John Muir Trail: The Great Squirrel Incident

October 18th, 2012 → 9:28 pm @ // 10 Comments

As a former infantryman I’ve spent my share of nights sleeping on the ground. My wife and I enjoy backpacking, and we’ve shared a tent on many occasions. What I hadn’t done a lot of, when I began my John Muir Trail thru-hike, was camping by myself. It wasn’t unprecedented, mind you, but it had probably been a few years since I spent the night in the woods all by myself.

I had forgotten how spooky it can be.

There I was on day 1, alongside Sunrise Creek, dinner eaten and ready to get to bed early. I hadn’t seen another hiker since the intersection with the Half Dome trail.

The night before I hadn’t slept well due to pre-hike jitters. The climb out of the valley had kicked my rear end and I was ready for some rest, even if there was still a little daylight left.

As I crawled into the tent and zipped the door shut I was immediately aware of the fact that I was out in the middle of the woods, alone. From inside the tent I could only see about two feet in front of me, but I could imagine that I was surrounded by a whole bunch of critters. Some of those critters were larger than me. I had seen a mother bear and two cubs less than three miles from this very spot.

And that doesn’t even count the bipeds with backpacks, some of whom may be wandering the woods with bad intentions.

Chasing the imaginary hoards surrounding my little tent from my mind, I closed my eyes and settled in for the night.


Something hit the ground near my tent, HARD.

OK, I told myself. This is the woods. Stuff falls all the time. No big deal.

I had just about convinced myself that it was nothing, or perhaps I had imagined the whole thing, when: pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…PLOP!

I had no idea what was making that noise, but it was NOT the wind (there wasn’t a breath of a breeze) or the trees settling or—well, I don’t know what else it WASN’T.


Here’s the thing: there was intentionality to the sound. Someone or something was doing this on purpose, within a few yards of my tent, and making a lot of noise in the process.

john muir trail sierra nevadaFinally, I summoned all of my courage and got up. I half expected to find a prankster standing there with a grin on his face and an unlimited supply of croquet balls to hurl on the ground where I had chosen to sleep.

But there was no one there. In fact, there was nothing there. Even the chipmunks that had been playing on a fallen log in my campsite had sacked out for the night.

I sat on the log and looked around. No sounds. No activity at all.

Then, suddenly, pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…pffffft…PLOP! A large, heavy, sappy, unopened pine cone landed within a few yards of me. I looked up, and sure enough, at the very top of several tall pines was a squirrel jumping from limb to limb.

I watched him jump from one tree to another, climb up to a pine cone growing from a branch, and start gnawing. Within a minute or two he had the cone separated from the tree.

As it fell it hit a branch (pffffft), another branch (pffffft), etc. When it hit the ground it hit hard and loud (PLOP). Mystery solved.

I crawled back into my sleeping bag, feeling more than a bit sheepish, and was asleep within minutes. In the morning, there wasn’t a pine cone on the ground to be found.

Good hiking, Ray

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10 Comments → “John Muir Trail: The Great Squirrel Incident”

  1. Kelly Fitzgerald

    4 years ago

    Reminds me of the scene in Castaway with Tom Hanks when the coconuts were falling and hitting the ground at night on the island. ;o)


    • Ray

      4 years ago

      I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re absolutely right!


  2. Darryl Abrahms

    4 years ago

    Funny story! 🙂


    • Ray

      4 years ago

      Thanks for the comment, Darryl. Every word true!


  3. The Last Day

    2 years ago

    […] I’ve written about being terrorized in my tent by a squirrel. […]

  4. […] The Great Squirrel Incident. A story of courage (not really)  in the […]

  5. […] #2. Not sleeping the first few nights. As I tinker with my sleeping gear, this has gotten a little bit better, but I still have problems at least the first two or three nights on the ground. A good sleeping pad helps, as does making sure you don’t get cold. Part of it is just psychological, especially since I am almost always camping alone. You never know what might be lurking out there! […]

  6. […] of unremarkable size for a squirrel and spend their time safely on the ground (no tree climbing and hiker tormenting for them).  They prefer open areas where predators have little chance of sneaking up on them. […]


  7. Sally Couture

    1 year ago

    Hey! Reading your story reminded me of an animal tent incident I had maybe 30 years ago. I was camping with my boyfriend when we were awakened by a sound INSIDE the tent. He turned on the flashlight and shined it toward the tent door (and the box of crackers, OOPS) Well low and behold there is a skunk half in half out of the box. So my protector gets ready to scare him off as I whisper NO! Had to remind him what skunks do! Instead we backed ourselves out of the tent and we waited and watched with our flashlight. Finally after about an hour our company was finished. I promise food will not be in the tent again! We were not in bear country thank goodness!


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