What happens when you experience something that most scientists say does not exist? German-born photographer and adventurer Sander Jain heard what he believes was a Sasquatch when he stayed in a remote cabin in the rugged wilderness of Canada’s Vancouver Island. “It was a traumatic event,” says Jain. He came to believe that this legendary creature is indeed real.
“Paddling up the steep-sided inlet feels like stepping through a large gate and adjacent hallway into a magnificent throne room where Clayoquot Sound keeps its wild treasures and ultimate mysteries. Sitting along the towering mountainsides of the fjord and cloaked in heavy veils of west coast fog bald eagles have their protruding vantage points high up on ancient treetops. They keep a sharp lookout where they stand sentinel, stoic guardians of a sacred place that holds nature’s secrets. As an intruder with reverence I feel like entering a domain that is bigger than human life…”
In summer 2012 I fell in love with one of Clayoquot Sound’s remotest corners. A pristine region on Vancouver Island’s west coast that radiates the mystical air of the Pacific Northwest more iconically than many other places I have visited.
Its extreme and inaccessible nature tries to keep intruders at distance but its magic reveals itself to the fullest when one dwells on its edge and respects its untouchable nature; A dramatic topography covered in an exquisite expression of the ancient temperate rainforest ecosystem, a large river valley and adjacent fjord. A grand and abundant place that makes you feel humble. Its wild charm definitely cast a spell over me.
After venturing out there several times in summer 2012 on longer wilderness kayak trips and camping in the valley for only one or two nights at a time, I knew I was going to return some day and spend a longer period of time in what had became my favourite place.
Living with nature
In early summer 2014 everything seemed to fall into place. I had enough time to my disposal and still felt the draw of my wild valley, so I decided to prepare for an overall stay of 1 to 2 months out there, divided into intervals of about two weeks at a time. Clinging solitarily to the vastness of the wild scenery and representing the only human trace in this realm, an abandoned and well hidden cabin was meant to act as my perfect home base.
My intention was to see what I could learn from being at home in my favourite wild place.
My intention was to deeply explore the nature of wilderness living, tune in with this region’s pristine air, observe wildlife, sharpen my senses in interplay with the natural world and enjoy its splendour by focusing on my essence. I wanted to spend a lot of quiet time in the same place, benefit from deeply connecting to the natural context and explore the feeling of being in this place and situation rather than exploring the region itself.
The spirit of this trip would be quite different from my past wilderness experiences in the way that I wasn’t looking to go on a mission or an ambitious destination-driven adventure expedition to explore places under physically challenging conditions. My intention was to see what I could learn from being at home in my favourite wild place.
Into the wild
I neither had a big budget for my trip nor all necessary equipment for moving into my wild living room, so it took me about two months filled with preparations in order to get everything together.
An amazing network of friends and institutions that again made me realize how much this west coast had become my home over the years supported my wilderness stay in many ways. Generous donations, loans, trades and a shared passion for adventure by many supporters made it possible that eventually I found myself heading out into the Sound on a sunny morning in mid July. The boat that would drop me off in my wilderness home base also carried my kayak as well as about 5 large boxes, totes and immersion bags full of equipment and supplies that I needed my life out there.
In the early afternoon the boat entered the mouth of the inlet. As soon we crossed this threshold I felt again how the overpowering scenic dimensions of this place were shrinking our human scale into insignificance. My habitat filled my heart with awe and joy.
Then I waved at the driver and watched his boat disappear into the distance.
We finally arrived at my remote wilderness home base which was secretly nestled in between the waterline and steep forested mountain slopes in the back. It had taken a lot of power of persuasion to make the boat driver go all the way up into this rarely visited and secluded part of the Sound.
Upon arrival I unloaded my kayak and the rest of the gear by commuting between the motor boat and the shallow water near the cabin with a small row boat. Then I waved at the driver and watched his boat disappear into the distance.
I’m here, now, standing all by myself in my most favourite wild place… I remember thinking: Wow, I’m actually here, this is real. Unbelievable! This had been my vision for two years, and finally everything had come together, so that I was now finding myself in the perfect fulfilment of my wildest dreams. I moved into the cabin, settled in and started the simple and rustic but very comfortable and gentle way of wilderness living that I had hoped for.
The first four days were just perfect, and it was a joy living in this wild space.
The cabin acted as a great home base and a safe shelter, the days were sunny, without a single cloud in the sky, the nights starlit and cool. I observed how the morning fog lifted off the mountains and the fjord when I woke up, saw the tides rush in and out in front of the cabin, saw the light changing in the course of the day, revealing many different facets, shades, moods and layers within my favourite place.
I often sat on the front porch overlooking the fjord and the distant estuary and observed birds through my binoculars. As in many wild and abundant places you rarely see wildlife, but it is always there on its own elusive secret missions that often defy human understanding.
As in many wild and abundant places you rarely see wildlife, but it is always there on its own elusive secret missions that often defy human understanding.
The animals are so attuned to and act so very well in accord with their habitat that it is hard for our disconnected human mind to grasp their way of being. However, bald eagles, kingfishers, sea gulls, ducks, seals, sea lions and river otters showed themselves quite frequently. The beautifully haunting call of a loon travelled across the water from the estuary one evening, and quite often I could hear the deep booming calls of male sooty grouse resounding from deep inside the valley and mountains.
Almost every day I also had a visitor inside the cabin. A hummingbird would fly through the open door whenever I had a nap in the afternoon. Curiously it checked out different corners and objects in the cabin before exiting again through the front door. Lots of mice were busy in the cabin at night. Some liked my food offerings of an oyster shell full of chocolate beans from my trail mix and found their way into the traps that I set up in the evenings.
Feeling at home
My safety tool and connection to the outside world was an InReach satellite communication device that can send and receive text messages and track the location of the user via GPS. Every morning and evening I checked in with my friend and safety contact in Tofino.
I went on morning and evening paddles to the river estuary every day, just sat there quietly in my kayak and listened to everything in and around me.
A friend had made me a pan flute out of bamboo and cedar wood before my trip which I played each day from the front porch and also on my kayak paddles to the estuary. I enjoyed hearing my own sounds echoing back from the steep mountain slopes and cliffs.
My oats in the morning, meals for lunch and tea in between I took on the front porch, dinner I usually had after dark inside the cabin by candlelight and before writing wildlife reports and journal notes by the light of my head lamp. Then, later at night, I retreated to my sleeping spot, lit one or two incense sticks to keep the mosquitos away and soon fell asleep to the quiet solitude of this remote place, thinking how it is used to echoing back upon itself without a human witness.
Equally the place radiates an obscure air of reticence, inaccessibility, twilit hostility and deep mystery at the same time.
I was very much in the here and now in my favourite place. I was in my habitat, felt at home and in tune. Most of the time I found that I had everything that I needed. For me it meant the ultimate luxury to live in a huge pristine wilderness area all by myself for a while and to be able to experiment with remote living.
Everything that I did I did very consciously. My mind was free of common distractions, so time stretched while I was residing in the presence. Four beautiful days of living in the moment passed and felt like weeks in an environment where my senses were so sharp and attuned to my surroundings that my awareness expanded into the presence.
After a while I figured that part of the beauty of my favourite place and its appeal to me was its all-encompassing nature on the edge. Its attractive atmosphere is one of unapproachable seclusion and completion. It is powerful and grand, and it holds a space of bright beauty and abundance, peace, retreat and serenity. Equally it radiates an obscure air of reticence, inaccessibility, twilit hostility and deep mystery at the same time. I could sense nature’s infinite potential here, in the same way as I had done a couple of years earlier on my first visit that had inspired my current adventure – It is a truly wild place – A place for humans to visit but not a place for humans to remain.
On the fifth day I got up and went for my morning paddle in the fjord while the sun was rising over the eastern mountain ranges, bringing out the best shades of my favourite place. I took some photos of the forested slopes with the sun rays breaking through the last bits of morning mist and then returned to the cabin for lunch. I lay down for a nap in the afternoon and woke up again late, around 7 pm.
I went to the creek at the mountain slope behind the cabin to stock up on fresh water. It was close to running dry. Afterwards I launched my kayak and went for my evening paddle to the river estuary. I watched how an eagle got chased by sea gulls and played my pan flute again whose sounds echoed back from the mountain sides to the west. Just before I got back to the cabin I noticed a large eagle wing feather drifting on the water. I was pleased about my finding, had a close look at it but placed it back on the water and allowed it to drift further down the inlet.
After a while I started hearing a strange sound coming from somewhere in the distance outside.
When I went ashore at the cabin shortly after, around 9:30 pm, I noticed that the second half of the day had brought along the first weather change since my arrival. After four perfectly clear and sunny days it was getting slightly overcast and the air felt sticky. I called it a day and retreated to the cabin for dinner. I lit some candles and started writing my journal entry and wildlife report of the day.
At some point I stepped outside on the front porch. It was the darkest night so far. The clouds were acting like a lid that sealed off the fjord and gave the standing air a muggy character. It was pitchblack around me, and it was perfectly silent. The water was calm, there was no wind, and I could neither hear any bird calls nor any seal lions or seals catching fish close to shore as I had heard in previous nights.
I went back inside, continued writing my notes and checked in with my friend in Tofino through my satellite device. After a while I started hearing a strange sound coming from somewhere in the distance outside. I stepped back out on the porch and perked up my ears. – Yes, there it was again – It sounded as if big rocks or boulders were being moved, dragged, turned over, thrown and slammed.
Was I not alone?
At first it seemed to be coming from the south eastern corner of the estuary but it was hard to tell. I figured that it must be a black bear looking for a late night protein snack in the intertidal zone or some rocks getting lose and falling off the cliffs due to temperature changes after a warm sunny day.
Then, in addition to the rock sounds, I could hear what sounded like owl vocalizations. It sounded as if several were replying to each other’s calls from different locations in the distance. Other than that and in between these sounds it was dead silent. I wasn’t sure whether this silence was a peaceful or a strained one. The rock sounds continued.
I was brushing my teeth at the light of my headlamp inside the cabin half an hour later when all of a sudden a very loud blast from somewhere in the vicinity shook me up. One of the big rock sounds had erupted with the intensity of a small emphatic explosion, and the sound was definitely coming from closer than before. My tooth brush almost fell out of my mouth and I sensed my hair standing on end.
I hadn’t seen any humans, no lights, no traces of human activity at all, nothing.
I realized that some thing must be causing that noise. Was I not alone? Was there illegal logging in my favourite place? I hadn’t seen any humans, no lights, no traces of human activity at all, nothing. It could not be human activity! Especially not at 11:45 at night. No – I was completely alone in this remote corner of Clayoquot Sound! And I was beginning to feel it.
I quit brushing my teeth, and my instincts told me to simply retreat into sleep. I thought that I had probably just allowed myself to get spooked by the darkness and silence in combination with what I was hearing outside that I hadn’t heard the nights before. In any way I felt ready for bed. I ended my satellite text conversation with my friend in Tofino, saying that I’d check in again the next day.
Earlier that day I had moved my sleeping spot from the main living area up into the loft because too many mice had visited me during previous nights. At this point I was even happier about this decision and felt good about retreating into the cosy space under the roof compared to lying fully exposed to the glass windows that were staring out into the raven-black night on almost all sides of the cabin.
While climbing up the ladder into the attic my mind was still busy with trying to find an explanation. I tried to convince myself that the loud and sharp noise from a few minutes ago must have been the simple but massive splash of a hunting sea lion.
I lay down in my sleeping bag, continued writing journal notes for a short while but soon surrendered to my tiredness, switched off my headlamp and closed my eyes to retreat further into sleep. Lying in the darkness I was looking forward to waking up to a bright fresh morning in my favourite place the next day. Meanwhile, I could hear how more rock sounds and the vocalizations outside were cutting the silence.
I fell asleep almost right away and found myself fully absorbed in the world of dreams very soon. I slept deeply for one hour, for two hours, for three hours… And then, around 3:20 am, all of a sudden, I was being rudely awakened from my dreams into a nightmare. I was fully present right away, in the moment, my eyes opened widely, my breath came to a stop, I felt a torrent of adrenaline flooding my body, my heart was pumping at full speed, I was frozen, I was petrified. My senses had never been more acute and aware ever before in my life. I sensed that this is what mortal fear tastes like.
This was what was going on inside myself. The reason for it was what was going on outside: Loud stomping on the ground right next to the cabin or on the surrounding boardwalk or even closer to the cabin shook me up to the very core.
And then, around 3:20 am, all of a sudden, I was being rudely awakened from my dreams into a nightmare.
It seemed to be coming from outside the cabin walls to my right. Each footfall, each single stomp made the cabin tremble. The massive force that was being applied and its rhythmic nature were highly intimidating and beyond anything that I could associate with animals that you would usually expect to encounter in these forests. However, it clearly sounded like a wild living being
The heavy stomping was combined with the most horrifying vocalizations. All sounds I could hear and feel were without doubt coming from one or more likely two very large, very strong and heavy creatures, and the only words I can find to describe their sounds and movements are: Wild, primeval, disturbingly erratic and emphatic or deliberate at once. It had a tribal feel to it too.
The vocalisations didn’t quite sound like human speech but similar enough to recognize certain elements. It sounded as if some thing was trying to talk, shout, articulate itself through speech but doesn’t quite master language in the same way as we do.
There were other noises too, like the sound of rock hitting rock or wood hitting wood, but it was hard to separate them from the overall turmoil in which the tremor of the ground and the vocalisations were the most intimidating parts. The tremendous strength that I could sense behind this riot was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It clearly sounded like a wild man, or two.
A trembling cabin
While being fully frozen and horrified, my senses understood the message right from the first fraction of a second on, even before my brain jumped in with a first thought or conclusion. I sensed what it was and I sensed what I was being told: Clear out! Go away! Leave! We are here! You cannot be here! I observed myself responding to this situation in the most primeval ways that I didn’t even know existed.
The intensity and physical character of the fear and awareness was uncharted territory in my personal horizon of experience. It felt too real to be bearable. I again realized how it is our senses that are the primary knower of truth and not our mind.
The cabin and me as its occupant were being addressed through this intimidation behaviour and demonstration of power. Some living creatures were making an effort to scare me off and chase me away. I didn’t have to make up my mind whether they would succeed or not. I knew right away that I had to obey and that this was the end of my stay in my favourite wild place.
I again realized how it is our senses that are the primary knower of truth and not our mind.
It all went very fast. After about 7 seconds of this turmoil I suddenly heard them leave with emphatic steps. I could sense and hear two bipedal creatures erratically running off with big strides while making strange vocalisations that again left me in horror. And again, each emphatic footfall caused the ground and the cabin on it to tremble. The weight and strength combined with tremendous speed, agility and mobility were impressive, overwhelming and intimidating all at once.
At that point I could not take any more sensual input and pressed my hands against my ears as hard as I could. I wanted to seal off my senses. I was lying absolutely petrified under my sleeping bag in the darkness, every muscle in my body strained, and I was fully covered in cold sweat. There were two triangular glass windows in the wall right behind my head. I would have only had to turn my head to look outside, but it felt impossible.
I didn’t want to and didn’t need to see what was outside. I was scared to death and afraid that they might go further in their mission to scare me. My intuition was certain of what it was and I didn’t need to sense anything more but just be away from where I was – alone. I was afraid of feeling the tremor caused by more stomping again as then I would know that they decided to continue with their riot. Would they cross the boundary of the cabin? I was afraid of hearing them breathe outside and maybe waiting for me to show a more spectacular response than turning on the screen of my satellite device to call for help.
Please send a float plane!!!
The next few hours I was lying there, still pressing my hands against my ears most of the time, trying to tell myself stories to distract my mind and promising that I would leave as soon as the light of dawn would hopefully help me release my petrification. My passion for adventure always involved very real situations that made me be present in the moment, but this was way too real for my taste, and my passion for adventure faded in those moments. My mind formulated wishes of simply starting a life in the city and working in the safe boundary of an office for the rest of my life, making a big circle around everything that is wild. I completely shut down. Throughout the next hours I occasionally dared to lift one hand off an ear and started texting messages to my friend and safety contact 55 kms away: “I NEED A PICK UP RIGHT AWAY. PLEASE SEND A FLOAT PLANE!!!”
I ended up trying to send 17 messages in the course of that early morning but they didn’t send off until about 7 am because I didn’t have clear sky view where I was lying under the roof. I was begging that the messages would somehow send off through the tiny air circulation window under the gable. I couldn’t imagine moving away from my sleeping spot.
My hands were still shaking, and I was exhausted from being frightened and tired from the huge release of adrenaline.
As soon as dawn slowly started seeping into the cabin and I could heard the first birds getting active outside, I carefully allowed my ears to listen again and my eyes to see again. Around 7:30 am I felt ready to make my first move, got up, slowly climbed down the ladder into the main living area and started packing the most necessary things into a few immersion bags. The float plane wouldn’t be able to transport all my gear, but I didn’t care about leaving my kayak and other things behind. I still didn’t dare to look outside the windows but simply focused on packing and tidying up a few things. My hands were still shaking, and I was exhausted from being frightened and tired from the huge release of adrenaline. My only mission now was to leave as soon as possible.
Finally, I received a first message back from my friend: “I’m on my way down to the dock. I’ll send you a plane!” What a relief! Now I only had to wait for another bit. Around 8:20 am I heard the small float plane in landing approach far off in the distance outside and then descending into the gigantic scenery of the fjord. I grabbed my bags, stepped outside into the overcast morning without turning around or having a look around the cabin, walked down to the water and caught the pilot’s attention from the distance with my red rain jacket. Five minutes later I boarded the plane.
“Sounds like a Sasquatch to me”
– “How are you doing?”, the pilot asked me. “I’m alright. Just didn’t feel safe here last night. The ground was shaking in the middle of the night and I heard the sounds of moving boulders. Might not be a good thing to be trapped in this spot in case of an earthquake or landslide, right?” – There was no way I could tell him the truth without seeming crazy. While getting ready for take-off I saw how his eyes were scanning the mountain slopes around us for any signs of a landslide. He informed me that there hadn’t been an earthquake either. Then he pressed me, curious to learn more about the sounds that I had heard, so I described them to him in more detail.
“I guess there is a reason why the First Nations call that place ‘Home of the Sasquatch’.”
“Hm, that rather sounds like Sasquatch to me.”, he said. “I hear stories from people up and around here who see them with boulders on the shoreline.” The plane picked up speed, and soon we took off into a cloudy west coast morning. For the first time I saw the waters, mountain ranges, cliffs, river valleys and water currents of my favourite wild place from the air. We flew right by the dense and mysteriously fogged forest cover on one of the eastern mountain slopes before heading south. I couldn’t take my eyes off my favourite place. A mere 4 hours ago it had taught me what fear is, and now I hopelessly fell in love with it all over again. Just 15 minutes later we landed in the contrasting reality of Tofino’s busy tourism village. A good friend of mine awaited me on the dock. He said: “I guess there is a reason why the First Nations call that place ‘Home of the Sasquatch’.”