Camp Monsters

Skunk Ape

Episode Summary

Molly, an adventurous dog visiting the Gulf Coast of Florida with her owner, finds herself in tall thick grass, thicker reeds, mud, and deep water. A perfect trap for the Skunk Ape.

Episode Notes

Molly, an adventurous dog visiting the Gulf Coast of Florida with her owner, realizes she may be in trouble when she finds herself in tall thick grass, thicker reeds, mud, and deep water. A perfect trap for the Skunk Ape.

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Episode Transcription

You feel warm, deadly water up to your neck.

You think about snakes and alligators.

You see reeds, close up, all around, like the inside of a green ribcage, of some creature that’s already devoured you.

You hear footsteps… slow, soggy, reed-crushing footsteps-- searching for you.

But all your thoughts and senses are overpowered by the smell. That sharp, shocking, living smell of death. It kicks you in the face-- weaves singeing ropes of scent through the cavities of your skull and yanks on them. You want to gasp and gag-- you want to pull your head away, or sink down and suck in a lungful of water to wash the awful flood of fear-smell out of your face.

But you don’t dare move. Not yet. Not until you know you’ve been discovered. So you sit still in the stew of death-water as the footsteps get louder… closer… and the smell breathes so strong you can feel it coating your tongue. Your stomach starts to heave in spite of you– tears spring from your eyes and stream down into the water.

Then the footsteps stop. And start again, fast now-- sure of themselves, running through the reeds. You’ve been spotted. You feel your heart sink at the same time your body rises, exploding from the soup of mud and green and trying to run… trying to escape from that… that thing, that… that awful smell…

This is the Camp Monsters Podcast.

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This week we’re living the good life, on the Gulf Coast of Florida. You can make a fire if you want to-- they’re allowed on this stretch of beach. But isn’t it too hot for one? And don’t you feel like you could just lay here forever in the warm white sand, watching the sun go down over the ocean, listening to the gentle waves lap the shore? Mmmm… I’d better be careful, or I’ll fall asleep out here. Not that that would be the worst thing in the world-- waking up in a few hours in air warm as a blanket, with the full moon for a night-light, leaving its glowing trail across the ocean. No, that wouldn’t be so bad, if only… well, if only I hadn’t heard about that thing they call the Florida Skunk-Ape. If only I hadn’t heard about what happened to Molly.

Molly was running up a quiet, lonely beach just like this one, not long ago. Running away from the water-- up that little ridge of sand held in place by the first strip of greenish-brown beach grass. It was just about this same time of evening-- maybe a little bit later. The sun was dropping behind the horizon, lighting Molly’s golden hair with a reddish fire… the first stars were coming out in the eastern sky. There was a bit of haze drifting in off the water that night-- just enough so that the two figures Molly could see from the top of the rise were featureless and indistinct-- shapes moving toward her. One shape she knew-- following her up from the beach, that shape was Elena-- hear her calling? “Molly! Molly!”

But that other shape-- that other figure-- the one Molly had just glimpsed in the distance as it slunk through the grass-topped hillocks behind the beach… that was the one Molly was worried about. The one she didn’t want to meet. The one she’d been trying to warn Elena about, but… Molly might just as well have been chasing her own tail. In fact, she’d tried that, too: after she caught the first hint of that smell on the evening breeze, Molly had stopped… stood perfectly still… refused to take another step down the long, hazy beach. And when Elena asked her what the matter was, Molly had looked at her, and then started spinning quickly around and around in the sand, making a sound like “aa-roaaaw-oo-rraaoor...”

Maybe I should have mentioned that Molly is a small dog. I guess the story makes more sense if you know that. Not a very small dog-- about the size of a cocker spaniel, although Molly wasn’t all spaniel. She was a proud mix of who-knows-what-- spaniels and terriers and maybe a retriever or two in there for good measure. But like most dogs, she had an excellent sense of smell and no idea that her person, Elena, didn’t share it. So when she stopped spinning and rowling, Molly looked up at Elena with a simple question on her face: “Don’t you smell that?”

In the long catalog of smells that Molly kept somewhere behind her wet black nose, this was one of the few she hated. And feared. Because while there were grassy smells and dirty smells, sandy smells and belly smells and the strange oil-slick smells that came off of new carpets, there was only one smell that Molly associated so strongly with darkness. And she’d just-- unexpectedly-- caught a whiff of it out here, in the breeze on this pleasant, empty, evening beach. And that smell took Molly back to-- not a memory. Memory wasn’t Molly’s strong suit. No: all at once that smell took Molly back to the feeling of standing in her own backyard, as a puppy, at night.

Elena had pushed Molly’s fuzzy, reluctant little behind out the sliding glass door for one last sniff-around before bedtime. The sound of singing insects filled the air, and the buzzing orange lights from the alley kept most of the night at bay, except where the shadows fell black along the back fence. Molly was busily sniffing, sniffing, sniffing-- when she heard a sound behind the cinder-block wall that ran along the side of their yard. She kept her head low and tried to keep her collar from jingling as she moved stealthily toward the snout-sized gap she knew along the bottom of that wall.

When she got there she stuck her muzzle as far as it would go into the gap, and in one breath she saw everything there was to see in the yard next door. She saw that morning’s birds splashing their wings in the birdbath across the grass. She saw the greasy shadow of the hamburger one of the kids had dropped at the barbecue last week-- oh, how she’d wanted to get over there! She saw the quick little voles that scurried through the maze of holes in the cinder-blocks of the wall itself. And she saw… no, she smelled… something else. Something she couldn’t identify, had never seen before: faint but intense, and-- Molly took another deep snuffle-- and yes: it was growing stronger. A strange smell… something living, or… something that had died?…

“Ruh!Ruh!Ruh!Ruh!Ruh!Ruh!Ruh!” Molly jumped away from the gap and ran along the wall back toward her house, then whirled and sprinted to the back fence, then whirled again and ran back, singing her barkiest song the whole time as she went. On the other side of the wall, Molly heard the neighbor dog Trixie, a spunky little terrier, doing the same thing– mirroring Molly’s every dash by sound. Then, as quickly as they’d started, they broke off, because…

… Because something more interesting was happening. That smell-- that unfamiliar, matted, rotten smell-- that living-dead, secret smell… it had gotten stronger. Slowly, but… much stronger. Molly tracked it with her head low to where the hedge cast shadows along the back fence. Yes, it was back there. It was back there, somewhere, in the alley, or the scrub behind the alley that stretched on and on, all the way down to the wet ground along the river.

Next door, Trixie was on to the same thing. Molly could hear her paws working up and down along the edge of the shadowy hedge that ran along the back fence. The smell was… overpowering now, intoxicating-- viscous and nasty, like the air was an oozing sore. It spun Molly around it was so strong, muzzle in the air, taking little whiffs which were all she could stand. She was about to sing out about it when she heard Trixie explode in the next yard. “Arararararaah!” The alarm call. “Arararararaah!”

Molly and Trixie waited, with a million years of instinct, for the rest of their packs to come racing to the call. But… this was 2022, and the rest of their packs were safely inside with the screens on and the volume up. If they noticed the bark at all it was just as a momentary annoyance.

But Trixie knew her duty, and she kept calling. Molly ran back and forth in her yard, listening and smelling and lending a bark now and then, trying to piece together what was happening beyond the wall. Something was moving, in or over the hedge in Trixie’s yard. The metal fence back there jangled softly as something heavy brushed against it. Molly caught momentary sight of a head-shape above the hedge, outlined darker than the pale night sky, with strange black eyes glistening like a beetle’s in a face covered in long, lank hair. Molly barked the long alarm then, as poor little Trixie bluffed her courageous way through a growling, yipping challenge. Molly could hear in Trixie’s voice that she was overmatched. Where was her pack?

Then, all at once, Trixie’s challenge-growl turned into a higher-pitched yowl for help. Molly was beside herself, singing the alarm over and over and jumping at the wall, spinning circles in the far back corner of the yard. Across the wall the hedge was shaking violently, and Trixie was crying and crying. Finally, there was some action over in the other house-- the sound of a sliding glass door banging open and the recycled smell of mechanically-cooled air. “Trixie, knock it off!”

Well… Trixie did knock it off, but not right away. First she let out one last, long, terrible, despairing scream of pain and hopelessness-- not a dog sound: something much more universal, more elemental than that. And there was one last little shuffle in the hedge… and then… then Trixie knocked it off. “Trixie?” one of her people called. “Trixie?”

Molly was at her own back door by then, paws running on the glass-- shaking, trying to dig her way in. Elena opened the door and let her dash in and hide under the bed… but a little later Elena pulled Molly out and put her leash on, then led her reluctantly around the neighborhood, helping the neighbors call for their gone dog. “Trixie! Trixiiieee!” Molly thought this was a strange and morbid ritual. Couldn’t these people smell, behind the hot, squally rain that had set in-- couldn’t they smell the proof, way back there in the scrub behind the alley-- the blood-proof that Trixie was no more? Couldn’t they smell the last of that lingering, kill-creature stench that would always be etched with fear and confusion in Molly’s mind?

When Molly had smelled the first hint of that stench again, on this vacation walk down a long and lonely beach, she’d frozen in alarm and refused to walk another step. Elena’s protests and collar tugs and complaining were a distant background to Molly’s feverish attempts to work out where the thing was… where the smell was coming from. Ahead, the beach petered out in a swamp behind some barrier islands-- if the nightmare was down there they could just turn around and run from it. But as the singular, terrifying scent grew stronger, Molly’s worst fears were realized: it was behind them. The darkness-- those empty, shining eyes; that noseless face with its curtain of tangled hair-- it was between them and the car. And a breath of wind confirmed: it was coming. It was coming their way.

As Molly spun in agitated circles-- trying to make Elena use her nose for once-- Molly saw that, other than the approaching creature, they were completely alone on the beach. No other humans, no other dogs-- no possible help. Their own pack had always been ridiculously small-- just Molly and Elena. It was incredible to Molly that they’d survived as long as they had. But now…

The swamp. That was their only hope. Molly smelled it, behind the lumpy grass mounds at the back of the beach. Smelled a long stretch of stale marsh-water, smelled the salt mud and acres of green reeds. If they hurried… if they could hide…

Elena was shaking a finger at Molly, making all those little short-and-long human-barks that express so little beyond mood. Elena was angry, but there was just no time now for Molly to feel appropriately ashamed-- and when Elena released her collar for an instant, Molly bolted.

“Molly! Molllly!” Elena called after her. She’d follow along as fast as she could-- she always did. If they could just get into the swamp and hide before the creature noticed them… but from the top of that first little hillock, Molly could see they wouldn’t make it. The thing was too close, striding fast and low through the sunset shadows behind the sand-hills at the edge of the swamp. So as Molly plunged down the far side of the sandy slope, her plans change: she’d have to confront the creature… scare it off if she could, or keep it at bay, or lead it away from slow-footed Elena before dashing away from it, toward the car and safety.  So Molly let her instinct carry her weaving between the clumps of stumpy beach grass… and let her nose lead her straight toward that... horrible... smell.

And then… it was almost over before it began. Within a certain distance, the stench overwhelmed Molly’s senses-- all she knew was that the creature was dangerously close. She was running with the soft paws that a thousand millennia of hunting had honed in her kind-- she hardly made a sound. But her collar-- that awful purple choker with the clinking tags attached… she might as well have been wearing a cow bell. It gave her away. And standing still, the creature looked like nothing so much as a clump of beach grass-- maybe a little taller than the rest. A clump of beach grass… with a long, shaggy arm that snatched out at Molly as she dashed by.

Molly skittered to one side in shock and surprise-- lost her footing in the soft sand and fell. It was the fall that saved her. The claws on the end of the long arm-- which ended in a shaggy mix of paw and hand-- snapped shut around the air Molly’s body had just fallen out of. In an instant she was up and off-- three, four bounds away– then rounding to turn and bark and eye the creature.

If it wasn’t for those shining, bug-like eyes, Molly still wouldn’t be able to make the thing out in the fading light. It was squatting in its own thicket of long, matted brown hair, the same color as the sun-burnt stubble of the beach grass. Molly couldn’t just leave it hiding there, couldn’t run away-- Elena would be coming this way soon, following her, and if the thing was sitting still she might stumble right into it. So, barking, Molly crept closer and closer as the creature sat there eyeing her, with the stench coming off it so thick Molly thought she could see waves of it in the air.

She was in the middle of another careful jab forward when the creature pounced. For all its long fur, when it moved it moved like lightning. Molly barely had time to twist her body, dig her haunches into the sand, and bolt. A swipe from those dirty claws knocked her hind-end off track, but with a panting spring she recovered and kept running. Running as fast as she could… but the stench stayed right behind her-- she could hear its phlegmy breath at her heels.

And Molly realized her mistake: she was running into the swamp-- tall thick grasses, thicker reeds, mud, ever-deeper water. A trap-- a perfect trap. She had to get back to the sand and the stubby dunes, where she could run and keep running and have a sporting chance. Molly knew it-- but it seemed the creature did too. She tried to twist and turn back that way-- but with a few swift strides the thing cut her off, driving her deeper and deeper into the mucky wet.

Soon she was sliding through mud that the creature churned through effortlessly. She was hopping through thick marsh-grass that was slowing her down. She was belly-deep in warm, dark water and filled, filled with fear-- not of the snakes and gators that she knew must be everywhere, but terrified of the moment when the mud would disappear beneath her paws, and the water turn deep.

And then it happened. One moment she was madly scramble-jumping through chest-deep water that kept splashing its mud into her mouth-- and then on one hop the bottom disappeared completely, and she was submerged. She came up snorting, coughing, beating her little paws against the water and striking out for… for anything, for… for anywhere away from that rotten stench and the skulking creature that created it.

Snort paddle paddle snort paddle paddle snort paddle paddle-- darkness. Water. A bony grip of claws on the back of her neck, holding her under. Her: twisting, thrashing, kicking-- reaching back to bite but snapping down on nothing but water. Just water. No air. Water. Darkness. Water. No air. No air. Nothing. Nothing…

When the little dog stilled, the shaggy thing-- the Skunk Ape, as it never knew it was called-- let the dog float back up to the surface on its side, with its tongue lolling lifelessly out into the water. The creature stared for a moment into the clouded little eye, and the only thing it felt was a hunger-- a longing for its dinner. But--

“Molly! Molllly!”

But… perhaps… perhaps the menu could be expanded. Those shining beetle eyes watched Elena crest the last grassy sand hill, following the little dog’s footprints. Something behind the creature’s eyes discerned, and calculated, and began to creep its body low through the murky evening water… heading for that bed of reeds right there… right beside that stretch of mud where the last of the dog’s footprints got lost in the water… the perfect place… the perfect place…

Night was really coming on now, and it was getting hard for Elena to see anything where the blue of sky and sand faded into the black of water and mud and swamp grass. Aauugh! That dog! What was it doing down here? Elena hated this-- how could every trip to every beautiful place with that dog end up with some variation of Elena squelching through foul-smelling mud up to her ankles? Why couldn’t they just… walk… on… the beach? The beautiful white-sand beach?

Elena slapped at the mosquitoes that rose in swarms from the swamp all around her. She was trying to follow Molly’s footprints, but this was a wetland, after all-- teeming with life, and the mud criss-crossed by the confused churnings of dozens of creatures, large and small. “Molly! Molly, come here right now!” she called in what she knew was a totally ineffective, frustrated tone.

But there was no response. No distant bark, no jingling collar, no mischievous crashing through the grass. “It would serve the little troublemaker right if she were eaten by an alligator,” Elena thought, and then instantly and fervently took it back, remembering the horror of that night when the neighbor’s dog had been taken by coyotes.

“Molly! Please!” she called. But there was nothing. No movement over the black expanse of mud and water in front of her. Except… was that something? Over where the last of what might have been Molly’s footprints disappeared in the water-- over by that clump of grass? That clump, a little taller than the others? Yes, something was… what was moving over there? It didn’t have the long, low shape of a gator. So Elena stepped closer. “Molly?” she said, softly, hopefully.

She was almost there… ugh, this swamp smelled horrendous. She was edging out toward the water to peer around that tall clump of grass. She couldn’t see anything, but… something deep inside herself was telling her… warning her…

And suddenly, that clump of grass in front of her… it… what? It flattened, it shook, it seemed to jump up by the roots, and leap-- no, that was impossible, it must have been… that clump must have been pulled up and thrown back into the rest of the tall grass by whatever creatures were fighting a terrible battle within it. Horrible sounds, animal growling, sharp cries and bleats were coming from the thick of the grass as it shook violently, first here, then there.

Elena took a few steps back, and was about to turn and run from this terrifying display of nature when the sound of fighting stopped, and something slipped into the water from the far side of the grass and swam swiftly away, and… something else burst from the long grass, running toward her… it smelled awful, and was covered in slimy mud, and it jumped right up at Elena…

…who grabbed muddy Molly by her front paws, to keep the worst of the mess off her pants.  “Molly!” Elena shouted, trying to sound stern but smiling in spite of herself.  For her part, Molly grinned her happiest, silliest lollingest grin, and wagged her muddy tail proudly behind her.  And she finally understood why Elena had insisted on teaching her to “play dead”.  Who’d have thought it would actually come in handy one day?

“Molly, where have you been? Are you alright?” Elena dragged the dog by her filthy collar out of the muckflats and onto the sand, then subjected her to a lengthy inspection under her cell phone flashlight to determine that the mud was just mud and no bones were broken.

“Oh, Molly, though--” Elena moaned, “you smell terrible. Is that what you were doing? Did you have to find the deadest, rottenest thing in this swamp to roll in? Augh…!”

Molly just stood there, panting and filthy and smiling. Elena was making those little meaningless people-barks again-- a long stream of them. But by her tone, Molly could tell that she was glad that they were together again. Molly had done a good job. A very good job.  Molly was a good girl.

But I’m a bad boy for having kept talking for so long. Look, the sun has finished setting completely, and the moon is starting to glow under the horizon over that way. We’ll have a bright, easy walk back to the parking lot. And we’ll have a little company, too-- someone else is heading that way, see? Walking along up there at the top of the beach, by the scraggy little dunes. Or… no, maybe that’s… maybe that’s just a clump of dune grass waving in the evening breeze. Maybe.

Anyway, let’s walk back along the surf, huh? I like the waves at my feet, and the air is… fresher down there. None of those swamp smells.

Let me just… fold up this camp chair I’ve been sitting on–what?  Oh sure, try it out.  Isn’t that something?  The most comfortable camp chair I’ve ever had.  Of course it is– it’s a YETI.  The YETI Trailhead Camp Chair.  And check this out–this folding quad chair makes it easy to carry and transport your chair on the trail and with its strong two-strap carry bag, you can sling it over your shoulder or wear it as a backpack! It’s lightweight geometry of this crossover frame makes it easy to take along on any adventure. And built with the same rugged toughness as all YETI products.  Check out YETI Trailhead Camp Chairs and more at REI dot com, or in person at your local REI.  Thanks, YETI!

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Camp Monsters is part of the REI Podcast Network. Glistening in the sun on the white sandy beach of this episode, working on their already-perfect tans, are our Executive Producers, Paolo Mottola and Joe Crosby. Sitting in the shade of her lifeguard cabin with zinc on her nose is our Senior Producer Chelsea Davis, ready to jump to the rescue when she sees anyone in distress. But she can’t see our Associate Producer Jenny Barber, who’s wading in muck past her ankles back in the swamp, trying to get our Engineer Nick Patri to stop. rolling. in whatever that is he found. But joke’s on you, Nick-- because that smell is actually yours truly, writer and host Weston Davis, come down to the beach after an all-night script-writing session, looking for all the world like a tall clump of swamp grass. He’s staring far out across the ocean, where, if you squint at the line between sea and sky, you can just make out… week’s episode. Next week we’ll back around a campfire, on the shores of Idaho’s picturesque Payette (PAY-et) Lake, telling a story that begins with a bang. A whole series of bangs, actually. Dynamite, back in 1942, blasting foundations for a dam to tame the lake. But that same dynamite accidentally… awakened something that would make Payette Lake… a whole lot wilder. See you next week.

As always, the stories we tell here on Camp Monsters are just stories. Some of them are based on things people claim to have seen and heard, but it’s up to you to decide what you believe… and how to explain away what you don’t. Remember to subscribe, if you haven’t already, and like, share, review, and generally spread the word about the Camp Monsters podcast. It’s word-of-mouth from people like you that grows our audience and keeps us recording. Thank you.