It certainly hadn't been easy that morning, making my way up from my parents' property to the public lands-called the Bare Hill Unique Area-that lie alongside it. It was heavy going in the dark, through prickerbushes and downed timber, over inches-thick dry leaf litter that whispered and snickered under my boots. Finally I'd found a likely spot, an oak tree to rest against, a decent shooting lane up ahead. The hill itself would serve as backstop. I settled in, rested my rifle on my knees, and calmed my breathing.
The thing is, no matter how quiet you are in the woods, there's always some kind of noise. The quieter you are, the more you'll notice it: the thunderous crash of gray squirrels chasing each other; the near-subaudible squeaks of mice and voles; the ragged calls of crows; tree limbs rubbing in the wind.
Slowly, I realized that I wasn't hearing any of those things. There was only silence-a very unnatural silence. And with the silence, a growing unease. I felt as if I were being watched. I turned my gaze as far as I could, left to right, but there was nothing to see.
You are being ridiculous, I thought to myself. You are a human being, top of the food chain, carrying a loaded 7mm-08 rifle. Of all the bad things that might be in this forest, you are hands-down the worst one.
Silence. A feeling of being watched. Increasingly, a feeling of not belonging. I looked down at my hands. Despite the relatively warm morning, they were shaking.
Then, finally, I heard something. It was coming from the other side of a ridge about 30 yards ahead of me. The ridge was shallow; whatever was making that noise should have been visible if it were any taller than your average raccoon.
But it didn't sound like a raccoon. It sounded like leaf litter swishing, softly, gently, slowly coming closer to me. I stood up, binocular at the ready, but I didn't need the glass. I could see something moving under the dry leaves. Something impossibly long and sinuous.
I always try to be quiet in the woods...except for that day. Without making any conscious decision to do so, I turned tail and bolted back the way I'd come. I crashed through thorns and saplings like a rhinoceros, surfing down the hillside on the wet leaves.
Back in my parents' cabin, over a cup of hot cocoa, I decided I certainly wasn't going to tell anyone what I'd seen...well, what I'd thought I'd seen.
That afternoon, my father took me around the hill to hunt the other side. At the top of the hill, just outside the gravel parking area, we found a brass sign. It said:
Bare Hill Unique Area
Seneca folklore says that while out canoeing one day, a Seneca youth found a snake which he adopted as his pet. The boy fed the serpent; as it grew, it became so large that the boy, now a warrior and skilled hunter, had to request the assistance of the village in obtaining sufficient food. The small, beautiful snake had become a ravenous monster.
The villagers began to fear the serpent, and they planned to escape. The monster serpent appeared, coiled its great body around the village and swallowed all but two children, a brother and sister who did not follow the villagers in their attempt to escape.
I don't know what I saw that morning. There are snakes in Upstate New York, and maybe I just saw a big one. I know they generally do try to avoid people, and that it's the noise you make that alerts them to stay away.
I still try to be quiet in the woods. Only, maybe, not quite as quiet anymore.
Illustration by American Hunter Associate Art Director Mark Weaver