| A Visit from the Yee Naaldlooshii
A yee naaldlooshii is one of several varieties of Navajo witch. Technically, the term refers to an ’ánt’įįhnii who is using his powers to travel in animal form.
Although it is most frequently seen as a coyote, wolf, owl, fox, or crow, the yee naaldlooshii is said to have the power to assume the form of any animal they choose, depending on what kind of abilities they need.
This story is 100% true and I tried my best not to exaggerate or embellish.
The Mount Princeton Road is a narrow, rutted dirt road that climbs the south-east ridge of Mount Princeton (14,177 ft.). The road ends above 12,000 ft. It offers spectacular views of the Chalk Creek drainage while glued to the side of the ridge where an errant turn or inattentive driver could result in a 400 foot drop. I have ridden in a Subaru that successfully climbed the road, but a high clearance four wheel drive vehicle is more appropriate.
I was negotiating the road, hoping to find a vacant campsite at 12,000 ft. There are only a few campsites where you can park without obstructing the road and pitch a tent on somewhat level ground. I counted three. Climbing Mt. Princeton from one of these campsites saves six miles and 2,000 ft., versus starting the climb from the lower trailhead. No wonder the campsites are usually occupied. But it was a Thursday in September and the kids were back in school so my hopes were high.
Starting up the road, I soon came to a spot where two white SUVs were parked. I made a quick read of the sign there. I had not known that the Colorado Trail intersects the Mt. Princeton road.
Three miles further up the road, luck was with me. None of the campsites were occupied. I selected one and set up camp. I had passed one vehicle while driving up, and saw only one other after I had pitched the tent. I talked with the occupants of both. One mentioned two people, still on the mountain and perhaps in trouble. I recall him saying that the two had started late from the Colorado Trail junction. Other than those two, I appeared to have the mountain to myself that evening.
Once I had my camp in order, I took my fleece vest, headlamp, and one hiking pole and started hiking the nearly two miles to the end of the road. Unless the weather prevents it, I always go for a walk after setting up camp. It relaxes me, gives me a preview of the first section of the next day’s trail, and I sleep better because of it. It was possible that I might come across the two people and I could walk them back to my camp and offer them food and water.
The walk was uneventful and somewhat chilly. I should have brought a jacket instead of the vest. I saw numerous black squirrels and three ptarmigan. There was no sign of the other two hikers, but as there is more than half a mile of road after the summit trail turns off, they could have come down while I was up near the end of the road.
It was getting dark when I returned to camp so I zipped myself into the tent, moved things around, and started organizing my clothing for the morning. When I’d finished, it was dark. I was just about to slide into my sleeping bag when I heard an animal making a racket. It was the weirdest thing I’d ever heard while camping in the wilderness.
I once tried to total up the number of nights I’d spent in a tent. My memory is not that good, but it’s been hundreds of nights. I pretty much know all the sounds of all the beasts of the night. OK, I can’t identify every bird by its song, but I figure if I can tell a bird from a chipmunk’s or squirrel’s call, I’m doing better than that park ranger naturalist in the Grand Canyon those many years ago.
I cannot describe the noise that it was making. I’ve tried to come up with the letters that would describe the sound, but they don’t exist. It was pretty much one phrase repeated three or four time and that over and over. It was loud and obviously came from a rather large beast. It was constant, there were no long pauses. It was getting louder, it was coming closer.
It could be a coyote, but I knew it wasn’t. Or an owl, but not even close. Perhaps someone had lost their dog up on the mountain and the dog was lost and scared and calling for its master. Nothing made any sense; no animal that I knew made a noise like that. And it was non-stop, continuous.
If I knew it was a bear or a mountain lion, I’d know what to do. Having an action plan, even if it might fail, is a reassuring thing. But I was clueless. I didn’t know what this thing was so I didn’t know how to react to it.
As I saw it, I had three choices. Ignore it and stay in the tent, make a dash for the security of the car, or put my shoes on, grab my headlamp and go deal with it.
For certain, if I stayed in the tent, I wouldn’t get any sleep all night. The car was a good option. Maybe it was my curiosity that drove me to choose Door Number 3!
I put on a jacket, laced my shoes, and took the headlamp. For safety, I picked up my hatchet. It’s a Japanese hatchet, looks more like a butcher knife, but it’s thick through the blade and designed to lop limbs off a tree. I hoped I didn’t need it, but it felt good in my hand.
When I stepped out of the tent, I estimated the animal to be quite close because the sounds were much louder. I did a sweep with the headlamp, looking for the reflection of eyes or any movement. I didn’t see anything. I was glad that I’d invested in a very powerful light; I do a lot of hiking in the dark. I wanted to see this thing before it was right in front of me.
The sound came from uphill, up the road. I started walking up the road, sweeping the light from side to side. As I moved, the sound seemed to move away, uphill, as if my light had frightened it. It was not on the road, but maybe twenty or fifty feet to the right, downhill side, of the road. The noise it was making was continuous. I began to notice that it was not always the same sounds, there were variations.
For a moment, I thought that I might just walk up the road a while, herding the animal a distance from camp, and then return to the tent. But as soon as I thought that, I knew that wouldn’t let me sleep at all that night. Besides, I still didn’t know what I was facing.
I stopped walking and shut off the light, trying to stay as still as I could. I’m good at that because I enjoy watching animals and I found that if I don’t move, they soon forget that I am there and resume their natural behavior. This tactic worked. The animal stopped moving away.
There on the road, in the dark, I was focused on the sounds and back to trying to figure out what type of beast it was. At least twenty minutes had passed since I first heard it while in the tent and it had never stopped or even paused the sounds, although there seemed to be more variations in it now than before. I estimated that it was about 100 feet away from me.
It occurred to me that it was possible that there were two sources. Maybe a man and his dog, or a man calling a dog and the dog was – yowling? Nothing fit, all the possibilities that I could imagine did not fit with what was happening. Then I thought that I heard a sentence fragment in English spoken in a low whisper. It might have been “. . . there, not moving. . .” or something such as that. Then the loud noises continued. Obviously, that would have been a person, but I wasn’t sure what I heard or if my mind was just playing tricks. If it was a person and if I heard what I thought I did, that could mean that it saw me there in the dark on the road.
I’d be better hidden if I moved a few feet towards the side of the road, closer to the trees. I looked to my right and where there had been trees; I thought I saw two legs and a tall man standing there right beside me. Wow, what a fright, a chill ran through me. I had to reach out and touch the bark to reassure myself that it was two trees. I took side steps to close in with the trees. The sound of the gravel crunching under my feet was so loud when the only other sounds came from this thing I was tracking, or was it tracking me now?
If it was a person, what kind of a crazy coot was it? Who would roam through the night in the woods at 12,000 feet making crazy noises, and to what purpose? I’d heard tales of people who went wild, lived in the mountain, snuck into camps at night and stole food from backpackers. Could this be one of them? I heard coughing, then the noise continued.
Half an hour or forty minutes had passed since I first heard the noise. I saw what could have been a light’s beam, faint but moving and it intensified slowly until I was certain that it was a flashlight or headlamp moving onto the road. The light started down the road towards me, and the sounds, the howling came with it.
Now I was getting angry. This person disturbed my peaceful camp; this person was either crazy beyond crazy, or just playing tricks on me. I sunk slowly down in a crouch and moved behind the twin trees and I waited. When the light was less than 20 feet away, I stood up and turned on my headlamp full bright into his face. I wanted shock and revenge.
I could end the story here and leave you searching for some explanation of this very unusual behavior, but I would not be so rude.
My Yee Naaldlooshii turned out to be an average hiker, probably somewhat inexperienced. He could have been in his twenties and appeared to be somewhat trim and athletic. He set out to climb Mount Princeton and he had done that, but he started too late in the day and it probably took him longer than he anticipated. For those reasons, darkness fell while he was still on the mountain.
I credit him for having a small flashlight, probably a two cell AA battery light which he was carrying in one hand. It wasn’t very bright; perhaps the batteries were running low.
I’m guessing that it was about the time that he reached tree line, when he began to perceive imaginary predatory animals hiding behind or perched on lower limbs of every tree. He was all alone in the dark with nothing but a fading flashlight and his imagination.
I have read of people in similar situations who found comfort in the sound of their own voice, sometimes singing, sometimes just talking to themselves, but that was not the case here. This young man was making these weird sounds, at the top of his lungs, with the hope of scaring off any lurking dangerous predators.
I have to wonder if he believed that would be effective. I told him that he needn’t worry about bears at this altitude. I didn’t mention mountain lions as he still had a few miles to hike back to his car at the Colorado trail junction.
I asked him if he drove a white SUV and he said that he did. That accounted for one of the white SUVs there, the other must belong to the two hikers in possible trouble.
We had a short and normal conversation. When he asked me if I had already climbed Mt. Princeton, I told him that I had that scheduled for the morning. A few more questions from him and he pried out of me that I would be up early and hiking alone in the dark for about two hours.
When we parted, he walked down the road silently and I crawled into the tent and slid into my sleeping bag. As I waited for sleep, I went over this story again and again. As the old saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. Wow!
I thought about how his sounds seemed to come closer to my tent when I first heard them, yet when I walked up the road, tracking him by his sounds, he seemed to be moving away from me. The road switchbacks several times above my campsite. Although he was a fair distance away if measured along the road, he was much closer as the crow flies. He would be walking a straight segment of road above me that brought him nearer to me, then round a switchback and be walking away from me. However I cannot explain why his sounds seemed to be on the downhill side of the road when he was always above me. If you have experience in mountains, you know that sounds can travel long distances at times while sometimes not travel very far at all.
Friday when I drove out, there were no cars at the Colorado trail junction. That meant that my Yee Naaldlooshii hadn’t been eaten alive and that the two hikers in trouble made it out OK.