It was a scary enough evening, that in all honesty, I had no intention of putting pen to paper to tell anyone about it on here. But as several friends later said to me – “Peter, sharing such a story may help an awful lot of people who are similarly ignorant as you.“
Ah friends, eh?! They know how to keep me humble. And so I write this for those who are willing to admit to being as ignorant as me, or for those who are more enlightened but still want a chuckle at just one of the times I’ve been involved with the emergency services in the past few weeks (don’t ask about the other ones).
Finally before we begin, I should probably give some form of minor trigger warning, for those erm, who’ve had bad experiences in nighttime in the woods. You might be better reading some other blog posts instead.
I’ve recently moved to Dublin or the “big schmoke” as I liked to call it. The biggest city I’ve ever lived in and the biggest in Ireland by about 10 times. Still, since I’ve moved here I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much green space exists everywhere and how close the Dublin hills are to the city.
In fact, I won’t lie, I didn’t even know there were Dublin hills, before moving to Dublin. And so as a mountain runner, I was thrilled. The perfect type of hills to play around in on an average weekend – big enough to gain respect but gentle enough slopes to be at least able to pretend to run up without stopping for ‘photo opportunities’ every few minutes.
And so week by week I’ve been venturing further to explore, as well as running with my weekly running club gatherings which happily have survived all but the latest (most strict) lockdown regulations. Not only does Dublin have the local hills and the Dublin Mountain Way, but they connect across the border into Wicklow to proper mountains and the more famous Wicklow Way – a well established trail with 131km of good paths and moderately good signposting.
I say moderately good signposting because it was that night that I found myself lost on the Wicklow Way, alone in the dark. (Since then, I’ve been told that the Wicklow Way actually has really good signposts everywhere, and that it was just not meant to be run alone in the dark without a map or any awareness of the route. But as I was alone in the dark without a map, I can assure you that this standard of measurement for defining whether somewhere is well signposted or not, was not useful to me. But I digress…)
It wasn’t the fact that I was lost that particularly bothered me. I knew the route back to the car, up 3km of winding trails through forests, along a few kilometres of relatively flat paths in the forests, and then down the other side for a few more kilometres into the valley and along the river to a bridge where my car was safely tucked up waiting for me, as the only car that hadn’t found a farmyard lane to park itself in, for miles around. It was the route I’d just traversed (in reverse) to get to where I was now (wherever that was). I also had all the supplies I could ever need – extra food and water; my (rather old) phone with GPS; another ‘brick’ mobile in case my other battery died; a headlight; a compass; extra clothing and also the knowledge that I’d told someone exactly where I was going (well, as exactly as I knew, which given how lost I was, was not very exact at all).
What bothered me, was what had happened just a few minutes before I realised I was lost. It was dusk, and darkness was falling quicker than lockdowns were being anounced in the city. The autumnal evening was getting cooler as the sun had long since set across the city. As I came down the winding trail through the forest, my legs still feeling relatively fresh after the seven kilometres of up and down across the rocky terrain, though I realised that for every step I took, I’d to take another back in the other direction. My goal was still a few kilometres away – the next section of the Wicklow Way that I hadn’t yet done – eminently doable on a pleasant evening. And a pleasant evening it was. However it was a goal I was sadly not going to reach that evening after all.
It was still light enough that I hadn’t yet turned on my headtorch to see the uneven trail infront of me, but with the forest encroaching on both sides and snuffling out the sight of any starry skies or the moon overhead, it was certainly getting towards the level of dark it would soon be needed. And so, quietly padding my way through the forest trail, the only thing that could be heard was the steady rhythm of my breath breathing in the sharp, cold air of the autumn night – in through my nose, out through my mouth – and the occasional tumbling rock, shifting underneath my weight as I moved further up and further along the path.
Although I had not seen anyone for over an hour, amidst the incredible feeling of freedom and of being alive, I also had become aware that I had some running partners in the woods alongside me. More nimble and lightfooted than me, they barely made any noise as they darted through the trees, sometimes in view, sometimes not, and waited further up the trail for me to catch up. Wild deer. Occasionally and gracefully gliding over the trail path at unexpected moments, barely touching the path before propelling themselves upwards back into the forest on the other side of the trail. They were my mentors in running. My support team on the night. If only I could bound over the mountains with the ease of the Stag before me. If only I could navigate the twists and surfaces of the terrain as nimbly as their feet could, without any perceived worry at all. I ran on with joy in my heart, eventually losing them (or perhaps they, losing me) but still caught up in the joy of their presence with me for the few kilometres they had been alongside.
It was much later though while still in such higher planes of ecstasy (that only those well versed in hill-running will know well), not shackled by any time I (or Strava) ought to be somewhere, that the presence of something else in the woods caught my attention quite abruptly.
Three shrieks rang out from the forest – as if someone (most likely a female from the voice) was under great duress.
I kept running, mentally doing gymnastics to try and figure what could be happening off to my left, deep in the woods. My breathing got heavier.
Perhaps I was closer to civilisation than I realised, and this was some teenagers fooling around in the woods?
Perhaps the spirit-worshipping witches and other such people were out in these parts of the Wicklows, just as they were on the Dublin hills, which have long had a history of witchcraft and dark spiritual forces?
I wasn’t sure, but most likely it was nothing, I supposed, and so I kept on running, in a slightly more disturbed mental state, not able to shrug off the thought of it, even as I found open wide, downhill slopes to enjoy as the path wound down towards a (very) minor road – one of the many in Ireland that are classified as two way roads, but perceivably couldn’t have anything more than motorbikes passing both directions.
At least the road gave me the idea that perhaps the deep woods were more accessible from another side – where whoever or whatever it was, had entered. One car sat parked at the side of the road, lights out, the bonnet not completely cold to touch, although it felt like whoever had parked there had been gone a fair while.
Although the shrieks haunted my mind, a more prominent problem emerged from the woods. I didn’t know where The Wicklow Way continued. I hadn’t seen any signposts for over a kilometre, and although I was fairly certain I took the main trail down the hill, there had been several cross-roads and paths that left it at various points. Hitting a minor road did not give me confidence, nor did the fact that this “car park” (not that you could really call it that) which had an information board at it, had nothing that mentioned the Wicklow Way, nor any arrows to point me onwards. Resigned that I may have missed an arrow in the dark further up the trail, I turned round to retrace my steps.
Taking a left further up, I hit a well worn grass trail and ran for another kilometre, passing the remnants of a camping spot and fire pit used by others before me, before turning left downhill into some more woods and soon coming to a dead end, fenced off by some private property of someone who doubtless lived on the minor track I had previously hit. There was nothing I could do apart from go back. And so I did.
Now not knowing whether or where I had missed the Wicklow Way markers, and still slightly unsure about what I had heard just 20 minutes before, I decided to just go back, finding myself on the main trail, which looked surprisingly different under the light of my headlamp, and surprisingly longer than I had remembered when running downhill the other way.
Coming back up the hill, my headlight bobbing with every step I padded, the shrieks came again loud and clear out of the depths of the forest for the second time. Three cries, again from the voice of a female.
Surely this was in response to seeing my headlight through the woods? Was it a cry for help? Should I phone the Gardai (Irish Police)?
I took stock of where I was. I was alone. In dark woods, miles from my car. I did not know the area well. I kept running, more for my own comfort of knowing I had energy aplenty to expend and to get beyond any immediate danger. I checked my phone – no reception. Should I have been confident enough to deem the situation an emergency, I probably should have risked my voice cutting through the silence of the forest as I phoned the emergency services (something you can sometimes do even with no signal – on another mobile network’s signal). Instead I ran on, unsure on what I was experiencing, and not willing to stop to take time to think.
Back through the flat of the forest trail I ran, with now no sign of my support team anywhere near me. Down into the valley, heart pounding at irregular speeds as I pushed onwards. And finally round the corner in to sight of farmyard lights in the distance, and into view of my little Volkswagen Up, tucked into the cleft of the bank by the river.
After a quick glance around me to check I was still alone, I got into the car, locking myself inside and forgetting to stretch. Safe at last. Irrationally still perturbed despite no evidence for miles now of anyone around me or anything wrong.
Winding round tight bends up country roads, soon I hit the main road and the lights of the city glowing overhead. In 30 minutes I was home.
But after recounting the story to my wife, she was alarmed. “Did you not ring the Gards yet?”
Still not 100% convinced on what I had just experienced, and aware it was now coming on over an hour and a half later, I phoned the Police station closest to where the incident occurred. Such stations I was to find out, are only open a few hours each day, and so I phoned the regional headquarters another half hour away.
Their response was remarkable. Believing my story to be of utmost importance, within minutes they had cars scrambled up to the minor track I had stumbled upon. But more than that, a heat-seeking helicopter unit was soon circling overhead above the woods (seen by friends who live at the end of the Wicklow Way), trying to see what was going on, if it wasn’t too late already. The search was on.
Forty-five minutes later, they called again to re-check some details of where on the trail I had heard the noises, and assured me that they had everyone out. That was the last I heard, as I left my phone on loudspeaker overnight incase they called again.
In the morning I kept an eye on the news to see if anything would be reported. But no, nothing at all.
In fact, it was another two days before I unexpectedly learnt more about the curious incident in the woods at nighttime. Given how disturbing such a story might be to people, in an otherwise very safe area, I decided to tell very few people. But my intrigue did lead my to quietly ask 3 people. And I’m very glad I did.
It was 10.30am on Saturday morning, just when the rest of Dublin is starting to awake from its slumber, but when some of us hill-runners had just finished our second run of the morning. Standing around in the car park afterwards (socially-distanced of course), contentedly tired, we were chatting as we stretched and enjoyed the fact that the rest of the weekend was still to come. Realising I was in a small circle of local people, all more experienced in the hills, I dared briefly recount what had happened to me on the Thursday before. Had they ever heard of the woods being misused by people up to no good? Is it safe? Could the two sets of skrieks just be coincidence as I passed the same point, or teenagers messing around miles from their home?
The circle went silent.
“Have you ever heard deer mating calls or a vixen?“
The simple question had me thinking.
No, no I hadn’t.
“Just go home and search the internet and see if it’s anything like you heard.”
And so commenced one of the strangest searches I have ever typed into my keyboard. But sure enough, a few searches yielded the unexpected results:
A vixen can sound very like a human screaming.
In fact, so much so that some other local young woman I’ve since recounted my story to, had called the Gards on something moving in her back garden which screamed too! And again, they had responded in force, keen to check that it wasn’t something horrific.
And so, I believe my curious incident in the woods at nighttime to have been solved. A sense of shame hangs over my head at the wasted resources of a Gardai helicopter search and the wild goose chase (or rather fox chase) that the officers will have been on that night. Goodness knows what came up on their heat-seeking equipment.
But a sense of pride also comes from knowing that our Police force in Ireland are willing to believe reports and act on danger, even at great cost. If it had been a human in danger (and there, to my knowledge has rarely if ever been any major incidents of such varieties along the Wicklow Way of such, despite many people running, walking and camping along the trails in the dark), they were well prepared to respond, for which I am exceedingly thankful.
So there it is. A curious incident in the woods at nighttime.
May we all know for next time you hear a human-like shriek in an unexpected place. Particularly for those of us who have foxes living in or near our garden like we do!