The rolling hills formed a strenuous path – even for the swiftest of trekkers. From ridge top to ridge top, we hiked the formidable footpath leading to our destination in the heart of the Shawnee National Forest. A gentle breeze blew on this cool spring morning, as if to assure us that this weekend’s trek and blanket shoot would be worth our sweat.
The scintillating sun had washed away the deep, winter slumber of earlier months, and the woods were coming to life with vibrant colors, pulsating with vigor and energy. A wide array of birds serenaded all who would listen.
Despite several conflicting weather reports, we decided to “roll the dice” and take our chances. Having encountered below freezing temperatures before, a little surprise shower or two would not present any kind of threat for us. We chose to pack light since we intended to spend the entire first day exploring the forest floor. On the second day, we planned to enjoy a good ole fashioned blanket shoot before returning to our 21st century homes. Other than the 18th century clothing on my person, my gear consisted of a bedroll, some deer jerky, a water canteen, and my fusil.
Already breathing heavily, our muscles started to cramp on our descent down the final hill. At the bottom, we came upon an old barbed wire fence that led into an open pasture. It seemed as if this fence represented the gateway to the past. After crossing the pasture, we entered into the forest that we would call home for the weekend.
For myself and my Kaskaskian brothers Jim Restivo (Black Musket) and Mitch Falat (Red Jacket), crossing the fence was not much of an obstacle. My English friend Nasty Dan had minor difficulties, but he managed to cross unscathed as well. However, my frogman friend Shawn Banks (Francois Aucoin) found the venture slightly more toilsome. Francois, a rather large fellow, earned the nickname “two men” for a reason. Yet with a little bit of teamwork, we prevailed in getting our French friend over, or maybe it was through, that fence.
After a tranquil two hundred yard walk across the pasture, we came upon a beautiful little creek containing the most crystal clear water you could ask for. Surrounded on both sides with rock, the water flowed from a rock-faced bluff leading off onto another ridge. An easier hurdle than the fence, we got across the creek with hardly any trouble at all.
We decided to set up our camp near the creek with the bluff behind us. We were able to clear out an area of the forest floor big enough for the five of us to sleep comfortably on our respective bedrolls. I chose to remove my bedroll from its tumpline and laid it out in a clearing, knowing I would be chasing eight-legged critters away from my blanket later that evening. The arachnids and I have never gotten along very well. My bedroll consisted of simply two deer hides and my Wilde blanket. We elected not to get a fire going at this point since we still had plenty of daylight left.
While Francois and Nasty Dan stayed near the camp telling their lies and atrocities, the rest of us chose to go explore the magnificently vast Shawnee Forest. A large, fallen oak tree stretched across the creek from our campsite to the base of the ridge, making for a perfect natural bridge. If any of us did not mind our moccasins getting a little damp, we could have bypassed the bridge altogether due to the creek’s shallowness in this area. We hiked from one ridge top to another until we had all but disappeared from camp’s view. While standing on one ridge, you could see more ridgelines scattered off in the distance. I wondered how many days of hiking it would take to cross this arduous terrain before reaching some sign of civilization again. I imagined parts of this forest that no man had ever disturbed or even laid eyes upon. Not wanting to disrupt the stillness, we chose to return to our campsite to spin tall tales with our fellow comrades.
Upon returning to our camp, I learned that we had been invaded – and this truth belies any tall tale. We were literally invaded by man-eating mosquitoes. All my jesting aside, these mosquitoes sized up to the small birds around this place. Who knows what poor creatures these things had been feeding on. I, for one, had no intention of volunteering as a casualty of war by falling prey to these malaria transits.
No one else seemed up for the task either. Nasty Dan reflected on the experience in his writings: “God save me from the savages: The only question is who will survive the night. All things that fly and bite abide in this place – Down wind from Francois is a frightful thought. Heaven above and hell below, and this place is in between.” I recall Nasty Dan saying that he believed these human-consuming mosquitoes were some weird crossbreed between a chicken and a hoot owl. Francois shared his own thoughts about our trek and strange encounters in his journal as well: “This is my first foray with my native scouts into the heart of the Shawnee country. We have not met with any hostiles. We have made camp along a creek. We have named the spot Hoot Owl & Chicken after a Nasty European’s portrayal of the region.”
Somewhere in between fending off the mosquitoes and hearing Nasty Dan’s rendition of the “fart bucket” story (tale for another time), we were interrupted by the gobbling of a turkey somewhere off in the distance. As a woodsman for almost my whole life, I have had the luxury of hearing many Toms gobbling in the woods, but this one had a different tone about it. This gobble produced an eerie sound that echoed throughout the forest as if it was trying to warn us about something. The sharp silence that followed his gobble only made the lack of sound that much more unnerving. Yet the silence did not last long.
Darkness fell upon our camp, and the sky began rumbling with a last warning of the rain to come. Looking up through towering, lush green trees at what part of the sky I could see, I recall seeing a swirling dark gray. Within moments, the sky parted, and a steady rain began to fall. I looked around the group and noticed four sets of eyes staring back at me. No words needed to be spoken. I knew they were looking at me to make a decision. Ride it out or pack it up? I felt the fairest way to make a hasty decision was to take a vote. With a vote of three to two, we began packing our gear and moving out. By this point, the steady rain had become an unmitigated, torrential downpour.
We expected a treacherous journey back up and down the steep hills that led us out of the forest. What we did not think about was how rapidly the creek would transform itself into an entirely different body of water from what we had so easily crossed earlier that morning. Not only had the water risen quickly, but the rocks that lined the banks of the creek had become as slick as a sheet of ice. Four of the five of us were wearing center seam moccasins and got back across the creek without much complication. Francois, on the other hand, did not fare so well across the water.
Wearing slick soled straight last Fugawee shoes, Francois took one wrong step and began to tumble. From my point of view, the fall occurred in slow motion, like the felling of a giant tree. For Black Musket, standing directly to Francois’ right, the fall happened far too quickly. He literally had a split second to get out of the direct path of the fall or suffer the consequences. Fortunately for Black Musket, he escaped the vehement collision. Unfortunately for Francois, the only thing left to catch him was the rock bottom in the center of the creek bed. Despite some bruising and swelling to his knee, Francois came out of the fall otherwise unscathed.
To make matters even worse, Mother Nature decided that we had not yet suffered enough. Dime-sized hail began to pummel us as we tried to get back to our modern amenities. With the minor injury to Francois and the unyielding climate conditions that had been bestowed upon us, we decided to put safety first and not try to rush back. By now though, we all wished this dreadful storm would end.
The thunderstorm never did let up that awful evening, and it easily took us three times as long to get out of the forest as it did to get in. Soaked directly to the bone, I probably could have used the rainwater stored in my hunting shirt, breechclout, leather leggings, and moccasins to fill an oak keg upon our return.
There were many unpleasantries exchanged on that trek, but we can all look back and count our blessings for many great memories and a good story to tell from our adventure, “The Turkey Before the Storm.”