The blisters on my palm had burst, reformed then burst again. My shoulders were screaming at me and my lower back had started cramping violently. It was the first time I ever paddled a canoe, so it may have been slightly ambitious of me to agree to come on this portaging trip. Scott, the portaging veteran, had warned me that this trip might be too much for me. He told me that he still found it physically taxing and this would be his 8th trip.
The worst part was that this was considered the easy portion of the trip. Scott had told me that this was the time to let your body relax since carrying our gear and the canoes were going to be the toughest part of the entire trip.
He wasn’t kidding. Two land trips had completely wore me out. My legs were shaky, my arms were exhausted and I was quickly running out of the treated water we prepared that morning. Scott at one point asked me if I had jumped into the lake since my shirt was completely drenched. He was a little shocked to hear that every single drop was sweat.
“There it is! Up ahead. Do you see it?” Scott shouted at me.
I looked up slowly, not realizing that I hadn’t even been focusing on our path for the past few minutes. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust, but when they did I saw it.
The orange triangle.
Up here the orange triangle was placed on sites that were designated camp sites. These were the spots the Provincial Park Staff slightly monitored. They kept them glass and plastic free and ensured that people didn’t leave garbage behind. But for the most part they were isolated and left uninterrupted.
Scott stopped paddling which I was secretly thankful for because it meant that I could stop paddling. He brought out the map and began reading it with intense focus.
“Yup! That’s the one. Thank God, I was getting a bit stiff. How about you?”
“Never better”. I said between exhausted breaths. Scott let out a soft chuckle and picked up his paddle.
“Come on buddy. Just a few more minutes then we’re home free.”
I picked up the paddle and winced as the raw flesh of my palm touched on the glossy wood of the paddle. I was running on autopilot and was barely contributing anything to the paddling by this point.
Finally we touched down and Scott hopped out with an eagerness. He was always keen on exploring the camp site and figuring out the best way to lay out our gear. It normally didn’t take him any time to start assembling the tent, however this time he kept pacing back and forth with a puzzled expression.
“What’s wrong?” I called from the canoe as I sat unloading all the gear onto the shore.
He turned to me and immediately frowned. “The only flat ground is too close to the fire pit. I’m a little bit worried that if we have a fire going any time after the tent is set up it might catch.”
I walked up to where he was looking and had the exact same thought. The fire pit would be way too close and with the size of our tent it was too risky. I sighed and prayed that he wouldn’t suggest we pack back up and start out for a new site. I’d rather go with no fire and the dried food we packed instead of travelling anymore today.
“You know” he said, pausing mid-thought. “We have two tarps.” It was more of a question than a statement.
I knew where he was going with the thought and decided to finish it for him. “One above us, one below?”
He shrugged. “It would protect us from the rain and from the cold. We have good sleeping bags.”.
“What do you propose about the animals?” I asked him.
“Keep the fire going all night? We take turns throwing logs on during the night. There’s plenty of fire wood out here, it looks like the last people staying here left almost an entire stack.”
I hated the idea of having insects crawling all over me as I slept on the forest floor. But I hated the idea of going back into the canoe and paddling even more. “Well, let’s get to it then”.
We set to work and before long we had out camp site arranged. We cooked one of our dry packets of readymade pastas in our traveler’s pot and ate that with a side of dehydrated fruit and beef jerky. We sorted the firewood and worked out a schedule of how often we’d set an alarm to toss more logs on throughout the night.
It didn’t take long for us to collapse in our sleeping bags. As soon as we lost the sun the two of us realized the toll the day’s travel had taken on us and we immediately tucked into our sleeping bags we had laid over the tarp.
My watch’s alarm went off and I rolled over and shook Scott awake. He groaned and reluctantly and slowly crawled out of his sleeping bag. He tended to the fire until the logs caught and then he very clumsily stumbled back into his sleeping bag. It took me seconds to fall back asleep.
Three hours later, and my watch alarm was going off again. I shut it off and unzipped my sleeping bag and kicked it off of me. I lay for a second or two before forcing myself to stand. Any longer on my back and I’d fall back asleep, effectively killing the fire. I walked over to the stack of Birchwood we had set to be burned next and tossed it onto the flames. The logs collapsed and I was forced to readjust two of them, covering my hands in soot and ash.
I brushed them off on my shirt and waited for the logs to catch. A few minutes passed and finally the logs began popping and smoking. Satisfied that the fire was going I walked back to my sleeping bag.
When suddenly I stopped.
Something was in my sleeping bag beside Scott.
I took a step closer and realized it wasn’t something. It was someone.
My heart pounded violently in my chest and my blood turned to ice. My legs stopped moving and I opened my mouth to scream but no sounds came out. My legs and arms were frozen in place with fear.
The fire behind me was blazing now and was casting my shadow against the trees that surrounded our makeshift campsite, only my shadow began to move. It detached itself from my feet and began to lean over my sleeping body.
My sleeping body?
I was still in the sleeping back beside Scott. I could see myself lying beside him, and I could see my own shadow hovering over my sleeping body. Studying me. Watching me. Slowly the shadow’s hands moved towards my body and wrapped themselves around my throat.
It held my body down and I was watching myself struggle for breath. The shadow’s face slowly began to form and what I saw began filling my heart with dread.
A woman, drenched in water, head to toe. Her eyes met mine and I felt her intense hatred burying itself into my soul. She bent back down towards my body and began whispering:
Where are they? Where are they?
My vision blurred and a high pitched static filling my ears. My head began swimming underwater which caused me to lurch side to side until I collapsed on the ground. The world slowly enveloped in darkness and everything went silent.
I opened my eyes and there I lay beside Scott, the watch alarm going off beside my head.
The whole thing had been a dream.
Despite the dying fire I was drenched in sweat and my heart was beating out of my chest. I shook my head hoping that would let the dreams fall out. I scrambled to my feet and turned my attention to the fire. I was hoped that tending to it would distract me from what I thought I had just seen. It felt so real and yet as I was awake it felt so distant, as if it were a memory.
I bent down to grab some of the Birchwood spare wood when suddenly I stopped and felt my heart’s pace pick up yet again.
The Birchwood I had tossed into the fire in my dream were gone from the wood pile. I turned to the fire pit and saw their charred remnants.
But it was a dream?
I dove back into my sleeping bag and shut my eyes tight even though I knew I wouldn’t be getting anymore sleep that night. That’s when I realized that my sleeping bag was soaking wet, not with sweat, but with the very distinct smell of lake water.