Camp Monsters


Episode Summary

Up in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest, you can smell a Gumberoo before you hear it-- a smell just like woodsmoke: faint at first, then thicker and thicker, like a campfire gone wild.

Episode Notes

Up in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest, you can smell a Gumberoo before you hear it– a smell just like woodsmoke: faint at first, then thicker and thicker, like a campfire gone wild. If you’re smart you’ll get out of the woods right then– because Gumberoos can move fast. And if you gamble, and stick around, and the wind picks up and the Gumberoos came charging into the valley you’re in…well, there’s a reason that not many folks alive have heard the roar of a Gumberoo.

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Episode Transcription

You’re a lumberjack, in the old axe-and-saw days of the great virgin forests of the Pacific Northwest.  And you have to keep quiet. You have to listen. You have to listen for the quiet of a huge dead limb, knocked loose by the ring of your axe, hurtling down to crush you. Listen for the muffled as some old snag leaning its unseen top against your tree begins to crack and crumble, tumbling down huge chunks of rotten timber big as a horse. You have to listen for the ticking of the tree you’re cutting beginning to split and shatter-- exploding under the tension of thousands of pounds of soaring trunk and limbs above: a sudden <>, a hollow <>-- and you turn to run with splinters big as your arm slicing the air, and the whole tree collapsing down around you.

But you’re also listening for the distant roar… of the creature you fear more than any of that.  Quiet!  Do you hear it?

This is the Camp Monsters podcast.

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Yeah! Oh, that’s great. Ahhh, there’s nothing better than a song around the campfire. And you all sound fantastic-- nice harmonies! I tell you-- there’s something about this setting that makes the songs sound that much better. The way the notes come back off the trunks of the trees around us… or maybe the pine needles on the limbs crowding above catch the notes, and start to tremble along with the tune. 

Or it could be the fire itself that makes the songs sound so good around it. Something about the way you feel half-hidden in firelight-- maybe that lets us all sing with more abandon. Anyway, we’re lucky to have this fire tonight. There’s been plenty of rain these past few weeks up here in the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest-- there was a fire ban on before that. And a good thing, too-- when these forests start to burn, it’s more frightening than any camp monster could be.

Except maybe… well, there’s an old legend that the lumberjacks used to tell, about a creature that always appeared when a wildfire was raging.  It’s hard to imagine anything that could make a wildfire more terrible than it naturally is, but… those old lumberjacks were a rough, tough crowd, yet it was an open question which they feared more: a wildfire, or the creature that fed off of it.  The one they called the Gumberoo.

The Gumberoo.  Huh– that’s a silly name, isn’t it?  Sometimes, when you know you have to live and work in the shadow of something so dangerous, like those old lumberjacks did, it helps to treat it lightly.  To give it a silly name, tell funny tall tales, try to laugh at it.  But that’s all just so much smoke in your eyes– if you blink through it, and catch a glimpse of the real creature behind the Gumberoo stories… the laughter catches in your throat like a hot, dry cough.

You smell a Gumberoo before you hear it-- a smell just like woodsmoke: faint at first, then thicker and thicker, like a campfire gone wild. If you’re smart you’ll get out of the woods right then– because Gumberoos can move fast. And if you gamble, and stick around, and the wind picks up and the Gumberoos came charging into the valley you’re in… well, there’s a reason that not many folks alive have heard the roar of a Gumberoo. 

Because once you hear that low, rumbling roar– with a phlegmy rattle like the snapping of thick green limbs – the Gumberoo is already too close. And as for seeing one… there are old legends describing it, so someone in the old days must have escaped, but… you’re a fool not to run just as soon as you catch the Gumberoo’s smoky scent.

Keelin learned that the hard way.  The hardest way you can.  A year or two ago, there she was: stumbling along a trail not far from here, covering her face with a balled-up t-shirt and trying to squint ahead through the smoke and the flurries of ash that a strong, hot wind kept whipping through the air. Keelin was scared-- tears of panic were mingled with the constant, stinging stream that the smoke wrenched from her eyes. She knew she was in trouble-- she could barely breathe-- visibility was down almost to zero. She didn’t see how things could get any worse, any more desperate… but… that’s when she first saw the dark outline take shape on the trail in front of her.

I should tell you a little more about Keelin. Keelin was an experienced hiker-- too experienced to make the kind of mistakes she’d made that day. As the nightmare had slowly unfolded around her, she’d had plenty of time to kick herself for messing up so badly-- for breaking the basic rules of back-country safety. But the corners that she cut, when she’d cut them, had seemed so… innocent, so harmless.

For example: normally she’d never have been hiking alone. She understood there’s safety in numbers out in the wilderness, where trouble can come on quick. But that day… true, she was going to be alone for a few miles, but she had friends on both ends of her hike. That summer she’d been trekking the famous Pacific Crest Trail, all the way up from California, making friends with so many other young hikers along the way. Her day was all planned out: she’d wake up in camp with one group she knew, then take an easy solo hike on the well-marked, heavily-traveled trail to where she’d arranged to meet up with another group. If she got into any trouble-- rolled an ankle or anything-- there were so many other hikers at this time of year that help would come along in no time. It should have been easy. It should have been a piece of cake.

When she woke up that morning the weather was fine and clear, with a bracing touch of autumn in the dawn. A fresh breeze kept the tops of the tall trees talking to one another. Keelin struck camp and said good morning to the friends that were waking in the tents around her-- they chatted and made plans to all meet up again when they got closer to the Canadian border. Then Keelin hit the trail.

If you’ve ever been backpacking in these mountains, you know what most of Keelin’s day was like. Up and up, gaining altitude, setting an easy pace-- stopping now and then when the trees opened for a peek-a-boo view down into the valley. Crossing shallow little streams that bubbled off the hillsides above. Stepping to the side of the trail and saying hello to fellow hikers heading the other way. Trying not to get too bored on the switchbacks. Keelin got into a rhythm, got into the zone. She could walk all day that way-- not that she’d have to. She expected to reach her friend’s camp by 3 in the afternoon… 4 at the latest.

It was just before noon when she met the first little group of people who told her there might be trouble ahead. They were going the other direction, but said they’d heard that the trail behind them-- in the direction Keelin was hiking-- had closed due to fire danger. They weren’t sure how far back, though-- it might be well past where Keelin’s friends were camping. In fact it probably was. It must be, right? There wasn’t even a hint of smoke on the air-- any fire must be miles away.

Keelin met a few more little groups going the other way, and most of them relayed some similar message about trail closures ahead. Keelin didn’t give it much thought, or spare any worry over it. What could some rumors of distant fire have to do with a mountain day as glorious as that one?

She didn’t even smell the smoke until she was closing in on the camping area where she’d agreed to meet her friends. It was so faint that she’d been walking through it for some time before she realized what she was smelling. It was ever-so-slight: just like a faraway campfire. So subtle it was almost pleasant. When she came to a clearing Keelin looked up at the sky-- bright, shocking blue without a hint of haze. There must be a forest fire somewhere-- but it couldn’t be anywhere close.

That evidence-- the blue sky, the barely-perceptible smoke-- didn’t make any impression on the two brown-suited Forest Rangers that Keelin met a little further along. The trail ahead was closed, they informed her, and she’d have to turn around. No, there were no alternate routes-- the whole forest district ahead was shut down due to fires in the area. Keelin tried reasoning with them: why close a whole vast section of wilderness because of fires in one or two parts of it? That was ridiculous-- just some lawyers for the Forest Service hyperventilating about liability. That’s how she felt at the time, and she let them hear about it. They’d never know how soon and how completely she would change her mind.

The worst part was that this team of Rangers had come up on a different trail that didn’t pass the camp area she was headed to, so they didn’t have any idea if her friends were still up there. They told her that other Rangers were working that area, and would certainly inform her friends of the closure. She asked if she could just go the last few miles and find out if they were still there: then she and her friends could all hike out together. But the Rangers politely and firmly refused. So Keelin turned around and made a show of hiking off in a speedy huff… at least, until she’d put the Rangers out of sight behind her.

That’s when she made her next big mistake. It was so stupid, but… so easy. As easy as taking a few steps into the brush-- and hiding. Hiding until the two Rangers had walked past and disappeared down the trail. Keelin chuckled at their backs. These mountains are a mighty big place. You can close a trail-- heck, you can close a whole section of the forest… but you can’t hope to patrol all of it, or be able to really enforce the closure. Once the Rangers were well out of sight Keelin got back on the trail and carried on, so tickled by her own trickery that she didn’t notice that the wind had shifted… and strengthened.

Smoke is such a funny, deceptive thing– especially in the forest. Once you smell it and get used to it, it can thicken so gradually-- on a narrow path through the trees your line of sight is limited anyway, so it’s hard to gauge how light or dense the smoke may be. Once the wind shifted, Keelin noticed that the smoke was increasing... and that the sun had disappeared from the tops of the trees, though she chalked that up to cloud cover. It wasn’t until she’d walked those last long miles… it wasn’t until she broke suddenly into that empty clearing at the top of the ridge where her friends were supposed to be camped… until she looked down into the next valley and saw the smoke rising up and pouring out of it… it wasn’t until then that she realized how completely conditions had changed.

Her friends were nowhere to be seen-- no doubt they’d been moved along by a different team of Rangers hours ago. And Keelin could see that it was past time for her to move along as well. She couldn’t actually spot any fire down there in the next valley… but the wind that was blowing with unusual steadiness from that direction was hot and dry and heavy with smoke. Keelin could see this wind-- could watch it swirl and eddy over the top of the ridge like lines of flowing script written in smoke, pouring its story down into the valley she’d just hiked up. If Keelin could have read the role that the smoke was writing for her… she would have stopped reading right then.

She turned around and started back down her valley, as quickly as she could-- headed back the way she had come, as far as she was able. But even a well-worn, well-marked trail is hard to follow once your eyes start itching and filling with tears-- once the smoke gets so thick you can hardly see the ground-- once the ash is pouring from the sky like singeing snow. It was incredible and terrifying how little progress she had made… how short a distance she had covered before the smoke thickened to a point beyond anything she’d ever imagined.

The smoke, and… that sound… that sound under the roar of the heavy wind that raced between the trunks and thrashed the invisible treetops. That steady, constant sound somewhere between a growl and a roar, interspersed with crackling booms like the magnified snap of green limbs popping in a campfire… 

A shape appeared out of the smoke ahead-- a large shape, dark, moving toward her, fast. Keelin barely had time to cringe away before the thing had reached her. She got just a glimpse, just a momentary image of a shining eye wide with fear, and the foam of panic streaming from the mouth and nose of a… terrified deer.  And then it was past her and gone again, into the smoke behind. It was followed by another, and another-- silent phantoms that raced out of the mist and were gone, like portents in a fearful nightmares.

Keelin hesitated. She didn’t want to leave the trail, to wander off on a steep hillside in these blinding conditions… but it seemed foolish to keep moving in a direction that the deer were running away from. So she backtracked a short way to where a small path branched off of the main way, and she took that. It didn’t matter, though. She hadn’t followed it far when a low shape came scuttling out of the smoke ahead, heading in the opposite direction from the deer-- a small bear or big badger or something… it went by too quick for Keelin to tell.

After that she realized that the smoke and the ash and the roar of the fire had driven the whole forest mad-- as she felt her way along the faint trail low shapes would crash out of the brush up or down the hillside, from behind or in front of her, and dash past with unseeing eyes, running in every direction… no real direction at all. But the trail Keelin was trying to follow was trending slowly downward, and that’s where she wanted to go-- she wanted to get down this ridge, she wanted to get off these mountains, out of this forest-- away from all these gray tree trunks stacked like firewood in this swirling smokehouse.

That’s about where we found her at the very beginning of this story-- stumbling along through the smoke, coughing, trying to breathe, eyes and nose streaming, covering her face with a balled-up t-shirt and squinting against the ash that rippled along that gusting wind like driven snow. She came to a little clearing-- or anyway a small gap between trees, large enough that all she could see was the smoke ahead. Well-- smoke and… something else. Another shape, an animal shape, like the others that had dashed by. Except… this shape wasn’t moving.

At least, it wasn’t moving much. As Keelin approached it she saw it shift a little bit, and raise its muzzle slightly into the air like it was smelling something. Of course the only thing it could be smelling was smoke– and plenty of it. Keelin wasn’t frightened… at least not of this animal, whatever it was, big and dark and round. She was scared enough of everything else that was happening-- a fear she shared with all the other creatures that had crossed her path out in this smoky hell. She didn’t think she had any more fear to spare for whatever this animal was. But… she was wrong.

She was mere steps away when she finally saw it clearly-- and the look of the thing stopped her in her tracks. For an instant she thought it was a black bear. It looked kind of like one, like a big fat one: thick, full, rounded out… except… except it didn’t have any fur on it at all. Its flesh looked… thick, and dark, and wrinkled-- cracked in places. Like something that had been badly, badly burned. Was that it? Was this some poor, maimed black bear with all its fur burned away? Pity and fear made a storm in Keelin’s heart as she started to back slowly away from the creature. Pity for the pain the poor thing must be in, but fear… fear of what a creature in that kind of plight might do, if it discovered her so close to it.

But then the thing turned its head and looked directly at her, and… it didn’t seem like a creature in pain at all. In fact, its eyes were the first calm ones she’d seen out here in the smoke. Its gaze was placid, perfectly in control, but… dangerous. There was something fatal in its stare, so penetrating that Keelin froze. She’d never heard of a Gumberoo before-- she had no idea that that was what stood in front of her. But she was about to learn-- very quickly, very horrifically-- all about one of the Gumberoo’s more remarkable attributes.

The Gumberoo began to glow. Well, not the Gumberoo itself, but… like a halo… a halo of beautiful, glowing light began to pulse and flicker in the smoke all around it. Yellow and orange, red… the glow began to spread, to widen, radiating out with the Gumberoo at its center. And Keelin realized that the light wasn’t coming from the creature at all, but… from somewhere back in the smoke behind it. Like colored lightning, flashing continuously behind clouds. And the light was growing larger and brighter by the second.

Then the Gumberoo waddled its body around to face Keelin, and began to work its jaws. Not snapping or showing teeth, just… working, chewing, grinding its muzzle back and forth. And growling. That was the sound she’d been hearing: A low, ominous growl-- deep and staccato and threatening-- a sound that reminded Keelin of wet, living branches singeing and burning and breaking. She stumbled back-- almost tumbled down the hill. But before she could turn her eyes away, the Gumberoo opened its jaws… and transformed.

There was a roar. A roar that pulled the air out of Keelin’s lungs, that sucked the wind back out of the world and ripped it into the Gumberoo’s jagged teeth. A roar too loud for any creature to make… but the Gumberoo made it. A roar so loud that the burning lights behind the Gumberoo turned into flames… flames that burned the smoke itself, flames that… that exploded through and out of the Gumberoo until the creature was completely consumed by the fire, and… and the fire was consumed by the creature. There it was: a tower of flame with the dark eyes and gaping mouth of the Gumberoo, charging toward Keelin, consuming everything in its path.

Keelin ran. Or-- on a slope that steep she couldn’t run, but she threw herself down and down through the thick, dry brush as it burst into flames all around her. She tore her clothes and flesh on the jagged rocks that jumped out of the hot smoke– the smoke that dried her mouth and swelled her tongue and tried to choke and blind her. She was running and stumbling and coughing, with unconsciousness and the searing breath of the Gumberoo both racing at her heels.

She didn’t know how far she’d gone when she knew she couldn’t go any farther. There was a boulder blocking the hill in front of her, with sheer cliffs on either side. With the last trembling strength in her arms she pulled herself up onto the rock, and crawled across its top until she reached the ledge that dropped away on its far side… and the view over the edge wasn’t promising. No path, no easy way down-- just a drop into blind smoke… only smoke down there… nothing else. She looked behind her-- saw the shape of the Gumberoo raging and rolling in the fire that was already beginning to leap and scramble along the edge of the boulder, throwing little whirlwinds of swirling flame toward her. She felt the blazing wind sucking her back. So she turned to the ledge… and stepped off into the smoke.

She enjoyed that feeling of falling. The air rushing past her skin felt cool compared to the fiery torment she’d left, and she was minutely aware that this was probably the next-to-last thing she’d ever feel. It seemed to go on for a very long time, so long that she had time to wonder-- as we all do in quiet moments… to wonder what it was going to be like. The end. What it was going to be like when she… landed… when she… went through to other side.

As it turned out, it was wonderful. Oh, there was a terrible blow when she hit bottom-- a terrific, momentary shock and a roar… and then it was wonderful. It was stillness, and dark... but it was cool and slow and oh so comforting. It was quiet-- leisurely. No more running. No more fear. No more smoke. The tears and the hurt were washed from her eyes. She felt clean and calm. She opened her dry, cracked, crying mouth… and tasted the coolest, most refreshing drink she’d ever had. All at once she was perfectly content. It was wonderful. And the best part was the feeling… the feeling that this wasn’t all. That she was still moving-- slowly, without any haste at all-- moving through this cool, dark comfort to some place even better. She was sure of it. She wasn’t in a hurry… but she was sure that something even better was waiting for her.

And it must have been a lifetime later-- a couple of peaceful, contented lifetimes-- before she broke the surface of the river she was floating down, and began to realize where she was. Keelin didn’t know the river… didn’t know its dangers, didn’t know the rapids and currents and waterfalls that might lie downstream… the air was still smoky and dim, she couldn’t see very far ahead. But she didn’t care. Because compared to the fury she’d escaped, no fate the river held for her could be that bad. And she still had that feeling… the feeling that, wherever the river took her… she was going to end up in a better place.

Well, Keelin made it. Downstream she managed to pull herself onto the riverbank and stumble along it, out of danger. She was bruised and battered, but… alive. She still loves the forest, still goes out backpacking-- but always with a group. And you’ll never meet anyone better versed in wilderness safety. Especially when it comes to wildfires.

Like the number one fire safety rule, which is to always put your campfire out completely, before you go to sleep. <> Better give it one more douse. <> And throw a little dirt over it… there. Now we can all sleep a little sounder, knowing we won’t have to worry about meeting any Gumberoos tonight. But the next time you’re out in the woods at the end of a hot, dry summer-- remember to be smart. Be safe. Follow the rules… or you may wake up to the roar of a Gumberoo. And Keelin will tell you: once you hear that roar… it’s probably too late.

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Hiking blithely into the smoky wilderness of this episode, whistling a happy tune, is yours truly, writer and host of Camp Monsters, Weston Davis.  Our Engineer Nick Patri– looking handsome in that Forest Ranger uniform that he sometimes wears without explanation– tries to warn him of the danger ahead.  But all Weston is worried about is getting to the next campsite before Executive Producers Paolo Mottola and Joe Crosby eat all the marshmallows.  Of course he would have given up hope if he knew that our Associate Producer (and internationally-recognized marshmallow-eating champion) Jenny Barber is already there.  He hasn’t hiked far before he catches the wildfire scent and hears the unearthly roar of that legendary monster: our Senior Producer, Chelsea Davis.  Weston’s last, best wishes, before The Chelseroo devours him, are sent to our very own Lucie Brooks, who is equally adept at Content & Media Strategy and creating a beautiful baby.  Way to go, Lucie!

Next week… we’ve saved the very best for the last week of this season of Camp Monsters.  Although I’m not sure “best” is the way to describe the creature we’re going to meet.  Huge, and silent, and terrifying, it has a habit of appearing in the most unexpected places… just before terrible things begin to happen…  Join us next week, for one more campfire.

And remember that the stories that we tell here on Camp Monsters are just that– stories. Sure, some of them are based on things people claim to have seen and experienced, but it’s up to you to decide whether that roar you heard actually came from the campfire.  Please subscribe to Camp Monsters if you haven’t already-- and like, share, review, and tell your friends to give us a listen. It’s your support that keeps us recording. Thank you.