In the 1990s, Ryan Melton took a semester off college to hike the Appalachian Trail with his girlfriend. Late one afternoon, they arrived at a campsite.
“It was a nice, quiet spot,” recalled Melton, who now lives in Duluth. “And we had it to ourselves, which was rare. We were tired and ready to be done. So we started to unpack and, after sitting there eating some dinner, we looked at each other. Without any reason, we both felt very uncomfortable being there. After another half-hour or so, we just packed up and left.”
They hiked on to the next site. A couple of days later, other campers informed them that two women had been slain at the campsite they fled.
This Halloween, you may find yourself in a haunted house, and most experts agree that creepy old buildings lend themselves to ghostly inhabitants. But about when you’re outside? When you’re gathered around your campfire, are the ghosts more than just stories?
“I think there is probably less going on outside,” says Kristy Halstensgaard of Midwest Paranormal Files, a group that gathers video and audio “evidence” at haunted locations. “I’ve never heard of anyone being haunted outside in general. Give all the animal noises, it would have to be pretty dramatic for someone to think it was paranormal.”
Wendy Webb, who writes gothic suspense novels with a paranormal twist, saw something along those lines. One morning she was walking her dog in Duluth after a huge snowfall. It was about 10 below zero.
“I started hearing a strange, metallic creaking noise,” Webb wrote in an e-mail. “I couldn’t figure out what it was until I came upon a backyard, where there was an old, decrepit swing set. On the swing, swaying back and forth slowly, was a little girl dressed in a Brownie uniform. Short sleeves. Nothing on her legs. Her long brown hair in two neat braids.”
Webb was about to tell the girl to go inside for a coat when she looked down at her 130-pound malamute. The dog’s hackles were straight up, and it started barking at the girl.
“The little girl never looked up,” she says. “She just kept swinging, slowly, back and forth.” Soon, the dog pulled her away.
Camps and campgrounds are a kind of middle ground between indoors and outdoors, and they have no shortage of ghost stories.
“We already knew this place was haunted,” says Arnold Dahl-Wooley, fifth-generation owner of the Big Winnie Store RV Park and Campground on the south end of Lake Winnibigoshish in Bena, Minn. “Nothing scary. Sometimes we smell this huge, strong aroma of Grandma’s perfume and cookies. My siblings and I will look at each other and say, ‘Grandma.’ Then it will be gone.”
They also hear footsteps on the stairs, and have surveillance video of a pint of liquor flying off the shelf. (Midwest Paranormal Files investigated and recorded a “sighing” in the basement.)
Most of Big Winnie’s alleged spirits may reside inside, but there are stories of a man in a white shirt who roams the grounds at night at a summer camp not far from Lake Winnibigoshish. Mark (who requested only his first name be used) was a counselor there when he woke up to see the man standing in his cabin.
“The kids were sleeping,” he said. “He came over and sat at the foot of my bed, and put his hand on my leg. Then he got up and went out the door. I saw him go past the window toward the dining hall. The next day I asked around if someone had been going in cabins. I don’t know what it was. But it was odd.” He saw the man one other time in the night, as have others.
Some people encounter strange things while driving. Sarah Moeding had an experience she still can’t explain while driving from Moorhead to Montevideo with a friend. Suddenly, “in front of us was this large ball of slimy guts that looked gelatinous, like a Jell-O mold. We didn’t have time to stop,” she wrote. They braked as fast as they could, and went through it — but there was nothing there when they checked. They both saw it.
“It’s been 20 years,” she recalled, “and it still gives me goose bumps.”
In the lore of outdoor ghost stories, however, one place looms large: Sturgeon Narrows, a spit of land deep in Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park. In one story, campers were almost struck by lightning as they arrived, then trees fell in a triangle around their tent at night. In another other, strange campers showed up to dance and chat at a fire they made next to campers already there.
But one story haunts all who’ve heard. It was told by longtime Widjiwagan camper and counselor Attila Ray Dabasi. In 1972, when he was 14, Dabasi went on a 17-day trip though Camp Widjiwagan. His tentmate was Michael Phillips, 13, who now is a lawyer in Milwaukee, and who confirmed the story. (Read his account here.)
On the 10th day of their trip, the group arrived at Sturgeon Narrows. They were tired, and it had rained every day. Dabasi and Phillips were taking their turn in the two-person tent, while the other three campers and the counselor slept in the four-person tent.
After the others had gone to sleep, Dabasi and Phillips stayed up talking and laughing, until they heard a THUD from the forest. Maybe a tree falling? They went silent. Then there was another THUD, and another. The noises got louder and more intense. Soon the ground was shaking so violently that it felt like all the trees around their campsite were falling over. Birds started screeching and flapping and trying to flee the area. The noise was like being in the middle of a waterfall.
Then it stopped. In the silence, they heard voices across the water, laughing, talking, and singing in French. The voices grew louder, as if they were coming to the camp. But instead of footfalls, they heard pots and pans clanging and their food pack and personal packs getting torn apart.
In the chaos, someone blurted something in the other tent. The noise stopped. Dabasi and Phillips made a run for it, and jumped into the other tent to find all four asleep.
The other campers were furious at being awakened, and they threw the two back outside. For a minute they stood in the dark trying to see whatever had been making the noise but could see nothing. They got back in their tent. Phillips dozed off, but Dabasi lay awake. After some time, he heard the thumping in the distance, gradually slowing, until he, too, fell asleep.
The next morning, the campsite was exactly as they left it. As they paddled away from Sturgeon Narrows, Phillips recalls the “sweet rush of mad relief that comes with a narrow escape,” he wrote. “I knew we were free of that place and was thankful never to return.”
The group never talked about the night again. If there are ghosts in the woods, they are better left behind.
Frank Bures is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.