The best man I ever knew

 

James M. Skibo

(Story inspired by Michael Loukinen’s film, Good Man in the Woods)

Part 1

Their campsite was on a hill overlooking Ice Lake. The two couples, Tom and Sheri, and Chuck and Meghan, had been coming here since before they were married. Sheri and Meghan had known each other going back to their days at Holy Cross High School in Chicago. They stayed in touch during college despite the fact that Sheri went to Northwestern and Meghan, Notre Dame. It was there that they met their spouses, who got along great, despite their constant friendly banter about the prowess of their respective universities.

“Knute Rockne,  Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, Joe Montana, Paul Hornung, George Gipp, come on, there is nothing like the Notre Dame tradition,” needled Chuck.

“Football, what’s the big deal,” quipped Tom, “Isn’t a university supposed to be a place for the pursuit of knowledge? Northwestern has far more Nobel Prize winners than those Irish brutes.”

Sheri and Meghan rolled their eyes. They knew that this could go on for hours. Despite the banter, they all enjoyed time together, away from Chicago’s fast pace. They had camped other places, but they preferred this site overlooking Ice Lake in the National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The lake is not named for its water temperature, though it was indeed frigid, but instead because ice was harvested here for iceboxes that predate modern refrigeration. The foundation for the lakeside icehouse was still visible.

They liked to camp in late summer, when the mosquitos were gone but the days were still warm. In the city this time of year it would still be hot, but here there was always a morning chill. Ice Lake had plenty of fish to catch from their kayaks, and there were hundreds of miles of hiking trails. Today was like many days in the north woods—they would not see another soul on the lake or during their afternoon hikes. Despite its isolation, they could drive right to the site, which afforded them the benefit of bringing along many amenities that made their tent camping a bit more comfortable.

They were sitting in front of the fire relaxing after a wonderful meal of fresh perch from the lake. It was after 8 PM but there still was over two hours of sunlight left this far north, and they enjoyed these long leisurely evenings after the day of fresh-air activities. Tom and Sheri were in charge of the wine, and Chuck and Meghan the gin and bourbon, which they enjoyed sampling in front of the crackling fire.

There were six campsites on Ice Lake and no others were occupied, so they had the place to themselves. Chuck enjoyed fishing the most, Sheri hiking, and Meghan and Chuck loved to kayak, but they all enjoyed these long evenings next to the fire.

It was one of those quiet, windless nights when noise traveled far, so they heard the vehicle coming five minutes before it arrived. An old rusty pickup, the most common vehicle in the U.P., pulled slowly into the parking lot. Although this was a public campground, they were all disappointed to see a visitor. They had seen few people over the last several days, and they all soaked in the solitude.

The truck slowly pulled into the parking lot, the sound of the gravel crunching beneath the tires echoed off the tranquil lake. A crow squawked from a nearby branch sharing the campers’ dissatisfaction with the intrusion.

“Who do you think this is?” wondered Chuck aloud. “Local kids drinking some beer?”

Although the campsite was remote, for Chicago standards, and in a National Forest, there were a number of small towns nearby, so it was common to see locals in the Forest. The area really came alive during White Tail deer hunting season in November. Opening day was a holiday in the area, with most people taking off work to get in the woods.  Teens also used the woods for their drinking and romance. The most annoying thing is that they often left their empties along the two-rut roads.

In the 20th century, iron mines were the biggest employers, but now just one mine was left. Most people were employed  in tourism related careers, or in the timber industry. The National Forest, under control of the Department of Agriculture, viewed the timber in the forest as a harvestable commodity. The managers of the National Forest had to find the balance between recreation and sustainable timber harvesting. They do an excellent job as most visitors come to the Forest and do not realize that these lands are under timber management.

The campers’ attention had been pulled away from the fire to the pickup, which they could see clearly through the high canopy trees. The parking lot was near the lake and their campsite was on the rise above. When the driver turned off the engine there was a chorus of disappointed sighs.

“Oh gee,” said Tom, “I wonder if we are going to see a teen make-out session. I say we sneak down for a closer look.” They all laughed, breaking the tension, as their eyes drifted back to the fire.

“I would take watching a fire over watching TV anytime,” said Meghan. They freshened up their drinks and soon forgot about the pickup truck, which seemed to be parked there just to take in the sunset over the lake.

The creak of the rusty driver’s door hinge pulled their attention back to the truck. An elderly man slowly emerged from the truck, sporting a white beard and a faded Green Bay Packer’s hat.

“Oh great, a Packer fan,” quipped Chuck, who was wearing his Chicago Bear’s hat, which was just as faded as the man’s was. Years of wearing it on weekends or while playing in his softball league will do that to a cap.

The man emerged from behind the truck limping slightly. He wore a faded pair of jeans, with patches on the knees, and red flannel shirt. As he came into better view, they could see that he was carrying an ax in his right hand.

“This has all the makings of a good horror movie,” Tom said. They all give out a nervous laugh, which broke the tension. Their commotion made him look up at them. He gave them a nod and they waved back. He walked slowly across the parking lot and into the woods. As he moved into the trees, he came in and out of view as he walked slowly up the hill. When he got to the top of the rise, he paused and stood motionless for several minutes. His body seemed to give way and he went down on one knee.

“Think he is OK?” wondered Sheri. “I think we should go check on him.” The other three looked at each other but no one seemed to be interested in this idea. Sheri stood up and started walking towards the man.

“Hold up,” said Tom as he was not willing to let her go alone. “I’ll go too.”

“We will stay behind,” quipped Chuck, “so there is someone left to tell the tale of the Ice Lake murder.” Meghan hit her husband in the shoulder but it did not stop him from continuing. “Remember our motto, ‘Don’t feed the locals.’”

“Opening line of my novel will be, ‘As they walked away from the fire I had a feeling that we would never see them again.’” Meghan hit Chuck in the shoulder again but she also gave him a smile. One thing she liked about Chuck was his warped sense of humor.

To be continued…

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