A CAMPFIRE STORY
by Dylan - first posted May 26, 2015
By user vital_dual, June 2013
For a number of years I was a camp counselor at an overnight camp in the Muskokas. I loved it more than any job I’ve ever had, despite the nonexistent pay, annoying campers, long days and short nights, crappy food, etc. For one, I got to tell as many scary stories as I could sputter out. There was nothing better than hanging around a dying campfire with a bunch of Junior High kids who were demanding the scariest, most blood-curdling tales I knew. And I told them all: the babysitter and the eerie clown statue; the driver and the creepy gas attendant; the woman and her licking dog.
I saved my best stories for the overnight trips we made in Algonquin Park—for non-Canadians, it’s a massive park in the middle of Ontario, spanning nearly 8,000 square kilometres—when days would be spent canoeing on pristine lakes and nights would be spent around the fire, singing and making s’mores and being as rowdy as the only people within miles could be. Once the kids had quieted down, I told them stories of a stalker in the woods with a face so horrifying it paralyzed all of its victims in fear, or the group of campers who decided to spend a night across the lake from an abandoned (OR WAS IT?) insane asylum.
On this particular night, I’d finished up the tales, once again insisting that they were entirely true, and sent the campers to their tents. It had been an exhausting day, and none of the six kids were in any mood to stay up later. My fellow counselor had also decided to pack it in, leaving just me on a fallen log next to the dying fire. I took a deep breath of the cool, fresh pine-scented air and looked out at the lake. The partial moon reflected off the glassy water, and on the other side I could see towering cliffs, going up several hundred feet. I considered whether we could canoe over, climb up a few dozen feet, and do some cliff jumping. I grinned. The camp director would have my head if we did that. If he found out.
Movement at the very top of the cliffs caught my eye. There was a small light bobbing along the peak. At first I thought it was a star, but it was larger and gave off a golden glow. It slowly moved back and forth in a small arc. As I sat up and watched it, another appeared next to it, bobbing along the top of the cliff. Then another. And another. And a few more.
My stomach dropped into my feet. I grabbed my bag and pulled my digital camera out, then focused it on the little glowing orbs and used the zoom function. I counted them. And then I counted again.
In a flash I was up and running to the tents. “Hey guys? Wake up. We gotta go.”
There was movement in the tents, and then I had seven confused heads looking out at me. My co-counselor wore a mixture of concern and pure anger. “I hate to do this,” I continued, “but the clouds are looking really threatening. There’s a big rainstorm coming in. If we get caught in it, it’s going to ruin our trip.”
“Seriously?” Laura, my co-counselor, asked. “We’re in the middle of the woods. Where would we go?”
I pulled a map and flashlight out of my bag. “There’s a ranger’s station a few kilometres south of us.” I traced the path with my finger. Thank God. “We can make it there in a few hours.”
The campers groaned. “Can’t we just go in the morning?”
“No!” I shouted, my voice echoing across the lake. I lowered it. “C’mon, let’s get packed up and go. I’ll tell you a story along the way.” I smiled, though I could feel my lips quivering. “It’s my best one.”
That seemed to get them going, and within ten minutes the tents were packed up and we’d begun our trek into the deep woods, with small flashlights our only guide. When I was confident we were moving at a steady pace, I allowed myself to relax and began to tell my favourite campfire story:
Centuries before the European settlers made their way into the country, it was inhabited by the First Nations people. They had made the trip from across Western Canada, following the migration patterns of large animals such as buffalo and bison. Eventually they reached Ontario, at which point they split off into smaller groups of travelers, each searching for a section of land to call their own.
Legend has it that one group, consisting of about twenty men, women and children, had ventured through this very area in search of a place to call home. Though it wasn’t even the end of October, the weather had made a turn for the worse, and as the group journeyed around the lake, a fierce blizzard hit. Within an hour, the group found themselves in blinding snow and below-zero temperatures. The clothes they had on them were made for the fall, not this sort of weather, and there weren’t any Canada Goose jackets around back then. But they pressed on. They didn’t have any other choice.
Night was falling as they reached a cliff bluff, which towered over a cold, choppy lake. There was no stopping for this group—they’d die if they didn’t make it past the cliffs. But with darkness setting in and the snow falling even harder, visibility was almost nonexistent. So one of the elders had an idea. Using the little kerosene they had left, he lit a lantern for each of the travelers and had them carry it in front of them, not so that they could see the cliffs, but so they could see who was in front of them, allowing them to all follow each other across the narrow bluffs.
With the strongest of the men leading the way, the group began to cross the cliffs. The freezing, wet snow soaked every bone in their body. The harsh wind chilled any exposed skin and threatened to push them right off the rock. Their path was no more than a few feet wide, and would have been slippery to even the best of hiking boots, let alone hand-fashioned moccasins. Slowly—painstakingly slowly—they made their way up the cliffs, praying that whatever lay on the other side could shelter them from the intensifying storm.
They were about halfway up, hundreds of feet above the lake, though it was well out of their vision. In fact, all they could see in this blinding storm was the lantern in front of them, acting as a beacon to guide their steps. If the light moved up, they moved up. If it went down, they moved down. Each of the travelers was almost in a trance, caring about nothing but the glowing orb a few feet away.
For the leader, though, there was no such luxury. He moved forward blindly, feeling along the cliff with his free arm, though his skin was so numb he could barely feel anything. As the path wound back again, he made a misstep and lost his footing, just as a gust of wind blasted his back. He desperately grasped for the hold, but his frozen fingers couldn’t get anything. With a terrified scream, he slipped off the cliffs and fell into the icy black lake.
The rest of the party didn’t see him fall, of course. All they saw was his glowing orb dropping away from the bluff and disappearing in the darkness. There was no time to mourn. They continued on, but the storm was worsening. After another minute, one of the children, his body unable to withstand the cold, dropped away, his lantern glowing until the choppy waters put it out. Another, having seen this, lost his balance and fell. This pattern went on until there were just five people left, fumbling along in the darkness, following the light in front.
As hard as they tried, the cliffs were unforgiving. The remaining men fell down to four. Then three. And two. And then there was just one left, who legend says cursed the earth as his legs slipped and he plunged hundreds of feet down, his lantern the last one to be extinguished.
“Of the twenty members who tried to overcome the cliffs,” I finished, “not one of them survived. They say that sometimes, when the conditions are right, you can see the orbs along the cliff, symbols of the lost travelers who will never find their homes.”
As the story ended, leaving the campers in an eerie silence, I saw lights up ahead. A wave of relief poured over me. We picked up the pace and found the ranger’s station bursting with activity, with a half-dozen people running around, loading up trucks and shouting into radios. The wind was beginning to really pick up, and I heard thunder in the distance.
“Hey! You kids!” A large, burly man with a full beard and mustache ran up to us. “Get in the trucks! We don’t have much time!”
Laura and I led the kids to one of the pickup trucks. “What’s going on?” I asked the man.
“Didn’t you hear?” Another gust of wind. “Huge storm system’s heading right for us. Already been tornadoes touched down. We’re getting everyone out of here. Let’s go!”
We all climbed into the truck’s bed. I collapsed down, feeling like I’d just been punched in the gut. The ranger climbed into the front and we took off down a makeshift road. My head was spinning. It wasn’t possible…
“How…” Laura slid next to me, keeping her voice low. “How did you know we had to get out of there?”
I looked over at her. My face felt empty of any blood. “I saw the lights.”
“What? No. No!” She gasped, then caught herself. “How many?”
I took a deep breath. “Eight.”
She looked around at all the campers, who were now lying against each other, asleep despite the bumpy road. “That’s all of us. My God…”
I nodded and leaned against her. Laura had heard the travelers’ story before, and she knew that I’d left out a key bit of information. The lights were real, but they were never random. If they were shining—bobbing back and forth, swinging in a small arc—it was because they had a message. A warning.
One light would shine, for each person who was about to die.