Thursday, March 20, 2014

PHANTOM CAMP by Jim Landwehr



Nate climbed out of the canoe and pulled it up on the flat rocks of the campsite on Phantom Lake.

His father stepped out next, carefully avoiding the fishing rods lying on the bottom of the boat. It was approaching dusk and, despite not being able to find this particular “red dot” or even this island, on their topographic map, there was no denying that it was an official site. It had the standard US Forest Service fire grate and a couple of flat spots for tents. This map series frequently had errors, so it was not unusual to come across something that did not appear as it should. After a quick visual assessment, Luke declared it worthy and yelled over to the other canoe where his brother and daughter were, “This looks good enough for me!”

“Sounds good. Let’s go Stacy,” uncle Ron said to Luke’s daughter.

They paddled in and Nate and his dad helped pull their canoe up on shore. The two stepped out and walked around their newly chosen campsite. They got a later start than anticipated, so while this wasn’t the site they hoped for, it would suffice for now. Dad always liked the secluded spots for reasons that Nate couldn’t figure out. He always said he wanted to get away from the rest of the crazy world. That explained why they just finished their third portage of the day deep into a remote part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Nate was just glad to be done moving. He was hungry, tired, and looking forward to dinner.

“Hey, Nate, why don’t you and Stacy see if you can find some dry firewood while Uncle Ron and I set up camp and get dinner started,” his father said.

“Aw, okay,” He hated the job of gathering wood, especially if it meant he had to listen to Stacy’s complaints along the way. His sister was usually pretty good in the outdoors, but she could be a bit of a prima donna sometimes, and it drove Nate crazy. Didn’t she know this was the Boundary Waters and that meant you needed to be tough?

“C’mon, Stacy, let’s try over this way,” Nate said, gesturing toward a trail that led off to his left.
“Okay, wait up,” Stacy said as she grabbed a flashlight.

The two of them walked up a gentle incline and then down the back side of it. Every time they stopped for wood, they found it was too wet. Eventually, they came to a clearing where some big trees had fallen. They were jumbled and had lots of brittle dead branches. It was a pyro’s dream. Lots of wood that was off the ground, which meant it was probably dry, or drier, anyway.

Nate climbed over a huge dead pine to get to the main wood pile with Stacy following close behind.

Looking over her shoulder, Stacy said, “I don’t like this area. It gives me the creeps for some reason.”

“Aw geez, Stace, but look at all this great wood we found.” He was annoyed by the fact that she was starting her wimpy routine again.

Suddenly, Stacy covered her nose, “Oh my gosh, what is that stink?”

Before he could respond, the stink assaulted Nate’s sinuses. He dropped his sticks and covered his nose. It almost overwhelmed him. It reminded him of the time he and his friend Owen came across a decaying deer carcass. It seemed like the smell glommed on to his skin and clothes.

“Yuk! I don’t know what that is, but it’s horrible. Let’s get this wood and get outta here.” He wanted a fire badly, and knew his dad would be upset if they came back empty- handed. He picked up the sticks and they both continued to grab kindling with one hand, while covering their noses with the other. Nate spied a branch that was dry and the perfect thickness and started toward it. When he picked it up, he suddenly felt that he and Stacy were not alone in these woods. It was a strange feeling, chilling. He didn’t feel like he was being watched so much as hunted or tracked.

He peered around the woods, looking for the source of the smell, or perhaps, of his unease. He scanned the clearing to the right and saw nothing but trees and ferns. He checked to his left where the trees were much thicker. What he saw made him shiver for a moment. It was two eyes, a faint red color, glowing in the distance about twenty yards from where he stood. They were set against the shadowed backdrop of what appeared to be an impossibly large head. The thing appeared to be crouching down behind a large tree.

Nate wondered if his dad was playing a trick on him as he sometimes did when Nate was in the tent. He hated it when his dad scared him, but also realized it would have been difficult for his father to have reached this spot without being seen. He turned to his sister, who was reaching for a stick with her free hand.

“Hey, Stacy, look over there, I think someone’s watching us,” he said, pointing. Stacy looked in the direction Nate was pointing.

“Where, what?” she asked quizzically.

“Over there,” Nate said as he turned around to reestablish eye contact with the unwanted stranger. He looked over by the big birch and the glowing eyes were gone. He only turned away for a second or two and whatever it was vanished. Even stranger, the awful reek had dissipated and all he could smell was the forest.

“Uh, it was right over there. Two eyes staring at me,” he pleaded.

“I don’t see anything, but you’re starting to creep me out. Let’s get back to camp.”

The two of them cradled small piles of wood and started back toward the campsite. They tried to walk, but the fear that had been building in them took hold. They quickened their pace and before long, they were scrambling and running through the brush. Stacy led the way as she found the main trail. Nate felt pursued, but did not dare look back. If he saw those eyes again, he might just lose control and scream. Again, he got a whiff of the nasty-smelling odor. He hoped that didn’t mean what he thought it meant; it was following them, whatever it was.

Stacy started to speed up, and he quickened his pace behind her as well. They could see the tents, so he knew they were getting close to camp. Nate noticed that the smell faded. As they strode into camp, they both dropped their firewood into a pile by the fire pit and started talking at the same time.

“Dad, there was something out there, looking at us,” Nate said.

“Something smelly!” his sister chimed in.

His dad chuckled a little bit. “Oh, really? Are you sure it wasn’t Mr. Bear looking at you guys?” He flashed a grin at Ron, who chimed in with “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

“Seriously, Dad, I saw glowing eyes, and, like Stacy said, something really stunk.” “Well, maybe it was a wolf or coyote or something. We’ll just have to be sure to hang the food from a tree tonight,” his dad said while Ron nodded. “Now, let’s get this fire going and get some dinner.”


***


The spaghetti was on the early part of a boil on the Coleman stove when Luke got his first unforgettable whiff of the odor his kids talked about. It was only a momentary thing, but the stink was like nothing he had ever experienced, like a combination of rotting hamburger and dirty feet. He covered his nose with the sleeve of his shirt in disgust. As quickly as it came, the scent was gone. He looked around camp and no one seemed affected. Stacy and Nate were poking the fire with sticks and Ron was digging through the equipment pack looking for something.

Ron came over and asked, “Is there anything I can help with?”

“No, but did you just smell that?”

Ron looked at Luke quizzically. “Smell what?”

“Oh my gosh, it was disgusting! It was like vomit and dog crap and rotting meat all rolled together. It almost knocked me over, but it was just a whiff, and then it was gone,” Luke said.

“Weird. Maybe there’s a dead animal nearby or something,”

Luke lifted a strand of spaghetti out of the pot and tasted it. “Must be, man. If it was, it’s been dead a while. That was awful. Anyways, it looks like this is about done. Are you ready for some dinner, guys?”

Stacy dropped her fire-poking stick and headed toward the camp stove. Nate continued to play with the fire for a minute or so. “Yuk, there it is again!” Nate said as he dropped his stick and walked over to the cooking area.

“There’s what again?” Ron asked.

“That smell. I just got a whiff of it by the fire over there.”

“Really? I think that must be what I smelled over here a few minutes ago,” Luke added.

“Whatever it is, the stink must get stirred up when the wind is just right. Maybe we’ll tough it out for a night and then look for another site tomorrow,” Ron said. Everyone nodded.

***

The campfire in the grate provided welcome light and warmth against the cool dark night on Phantom Lake. Ron was shaking the Jiffy Pop over the flames and the kernels were beginning to pop frantically. When it was done, Ron let it cool, slit the foil and everyone dug in. As they each took turns crunching away at the warm salty popcorn, there was a sudden huff-grunt that came from the deep in the woods behind them. It was equal parts grunt, dog bark, and lion snarl. It sounded in three short bursts; harumph, harumph, harumph.

Everyone stopped chewing. Luke and Ron caught each other’s gaze and both of them raised their eyebrows ever so slightly, so as to not alarm the kids. Luke reached for his flashlight, flicked the switch and pointed the strong beam in the direction of the sub-human noise. He panned the light back and forth, secretly hoping not to see anything at the other end of it. The noise gave him goose bumps.Despite being a big guy at 6’ 5” and two hundred thirty pounds, he was unnerved and, frankly, on the near side of terrified. The sound was chilling, unlike anything he ever heard.

“What was that?” Stacy said, wide eyed.

“I don’t know. It might be a moose or something. Maybe a bear?” Ron said.

“Yeah, I’m guessing a moose,” Luke lied. He didn’t want to scare the kids or let on how freaked out he was by the sound. Honestly, he had no idea what it was. He only knew it sounded nothing like the moose he heard from across the lake on a trip a few years ago.

Luke and Ron stood up and both of them shined their flashlights toward the woods. There was nothing obvious at least within distance of the flashlight. Luke threw another couple logs on the fire. Best to let whatever it was out there know who was at the top of the food chain. A good fire certainly would not hurt their argument any and it made Luke a little more at ease as well. The fire crackled and flared as the papery bark of the birch logs caught fire and gave it new life.

Then, it sounded again, “Harrumph, harrumph, harrumph.” Then all they could hear was the sound of rapidly retreating footsteps and the snapping of twigs and branches. Whatever it was was leaving in a hurry, perhaps spooked by the newly raging campfire.

“Is the moose running away, dad?” Nate asked, his voice inflected with fear

“Yep, it sure sounds like it. We must’ve scared it off,” Luke replied

Luke again caught Ron’s gaze by the light of the fire, and took note of the surprised look. Luke could tell Ron was thinking the same thing he did.

That was no moose. Moose don’t run on two feet.


***


Luke listened to Stacy’s breathing as she slept next to him in the small three person tent. She had fallen asleep almost immediately after laying down, but Luke was not so fortunate. He was still freaked out by what had transpired earlier around the fire pit. What the hell was that thing? What did it want? Was it still around? The questions were plentiful, answers few.

Then he smelled it.

The god-awful stench wafted into his tent from the open screen window. It almost burned his nostrils, it was so pungent. He covered his nose trying to filter some of the stink through his fingers. Suddenly, he heard a muffled dragging noise. He heard it again, and then the sound of a pot clanking.

The equipment pack! Whatever it was that stunk was getting into the pack. A bear? A grey wolf?

Luke slowly sat up in his sleeping bag. If there was one thing he didn’t want to do, it was to startle the animal into an attack. He peered out through the mosquito mesh tent window to try and get a look at what he might be up against. What he saw gave him chills.

In the dim light of the few remaining fire coals, he could see a huge, hulking, grayish figure bent over the equipment pack. He guessed it would have to stand over seven feet tall, with long, muscular arms. It appeared to have clumps of matted, mangy hair covering parts of its translucent grey body. The stink that hung in the air was clearly emanating from this creature, whatever the hell it was.

A flashlight beam shot out from the other tent in the direction of the hulking form. Oh no, what are they doing? Do they want to get us all killed?

The creature turned around quickly and stood up. Luke couldn’t believe it. It looked like an enormous grey, sickly gorilla. Its head was huge with a sagittal crest ridge running along the top. The eeriest part, though, were its red eyes. They were brilliant red, like the end of a laser pointer; unlike any eyes he had ever seen. Their darkness-piercing pinholes added to the fear he felt building in his chest. He was unsure whether to wake Nate, so he was ready to run, or leave him sleep in hopes that the beast would find what he was looking for and move along.

“What the hell is it, Luke?” Ron said through his tent, his tone tinged with detectable fear.

“I don’t know, but you may want to kill that light before you piss it off,” Luke replied. Ron switched off the light off, and Luke watched the Sasquatch by the light of the remaining coals in the fire pit. It stood there menacingly for a moment looking at Ron’s tent. Then it made a freakish sound. “Brumph click click, brumph click click.”

It stormed toward Ron’s tent, with huge strides. When it got there, it stopped and sounded its call again, this time louder. “Brumph click click, brumph click click.”

Nate screamed as the creature grabbed the tent by the fabric and poles uprooting the stakes. It started dragging Ron and Nate toward the lake. They were now trapped and screaming inside the nylon chaos that once was their shelter. When it reached the water’s edge near the canoes, the Sasquatch picked up the whole tent and cinched it like a sack of play toys. In a whirling motion it heaved the whole thing out into the lake. Ron and Nate screamed in panic as they floundered in the water. It then raised its massive arms and let out a primeval guttural sound. “Haruooomph chukka chukka, haruoomph, chukka chukka.” It seemed to be celebrating its victory as its victims struggled in the water.

Luke and Stacy had been watching through the tent window the whole time. He realized that he and Stacy could be trapped and drowning in their tent if they didn’t move. Luke quietly unzipped the tent door and he and Stacy climbed out. He whispered to her, “I want you to go hide behind the biggest tree you can find, and stay there, OK?”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know yet. Just do as I say, okay sweetie?”

“Okay, Dad.” Stacy scrambled out and ran off into the woods.

Luke really did not have a plan. He just knew he had to do something quick. He glanced back and forth around camp looking for a weapon, or at least something to defend himself with. Then he saw it. Leaning against the log bench by the fire pit was the hatchet. He crouched down and stealthed over to the bench. He grabbed the hatchet in his hand and crept toward the stinking, rotting Sasquatch still celebrating down by the water’s edge. The thing was sounding his war cry, “Haruooomph chukka chukka, haruoomph, chukka chukka.” It was as if he was waiting for the two in the tent to drown, waiting for the splashing and thrashing to stop.

His plan was to strike the beast in the neck, hoping to hit its jugular vein while it was turned away. As he approached, the beast seemed an easy, albeit terrifying target. As insurance, Luke bent down and picked up a softball-sized rock. If the thing gave him a fight, he would try and bash its skull in.

Luke drew back the hatchet, swung, and sunk it in at the base of the beast’s neck. Black fluid gushed out of the wound and onto Luke’s T-shirt. The zombie shrieked a gurgling scream as Luke pulled out the hatchet, ready to strike again. The man-beast grabbed his wound and turned to face its aggressor. Now Luke saw its grey veiny flesh up close. Its mouth gaped open and Luke couldn’t help but notice its long sharp teeth. He reared back with the hatchet and struck the beast squarely in the nose. It landed and stuck. The beast recoiled, staggered backward and fell into the lake, where it thrashed and floundered in the shallows.

Luke switched the rock from his left hand to his dominant right and waded into the water where the beast was, hatchet still sticking out of its face. Luke drew back the rock and bashed the Sasquatch in the forehead. He dropped the rock and grabbed the beast by the neck and held his head underwater. It flailed its arms grasping at him weakly as it continued to struggle. Bubbles came to the surface as Luke held the wounded creature down for what seemed an eternity. The creature’s arms dropped and the struggling ceased. Luke stood over the lifeless re-dead corpse, breathing hard from the fight; adrenaline still pumping.

After a second or two he heard the splashing and screaming from Ron and Nate, still flailing in the sinking tent. The water was cold, and dropped off rather quickly. It appeared they were so entangled in the wet nylon that they were unable to stand up. He staggered over to the half-submerged tent. It seemed to have enough trapped air in it that it had not sunk as quickly as he would have thought.

“Hold on, I’m coming, Ron!” Luke shouted.

“Okay, hurry!"

Nate continued to scream as Luke waded out into the deep cold water. He worked his way chest-deep to where the tent was and reached out and grabbed a handful of it. He pulled it over his shoulder and slogged back toward shore. The tent was heavy, but Ron and Nate’s buoyancy made it easier to pull them in. When he got to knee deep, he struggled to find the zipper. Nate had quit screaming and now was just crying. Ron was trying to console him and calm him down. Meanwhile, Stacy came out from hiding and joined him at the water’s edge.

“Hey dad, what is that thing?” Nate asked.

“I don’t know, kinda looks like a fricken bigfoot or something! It’s not going to bother us anymore though,” Luke replied. He stopped momentarily and kicked the floating corpse out into the deeper water. No sense in freaking Stacy out any more than she already was by forcing her to see the giant re-dead Sasquatch.

“Hey, Stacy, could you run and get a flashlight from the tent and shine it out here to help?” Luke asked.

“Sure dad.” Stacy took off toward the tent.

Luke wrestled with the wet nylon, eventually found the zipper and pulled it open. Nate climbed out first. Soaking wet and crying, he stood in the ankle-deep water in shock. Luke grabbed his son, pulled him close, and hugged him tightly. “It’s okay now. It’s all gone. You’re safe now.” The two of them stood there for a moment, shaking from head to toe. Ron found his way out and joined them in their hug.

***

“I say we pack up and get the hell out of here,” Ron said.

“I’m with you on that, brother. Let’s get the fire stoked again so we can break camp. It will be light in a few hours and we do have some decent moonlight to work with.”

Luke put a couple of small sticks on the remaining embers and got the fire going again. The kids were both on the same page and helped pack what they could. It was clear they wanted to get off the island as soon as possible. Within an hour camp was broken and the canoes were loaded. They pushed off into the darkness and gloom with the moon as their guide.

After a twenty minute paddle, they came to their portage. Luke and Ron unloaded the packs from the canoes. They put the lighter packs on Nate and Stacy’s backs. In the interest of time, the men chose to carry a pack and a canoe each, making it possible to complete the portage in a single trip. Once everyone was loaded up, Luke smelled it again. One by one, the others smelled it too. That horrific, god-awful odor that haunted them earlier was back.

“Oh my gosh, it’s back! Do you smell that?” Luke asked

The others replied, almost in unison, that they did.

Stacy looked visibly shaken as she said, “Do you think something’s following us?”

“I don’t know, I think we should keep moving though,” Ron said as he adjusted his headlamp and started up the trail. Nate and Stacy stepped in behind him and Luke stayed at the back of the group. He wanted the kids between the adults in case something was behind or in front of them. The stink unnerved him. It was exactly the same as he encountered during his fight with the zombie Sasquatch earlier. If he had killed that thing, then where was this smell coming from?

Luke didn’t know much about zombies. All he knew he learned from the Zombie Survival Handbook that Nate had back home. It was a crazy gift he gave him for his birthday. He found it funny that what he thought was a senseless waste of money actually began to make sense to him. In the little bit he read of the book he tried to recall if they could survive a hatchet to jugular and the head. It was strange even to be thinking about it. Neither Sasquatches, or zombies were supposed to exist. To have two of them rolled up into one beast was unfathomable.

When they arrived at the second and third portages, it was a similar scene. They landed, and as they were loading up, they smelled the stench again. They looked at each other with questioning looks. The closer they got to their landing place, the more the fear level grew. They paddled hard across the last lake. By the time they crossed Worry Lake, the last lake on their route, it was beginning to get light out. When they pulled their canoes up on to the sandy shore, they were instantly overcome with the smell. They looked around but saw nothing out of the ordinary.

As they stood there assessing the situation they suddenly heard a crashing and thrashing in the woods, and heavy footfalls heading away from where they were. After a few seconds the thrashing stopped and they heard. “Harumph chukka chukka,” followed by more snapping twigs and footfalls.

The four of them looked at each other in corporate fear.

***

The final portage was a short walk up a trail that led to the parking lot. They loaded the gear and canoes on to their backs one last time and started up the trail. When they arrived at the van, the only vehicle in the lot, they all set their stuff down and looked in disbelief. Lying on the hood of the van was a hatchet. Luke picked it up and saw his initials that he had etched in the handle. It was the one he sunk into the zombie Sasquatch’s face only hours earlier.

Off in the distance they heard a faint “Harumph, chukka chukka.”

Jim Landwehr


Jim Landwehr is a
 Wisconsin author.

Visit his website:
http://www.writerjimlandwehr.com
 

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