“Dad, I got the football out of the truck. Want to play catch?”
“In a few minutes buddy. Mom and I are getting the camper all set up.”
Deep in the woods of Pennsylvania, the Palmer family was getting settled in for their annual week long camping trip. The family looked forward to this trip every year! It was always planned for the middle of June when school was getting out for the summer. As teachers, Sam and Sara were ready to kick back and relax in the mountains, and their two kids, Henry and Maggie, were burned out from school and ready to have fun. As much as you could plan a laid-back, low-key camping trip, their days were already booked with hiking in the mountains, fishing in the streams, swimming in the hot sun, cooking out, playing cornhole, and throwing the football. Henry and Maggie had come up with the long list of activities in the truck on the drive up. And at the end of each fun-filled day, they were going to make S’mores by the fire. And not just any S’mores, but fancy ones with a S’mores bar stocked with peanut butter cups, candy bars, caramel sauce, bananas, strawberries, sprinkles, chocolate sauce, and mint patties (Maggie’s favorite). Yes, their vacation had officially begun and it was already jam packed with fun!
“Maggie, Henry, come in here and pick which bunk you want!” yelled Dad from inside the camper. The kids came running from the nearby woods and jumped up into the camper.
“I want the top bunk!” yelled Maggie as she leapt up onto it, almost hitting her head on the ceiling.
“No, the top bunk is mine!” Henry yelled back, trying to wiggle his way onto the bunk with her.
“It’s mine, I’m older!” she said.
“Hey, stop fighting!” said Dad. “How about we switch halfway through the week so you both get it. Sound good?”
“Fine,” they said in unison, both unhappy that they didn’t get their way.
“Get your suits on kids,” said Mom. “Let’s head down to the lake and go swimming!”
“Woo hoo!” they yelled and jumped down to get changed.
Football, raft, and beach bag in hand, the Palmer family headed down to the sandy trail that led to the nearby beach. As they walked through the campground, they noticed that they were one of only a few families in the whole campground.
“Dad, it’s like we have the whole place to ourselves,” said Maggie.
Vacant campsites were everywhere. Camping season was just getting underway. It should be packed full of RVs and tents. That’s strange, thought Dad as his eyes scanned over the empty campground.
“Look how far I can throw this rock without hitting anything,” said Henry, winding up and letting a small rock fly out of his hand before his parents could stop him. It traveled several campsites before falling to the ground and making a small thud that echoed among the tall trees.
“Henry, how many times have we said not to throw rocks!” his mom scolded. Feeling a little foolish as she looked at all the open sites, she added, “Even though no one’s around, you still shouldn’t throw rocks. You could hit someone … or something.”
“Your mom’s right. Now let’s go! Last one there’s a rotten egg!” His dad took off running toward the trail with Maggie and his mom chasing behind him. Henry threw the other stone in his hand into the bushes. Just as he started off down the trail after his family, he heard a low growl from the bushes where he threw his stone. He turned toward it and saw the bushes shake and jiggle. Another growl escaped from it. Frightened, Henry ran as fast as he could to catch up to his family. I guess I should’ve listened to my mom, he thought.
I’m sorry! I won’t hurt you! Don’t run away!
That night, after a long day of fun in the sun, the Palmer family relaxed and enjoyed their first meal by the campfire. Campfire nachos, one of Maggie’s favorites, was always a hit.
“So what should we do tomorrow gang?” Dad said as he kicked his feet up on the cooler and stretched out. “We could hike up the Northern Trail and see where it comes out. I’ve heard it’s not too steep or long. It’s kind of a windy trail that climbs slowly up the mountain. Or we could take our fishing gear down to Hobart’s Lake to go trout fishing. How about it?”
Just then there was a rustling in the bushes across from the fire pit. Everyone jumped, even Mr. Palmer.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he said, keeping his eyes on the bushes. A low growl emanated from behind it. “Kids, let’s head into the camper!” Dad said with urgency. Everyone scrambled inside and shut the door. Everyone but Sam. As his family watched from inside the camper, Sam cautiously approached the rustling bushes with only a hot dog roasting fork for protection.
“Go away!” he called, nudging the bushes with his fork. “Go away raccoon, or porcupine, or whatever you are.” Just then another growl could be heard from the bushes and then a large, hairy creature darted from behind the bush and ran into the darkness.
What was that? he wondered as he stood startled and stunned at what he’d just seen.
I’m sorry! Please don’t be scared! I was just watching!
As he told his family back in the camper what he’d seen dash out of the bush, he tried to reassure them that it was just a big forest animal that was startled. “The darkness has a way of distorting things sometimes,” he told them. “I’m sure it was just a raccoon or something like that,” he said, knowing very well that he had to keep an eye on his family and the campsite. That night in bed he told Sara exactly what he’d seen. He described the massive, hairy body, the huge paws, and the way it ran through the woods on its hind legs. They both agreed that the family would pack up the camper and head out in the morning, hopefully able to find a campground with vacancy on their way home. The empty campground now made sense to them. There was a creature in the woods.
The next morning, as the sun shone and the birds chirped, the Palmers began packing and cleaning up their campsite.
“Who got S’mores all over the spatula?” asked Henry. “Marshmallow is stuck all over the handle.”
“Can you fill our bucket with water from the river and we’ll try to wash it off?” asked his mother.
“Sure!” Henry grabbed the bucket and ran off toward the river, just out of sight of the camper.
“Maggie, roll up the sleeping bags, will you? Yours and your brother’s!”
Just then they heard screaming coming from the riverbank! It was Henry! They all dropped what they were doing and ran for the river. When they got there they saw Henry struggling in the flowing river. He’d fallen in! He was out of reach and his parents couldn’t get to him without jumping into the moving river themselves.
“Swim Henry!” his mother shouted. “Swim this way!” she motioned to the shore with her hand. But he couldn’t. The river was pushing him downstream. His father looked on shore for a rope or vine to throw to him but couldn’t find anything.
At that moment a creature dashed out of the woods on the other side of the river and thundered into the water toward Henry. Sam watched in horror as he realized it was the creature from their campsite.
“Swim! Henry, swim!” he shouted as his eyes darted between his son and the formidable creature that closed in on him. He rushed into the water, partly running and partly swimming, trying in vain to reach his son. His foot slipped on a rock and his feet went out from under him. He was in trouble now too. Sara and Maggie watched helplessly from shore. Their fear suddenly turned to confusion as they saw the creature grab Henry by the arm and hoist him out of the water and over his shoulder. He then grabbed Sam by the arm and dragged him to the shore with Henry coughing up water over his shoulder.
As they reached the shore, Sam and Henry scrambled on the ground as fast as they could away from the creature. He was terrifying! His huge paws had long, sharp claws extending from them. His monstrous body towered over them. But as they lay there on the ground trying to catch their breath, the creature just stood next to them. He didn’t run off into the woods like he had before. And he didn’t growl at them or try to hurt them either. Sam and Henry looked up at him, unsure of what to do.
“You saved us,” said Henry’s father hesitantly.
The creature just stood there, dripping water from his wet, mangled coat of fur.
“Thank you,” said Henry. “I almost drowned.”
You’re welcome. I wanted to help you.
The creature took a few steps back but didn’t run away. He looked at the two wet boys on the shore, and glanced across the river at Sara and Maggie. Just then he let out a soft, almost imperceptible growl. Not like the growl from the bushes the day before. This was a gentle, inviting sound. Almost like a purr.
Why is everyone scared of me? I don’t hurt people.
“Dad, I think he’s trying to say something to us,” said Henry. Henry slowly stood up and approached the creature.
“I’m Henry. This is my dad, and that’s my mom and sister,” he pointed at all of them. “You saved our lives.”
The creature lowered his head but kept his gaze on them. It wasn’t a menacing gaze. It was gentle and soft. Henry reached his hand out to the creature in a friendly gesture. The creature sniffed it and then began to rub the side of his wet, hairy face on the inside of Henry’s palm.
Thank you. That feels good.
“Dad, he’s nice!” Henry exclaimed, looking back at his dad on the ground. “We don’t have to pack up and leave. He won’t hurt us. Please, dad, can we stay?”
Please stay! I don’t like being alone in the campground.
“Well yes, I guess we can stay. We don’t have to go anywhere,” he said, looking over at Sara to confirm it. “I think we’ll be safe right where we are.”
“Yay, we get to stay Maggie,” Henry shouted to his sister. “We’re staying for the rest of the week,” he said softly to the creature. “Will you come see us at our campsite?”
The creature again let out a gentle growl and turned toward the woods.
Thank you for not running from me. I’ll come see you soon!
And with that he lumbered into the woods with a new, lighthearted spring in his hefty steps.
“Mom, Dad, this is going to be the best camping trip ever!” Henry exclaimed. Finding the bridge to cross the river, Henry and his dad hurried over to his mom and sister and the Palmer family went back to the camper to unpack once again.