For the sake of anonymity, I’m not going to divulge too much into my personal life. Suffice it to say I worked at National Geographic for the past 12 years as a Field Photographer. It has been one of the best experiences of my young life, traveling around the world and taking photos of things that are rarely seen by other people. I’ve shot on all seven continents, in 164 different countries, and in some of the most dangerous conditions imaginable. In September, I decided to take a little sabbatical while expecting my first child with my wife, Ava. During my time home, I was encouraged by a friend to write about my experiences while traveling.
I was offered the position, almost immediately after college. After a summer of getting trained and doing mindless intern tasks in Washington DC and Chicago, they awarded me with my first rookie expedition. Whether it was a blessing or a curse, I was sent out to the wilderness of Alaska to take pictures and track migrations of Arctic Foxes along the coastline. After an upbringing in the cold New England hills, I wasn’t that intimidated by the prospect of the Alaskan winter, and was genuinely thrilled to be traveling into the depths of the arctic expanse. I wished that I was following something a little more interesting than white foxes in white snow banks, but I couldn’t complain; especially because I was getting the opportunity to work underneath a seasoned veteran AND with another rookie. That rookie was the curly haired, bookish, silently smiling Ava that I almost instantly became infatuated with.
We flew into Anchorage on a blustery November morning and were helicoptered from there into the wilderness. We were given the highest-grade weather-protected materials and set up our campsite in a valley on the side of a steep rock face. The wind whipped around the mountain, but never cut into the inlet where our tents and fire had been set up. The team leader, worked tirelessly, ordering the two of us around to perform different tasks. By the time the sun was beginning to set, the site was up and running, a huge pile of firewood had been collected from the pine grove across the valley, and dinner was roasting over the fire.
As we ate, he described the shots we needed to collect and went over some of the rules with us. At first, they were simply about No Trace Camping, but then they began to switch.
“Make sure that the fire is out when we go to sleep. We don’t want anyone to know that we are out here,” the team leader said. There was darkness now tinged in his voice and his eyes glistened angrily in the firelight. “Also, if you hear screaming, never try to go and investigate. I’ve been in these woods plenty of times before. Things happen here; they try to lure you out. Don’t play their games.” I flicked my eyes over at Ava across the fire, which nervously combed her curls out of her eyes and fixed her glasses. A nervous frown hung on her face, showing apparent confusion and immediate apprehension. “Lastly, don’t open your tents in the darkness. No matter what sounds are coming from outside; No matter what sounds…” And with that, he strode up from the campfire, tossed the bones of his meal far away into the night, and retired to his tent.
Ava and I made awkward conversation for a little while after, mostly covering very vague and superficial categories. Where we grew up, what our families were like, what our interests were, how we got into photography. After an hour of good conversation, we decided to turn in for the night. I kicked snow into the fire and made sure none of the embers remained. Then I zipped myself into my tent and snuggled down into my sleeping bag. Outside the wind howled by and the light oscillated with the movement of the clouds over the moon.
As soon as my eyes closed, the screaming started. At first it was faint, but it was so profound I couldn’t help but bolt upright. I sat in the darkness for a long moment, waiting for another scream, all the while trying to rationalize what I had just heard. Some animals mating calls sound like screams, but none that I knew of out here. And none of them even began to come close to being that human. The air had hushed and a silence clung to the outside of the tent. The clouds passed from over the moon and the canvas was illuminated in odd blue light. Through the thick canvas of the tent, the moon looked like one giant distorted eye without a retina.
Slowly I leaned back down and synched the sleeping bag tighter against my body. As soon as my head hit the inflatable pillow and my eyes closed, another scream echoed out of the forest. This time it was much louder, closer, and longer. Bellowed at the top of its lungs, it echoed around the tent, and felt like it was coming from somewhere in the campsite. I whipped the sleeping bag off of my body and sat in the cold darkness, fingers braced against the zipper, remembering the warning that we were given. When it stopped, I continued to hold tight to the zipper, pushing it down to the floor of the tent. After 15 minutes of silence, I let go and slithered back to into bed.
As I lay my head back down, I couldn’t help but worry that Ava had been attacked. With directions that clear and unhelpful, she could have been ripped to shreds by wolves outside, and I never would have known. Her body could be nothing more than bloody meat, choked down by a hungry pack in the moonlight. The campsite could be covered in her gristle, staining the fresh snow and sides of the tents. Her hair would be ripped out of her head and lay strewn about with bits of the padding from her winter jacket. I wanted to throw up, imagining the sweet girl I had sat across the fire from being dismantled by a furtive pack.
I tried not to. But I couldn’t help it. I thought about everything else, but still she clung somewhere in the edges of my mind. The moon glided across the time as I stared up at it. My eyes began to feel very heavy with time and slowly closed. I fell asleep for only a few seconds before the scream echoed louder than ever before. It sounded like a woman was being murdered right above me. My eyes furiously opened and in the darkness, there was nothing.
I stared around the tent angrily, looking for any kind of discrepancy that made sense. Then I began to hear this odd soft whooshing sound. It began behind me and moved to the left side. I turned on my flashlight and followed the sound. And I could see it: a handprint pushing in against the canvas. The fingers scratched playfully against the cloth, pushing deep into it at certain points, and then simply dragging the nails against the side.
I yelled at it to go away, and leave me alone. But got nothing in response. I yelled that I had a gun, which was only kind of true, and promised to shoot at it. I was a little something of a hot head in that very stressful moment. Then a voice came through the silence. It was Ava’s.
“Adam, help me…” It was only louder than a whisper, sliding through the canvas, like her face was just pressed on the far side. She sounded pained, or drugged; oddly calm in the moment. Without thinking my mind went into third gear and I grabbed the flare gun we had been equipped with, slid on shoes, and unzipped the flap. The cold air lashed at my face, as I help the gun in the air, pointing it in front of me as I had watched cops do in movies. I slid around the tent; stealthily taking soft steps in the fresh snow. There were no footprints, but all along the sides were these large pads, which looked a little bit too big for a wolf. All around the tent, circling, over and over again. And they were nowhere else.
There was a line of them that started along the cliff face, circled around several times, and another line that lead on into the woods. Purely working with angry adrenaline, I began to follow the footprints into the blackness. After 20 yards of walking down the hill and into the pines, I stopped and turned back to the silhouettes of the campsite on the hill.
“Ava,” I yelled into the blackness, and waited for her response. From the pines, her voice bled out, whispering for me to help her again. I moved faster, using my flashlight to keep me on the trail of pad prints. At some point along the trail I realized that I had no idea what I was going to do when I found her. I was following the prints of some giant dog to Ava. But what was going to happen then? Was I going to shoot it with a flare and run away with her? A dark voice in my head reassured me that that was totally improbable.
I followed the pads into the center of a clearing, where all of a sudden they just stopped. Almost directly in the center, there was suddenly nothing. Fresh snow in all directions. No tree to climb up into. No space for it to jump away into the underbrush. Nothing. Just like it turned to smoke and dissipated. I stared into the prints for a long time, questions continuing to evolve in my head. “Ava!” I yelled into the darkness finally, letting go of all of my energy.
There was nothing; only the silence of the woods, and the creaking of the pines above me. I turned around and began to walk back, wondering what the fuck could have happened to her. Gruesome fantasies played out in my head, but there wasn’t enough evidence to fully entertain them. It couldn’t have stopped there; there had to be more. I stopped in the center of the trail, and shined my light down at the prints, wondering if I should go back and look again. And that’s when I saw a flashlight cutting through the trees back at me. “Adam is that you?”
Ava’s voice drifted through the trees sounding much more definitive than before. “Yeah. What the fuck are you doing out here?” I asked her incredulously.
“I’m looking for you. What the fuck were you thinking leaving the campsite?”
“What was I doing? I was looking for you.” A long confused look manifested on her face as she put her hands on her hips. If the scenario were less serious, I would have found the sassiness quite attractive. Still I had to defend my side of the story from her blatant disbelief. “You were whispering that you needed help. I was following these footprints. But they just stop up there. And I thought you were dead.”
A hard look came across her face in the light of my beam, and her eyes narrowed behind her glasses. “The footprints just stopped…” Her voice had gone as chilly as the air. “These wolf prints?” She questioned, flicking her beam towards the ground, and then back up at my face.
I nodded silently, and she quickly grabbed my arm and raced us back to the tent. I asked her what it was, and she only said one word silently under her breath, as we ran back. “Keelut.” I was too freaked out to ask her about it. But I was thankful when she forced me to sleep in the same tent as her. As I moved my sleeping bag over, she stood over the empty campfire pit, staring into the sky, where the northern lights burned relentlessly. As soon as she zipped the flap, and we were both safely and comfortably inside, the first howl of the trip echoed out of the woods. And I would swear on my life that at the end, it began to laugh, in a dark, twisted, throaty chuckle.