Around the Campfire
By Dwayne MacInnes
It had taken quite a while and a lot of planning for our camping trip to come together. My work schedule only had me off every other weekend. Wes had black out dates from his job that he could not take off and Doug was scrambling to finish remodeling his kitchen. So by the time we all finally got together it was late October.
The one thing that worked for us was the weather. The days were warm, the mornings and evenings were cool. Only the nights were cold. It was actually quite beautiful to be camping in the fall as the leaves turned. Another plus was that we were secluded in our campground as most campers had packed it in for the season long ago.
We made sure that we stayed at a public campground especially with hunting season in full swing. Nothing invited getting an unwelcome bullet in the body more than running through the woods during deer season. Most hunters were cautious and made sure of their target. However, there were always a couple of first-timers usually from the big cities. They tended to shoot anything that moves, whether it is wearing hunter's blaze or not.
So it was on one of the last nights of our stay we were sitting around the fire. Wes had placed a pot of water on the flames to heat so that we could enjoy some cocoa before we turned in. We were telling tales of past camping adventures/mishaps as well as ghost stories and having rather good time.
Doug was again regaling us with the story of being attacked by a gull while in his canoe when he approached its chicks he thought were albino beavers. We were all laughing pretty hard when we were surprised by the "Excuse me" spoken by a stranger standing next to us.
None of us noticed the man approach us. He was in his mid-fifties and wearing an old red and black checkered jacket, a hat with earflaps, and laced black boots. Needless to say, we were all pretty dumbstruck as we fought to put our hearts back into our chests.
"Sorry," the man apologized, "I did not mean to startle you. I only wanted to warm myself by your fire."
"Sure," I said as I offered a vacant log he could use as a chair.
"I just don't see many people out here this late in the year," the stranger continued.
"Well, one thing led to another and by the time we got out here it was nearly winter," Wes replied.
"Would you like some hot chocolate?" Doug asked already pouring some hot water into a metal cup.
"Mmmm, I can't rightly say the last time I had cocoa. I would love some," the stranger said accepting the cup offered by Doug.
"Well, my name is Jason Bitner," the man said.
We all exchanged our names and shook hands as the firelight flickered upon our faces.
"So what brings you out here?" Doug asked.
"I like to walk these woods this time of year," Jason replied. "I have been doing it for many years. I guess it is a habit seeing as how I used to hunt around here many years ago."
"Really," I said. "I thought you couldn't hunt in this area."
"Oh, this was a long time ago. Before this became a campground. In fact, it was about this time of year the last time I hunted here," Jason stated as he stared fixedly into the fire.
It felt like there was something in the air that compelled us to sit there and listen. Afterwards we all realized that we were entranced by Jason's story and we could do little but listen as he told it.
"I was doing some deer hunting. I had my pack and rifle and I have always had good luck in this area. Of course, back then you had to be wary of the mountain lions. They could sneak up on you that would be that.
"I had started early in the morning so I could get the most of the daylight to use for my hunt. My initial optimism was starting to fail when by afternoon I still had not found anything. No tracks whatsoever. Nothing.
"Now, not many people know this, but over in that direction," we all looked over to where Jason pointed, "there is a wonderful clearing. It has a small waterfall that cascades down into this chasm.
"I figured I would head over there eat a small lunch before I circled back and called it day. That is what I did. I set my rifle against a tree and I ate my sandwich. Afterwards I decided I'd take a look into the chasm. The sheer drop is about fifty yards into a shallow river. If you ever lost you balance and fell in...Well, that would be the end of you."
The firelight bathed Jason's face in an eerie orange glow as he stared into the snapping flames. The three of us waited, barely breathing for our guest to continue his narrative.
"That's when it happened," Jason finally said. "I was looking down into the chasm when I heard the sound of soft footpads behind me. I slowly turned and there a few yards in front of me was a mountain lion. I stood there frozen with fright; I fought to get my mind to function again.
"I glanced around and I finally remembered I had a rifle. However, it stood resting against the tree I ate my lunch under. Unfortunately, the lion was between me and it. The lion gave a most bone chilling cry you can ever experience. I frantically looked for an escape.
"The chasm was behind me and the lion blocked any escape into the woods. I had to do something. The lion then began to slowly creep near me. I knew I only had moments left if I were to escape. I had to do something."
Jason again stopped his story and stared hard into the flames. His eyes were not focused on the flames but instead on an incident years past. The seconds past slowly and finally I could stand it no longer.
"What happened?" I asked.
Jason snapped back to the present and smiled as he looked at us. "Well, I died," he said with a laugh.
"Thanks for the cocoa. I better head back. Good night," and with that he retreated back into the shadows from where he came.
"Well, he got us pretty good," Doug finally said.
The next morning we thought we would locate that clearing Jason mentioned. There weren't any trails and there was a lot of underbrush, but by noon we thought we located it. There was a small waterfall that fell into a deep chasm. We looked down at the small river Jason told us about and were about to head back when I noticed something.
"What's that?" I said pointing to a tree.
We ran over and there on the ground at the base of the tree lay a rusty rifle and tattered backpack. We quickly rushed back to the chasm and stared down.
"I think I see something down there on a ledge," Wes said excitedly.
Doug quickly pulled out his cell phone and called the Park Service.
It was not long before the place was a buzz with deputies, rangers, and rescue teams. We stood back from the action and watched from a distant as some rangers finally hauled up the skeletal remains that Wes saw on the ledge.
A ranger finally approached us. "Good work guys. It looks like you did find a body. According to his driver's license his name was Jason Bitner. He must have fell down there sometime around 1949."