Terror on a two-way
Wednesday, October 28, 2020
The haloed sun crept silently behind a black mass of jagged peaks and as early shadows dimmed the hillside I aimed the antenna of my two-way radio toward the nearest repeater tower and engaged the talk button.
“Hand crew to Krassel Work Center on channel two,” I said, taking care to enunciate each word as per Forest Service protocol.
Counting to 10 and receiving no response, I re-aimed my antenna and repeated my transmission verbatim.
Finally, the speaker buzzed sharply and crackled to life.
“Copy that, hand crew,” drawled the familiar baritone of Ranger Dodd. “This is Krassel Work Center. We hear you loud and clear on two.”
“Copy, Krassel Work Center,” I said. “Hand crew status is good. We’re breaking camp at Samson Meadow tomorrow morning and transitioning up to War Eagle Connector. All work completed to here, over.”
“Affirmative,” the dispatcher said. “Status check noted and we look forward to chatting tomorrow. Sleep tight and happy hiking. Krassel, out.”
“Copy,” I replied. “Hand crew, out.”
Unremarkable as this convo might seem, the high rocky ledge I’d ascended to facilitate a strong signal served to mark the geo-emotional apogee of my first full month in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area—an arduous, axe-swinging hitch in which my crew of seven greenhorns and four roughnecks endeavored to reroute a boggy old pack trail three miles through heavy timber.
If only we’d been able to complete our second project so smoothly.
The primary objective of War Eagle Connector was to construct a mile and a half of new tread between Devil Tooth Pass and Echo Lakes. On paper, this endeavor looked straightforward enough, but due to the labor-intensive nature of the terrain it consumed us to vexing degrees.
First, thousands of tons of rock had to be excavated by hand across a precipitous south-facing slope. Then cumbrous rolls of synthetic filter cloth had to be unfurled over the rubble and “crowned” beneath 30 inches of gravel.
We quarried the gravel from borrow pits in the forest below and had to haul it by the bucketful using a high-lead pulley system augmented by human chains.
Concurrent with the physical rigors of War Eagle, we had to contend with spectral energy that manifested itself all over the landscape, creating an atmosphere of perpetual unease.
After discovering a lone unmarked grave behind the ruins of an old cabin we got to spend many unpleasant hours burying the bloated corpse of an abandoned pack mule that soured the air in our camp with putridity.
Additionally, at our project site we unearthed the contorted skeletal remains of several Rocky Mountain elk that we surmised had fallen victim to a long-ago avalanche.
Soon thereafter, my radio began to experience anomalies such as random beeps, blips, clicking sounds and fuzzy bursts of ambient noise that hampered my ability to communicate effectively.
Transmissions from Krassel Work Station became particularly garbled and distorted by echo effect. Ranger Dodd’s baritone wavered in and out until it sounded like he was talking into an empty soup can. And changing channels, adjusting my squelch button and moving to higher locations didn’t help.
Meanwhile, unknown voices and random bits of conversation started crackling through my speaker at night. The voices seldom rose much louder than a whisper, but conversations were clearly audible.
It always sounded like the same man and same woman. Neither of them ever identified themselves and when I asked Ranger Dodd he couldn’t confirm who they were.
One night I dug a pen and notebook out of my pack and recorded their dialogue.
Male voice: “…not receiving the generator… that stuff comes from the hardware room.”
Female voice: “Please confirm changes… information assessment in place for binary mid-latitude system.”
Male voice: “Animal unit authorized… clearing bio-zone for practice and compatible deflation.”
Female voice: “…edge integrity preserved… collating fuel treatment model… level-three manipulation in defensible space.”
I surmised that they were a research team. But if so, who or what were they studying?
I couldn’t rest easy until this mystery was solved. Doggedly, I reclined beside our campfire—often times deep into the night—listening to my radio for electromagnetic clues.
One time I dozed off and a loud burst of static woke me up. Gazing blearily through dwindling campfire smoke I noticed moonlit shadows angled oddly through the trees.
Raspy wheezing came through my two-way, accompanied by heavy footfalls fast approaching. When a branch snapped nearby, an unknown woodsman approached up the trail.
“Howdy,” I croaked, stealthily grabbing a protective rock.
The woodsman halted momentarily but never replied. He just stood there watching me, growling indistinctly into his radio.
I only caught a glimpse of his face, but through the moonlight he looked wan and cadaverous. Shadows pooled deep into his eye sockets. And his teeth imparted a ghastly grin.
I put down the rock, forced myself to look away, and turned off my radio. Whatever he had to say, I didn’t want to hear.
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