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BWCA Weather for Ely, Grand Marais, and the Gunflint Trail

Camping with Rain, Bears, and ... Serial Killers? 

--by Susan Krieger
Every year, while I was in high school, I looked forward to one special week more than anything else during summer vacation. When that week came, thirty kids and a handful of counselors packed into a charter bus to make the twelve-hour drive from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

The summer after my senior year, ten of us decided to break away from the main group and camp on another lake. In our group of ten, there were two male counselors, the oldest of whom was twenty, and one other male camper. The rest of us were girls, two of whom had never been camping. One of the girls camping for her first time was fresh from Korea, just learning English. The other was fresh from the suburbs, just learning the realities of camping.

Once the ten of us left Gunflint Outfitters and the main group, we were on our own. It was a six-hour trip to our campsite on Big Bear Lake, and our first problem met us half way. After a few hours of portaging, a storm blew in, and we stopped where we were to pitch camp rather than risk the lightning on the water.

It rained all night, and the next day we packed up and continued on in a steady drizzle. Once we made it to our site, it took us a while to get a fire burning after all the rain and, even though we dried out more wood around the fire and saved it under a tarp, we only used it for cooking fires.

Our next problem was more serious than rain. The bears! To keep bears away, we knew not to keep food or candy in the tents and to burn or bury garbage. On past trips we had strung our food packs up with a rope between trees where a bear couldn't reach it. Since all of us experienced campers forgot to bring rope, we had to find another way to protect the food, ourselves and future campers.

It didn't take us long to come up with a plan. We set the food packs on the ground in a row. Then we flipped a canoe upside down on top of them and balanced the pointed ends between rocks. This wasn't enough. We booby-trapped the inverted canoe by placing our metal cups and plates over the top of it.

The very first night, the plan was put to the test. A bear tried to take a food pack and tipped the canoe. We heard the dishes fall and came running out of our tents banging pots and pans together to scare it away. This happened once or twice every night and the bear became progressively harder to scare off. But it was the best short-term plan we had.

On the fourth day, we woke up to a cloudless sky. We had a full day of fishing, hiking, and swimming and that night we sat around our first and only campfire. That night, our third problem snuck up on us. We told stories and talked of past years until one camper said, ''I heard Ten Fingers killed two campers a few weeks ago.''

The eight of us who had been on the camping trip before looked at each other. We knew all the stories by heart but we had to tell them at least once or the whole trip just wouldn't feel right.

''Who is Ten Fingers?'' asked the Korean girl. That was all we needed. One of the counselors started, ''A long time ago, this guy was camping with his family up here and he killed them for no reason. He just went nuts.''

''Yeah, we saw the newspaper clipping,'' someone added. Another camper jumped in, ''He was caught and put in an insane asylum, but he escaped and came back here. ''He lives off the land and kills campers,'' said another. ''And he cuts all their fingers off.''

Okay, in the light of day, these campfire stories seem silly and dramatic. But at night, in the middle of nowhere, they have the ability to set every nerve on edge. We took turns telling stories as the light from the campfire made the shadows jump around us. Of course, it wasn't long before we heard noises in the woods, different from the scampering of night creatures.

When we stopped talking, to listen, the noises stopped. Someone pointed out that animals would move around while it was quiet, not when we were talking and laughing. Whether that statement was true or not, paranoia set in.

We decided to sleep it off, but it was not to be. Separated into three tents, we listened to the noises of the night. Before five minutes had passed, we heard metal scrape on metal, then a thump. A cup had fallen off the canoe. In a few minutes another cup fell. The cups fell one by one for about 15 minutes when suddenly, the rest of the dishes clattered to the ground. We rushed out to scare the bear away, but there was no bear. The canoe was still in place.

No one wanted to say it, as we set the dishes back up, but we were all afraid that Ten Fingers had heard our stories and was playing with us. We were no longer seniors on the threshold of adulthood. We were kids afraid of the boogieman.

Leaving was out of the question. We all knew that a six-hour portage in the dark wasn't possible for us. So we split up into two groups of five for the rest of the night. We felt a little safer until someone thought they remembered a story about Ten Fingers killing a group of eleven campers.

Stuck with the spot next to the flimsy, zipped up door of the tent, my heart thudded in my chest. I strained my ears to hear every little noise, expecting a knife to come slashing through the tent at any second. How I fell asleep, I don't know. But the rest of the night passed quietly with an early morning wakeup call by the actual bear.

Though no one had slept much, our fears disappeared in the light of the new day. The next two days passed with minimal activity due to rain, and there were no more unusual disturbances.

Finally we were ready to head back to the lodge. It was the second sunny day that week. We had no breakfast. One camper came walking into camp with the recently emptied food pack that had been small enough for the bear to slip out from under the canoe without tipping it. We had no clean, dry clothes since we hadn't been able to dry any in the sun. No one had slept very well the last few nights either. Whether that was from fear or folly, we'll never know.

Back at the lodge, we met up with the other group from our school. We shared our stories and they told us of a man they had seen standing on a ridge watching them. They hadn't approached him and eventually he had disappeared over the ridge. He had gone in the direction of our lake and they had seen him the day before our night of fear. We returned to Milwaukee and life returned to normal with the knowledge that the next time we went camping, we would have good stories to tell. Shortly after that, I took a job at a lodge on Gunflint Lake. I couldn't stay away; the wilderness was in my blood. I enjoyed the remote location, but on some quiet, dark nights, I couldn't help but wonder what had really happened that night. Was it Ten Fingers, or ten active imaginations?


       --article courtesy of BoundaryWatersMagazine


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