When I was a kid, my parents shipped me off to camp for the entire summer, right after school ended. This isn’t really true; I was probably only at summer camp for a couple weeks, but it was every summer, until I was old enough to get a summer job. First it was day-camp, then it was Girl Scout camp, then it was church camp — which isn’t as bad as it sounds. I grew up Lutheran; church was pretty chill, and so was church camp.
All this outdoorsy time left me with an enduring hatred for camping, a disdain for outdoor activities, and a full-on phobia of being in the forest after dark. One time in college walking through the woods, along the access road behind the dorms as the sun disappeared, and I became overwhelmed by the idea that it wasn’t the daylight that was fading, it was my eyesight. I was going blind. It didn’t help that standing to the side of that access road was the creepiest, gnarliest, hauntedest looking craggy old tree I’ve ever seen. That tree haunts my dreams.
This blog post isn’t about my college years, nor is it about that tree. It is about the woods, though. And it’s about camp. Every morning in the summer, the bus picked up me (and later on my brother, when he was old enough) in front of our house, with my swimsuit rolled up in my towel. I had to stay there all damn day long, making crafts, making one wrong turn on the horse back obstacle course, so I didn’t get a Charms pop at the end; and almost drowning in the swimming pool.
One summer, the camp had an overnight camp-out in the woods for the older campers. I don’t remember being excited about this camp-out, but this is me as an adult who hates camping, remembering back to kid me. I had many years of sleepaway camp in my future. And hopefully this was not the same summer that my camp group went to pick raspberries in the woods, I stepped into a raspberry bush and straight on a yellow jacket nest. I got stung numerous times, needless to say. I remember running through the trees screaming bloody murder as the yellow jackets chased me and stung me again and again.
My mom told me many years later that she thought I was going to die. I don’t remember going to the doctor, but I’m sure I did. I do remember that I got to stay home from camp for a few days, eating Doritos on the couch. You’d think this would’ve left me with a fear of bees, wasps, and yellow jackets — but it didn’t. They don’t bother me. The worst already happened.
Camp sucked, is what I’m saying.
About six of us kids camped under the stars that night, in the middle of the woods that surrounded the summer camp. We were just up the trail from the camp proper, but from our campsite, I couldn’t see any sign of civilization. We had a guy counselor who was probably a teen. His name was Squid. (All the counselors had nicknames; the two other counselors in charge of our group were Mädel and Mouth.) Once we were all settled around the campfire with our sticky s’mores, Squid told us a scary story.
It went like this.
Back in the olden days, there were these two fur trappers traveling by canoe. They came to a place where they had to portage — which Squid explained to us meant that they had to carry their canoe over land, until they met up with their waterway again. They were portaging along, deep into an unfamiliar part of the woods, when they came across an old Indian man shaking beads in a skull. The Indian man told the trappers to turn back, because they were heading into a part of the woods that belonged to… the Windigo. Of course the trappers ignored the old Indian man’s advice, and continued on. At night, they set up their tent, and they went to sleep. In the middle of the night, one of the trappers woke up and he realized that something outside the tent was pressing the tent fabric downward. He touched it with his fingers and it was icy cold. The trapper lay awake for awhile, very frightened, but nothing happened. When dawn came, the two men packed up their gear and continued their portage.
As they were carrying their canoe, they heard a faraway scream. They looked at each other in fear, both of them wondering if the scream had come from the old Indian man. But, the sun was going down, so they made camp once more. In the middle of the night, the trapper who had felt the cold pressing down against the tent was awakened once more, but this time by the crash of trees falling in the forest. Both trappers rushed out of their tents. It was pitch black. They couldn’t see what was making the crashing noise. They could only tell it was getting closer. They started to run blindly through the forest. One of the trappers stumbled, fell a bit behind his friend, and suddenly screamed. The other trapper turned, and his friend was gone. But, the trapper still heard his friends screams. He realized in horror that his friend was screaming from high up in the air, his screams growing fainter and farther away. The trapper looked up to the sky, and he couldn’t see his friend. He saw only two bright stars burning in the night, between the tops of the trees. Then he realized they were not stars — they were two eyes.
The Trapper turned and ran for his life. He ran through the forest for what seemed like hours and hours, chased by the crashing of trees behind him, and the high, faint screams of his friend. In the darkness, he missed his footing and fell into a ravine, tumbling all the way to the bottom. He couldn’t run anymore. He was exhausted. He knew he would die. Except he didn’t die. When dawn broke, the trapper was still alive. The ravine he had fallen into, marked the far edge of the Windigo’s territory.
And with that, Squid wished us good night.
I still remember this night vividly. I remember my sleeping bag: more suited for basement sleepovers, brown with a pattern of Wrangler brand “W’s” all over it. I remember lying on my back, staring up at a sky framed by towering black trees, I remember the clear night, and the stars, and that they might be eyes, high up in the night sky. I lay awake all night (or so it seemed) on the hard ground, utterly terrified, while the fire slowly died, and everyone else fell asleep.
The windigo story remained my obsession for years after that. Just thinking about That Word, or whispering “Windigo…” to myself gave me a chill of fear. From time to time, I looked for more information, but without any luck. This was the 1970s, and then the 1980s, and there was no internet. I had to rely on card catalogs in libraries, and I didn’t even know what to look for. I figured Squid had made up the story, and that terrible, potent word.
In college, I no longer had to rely on cards in a cabinet: my college had digitized their catalog. When I typed “windigo” into the search one day on a whim — I got a hit. It was a book in the college library, literally called Windigo.
I speed-walked into the stacks and pulled the book off the shelf with my heart pounding. All those feelings of terror and wonder from that overnight camp-out came flooding back to me as I opened the book to the astonishing illustration on the end papers. It was the story Squid had told us, all those years ago. I checked out the book, read it cover-to-cover, and I discovered with terror and glee, that Squid’s story was a heavily abridged version of Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo.”
I lost track of the book over the years, but in the early days of the internet, I went hunting for it again. I finally tracked it down in the early 2000s, and I remember emailing the used book seller to ask him if it was The Book, describing the book’s end paper illustration. When I got my copy in the mail, I was elated, immediately opened it to That Picture, and re-read Blackwood’s story with delight.
Even though I had solved a mystery from my childhood, that word “Windigo” still holds a spooky power over me. Those three syllables encapsulate that lonely terror in the deep woods at night. Even though I was very close to the picnic tables and the tire swing next to the creek, in my heart, I was miles and miles gone from home or help.
I’ve tried to recapture that feeling in my own work, but there is something so ineffable and immense about the emotion, that it seems impossible to fully express it in words. The Windigo will always be my monster: the far away crashing in the night, the cold burning of two ancient eyes belonging to a creature that cannot, or should not, be seen; vaster than its own story, its presence reaching for me across the years. I suppose we will always keep chasing one another through the dark, me hoping and fearing to finally meet my Windigo in the end, somewhere among the trees.