by Tom King
We named the younger boys grubs. Grubs! You know, worms. We called them that so we could prove to ourselves we were more than boys. We were eighteen, nineteen – maybe some of us even twenty years old. The Grubs, between fourteen and seventeen, were nipping right on the heels of our peach fuzzy manhood. The real difference between the Grubs and us was that we got paid a little to spend the summer living in a canoe and sleeping under the stars on behalf of the Boy Scouts of America. The grubs had to fork out some good money to the Boy Scouts to spend nine days of their summer doing the same spectacular thing we got paid to do. We knew how to paddle all day, bake an apple pie over an open fire, lope across a rocky portage with a 100-pound canoe on our shoulders, and where to find good fishing. They wanted to learn. They were Grubs.
Sometimes, to prove how not-grub we were, we’d show them the dehydrated water. Meal times were puzzling for kids who didn’t know how to prepare their own peanut butter sandwich let alone cook a three course meal for fifteen over a pile of burning sticks. It was a good chance for guides to puff up a bit.
“See that can,” the smart aleck canoe guide would say pointing to the bright yellow and red labeled can. “The one that says dehydrated water?”
“Ya?!”, the puzzled grub scout would mumble glancing nervously between the guide and can.
“You know how to mix up water, don’t you?”
“You get that can opener out from the pack,” the guide explains while adding pine wood to the blazing cook fire, “open the can, pour in two cups of water, stir it fifteen times, and you’ve got water. But it’s gotta be fifteen times.”
The thing about cans of dehydrated water is they are filled with air. Nothing more. You add water and, duh!, you get water. The more alert boys figured it out sooner. They, as well as the not-so-alert boys, all eventually grinned sheepishly as they absorbed the joke.
If a guide was grown up at all, he played this joke once or twice before and then recognized its cruelty. Guiding, and being guided, caused a lot of growing up.
The situation we were in right now was not a joke. It did seem cruel. And before we were done everybody was going to grow up some.
“How is your side feeling Ralph?” I asked.
“Right now it only hurts a little,” fourteen-year-old Ralph, five years my junior, said.
Ralph was sitting, his backside in a puddle of water, in the middle of the wooden green canoe. I was paddling steadily in the stern and a sharp hot pain was knifing between my shoulders. Jose, a muscular sixteen years old from Chicago paddling bow, was starting to slack off. We’d had four hours of stiff face-into-the-wind work. I wondered if that blister Jose had on his thumb had broken. Was it bleeding now?
“How you doing Jose?” I asked.
The wind tossed my words backward. They never made it to the bow. The boy couldn’t hear me. I took another J-stroke to keep us into the wind. Even though it hurt. We had to. If we didn’t get to town Ralph’s appendix could burst. He might die.
It seemed strange. Yesterday we were in the second day of our trip. The sun was golden. Everybody was laughing. Maybe things went wrong when we shot the rapids at Kawnipi Forks. It didn’t seem like it at the time. The rapids were fun. Everybody had their life jackets on. The scouts in their poofy orange life vests paddling three green canoes on the blue water were strung out like beads on the wide river. That was one minute. The next a canoe capsized. The olive-green canvas packs were bobbing down river like ducks. And Ralph, Sam, and Randy were sputtering and gripping onto the gunwales of the swamped canoe. Jose and I came along side.
“OK guys,” I said, trying to stay calm “Remember. You can get into your canoe and paddle even if it’s full of water.”
They were scared but remembered their lessons. Carefully, one by one, they pulled into their canoe. It was floating just below the water’s surface.
“How come the canoe doesn’t sink?,” Jose asked.
It had floats built into the bow and stern, I explained. That kept it and the boys, who were sitting in water up to their chests, from sinking.
“OK, now paddle slowly toward that point with the big pine tree,” I told them. “There’s a campsite there. You can dry out.”
We stayed along side of them, sometimes paddling backwards so the current wouldn’t pull us away.
The afternoon was sunny and warm. The boys did dry out lounging under the grand old Norway Pines. The packs were retrieved. Sodden sleeping bags were spread out to dry on speckled black and white granite at the edge of the sparkling water. Tents were pitched. Dinner was cooked, including an apple pie in the shiny reflector oven. No bad jokes were told.
Everyone, exhausted from adventuring, turned in after an hour around the fire.
After making sure the fire was out, I crawled under my canoe, wrapped my blanket around me, and drifted to sleep to the music of water lapping the shore.
“Tim, Tim! Wake up.”
A hand, blue in the moonlight, was shaking me out of slumber. A loon was wailing. The hand was attached to Greg’s arm. Greg was one of the trip’s adult advisors.
“Tim. Wake up! Ralph is having terrible pains in his side.”
I crawled out from under the canoe, bumping my head sharply on the gunwale.
“I think he’s having an appendicitis attack,” Greg said.
Ralph had an appendicitis attack all right. What do you do when you’re at least two days away from emergency medical help and have an emergency? You do what we did.
Jose, who was the strongest paddler, and I gobbled a cold breakfast in the dark. Greg stuffed a pack with high-energy food – raisins, dried apples, brown sugar, oatmeal – that we could eat as we traveled. He also put in matches, a sleeping bag, a map, a piece of rope and, last but not least, toilet paper. Ralph, not hungry, sat on a rock, pale, and hugging himself.
We slipped the canoe into water made silver by dawn’s gray light. Everybody was up. With worried looks, the crew watched us lean into our paddles.
“Do the best you can guys,” Greg said. “We’ll wait for you here.”
“Hey, you guys,” Jose called back to shore as we glided over the glassy water into the morning mist, “do you remember how to cook dehydrated water?”
That got a laugh from everybody. Jose’s wisecrack brought a smile to our own faces and energy to our first hour of paddling.
But now it was late morning, the wind was in those previously smiling faces, a hot sun was over head, and we’d run out of jokes. One thing had been accomplished. I’d learned these two Grubs were tough kids. I knew Ralph hurt. He was scared, too. But he hadn’t complained. Instead he taught us some songs we sang together. Jose, who hadn’t paddled a canoe until three days before, wouldn’t quit. When he got blisters he told riddles.
“What’s always before you but you can never see it,” he asked Ralph and me.
“Your future!” he crowed.
But now we were out of songs. Out of dumb jokes. And it seemed like we weren’t going anywhere. Still, by early afternoon, we reached the campsite our group had camped at a day earlier. We’d covered a distance in half a day that our group had taken a day to cover. Time to celebrate with a raisin break.
It was nice sitting under a tree. Not paddling felt good. The raisins were sweet. The sunshine on my face made me sleepy. We had been paddling since 5:00 AM – nine hours. Maybe we could stay here. Maybe Ralph just had a stomachache.
“Hey, Ralph. How are you doing?” I asked. “Do you think we should stay here and see what happens?”
Ralph looked at me like he might have been ready to agree.
“No way, Tim,” Jose said staring a hole through me. “Ralph is really sick. We’ve got to go.”
I stared at Jose. Who did this Grub think he was? I was the guide. I made the decisions. But he was right. Without speaking again we packed our things, put the canoe in the water, and paddled.
We were on Agnes. Nobody ever called it Lake Agnes. Agnes. Like she was a person. That’s understandable. She had a personality. A difficult one. Agnes is long and thin. Ten to twelve miles long from north to south. Maybe a mile wide at her widest points. She’s surrounded by steep forested hills. It’s a long way through black water from a canoe’s keel to her cold stony bottom. And the wind. It’s always in your face. If you’re paddling north a cold wind splashes foam from high waves over your bow and into your face. If you’re traveling south – and we were – a hot wind sucks the moisture from you. The sun blisters you. All afternoon we faced off with that wind. We’d find a tall pine on the shore and stroke and stroke and stroke and maybe in twenty minutes we’d move by it and select the next tree. But with one minute of relaxation and we’d loose everything we’d gained.
But now, for the last hour, no wind had fought us. The sunset had been an orange explosion across the western sky. The loons were on the glassy water laughing. Again. We didn’t appreciate it. We’d been paddling fourteen hours. We were zombies. Numb paddling machines. We wanted to quit. But Ralph was hurting bad again.
Agnes is mysterious in the dark. Sweet. Gentle. Everybody I know prefers Agnes in the dark. Her dark liquid waters, the sound of a swishing paddle, the reflected starlight, all sooth the tortured body. In the dark I told the boys about Louisa Falls and the soothing waters of the natural baths.
“Louisa is above Agnes,” I told them. “As her waters fall toward Agnes there are tubs in the stone. Under the cedars there is thick moss. It’s deep and soft. You can slip over the moss into the tubs. The waterfall splashes on your head and massages your body.”
“It’s like a whirlpool,” Jose said. “Wouldn’t that be great, Ralph?”
Ralph didn’t respond.
“He’s sleeping,” I said.
“I hope so,” Jose said.
We heard Louisa Falls before we saw the campfire. The sound of falling water, first just a whispering suggestion, drew our canoe like the North Pole does a compass needle. We slipped through the silky darkness toward the sound. And there was the welcoming twinkle of a campfire. Glory. How fine hot food would taste.
“Look at that, Jose. Dinner is on. I bet they have pizza.”
Yeah. Jose still had a small reservoir of vigor. His paddle dipped and flashed in the starlight. Ralph groaned. “We’re gonna get you there, Ralph. Hang-on.”
The canoe hit the pebbles of the beach at the Louisa Falls campsite. The sound of the Falls was strong. The figures at the campfire couldn’t hear us. They couldn’t see us.
“I’ll tell them we need help. You guys wait here.”
Jose stood ankle deep in water, holding the canoe. The water was foamy from the falls. I stepped in to my knees. The water was warmer than the air. I placed my paddle against the webbed stern seat. Sloshed to the beach. Walked toward the yellow flickering flames. There were two figures. Their backs were toward me. Black. I walked across the grass. Not many campsites have grass. I saw the dew in the starlight. White. A figure turned toward me. Away from the fire’s light. I opened my mouth. I was prepared to speak. Greet. The face of the figure, or where there should have been a face, was hooded. If this wasn’t true, just a story, I’d say cowled. And something, two things, glittered where eyes should have been. Had it been facing the fire, and I don’t say it carelessly, I would say fire light reflected in it’s eyes. But the orange or red where eyes should be was not warm firelight. Wasn’t eyes. It was facing me. In the dark, it was burning inside. I froze. I became cold. Icy. Then adrenaline scorched me. With those cold red not-eyes at my back I flew across the dewed grass, into the water, and into the stern of the canoe. I said something to Jose – I don’t know what – but he understood my terror and we raced through the dark toward Meadows Portage.
We got out into the shallow water near the portage. Jose took the paddles and our small pack and I, knee deep in water, rolled the canoe onto my thighs and then to my shoulders. Sloshing out of the water we followed the trail into the woods. It was a relief to walk after so many hours. The adrenaline had done its work and now I was exhausted. I explained some of what I’d seen to Jose as we prepared to portage.
The rest of that night is a blur. Somehow we got to the canoe-base landing. Somehow Ralph, Jose, and I got into the canoe-base truck and onto the dark winding road to town. And somehow we got to the hospital emergency room. The sun was just coming up
Later that day I rode in the bow of a motor canoe to Meadows Portage. The fresh wind felt good on my face. The bow slapped the waves. I napped. It was peaceful. At Meadows I shouldered the canoe. The other guy, I don’t remember his name, took the gas and motor. They smell bad and are awkward.
At the north end of the portage I told the guy about what I’d seen at Louisa Falls. He didn’t believe me. We motored over there. With a motor you can’t hear the falls. The guy shut the motor off. We could hear their soothing sound as we drifted in. I got out before we hit the beach and gently brought the canoe along side. The campground was empty. The fire pit hadn’t been used for days, maybe weeks. The guy shrugged. He said something polite but didn’t look at me.
We shoved off and motored up to my crew.
Tim King is the 2016 winner of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness’ Spooky Stories contest. Cover photo by Conservation Fellow, Nicholas Nicome. @nicholasnicome