Tales of Terror from the Yosemite Backcountry

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Yosemite is known for being one of, if not the most beautiful National Park in all of the United States. In fact, beyond that, Yosemite is a place that is known world-wide as being a place of amazing natural beauty. Having worked there, visited there, and having spent more time there than a majority of people, there is nothing I can or will say to dispel that fact. But, like most large open expanses that are wild in the world, Yosemite has a dark side. Yosemite is a wild place. The park proper is as big as the state of Rhode Island. Think about that for a minute: we are talking about an expanse of land that is as big as one of the fifty states. This is to say nothing about the fact that Yosemite is bounded by a National Monument – Devil’s Postpile – and National Forests on its other borders.

What all of this means is that in reality, we are talking about an expanse of land that is far larger than Rhode Island, and an area in which there are few, if any roads. It is truly wild. This reflected in the fact that over ninety (90%) of Yosemite is designated as wilderness – meaning that while backpacking, camping, climbing, skiing, and hiking are allowed, there are no roads, no facilities, and no services. While this is an area that knows what man is, and what he can do, and in some spots, sees a lot of man’s work and presence, this is also an area with vast expanses of forest, rock, rivers and mountains that does not know or see much of man and is mostly unspoiled. I know all of this, because I know that while Yosemite is a popular destination, most visitors stick to the valley, and not the larger, wilder expanses of the park.

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I can tell you all of this as fact because I know this like I know parts of Yosemite like the back of my hand. I know all these things because I had the luck to work for the summer season in Yosemite for the National Park Service in 1998. That summer, from April to September, I worked for the Backcountry division of the National Park Service. My job and everyone’s job in the backcountry division in Yosemite was two-fold: to educate the public about the trails and backcountry, and their associated rules and regulations, as well as issue permits; and to patrol the trails of the backcountry to enforce such rules and regulations, and to ensure visitor safety. Make no mistake about it: this was perhaps the hardest job I had, from a physical and mental standpoint. From the moment you put your uniform on each day, you are on the job. Even if your uniform is not on, you are on the job if you are in field. This means that every eight to ten hour shift is really a twenty four hour, or a forty eight hour, or longer shift. But make no mistake about it: it was the best job I also had for obvious reasons. I now know the park like the back of my hand; and I’ve had the honor to see some of the most amazing things in the world, just like John Muir did.

I could tell you many strange stories from Yosemite – I lived in a house that was likely haunted, as it was on the edge of the cemetery, which was established prior to 1850, and had lights that turned on and off at random times on their own. I could tell you about the legends of Yosemite; the Pohono spirit, and the crying child. I could tell you about many things I saw late at night that I can’t explain in distant locales. But what I will tell you is one of the scariest things that happened to me while working in Yosemite.

Prior to working for the Backcountry Division in Yosemite, I received training. Even though I was already certified in many types of first aid, there was first aid training. There was firefighting training. There were tests of my physical and mental abilities. There was training in how to cross streams; how to remediate portions of the park; and training in just about everything you could think of and then some. The thing that stood out to me at training, however, was the fact that my boss told me on the first day. What he told me was this in short: “Yosemite is a big place. You’re one of fifteen Backcountry employees for the entirety of the park. If you get into trouble, you have a radio. Practically speaking however, you’re on your own, as it will take hours – to days for us to get to you if you’re in a situation. Plan accordingly.” And what I learned within the first day on the job was that he was right. Radio reception was spotty at places in the park, and nonexistent in others. Unless I was issuing permits at the Backcountry Office, I always knew I was on my own, despite having a radio, which sometimes worked, sometimes died, and sometimes did not work.

By August, I felt like I had a handle on the job. Sure, I wasn’t a thirty year Ranger, but I was having a great time, and I knew what I was doing. The first week of August, I was assigned a patrol loop that left from the O’Shaughnessy Dam in the Hetch Hetchy region of the park that went into the northern portion of Yosemite. This is one of those areas of the park that doesn’t receive many, if any visitors, as by and large, it is an area that is ten to twenty miles from any major road, or any road. After parking at the dam trailhead, and answering the usual thirty to fifty questions from park visitors who thought I was working for the Interpretive or Maintenance divisions of the park, I was off onto the trail. The first day, I walked a little over nine miles, and was past Rancheria Falls. The amount of people I had seen had decreased exponentially as the distance had increased, and by the time I made camp, there was no one around.

The next day, I woke, called into dispatch that I was “in service”, and continued on my way doing my job. I saw no one at all that day, and again backpacked about nine miles, remediating firerings and taking notes as I went. The third day, I woke, called in, and continued on. At this point, I had seen no one for a day and a half – some 36 odd hours. Around noon, I was heading down the trail near Piute Creek, which was more like Piute River that season, as 1998 had been an El Nino year. Up ahead, I spotted something that looked like a rock on the trail. I didn’t think anything of it until I was about fifty feet from it when I realized something wasn’t quite right about this “rock”. For starters, there was a crow on it pulling strips of something off of it. Then there was the issue that it didn’t look like a rock – it looked a little furry. And, as I had originally noticed, it was in the middle of the trail.

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I cinched down my pack straps and jogged slowly toward the “rock”. Within ten feet, I knew it wasn’t a rock. It was a head. At first, I figured it was not a big deal. After all, I had found a number of kills and corpses of animals throughout the park during my time there. While grisly, it was how the circle of life worked. The thing that was worrisome was what my boss had told me during training, was that seven people that the Park Service knew of went missing in Yosemite each year and were never found. And, as my boss told me, the real number was probably higher. But as I slowed my jog to a walk, I could see that this wasn’t a human head by any stretch of the imagination. It was a deer head.

The fact that it was a deer head made me relax for a second, because upon first glance, it could have been natural. But then my brain started working. Wait a minute, my brain said. Wait a minute. Look at it. So I looked. It was fresh. Most of the flesh and fur was still on it. The eyes, of course, were gone. But it was fresh. This had happened recently. And then there was the fact that there were no tracks around it, other than bird tracks. While I wasn’t an expert tracker, I could tell that the area had been brushed clean. And, it was in the middle of the trail. I was still debating whether this was a natural phenomenon or kill up to the moment I flipped the head over with my boot. At that moment, there was no doubt. The head had been severed neatly with a clean, flat cut. Sure, animals kill other animals all the time. But those kills are messy. While teeth and claws are deadly weapons, they are not precision weapons. This head had been severed with a knife, an axe, or some other sharp man-made object.

As soon as I realized this, I felt my spine stiffen. I stopped, and my head started swiveling left and right. Hunting – any type of hunting was and is illegal in Yosemite. As I was looking around, wondering what was going on, the hairs on my neck really started to stand up as I realized the body of the deer was nowhere to be found, and there was no blood at the scene. That meant that someone had intentionally killed the deer somewhere else, and then intentionally taken the head and left it right there, in the middle of the trail. As I stood there processing everything, I could feel my heart beating faster.

A healthy deer. Now, imagine, just you - and the head - on the trail, in the wilderness, alone...what would you do?

A healthy deer. Now, imagine, just you - and the head - on the trail, in the wilderness, alone...what would you do?

Was this person or persons watching me as I stood there? Were they in the trees? Were they on a ridge, watching me? I reached for my radio, and keyed it open. “R612…” I began, before I unkeyed it. I didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t an emergency, the deer was dead; no one was on the spot; and I didn’t know anything. Moreover, I didn’t have a radio code for “Mystery beheaded deer on trail”, and I didn’t want to explain the situation to the dispatcher on the spot. After all, I was on my own – and I knew they weren’t going to do anything for me. I was fine – for the moment. Lamely, when the dispatcher called back, I told her that everything was “Code 4” – everything was fine, even though things felt so far from fine in the cold summer sun.

I then did what little I could. I took pictures, surveyed the scene, checked off trail – there was no deer corpse, and no evidence of a deer corpse anywhere. Finally, I pulled out my handy NPS issued shovel and buried the head. Once I was done, I grimly put my backpack on, and continued on, wincing at every noise, and imagining eyes in every hidden spot. About a half mile later, I found another deer head in the middle of the trail. At that point, every nerve in my body was screaming at me that I needed to leave, that I was in imminent danger, that something was going on, and I needed to leave. But I couldn’t leave. I was over thirty miles from my vehicle; I wasn’t going to call for a helicopter based on some deer heads, and I didn’t know – I still didn’t know what was going on. All I knew was that this second head was less fresh than the first, meaning that it had been placed there before the first deer head. I again buried it, and continued on. After all, the only way for me to “get out of there” was to keep going on my patrol circuit.

A half mile later, I found a third head. It was almost a skeleton head, as it was an old old old kill and had nearly been stripped clean. It was impossible not to think that as far as I knew, whoever had done this was still watching me, and was planning on placing my head on the trail later that night. I again buried the head and started walking. Never have I felt so uncomfortable in the wilderness, as every sound, every movement, and everything seemed to be connected to my imminent death. I walked and walked and walked and walked, well beyond the sunset. When I finally made camp, I didn’t make camp. I found a tree that was well off trail, one that was next to a rock outcropping. I placed my back to the tree, and the rocks, and faced outward. I didn’t turn on a light. I didn’t do anything, except sit there until dawn came, watching the forest, wondering about the heads and their meaning. The next day, I put my pack back on, and continued on my patrol. A day later, I finished my patrol, and drove back to the Valley and my house. Then, and only then, I slept. I filed a report about what I saw, but, as far as I know, nothing ever came of it, and the mystery remains to this day.