(Check out my true story, Skinwalkers of Desolation Canyon, below)
The sun has finally gone down and the crackle of burning kindling echoes off the canyon walls. Beer or wine or hot cocoa in hand, you inch a little closer to hear the chilling whispers of your river guide’s story. Ancient stories of Native American rituals and tragedies that happened on this exact beach; tragic stories from not-so-long-ago that resulted in ghosts of young boys who just want to make it to the takeout. We all have our own favorite urban (fluvial?) legends and ghost stories that we revisit each year to scare the new guy around the fire. And these seven stories from rivers around the country are sure to make the hair on your neck stand up just a little…
“The Vengeful Miner of Hoosac Tunnel”
Deerfield River, Massachusetts
On March 30, 2004 a friend and I went to paddle the Fife Brook on the Deerfield River. As we dropped a rig and shuttled back to the put-in we came across a lone paddler. We picked him up by the Hoosac Tunnel, an odd place to hitch a ride and he was an equally odd dude. His name was Ringo. He claimed to be a local and told us, rather than asked, that he would be joining us on the river.
Visibility was poor and bone-chillingly cold. Ringo barely stayed within our line of vision ahead of us. But we continually would catch a glimpse. As we approached Freight Train rapid near the tunnel, Ringo stood on shore under the tracks. Caught by surprise, Mike flipped on the converging eddyline and didn’t roll. I paddled to him and tried to help roll his kayak but it felt like he was being held down. When he finally ejected he was tearing at his neck gasket, screaming “Let me go!” Fighting panic, I got him to shore. He was pale, shaking and crying. He told me that something was trying to strangle him. We heard loud moans and whispers all around us. We wanted to get out of there immediately. I looked back to where Ringo had been standing, but he was gone.
We climbed the bank to the road to hitch back to the car. We saw Ringo at the entrance of the tunnel. He didn’t look the same but we never did get a good look at him, come to think of it we never saw him get in a boat or put gear on. As I approached him, he slowly started backing into the tunnel and disappeared. He just vanished. A car approached, the woman offered a ride, but only after she had a moment at the tunnel. She said her great, great grandfather had died in the Hoosac Tunnel during its construction. On the ride I asked how he died. “He was strangled,” she said. I looked down and saw an old photograph. It pictured a man in front of the tunnel with the caption: “Ringo Kelley, born May 17,1837, died March 30,1866.”
– Team NRS Paddler, Elaine Campbell
“The Incident at Johnson Bar”
Main Salmon River, Idaho
I wish I could tell you it was a dark and stormy night, with the wind howling through the Ponderosas, moaning their loneliness to the cloud-enshrouded moon. I wish I could tell you that I was all alone. Maybe then you would be more likely to believe what I’m going to tell you next.
It was a typical hot and breezy, blue-sky Main Salmon afternoon in mid-August, 1996. The air was thick with the heady aroma of vanilla and pine. There wasn’t a cloud in sight, and the river water was just the right temperature for swimming. My friend Beth and I had pestered my dad long and hard enough that he had finally relented and let us go on ahead of the commercial group we were leading, which had stopped at the mouth of Sheep Creek to fish.
Beth and I had decided long before that Johnson Bar was our favorite camp. No one else agreed. It was a long, sloping, sandy beach bordered by towering Ponderosa pines and steep canyon walls. The rocky outcroppings above camp were dotted with scrubby elderberry and mountain mahogany bushes—the only flora hardy enough to flourish in this desolate part of the canyon. There were few flat tent sites on the beach itself, so people had to lug their gear to the very top of the bar. We loved Johnson Bar because we could hide and play in the huge boulders at the downstream end of camp. We would pretend we had gotten left behind and the caves were our new homes.
Our boat bounced through Dried Meat unscathed, with only a minor wa-hoo run taken, sworn in secrecy. I pushed hard on the oars. The sooner I got us to camp, the more time we had to dig up the time capsule we had stuffed in the rocks the previous summer. We made good time, and a few minutes later we tied up at Johnson Bar.
We worked together to unload the boat, and even took time to set up the tables and chairs. After all, we were supposed to be working. Beth dumped out the tents and said, “Hey, let’s put one of these up tonight. It’s our last night on the river.” I thought that was a strange request since it was going to be a clear night, but I agreed and told Beth I would go set it up while she finished with the kitchen area.
I slogged up the scorching sand bank, two steps forward and one step back. Upon reaching the top I settled on a site near the creek. Not the most perfect place, but it left the better sites for the paying guests. I went to work putting together the poles and laying out the tent. I had just finished pounding in the final stake when I was suddenly aware of being watched. I glanced around. Beth was still puttering away by the river. The air had become suffocatingly still. Not a blade of grass whispered.
And then I saw him.
A little boy, peering at me through the bushes, his eyes sad, his hands fidgeting with a blade of cheat grass. He was young, four or five years at the most. His white-blonde hair curled over his ears, and his cherubic cheeks seemed flushed from the heat. He was small enough that his legs were hidden from view behind tufts of sunburned grass.
My jaw dropped. Could this apparition be real? Surely it was the heat playing tricks on my mind. I wheeled around, convinced I had mistaken Beth for this silent stranger. But there she was, plain as day, spreading red-checked tablecloths throughout the dining area. I turned back…he was still there. He was real. The seconds ticked loudly in my head.
Our eyes locked—mine in a frantic attempt to understand the sight before me, and his in a quiet, pleading curiosity. I turned back to the river. Beth was heaving her river bag out in front of her, plodding up to it, then hurling it in front of her again. This time, when I turned back to the boy in the collared, blue-and-white striped shirt, he had vanished.
I stumbled into the bushes, searching frantically for a sign that he had been real, that I had seen him. There was not a broken twig or crushed blade of grass in sight. A shiver began to rise through my body, and a cold sweat beaded on my forehead. I jumped at the thump of Beth’s bag hitting the ground behind me.
“Did you see that little boy?” My voice cracked with emotion.
Sometime after the incident at Johnson Bar, I was thumbing through Carrey and Conley’s Salmon River guidebook, and happened upon a snippet of interesting information. In the summer of 1962, a family drowned in a jet-boating accident in Dried Meat Rapid, just upstream from Johnson Bar. Three children were in the boat that day. A chill rippled down my spine as I recalled those eyes, hauntingly locked with mine.
– Stephanie Bernt Ellis, originally published inHalfway to Halfway.
“The Boy in the Chimney”
Rapid Creek, South Dakota
There’s a spot in South Dakota—a dark canyon at the base of the Black Hills. Along the bottom, walled in by limestone and flowing over a bed of fine silt, there’s a creek. Lucid-colored and runnable at certain flows, it sees only a few hours of light on even the longest summer day. Local tribes called it “black canyon,” believing it a place of dark spirits. Today, it’s a place of hauntings.
Settlers came to the Hills. They built camps along creeks, looking for gold. Some camps became towns. One town sprung from the banks of that lucid creek, small stone houses running down into the dark canyon. They remained for years, undisturbed.
Then, one cold spring evening, a relentless rain began. Water poured onto the wet soil, already steeped with snowmelt. Into the creek it ran, and the creek rose. It rose, then raged, then roared through the night towards the houses. There was a terrible flood.
Hundreds of people died that night—this is true. Some bodies were never found—this is also true.
In the black canyon where the flood was worst, there is a stone hearth that survived the current. The home surrounding it was washed away but the hearth still stands, a crumbling chimney stacked above it. A boy lived there with his mother and when the dark floodwaters arrived that night, they were both killed. She was swept downriver but the boy, rising with the water, was lodged in the chimney. He drowned there, trapped in the flue.
Some people say he’s still there—not his body, but his haunted spirit. They say, if you crawl into that fireplace, duck your head under the hearth and stand up into the chimney, you can still feel his warmth on the stones.
– NRS Purchaser, Kate Job
“The Moonbow Bride”
Cumberland Falls, Kentucky
Through the years, I’ve taken a lot of trips to Kentucky’s Cumberland Falls. It’s called the Niagara of the south; at 68 feet tall and 150 foot wide, it’s an amazing sight. Earlier this summer, Heather and I heard about the Moonbow, a lunar rainbow so rare it only occurs when the nighttime atmospheric conditions are just right in a handful of locations around the world, Cumberland Falls being one of them. Having had the chance to witness a Moonbow from the overlooks, we wondered if, with the right water levels, we could do a Moonbow SUP trip later in the year. As fall approached, the moon grew larger and our trip came closer, we started paying attention to the local whisperings of the Moodbow Bride, a ghost who appears at the falls on nights of a full moon.
Legend has it, sometime in the 1950s, a young couple was spending their honeymoon in one of the cabins near the falls. They had been married in the park that same afternoon. In the early evening, the tired but excited couple went for a walk, the bride still wearing her gown, the groom still dapper in his tux. The groom took his camera along in anticipation for the natural beauty of the falls and the glowing beauty of his new bride. It was the night of a Moonbow.
Climbing up a nearby hill in the cool evening light, the bride playfully danced near the edge of the cliff. But as she moved ever closer toward the edge to pose for a final photo, the young bride lost her footing and slipped, hitting her head on a rock and drowning in the swiftly-moving waters beneath the falls.
She’s been known to return to Cumberland on the night of the Moonbows ever since. We decided to bring the cameras and catch the ghost bride should she appear. And since it was the ghoulish month of October, we hoped she would be more active. We camped for the full four nights of the Harvest Moon, paddling twice to the falls every night. Did we see her? Maybe? It’s hard to say. With the spray of the falls and the eeriness of the dark night, being almost underneath a 68 foot tall falls in the middle of the night—it was spooky to say the least.
– Team NRS Paddler, Aaron Koch
“Skin Walkers of Desolation Canyon”
Green River, Utah
With no more than a tarp, two days worth of food and water, and their journal, sixteen students were soloing in the remote Three Canyon horseshoe deep in the desert of Desolation Canyon. As per Outward Bound tradition, the group of teenagers had earned their chance to experience 48 hours of complete solitude, and all had been going well when the sun set on their second night.
That was when the wind began and continued for hours without pause.
“The strangest part came about midnight when suddenly the wind stopped,” Sasquatch, aka Eric, a seasoned Outward Bound instructor told me one chilly August morning, standing on that same beach a few years later.
“I remember the quiet. It woke me up on the boat. The silence was thick, like the wind had chased away all the other sounds, even from the river. The stillness lasted for about ten minutes, and then the wind rushed up again, and stuck around until sunrise.”
The next morning, another instructor had walked the canyon to collect the students. She was disappointed to find three of them huddled together under one bivvy—a serious infraction of both trust and protocol. The three refused to offer any explanation until everyone was gathered back at the beach.
Then they haltingly told the instructors what had happened.
Yes, they had broken solo after the wind started, hanging out together and joking until the waning quarter moon rose. When the wind stopped, they said the temperature had dropped, and they began to hear a scritch-scratch-shuffle of something moving toward the tent. It smelled awful. The moon was casting the shadow of the thing forward, and they saw what looked like the shape of a bighorn sheep.
But when the creature came into view, only ten feet from their shelter, they saw they were wrong.
Although it walked like an animal, the shape was that of a man, hunched over, leaning on two sticks like front legs, with the thick skin of a sheep thrown over his body and moving with him. The movements of its body were utterly inhuman as it shuffled past them, and the students had watched, frozen, terrified. When it was about to disappear behind a rock outcropping thirty feet away, it paused, as though sniffing, and suddenly turned to stare at them.
One of the students had started crying at this point in telling the story.
They described the face of the thing being covered in fur or whiskers, which rippled in the non-existent wind. Bright blue eyes glowed, fixing on them for ten long seconds. Then it turned away and followed some hidden path out of sight. The wind started again almost right away.
Of course, their instructors were skeptical about the story, even after the obviously shaken students had sketched a rough picture of the thing in the sand. Sasquatch copied the sketch in his notebook, and the group finished the trip with shaky trust. The students refused to talk about it again.
Back at the base, he recounted the whole experience to some other instructors, producing the sketch. One woman, who had spent decades instructing in the southwest, looked at the drawing and asked where the students were from. Sasquatch had told her Chicago and New York. “So they haven’t spent time around the desert before?” No, definitely not.
“What they saw was a skinwalker.” She paused before continuing, “Said to be evil witches from native tribes who can channel animal spirits so that they themselves are no longer human, and they can travel through the desert with the needs only of that creature. To gain this power, they must commit an act so terrible that their humanity is ripped from them. The legends are closely guarded by superstitions. And if your students had never been here before…it was a reminder—There are still places in this world where we are not meant to linger.
– Duct Tape Diaries Contributor, Lindsay DeFrates
“The Siren of the French Broad” French Broad River, North Carolina
It’s natural to follow the river; our ancestors have pursued moving water for generations, why should he be any different? And so, in the name of adventure, he leaves the trail for the water—provider of life, solitude, direction.
As he lay down to rest on the first night of his new path, he sees her in his dreams for the first time, beautiful and beckoning. Her wild, dark hair dancing around her as her lips curl back to release a melody. She’s far away, by the river, and he struggles against the brush to reach her before she fades.
He awakes with a start, the beautiful woman’s song still echoing in his ears. “She’s not real,” he mutters to himself, but he’s been alone for too long. The leaves overhead rustle into whispers and he gazes through the trees to barely make out the water down below. In the hazy morning light, he cannot—or will not—discern between the colors of his mind and the bite of reality. “Just follow the river,” he tells himself, and he packs up his belongings to inch closer to his guide.
At night, sleep overcomes him as the now close-by river lulls him in the darkness. Relief washes over him as again his dreams play host once more to the most beautiful woman and her ethereal song. Now he can see her in full, and she gestures for him to come close to her, into the water. Heart pounding with anticipation, he scrambles on slick rock to wade into the water. She’s so close now, he can reach out and touch her porcelain face, look deep into her green eyes. As his fingers finally graze her skin, her arms transform into strong, wild binds that pull him down into the water. He has but a moment to recognize her new features, no longer beautiful but skeletal and sunken, her pearly teeth broken and mossy, her song now one of damnation.
Finally, they are together. The river is still.
– NRS Ambassador, Lydia Wing
Editor’s Note: This interpretation of ‘The Siren of the French Broad’ is written with help fromNorthCarolinaGhosts.com.
St. Croix River, Wisconsin
Uncle slammed his hand down onto the map. His finger stabbing a grid of faint lines, black squares, a cluster of small lakes, swamps and forest in northwestern Wisconsin.
“Do not go here—only brings trouble. Maps lie and this one especially.”
Canoe trips with Dad were often filled with ghost stories about old hotels and wayside hostels, a spirit trapped by untimely misfortune, tormenting visitors and long-suffering inn owners alike. I’d squirm and tuck deeper into my sleeping bag. My uncle would scoff and keep quiet. He never told ghost stories, he told true stories. This is one of those.
“When I was a teen, I would ply the rivers south of Superior, fishing for walleye, bass and blugill. There used to be a general store at the Sunrise Ferry, St. Croix. I would sell a few painted turtles to the owner. And she would sell me a new paddle, rod, or canvas bag.”
Drawing a deep breath, “One day, I was headed upstream to find Benjamin Springs, a town that should never exist. The Mercantile owner slipped this in with my purchase, no words, no smile.”
Carefully, Uncle unrolled a yellowed scrap of linen and read to me the following words.
“I’ve spent my entire life up and down the Saint Croix and Namekagon rivers, but there are backwaters that I will not go to.” Uncle trailed off, his eyes piercing mine.
-Team NRS Paddler, Adam Elliott