Rain, Bears, and ... Serial Killers?
--by Susan Krieger
Every year, while I was in high school, I looked
forward to one special week more than anything
else during summer vacation. When that week
came, thirty kids and a handful of counselors
packed into a charter bus to make the
twelve-hour drive from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to
the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
The summer after my senior year, ten of us
decided to break away from the main group and
camp on another lake. In our group of ten, there
were two male counselors, the oldest of whom was
twenty, and one other male camper. The rest of
us were girls, two of whom had never been
camping. One of the girls camping for her first
time was fresh from Korea, just learning
English. The other was fresh from the suburbs,
just learning the realities of camping.
Once the ten of us left Gunflint
Outfitters and the main group, we were on
our own. It was a six-hour trip to our campsite
on Big Bear Lake, and our first problem met us
half way. After a few hours of portaging, a
storm blew in, and we stopped where we were to
pitch camp rather than risk the lightning on the
It rained all night, and the next day we
packed up and continued on in a steady drizzle.
Once we made it to our site, it took us a while
to get a fire burning after all the rain and,
even though we dried out more wood around the
fire and saved it under a tarp, we only used it
for cooking fires.
Our next problem was more serious than rain.
To keep bears away, we knew not to keep food or
candy in the tents and to burn or bury garbage.
On past trips we had strung our food packs up
with a rope between trees where a bear couldn't
reach it. Since all of us experienced campers
forgot to bring rope, we had to find another way
to protect the food, ourselves and future
It didn't take us long to come up with a
plan. We set the food packs on the ground in a
row. Then we flipped a canoe upside down on top
of them and balanced the pointed ends between
rocks. This wasn't enough. We booby-trapped the
inverted canoe by placing our metal cups and
plates over the top of it.
The very first night, the plan was put to the
test. A bear tried to take a food pack and
tipped the canoe. We heard the dishes fall and
came running out of our tents banging pots and
pans together to scare it away. This happened
once or twice every night and the bear became
progressively harder to scare off. But it was
the best short-term plan we had.
On the fourth day, we woke up to a cloudless
sky. We had a full day of fishing, hiking, and
swimming and that night we sat around our first
and only campfire. That night, our third problem
snuck up on us. We told stories and talked of
past years until one camper said, ''I heard Ten
Fingers killed two campers a few weeks ago.''
The eight of us who had been on the camping
trip before looked at each other. We knew all
the stories by heart but we had to tell them at
least once or the whole trip just wouldn't feel
''Who is Ten Fingers?'' asked the Korean
girl. That was all we needed. One of the
counselors started, ''A long time ago, this guy
was camping with his family up here and he
killed them for no reason. He just went nuts.''
''Yeah, we saw the newspaper clipping,''
someone added. Another camper jumped in, ''He
was caught and put in an insane asylum, but he
escaped and came back here. ''He lives off the
land and kills campers,'' said another. ''And he
cuts all their fingers off.''
Okay, in the light of day, these campfire
stories seem silly and dramatic. But at night,
in the middle of nowhere, they have the ability
to set every nerve on edge. We took turns
telling stories as the light from the campfire
made the shadows jump around us. Of course, it
wasn't long before we heard noises in the woods,
different from the scampering of night
When we stopped talking, to listen, the
noises stopped. Someone pointed out that animals
would move around while it was quiet, not when
we were talking and laughing. Whether that
statement was true or not, paranoia set in.
We decided to sleep it off, but it was not to
be. Separated into three tents, we listened to
the noises of the night. Before five minutes had
passed, we heard metal scrape on metal, then a
thump. A cup had fallen off the canoe. In a few
minutes another cup fell. The cups fell one by
one for about 15 minutes when suddenly, the rest
of the dishes clattered to the ground. We rushed
out to scare the bear away, but there was no
bear. The canoe was still in place.
No one wanted to say it, as we set the dishes
back up, but we were all afraid that Ten Fingers
had heard our stories and was playing with us.
We were no longer seniors on the threshold of
adulthood. We were kids afraid of the boogieman.
Leaving was out of the question. We all knew
that a six-hour portage in the dark wasn't
possible for us. So we split up into two groups
of five for the rest of the night. We felt a
little safer until someone thought they
remembered a story about Ten Fingers killing a
group of eleven campers.
Stuck with the spot next to the flimsy,
zipped up door of the tent, my heart thudded in
my chest. I strained my ears to hear every
little noise, expecting a knife to come slashing
through the tent at any second. How I fell
asleep, I don't know. But the rest of the night
passed quietly with an early morning wakeup call
by the actual bear.
Though no one had slept much, our fears
disappeared in the light of the new day. The
next two days passed with minimal activity due
to rain, and there were no more unusual
Finally we were ready to head back to the
lodge. It was the second sunny day that week. We
had no breakfast. One camper came walking into
camp with the recently emptied food pack that
had been small enough for the bear to slip out
from under the canoe without tipping it. We had
no clean, dry clothes since we hadn't been able
to dry any in the sun. No one had slept very
well the last few nights either. Whether that
was from fear or folly, we'll never know.
Back at the lodge, we met up with the other
group from our school. We shared our stories and
they told us of a man they had seen standing on
a ridge watching them. They hadn't approached
him and eventually he had disappeared over the
ridge. He had gone in the direction of our lake
and they had seen him the day before our night
of fear. We returned to Milwaukee and life
returned to normal with the knowledge that the
next time we went camping, we would have good
stories to tell. Shortly after that, I took a
job at a lodge on Gunflint Lake. I couldn't stay
away; the wilderness was in my blood. I enjoyed
the remote location, but on some quiet, dark
nights, I couldn't help but wonder what had
really happened that night. Was it Ten Fingers,
or ten active imaginations?