“What was that noise I just heard? Was that just a squirrel or a chipmunk? Or is somebody watching me? Are we ever truly alone in the woods?”
“In the mountains lurk predators that remain undiscovered.”
Author’s Note: Everything in this story is either true, or could be. I truly enjoyed writing it.
It was mid November. I had just turned sixteen. Saranac Lake High School was out for Thanksgiving.
Dad and I were making plans for a deer hunt over on our usual stomping grounds, the Phelps Mountain basin of the Adirondack High Peaks.
I’d been hunting with my dad for as long as I could remember. Since I was nine years old at least. He’d carry his lever action Winchester .32 Special. I’d tag along. When I turned fourteen, I was finally old enough to hunt small game. I started carrying his old sixteen-gauge Ithaca pump shotgun on our hunts, hoping for a shot at a snowshoe rabbit or partridge.
Usually, we walked all day hoping to cut a fresh track. Occasionally when it was sunny or warm, we picked out a couple of big rocks on a hilltop or ridge and sat “on watch”, sharing a packed lunch.
At least once every deer hunting season, we camped. Dad would get out his topographical maps, study the trails and terrain, then pick some remote spot. Generally, either up near Ampersand Mountain or somewhere in the afore mentioned Phelps Mountain basin.
He taught me to read both a topo map and a compass. We’d plan a route. Sometimes we made a day trip first, familiarizing ourselves with the area, and doing some scouting.
Our first “deer camps” consisted of sleeping bags, a good rope, two trees on high ground near a stream, a few rocks for a fire pit, two backpacks with food, flashlights, matches, spare clothes, and Dad’s old canvas tarp.
Dad and I would spend three days meticulously planning and preparing our menu, packing list, and each day’s schedule. He insisted we write it all out.
Looking back now, it’s rather funny. The menu was always the same. Breakfasts consisted of instant oatmeal and Tang. Peanut butter and jelly, bologna, or potted meat sandwiches, 2 homemade cookies, and an apple were lunch. Two of Mom’s foil wrapped “Hunter’s Stews” cooked in the fire for dinner.
Mom’s Hunter’s Stews were pretty rustic, a ball of raw hamburger, half an onion, salt & pepper, a carrot or two, and a par boiled potato, all double foil wrapped. We buried them in the coals of a hot fire for an hour to cook. The outer part was always charred, the centers blood raw.
They tasted pretty good though, after a long day’s hunt. As long as we remembered to pack a container of ketchup, and added more salt.
Dad insisted that the Adirondack High Peaks wilderness was home to some big mountain bucks. Though in all the years we’d hunted and camped together up to that point, I’d never seen any. In fact, hunting together with me, Dad had never even taken a shot at a deer.
When I turned sixteen, I was finally old enough to hunt big game myself. Dad bought me a new shotgun for my birthday, a twelve-gauge Remington pump with a rifled slug barrel.
So, there we were, early one fall morning. We eased our olive green station wagon down the seasonal dirt road to the South Creek parking area, just before dawn. The lot was vacant. The air was “see your breath” brisk. There was a light dusting of fresh snow on the ground.
We donned day packs and guns, signed in at the register, and started up the old truck trail towards Marcy Dam together.
About a mile and a half up the trail, I peeled off the trail to my left, separately from my dad. He was headed further up the trail to hunt along Phelps Brook towards Phelps Mountain, looking down towards Marcy Dam. I would plot my own route. I planned hunt a long ridgeline below him. He’d always called it “Partridge Peak”. If there was no fresh deer sign there, I’d drop down into the lowland alder swamps on my way back down the trail later that afternoon and try to scare up a rabbit.
It was still an era well before cell phones. We’d each hunt the day alone, then link back up again on the truck trail or back at the car after dark.
I had a map, a compass, a lunch, a good watch, a whistle, some paraffin wax dipped waterproof matches, and my gun. I knew that terrain pretty well. As long as I didn’t cross over Phelps Ridge onto the Klondike Brook side, I knew that if I got disoriented, all I had to do was cut downhill until I hit the trail.
Even at that young age, I felt comfortable hunting alone in the wilderness. I felt very much at home, day or night. We rarely encountered anyone else in those woods. I never gave it much thought.
We had cut a couple of fresh tracks on our way up the trail. They were easy to see in the frosty brown flakes blanketing the forest. Despite each careful step, frozen leaves crunched as I walked, echoing my presence to anyone who might be listening.
The rocky finger I followed dropped off steep on my right, to a small fast flowing brook. The slope to my left was a big mixed hardwood bowl. I could see down through there for a good shot at a buck fairly well.
As I worked my way higher, the balsams and cedars got thicker. From experience I knew, it would be nearly impossible to hunt the crest of that ridge. I also knew, from tracks I had seen in the past, that that was where the deer hid. Watching me, safely concealed in that thick cover. So that’s where I headed.
The sun appeared. The leaves softened. The snow began melting as I worked my way up Partridge Peak, making my movements much quieter. Near the crest, I cut a deer track. It was fresh, a big single set. I followed it.
The track was headed left, paralleling the thick conifers near the top. I followed it along that line for a few hundred yards, then it turned downhill and began looping back to the right towards the brook I had come up along.
A few hundred yards later, it looped downhill again and headed back to the right, I sensed a pattern. That deer knew I was following it.
I decided to gamble. I was going to try to outsmart it. Instead of following the tracks to the left, I dropped down myself, about the same amount that deer had the first two loops, leaned up against the trunk of a big maple, scanning the woods to my left while I waited, heart racing.
It didn’t take long. I soon heard leaves rustling. Not long thereafter, I spotted it. An eight point buck, walking right towards me. His head was turned. He was looking for me behind him.
I slowly raised my shotgun, clicked off the safety, and took aim. He crossed a downed log and kept coming. He was inside fifty yards. He was coming straight for me. I fired. That buck kept right on coming. My shot missed!
In rapid fire succession, as fast as I could pump that action, I blasted four more shots at that buck. I emptied my gun. About fifteen yards in front of me, the buck finally dropped. Stone dead. He was done.
I walked over to where he lay. I’d fired five slugs at close range. I expected to find carnage. I did not. I quickly realized that I had hit that buck once in the chest, with my first shot. I chuckled. At myself. “Buck fever”. I had it. No matter, I was hunting alone. There had been no witnesses, save for myself.
I took a few steps back and breathed a deep sigh of relief. I admired my kill. His glazed eyes were wide open. He stared back.
“I wonder if Dad heard me shoot?” I scanned the steep rocky ridgeline behind me. I doubted it.
That was when I discovered it. I’m not quite sure how, but I suddenly realized I was standing on the roof of some sort of concealed structure.
It was well camouflaged. I wasn’t certain at first. I had stepped backwards off the edge of a massively long, low granite boulder onto what at first seemed like a plateau of flat moss and fallen leaf covered dirt. The ravine dropped off to the brook fairly steeply behind me.
My boot must have shuffled through a thin spot in the camouflage to reveal the roughhewn log roof that had been carefully concealed beneath it.
I stood for a moment. An eerie feeling came over me. My buck lay dead. I scrutinized the ridgeline above me once more. Nothing. I listened. Silence. The only sound I could hear was the brook. It appeared as though the structure was at that moment unoccupied.
Still, things just weren’t quite right. “Was someone watching me?” I reloaded my shotgun.
I climbed down off of what had been made to resemble a big mound of moss and leaf covered dirt that had washed up against the rock shoulder. It all looked very natural, even up close. There were even several small balsam seedlings growing on top. The brook restricted access along one side, one side was the rock. There were no windows. The other two sides, on the exterior, were dirt.
I inspected it more closely. There! Crafted into the brook’s uphill side was a small door, well concealed. I looked around and listened once more. Still nothing but the brook, and the sound of my own heart. I took a deep breath, fingered the safety on my gun. the door consisted of several rough cut, thick split, bark on, pine logs. It had some sort of hinges and a simple wood hasp, but no lock. I slowly pried it open and stepped inside.
I found myself standing in a small, low, dark one room cabin. I pulled out my flashlight and surveyed my surroundings. One wall was the rock. The others were pine logs, as was the roof, which three log beams supported. The floor was dirt and leaves. It was all surprisingly dry inside. It looked antiseptically clean. It had no stove or furnishings of any sort. It appeared to be empty.
A voice in my head whispered; “You should not be in here. You should leave right now.” I ignored it. I continued shining my light.
I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something seemed familiar. I had the distinct feeling I’d seen a structure like this one somewhere else, once before. Then something caught my attention. I stepped over to more closely examine the rock wall.
The center of the rock was black with soot above a small circle of stones. There were ashes from fire long since cold. That wasn’t what had caught my eye though. I’d seen something else, off to one side. I looked closer.
There it was. Caught in a small crack in the rock. A tiny torn piece of patterned red flannel cloth. I pulled it from the crack in the rock to examine it more closely. It had something stuck in it. A sudden chill ran down my spine. It was a single strand of long blonde hair.
Then my eye caught something else on the rock. Down low. A dark stain. I reached down to touch it. I shuddered. That wasn’t dirt or soot. It was dried blood.
“Okay. Now I’m leaving!”
I turned to leave. I gasped in surprise. A silhouette figure stood observing me from just outside the door. He had his hands on his hips. When I turned, he spoke softly;
“Find anything interesting in there, young Mr. Monroe?”
I immediately recognized his voice. It was Clark Lewis, one of the local Forest Rangers. He smiled at me as he spoke. He was in uniform. He was carrying a sidearm.
It hit me. I knew where I’d seen a structure like this. At one of my Boy Scout meetings. In slide show photos at a presentation on survival techniques. Given by none other than present company, Forest Ranger Clark Lewis.
“N-N-No. Nothing, Ranger Lewis. I-I just stumbled on it. I was just leaving.” I stammered.
“I mean, other than the hunting cabin itself. It’s amazing. Someone sure knew what they were doing. They did a really good job on it. Where did you come from anyways Sir? I never saw you. I thought I was alone.”
Ranger Lewis smiled again.
“Oh, I moseyed in behind you and your father. I heard your shots. That’s a nice little buck you got there. Why don’t you step on out of there. We’ve had an eye on this place quite awhile.”
I stepped out of the cabin. Our eyes met. Standing there, in that brief moment, Forest Ranger Clark Lewis and I each knew exactly what the other was thinking.
“Some dangerous folks lurk these woods. Folks who might not want other folks snooping around their cabin or wondering what they’re up to. Let your dad know. I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt. For the time being, best you hunt elsewhere, ’til we’ve had time to get it all sorted out.”
“Now, what say I give you a hand gutting that deer.”
I agreed. At least I’d be outside in the open. Besides, I’d never field dressed a whitetail, and at that moment, I saw no other good choice.
Ranger Lewis helped me drag the buck to a good spot. I unsheathed my buck knife. He held the back legs and gave me verbal instructions while I gutted it.
“Mind if I take the heart?” Ranger Lewis again smiled.
I shook my head. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small square red flannel kerchief. He wrapped the heart in it and tucked it back in his jacket pocket. He smiled again. Our eyes met once more.
“Dinner. We’ll leave the rest for the coyotes. Tell your dad what I said. You’d better get on with dragging that buck to the trail while you’ve still got some light.”
I nodded again, and said “Thanks”.
The afternoon sun faded. Forest Ranger Clark Lewis disappeared quietly up the ridge. I dragged my eight point buck back down to the trail and the station wagon, where my Dad stood waiting.
“Wow! Nice Buck Son! Congratulations! Where’s the heart?”
“Ranger Lewis has it. I ran into him up there. He helped me gut it. He said to tell you “Hello.”
A word of warning for anyone finding themselves in the Adirondack High Peaks alone:
“Not all missing hikers were lost.
Some weren’t meant to be found.
Some never will.”
Photos provided by Richard Monroe