stop talking, we would not stop making noise — if for no other reason than our own sanity. This was our plan – and if we were attacked, we hope that our sticks and stones break some bones.
Before we left, we took a moment, bowed our heads, and prayed:
“Lord, thank you for letting us come out here and enjoy your creation – now please protect us from your creation – Amen.”
We set off in formation, sticking together, talking loudly, facing the woods, shining light in all directions. As we walked, we talked about anything that could come into our minds – school, classes, work, sports, politics – anything to keep our mouths moving. At a point, Kris came to a halt on the path, and looked down to see a paw print about the size of a human hand in the dusty path before us – we quickened our pace. At one point, we decided to name the Lion ‘Timmy’, calling out his name and apologizing for the rock throwing. At another – we burst out in unison with Taylor Swift’s ‘We are Never Getting Back Together’. We made our way up the path as quickly as we could. As we were climbing the hill, I stumbled and fell on my back, causing Jordan and I to fall behind for a moment. As he helped me to my feet he whispered, “I think I just heard something move about ten feet down the path.”
We couldn’t see, our light was gone, and so as much as one can sprint backward, uphill, with a rock in one hand and a limb in another, we did – all the way to the car – our eyes never leaving the treeline.
Our hearts were pounding and our bodies shaking as we emerged from the woods – the sense of urgency to get in the car, shut the doors and drive away couldn’t have been greater. Noises from the tall grass a few short feet behind the cars kept us on edge – and there was no relief until we had passed the locked gate and found ourselves speeding away from Skiatook late.
Later that night, as we spent a moment taking in the reality of the evening – Kris and I – and later Jordan – decided to research the Cougar… a decision which only heightened our fear as we recognized that their ability to leap 18 feet and run at 55 mph far out-competed any stone that we could have thrown their way. We were lucky — blessed — that we made it out of there with no more than some jittered nerves and a story to tell.
It was supposed to be an evening of relaxation and rejuvenation that turned into anything but. However, as we drove away, and as we recounted the events of the evening – we realized that this would be an experience that we would never forget, and that we would always have memories of ‘That One Night in Skiatook’.