When I first started gathering accounts about strange happening in the woods, there was one name that kept coming up: Sturgeon Narrows, a spit of land deep in Canada’s Quetico.
In one story, campers were almost struck by lightning as they arrived. That night, they set their water bottles out, and in the morning they had all been moved to the other side of the tent. Trees had fallen in a triangle around the tent, with the exception of one that still had a yellow rain jacket on it. In another, Dan Liljedahl, a Camp Widjiwagan counselor, arrived at Sturgeon Narrows with his campers. After dark they heard a banging across the water, which turned out to be three canoes paddling toward their site. They waited for them to pass, but instead, they stopped at Liljedahl’s site, set up tents right next to theirs and barely said a word. Then they started a giant bonfire, Liljedahl wrote, “like you have at the cabin getting rid of dead wood, and they start dancing and chanting ... men and women. It all felt very ritualistic. The guys and I eventually fell into an uneasy sleep. I woke up early, got everyone up and we left.”
But there was one story everyone mentioned, which involved longtime Widjiwagan camper and counselor Attila Ray Dabasi. I contacted Dabasi, and over a period of several weeks he sent me the story as he remembered it. His tentmate was Michael Phillips, then 13, who is now a lawyer in Milwaukee and the former legal counsel for the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
The two hadn’t spoken since the 1970s, but when I contacted Phillips he confirmed that Dabasi’s version was essentially as he remembered it. All these years later, both of them are unsettled to think back on that night, during a 17-day trip in the Quetico with three other teens and led by a counselor, when something terrifying and unexplained happened outside Dabasi and Phillips’ tent.
The Night at Sturgeon Narrows By Attila Ray Dabasi
Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I had the good fortune to have been introduced to a YMCA camp named Widjiwagan, based out of Ely, Minn., near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The camp specialized in wilderness canoe trips that introduced 13- to 18-year-olds to wilderness settings throughout Canada as well as the Boundary Waters.
This particular canoe trip was my second, and took place in 1972. It would last 17 days with four other teenagers and led by a counselor who happened to be a University of Minnesota wrestler.
Our trip took place in Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park, directly north of the BWCA. Canada’s canoe country was more desolate, with less developed portages and campsites. It has lakes so big that you could spend a whole day paddling from one end to the other, especially if you were unfortunate enough to paddle into a wind.
For the first 10 days of the trip, we were pelted with freezing rain. Even for Canada, such an unrelenting rain in July was highly unusual. Despite all of the obstacles and hardships, six of us city boys managed to paddle and portage ourselves, with hundreds of pounds food and equipment, over 200 miles in our first 10 days.
One thing that kept our momentum going was the goal of reaching the northernmost point of our trip. This was a lake described by others as the most beautiful and remote lake in the Quetico: Sturgeon Lake.
Sturgeon Lake had once been surrounded by ancient white pine. Those had been logged long ago by French-Canadian lumberjacks and immigrants. The lake had several lumber camp ruins near its shores. The thought of rummaging through ruins fed our curiosity, too, and compelled us to move on.
In the middle of the day we stopped for a bite to eat and studied the map for a campsite. Soon after we portaged into Sturgeon Lake, we spotted one right at the end of what looked like a river, a place named the Sturgeon Narrows.
As we paddled on to our evening’s destination, we were rewarded with the sun breaking through the clouds. The rain subsided and a warm wind accompanied the sunlight. The campsite was a larger than most, with level ground, topsoil and pine needles.
We made camp late that afternoon, taking in the ambiance of what seemed like a perfect campsite. It faced south into the expanse of the lake. That evening, feeling the stress of the last 10 days lift, we made a hearty Hudson Bay stew and hot chocolate. For the first time in a long time, we were all content and getting along.
At one point, I broke away from the group to do some exploring. I didn’t go far from our base camp before I discovered the foundation of a structure. I also found some old rusty tin cans and the remnant of a rusty pitch fork with two bent tongs.
As I pondered the condition of the pitchfork, I had the overwhelming feeling I was being watched. My eyes darted around the area looking for signs of another being, but concluded there was no one out there but me. Still, I felt uneasy enough to head back to the camp, where I found my buddies having a great time. After about an hour of raucousness, we began to settle down.
That night, my friend Michael and I were delegated to the two-man tent. The other tent was a spacious four-man tent, which we all preferred. We were all taking turns sleeping in the smaller tent.
After turning in, we could hear the muffled conversations of our four companions some 20 feet away. After a while, a chorus of snoring emerged from their tent, which in turn gave us the confidence of dissing one of the guys named Scott in that tent.
He was a loud, obnoxious guy, who was fortunately more funny than annoying. He helped provide comic relief on days of the trip when the going got rough. When Michael and I were sure Scott was asleep, we started exchanging anecdotes about him, each more hilarious than the last. The stories peaked with Michael and I in a fit of hysterics.
Our laughter abruptly ended when we heard a single deafening thud from the forest. In the light from the partial moon, I could see the look on Michael’s face: “WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?”
I felt a wave of terror wash over my body. We laid in the tent frozen by fear, completely tuned into sounds outside our thin-walled shelter.
Then there was another “THUD.”
I looked at Michael’s face and his expression turned from fear to a smile. “Ha, ha, ha, Scott!” he said. “Like that’s going to scare us.” Then he added in a sarcastic tone, “You’re so cool man! Sooo cool! Ha, ha, ha.”
Scott did not respond.
The thudding continued, growing in its intensity and resonance, vibrating the ground all the way to our tent. The ground was shaking so violently that it felt like the trees around our campsite were falling over one by one. It sounded like some giant force was tearing them out of the ground, roots and all.
What really caused me to panic, though, was the sound of the birds going berserk. Birds of all types, waked by the commotion, were screeching and flapping their wings as they tried to flee the area.
Michael and I crammed ourselves into the very center of our tent. The chaos around us reached deafening proportions. It was an overwhelming sound, like standing next to an enormous waterfall. Neither one of said a word. It was understood we weren’t being pranked by Scott. The force of what was happening outside of our tent was well beyond anything a person could produce in the middle of nowhere.
To this day, I have never been so terrified in my life. My head flooded with the idea of death. In my delirious state of mind, I started a conversation with God. I asked him to forgive me for all the people I may have hurt up until that point of my short 14 years of life. Another thought I had was that I hadn’t even kissed my first girl yet. But the most painful image was of my mother receiving news of my grisly death.
Then, without warning, it stopped. Silence. The night air was empty of all sounds, not even the wind.
With our full attention focused on the quiet, we turned to each other. In whispered voices, we weighed the idea of making a run for it to where our buddies and the college wrestler were. Besides, they must have been awake with the horror show playing out around us.
Then we heard something else: From the waters south of our campsite, voices burst into laughter and song. The clarity of those voices was so sharp that I could hear they were having a great time.
As I listened, I also realized that the speaking and singing were all in French. And they were getting louder: Whoever the voices belonged to were paddling some kind of boat toward our campsite.
It didn’t take long for them to arrive. Raucous laughter ensued as they arrived. We listened for footsteps, but instead we heard the clanging of the pots and pans we’d placed on our food packs as a bear alarm. Next we heard our food packs and our personal packs being ripped and shredded apart.
We laid there too frightened to move, until a voice came from our buddies’ tent, blurted through the noise. With that single sound, the chaos stopped. Michael and I assessed the situation, wondering if it was time to make a run for the other tent.
I yelled: “Jim, are you awake, man?”
We exploded out of our tent and ran to where our companions were. As we did, Michael shined his flashlight around us, looking for whatever had terrified us. The beam managed to penetrate about 6 feet of the darkness, keeping us blind to whatever it was.
In a single motion, we unzipped the tent and dove into safety, landing on four very asleep guys who suddenly found themselves abruptly woken by two frantic kids. The voice we’d heard just moments before had been one of them talking in his sleep.
I landed on the wrestler, whose face I unintentionally bounced into the ground. Punching, kicking and threats ensued, with all four guys wide awake and enraged. They didn’t believe a word we said, and threw us out of their tent.
Outside, Michael and I stood for a minute trying to see anything we could with his flashlight. But there was nothing. We slowly walked back to our tent, then we stood for a bit listening before we climbed back in.
In the tent, we talked about what had happened, trying to explain it or rationalize it. Soon Michael dosed off with a slight snore. I lay motionless, my ears tuned to our surroundings. After some time, in the far distance, the thumping returned. It was a little slower with each stomp. As I listened, it took on a soothing quality and soon I was asleep.
The next morning, we woke up to four really angry guys, including our counselor, who had a freshly cut lip. As for the campsite, there was no evidence of any damage. Everything, including the trees around us, looked just as we left them the night before. Michael and I tried to explain the events of that evening, but were met with disbelief, anger and, eventually, deaf ears.
No one believed our story. Later that day, we paddled away from our campsite. It was a perfect, windless summer morning. The water was as smooth as a sheet of ice. As we crossed the water, one of the guys yelled, “What the [expletive] is that?”
We all turned back to look: A single, tall birch tree surrounded by shrubs — with something rustling within their leaves — was swaying back and forth. Everything else stood silent and still on that perfect summer morning.