I slipped my paddle into the dark water and pulled it slowly, moving my canoe forward. The sun had set quickly, and the instant darkness reminded me that, although it was a waning quarter moon, the cloud cover was so heavy that I’d get no light from the sky. I hadn’t meant to stay on the river so late, but I had gone farther north than usual, absorbed in the beauty of the willows and swamp maples. I could barely see ahead of me in the darkness, so I had to move carefully. I had been warned to get off the river before sunset, there was talk about how dangerous it was to be on the river at night.
Ow! A low hanging branch scraped my forehead as I ducked too late. I rubbed the raw spot and wished for a clear sky. I was lucky that this river had no tributaries, so I couldn’t get lost. It was a straight shot back to where the river broke open to the shoreline where I had parked my truck. Who was I kidding, it was more of a creek than a river, but everyone from the area called it Muddy River so that’s how I thought of it.
More than once I came so close to the bank that my canoe scraped bottom. I had taken my long canoe, hoping I would find some new specimens to take back with me, but it was harder to maneuver alone. For months I had been studying the river, collecting bones and other remains, trying to identify the details so I could put together enough clues to understand how the animals had died. There were no roads or paths that led into these woods, the only way to get there was Muddy River. I’d had no luck finding any evidence that day which was another reason I had stayed so long. I had not wanted to return empty handed.
Why were there so many bones? What was killing and eating the animals in the area? Was it a wildcat, or a wolf? Neither species had been seen in these woods in many years. And some of the bones I found were human, apparently other fools like myself who stayed on the river too late at night.
So I paddled my empty long canoe clumsily back down the river, sitting just forward of center to help my steering, thinking about the bones, and the warning of the locals. I had taken their stories only as legend, ghost stories that they told each other for the excitement. But the more evidence I found, over the past few months, the more curious I was, and now, in the blackness of the night, I was getting nervous.
Suddenly I heard a noise. It was a cross between a moan and a howl and it made me shiver. Was it some sort of nocturnal bird? A wild dog? It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. In my nervousness I scraped the bottom of the canoe again. Damn it! It was hard to stay in the center of the river when I could barely see. As I pulled on my paddle, to move away from land, I felt a weight shift in the back of the canoe. The canoe sunk a bit deeper and no longer leaned forward with my weight.
I heard the noise again, only closer. What was that?! I paddled a bit faster, hoping to put distance between myself and whatever creature was making that noise. The canoe suddenly rocked, yes, there was motion in the back. I had to admit what I already knew. There was something in the boat with me.
I held my breath and looked back, but it was so dark I could see nothing. Wait, did the darkness behind me just move? I couldn’t really see any shape, it was more of an energy shift. I turned and paddled faster. This was crazy, the moonless night, the heavy tree cover, I was driving blind. I leaned forward and continued to paddle as fast as I dared in the darkness. The heavy humid fragrance of the trees and river plants filled my lungs, I felt suffocated by the fragrance and claustrophobic in the darkness.
I tried to calm myself. If I couldn’t see, then neither could the creature, whatever it was. I leaned down, lowering my head and shoulders, still paddling but trying to keep out of the way from any low branches. I felt the boat rock again, was it trying to get closer to me? It wasn’t making that sound, but I imagined I heard it breathing. Or maybe it wasn’t my imagination. Tree toads and crickets seemed overly loud in my head. Branches from low trees and bushes scraped the sides of the boat. I felt the river moving a bit faster, and I realized I was coming to the wider point, almost home. There was some current here. I knew it would get wider, and then narrower again, before the river ran by the open sandy shore near the clearing where I had parked.
I found myself thinking of my family and praying I would see them soon. If I could just get out of this stupid situation I had gotten myself into, I would never take another risk. I promised to value my life and honor it with extreme carefulness. I’d put safety before curiosity. Then I remembered something my mother used to tell me. She was a biologist too, and when I was in school, studying one animal or another, trying to make sense of other worlds, she would say, “Remember something, you think you’re smarter than animals, and maybe you are. But they have instincts and that just might be stronger than smarts. But you have instincts too, learn to trust them.”
Then I remembered at that last narrow part of the river, just before the clearing, there was a rough rope footbridge some kids had recently tied between two old swamp maples. It was rustic, but well made. A thick rope, hanging so low that I had had to duck under it as I came up river. Thick intertwined ropes made the narrow foot path, and two more single ropes at hips distance, for holding on as you crossed, with stabilizing ropes threaded up and down making a V shape to walk through. I was almost there, I couldn’t see it, but I could picture it up ahead. If I timed it right, this just might work.
I paddled faster, hoping, no believing, I was going straight down the middle toward the footbridge. Trusting my instincts. I was pretty sure I had been in the center of the river as I pulled into the wider stretch. I paddled straight and fast and kept my head low. I felt it, the creature, whatever it was, coming closer, hearing its rough breathing. Maybe it was moving toward me, maybe it wasn’t, but my body stiffened and the hair on the back of my neck prickled.
I paddled as fast as I could until I could feel the trees closing in on me again. I ducked my head and pulled my body flat under the rim of the canoe. The boat was slipping quickly through the water toward the footbridge. Suddenly I heard a thwack and a yowl and the canoe rocked so hard I thought it would tip. But I stuck my paddle back into the water and pulled to keep it steady, lifting my head since I was past the bridge. Branches combed my hair and scraped my arms, but I knew I was in the home stretch.
I looked back, just as the cloud cover cracked and gave me a meager portion of my sight back. Something was caught on that footbridge. I couldn’t see what it was, just a dark shape, bigger than my own, struggling in the ropes, snorting and grunting. I couldn’t make it out, for all I knew it was a ghost, or big foot, or a werewolf.
I pulled the canoe to my right and felt the bottom hit the soft sand of the beach. I jumped out, water up to my ankles, and pulled the canoe with me, splashing to shore. I pressed the button on my key ring to make my truck flash its lights and unlock the doors. I threw the canoe into the open back and jumped into the driver’s seat, throwing the locks almost before I got the door closed.
Panting, I started the truck and pulled it around, afraid to swing my lights toward that footbridge. Whatever it was, whatever I saw, or almost saw, or thought I saw, I never wanted to see anything like it again.