01 Feb In the Dead of Winter: Our Search for the Wendigo
The first rays of sunlight crept over the mountains, casting its warmth on the snow-covered valley floor below. Thomas Crane looked away from his fire to greet the frozen Alaskan peaks, which after days of travel, now only seemed an afternoon away. He leaned back in his camp chair, and over the steam rising from his fresh cup of coffee, admired the little clearing he had found right before the previous sunset.
It wasn’t the most impressive area he had seen since his trek to the mountains started, but something about the quaint nature of it spoke to him. The thin pines towered over him from behind, semi-enclosing his camp site before opening to the beautiful mountains that, until now, seemed impossible to reach. A chilled breeze flowed through the opening and around Thomas, rustling the dark hair of his beard and nipping at the exposed portions of skin on his neck and hands, warmed only by the heat of the coffee he gingerly sipped as he enjoyed the quite morning he set out to the Middle of Nowhere to find.
The Birch trees had a certain quality to him this time of year. The white and brown of the bark contrast against the impossibly infinite expanse of snow and evergreens always stunned him with their beauty, and in his tenure, only found these wonders in the center of the last frontier.
He was glad that his vacation lined up to send him here early in the winter. If he couldn’t have come until January, he would have had to enlist the help of a dog sled to get even a mile outside of any civilized areas. The depth of the snow meant he had to dig for hours to set up camp, wasting most of the few hours of day light you would get in the Alaskan winter, making travel slow and tedious. Once, when Thomas was sent to western Alaska to work, he had spent more time trying to build shelters to survive the cold then he did on actual movement to the job site. But now, in early November, the snow was only a few inches deep in most areas with the wind drifts piling up a few three feet-high berms against steep slopes, making light foot travel a possibility, while preserving the awe inspiring white canvas of wilderness Thomas dreamt of when he lay his head anywhere else in the world.
When he finished his coffee, he put out the flames of his fire and began packing his camp back into his rucksack. As he worked, he smiled as he thought back to a conversation he had with his handler just a week prior.
His handler, George, let out a hardy laugh that filled the small, dingy coffee shop they had found in the small town in Chili they spent the last month occupying. There was a stark contrast between the two men. Thomas, who wasn’t slender by any means, paled in comparison to the mountain that sat across from him, his form barely able to be contained by the booth it occupied.
“We’ve been on the trail for almost eighteen months Thomas,” George paused to sip his coffee from a cup that looked comically small in his large hands, “and you’re telling me you want to take you’re leave hunting deer in Alaska?”
“I still don’t see what’s so funny about it.” Thomas replied with a smile, knowing well, why George found it unbelievable.
“No hunter I’ve ever met wants to go camping Thomas. they go find a beach somewhere, take a break, get their mind off things, not go hunting deer in the most dangerous place on the planet!”
“Third most dangerous.” Thomas corrected his longtime friend.
“You’re serious?” George asked, a glimmer of worry in his eyes.
“We haven’t been to Alaska in years George, no one is putting in for jobs up there,” Thomas took a pause before adding, “and I miss it.”
“People are always asking for help in Alaska, but no one wants to pay for an old hunter to track down wendigo and giant wolves.”
“I’ve already planned the route; Delta Junction hasn’t had any reports in decades. It’s safe.”
“And if it’s not?”
“George,” Thomas laughed, “I just got done dealing with a hoard of vampires in the Chilean jungles, and you’re asking me if a hunting trip to kill deer is safe.”
George was right on all counts. The Yukon had garnered a reputation as being one of the most dangerous locations on the planet. More people had given their lives to the supernatural there than any other location on the North American continent.
While Thomas wasn’t old by any means, in their line of work, a thirty-three-year-old hunter was considered ancient. Most hunters are either dead or retired by the age of twenty-six, their self-preservation winning out over their slowing reflexes, and their fortune amassed giving them an easy life. The job was never meant to be for the family man, but in Thomas’ time he found that many freshly married men flocked to The Organization, deeming that eight or so years of work was well worth the rest of their lives they’ll get to spend on the American dream of white picket fences and two children families. But Thomas had no such dreams. To him the life of a hunter was the only life to live and, as long as his body had life to give, he would keep living it.
The Organization recruited Thomas when he turned eighteen. An American company that spent their time ensuring the legends and horror stories that filled the worlds media stayed just that, stories. They sent hunter and handler pairs across the world, quelling the threat of cryptids and demons for the highest bidders. The handler would be sent to the surrounding towns of the target location to gather information on the threat and the hunter would into the thick of hell (as George would describe it) to handle the bounty. Being good at your job meant that a team would receive only the highest paying bids, putting them in the same location for weeks, sometimes months at a time, and in Thomas and Georges tenure, they received the reputation of being the best in the business.
Normally a handler would have five or six hunters before they reached their retirement age of forty. George, being only one year away from retirement, had only two. Thomas met him when he lost his first hunter after they had been working together for a year, having lost his life to a creature aptly named ‘The Howitzer’ adding to its long list of kills. At the time George had already counted the doe eyed eighteen-year-old as dead, having been assigned the same bounty that took his friend. He was ready to forget the kid had ever existed, until, after only three days, he reported back to the same diner they met in, brandishing a fresh wound above on his cheek and a single giant tooth as proof of his prize. George knew that he had something special then, and after fifteen years, had not been proven wrong.
Thomas knew George worried about him. It wasn’t uncommon for a hunter to enlist the help of another team however, Thomas, against his handlers wishes, refused the practice for the last few years. His feats and accomplishments were only added to by his solo treks into the wilds, but Thomas didn’t do it for fame. While there were many rumors, most being tales of his bravery, or beliefs that he had anomalous powers, only Thomas knew the real reasons, and only he would know.
Even now, Thomas knew that George would be in his penthouse in Las Vegas, worrying about his hunter, standing tall in the Middle of Nowhere, Alaska, population one.
As Thomas hauled his rucksack onto his back, he placed his thoughts about George into the back of his mind. He wasn’t here to reminisce about his work, he was here to get away from the hunt. He was here to leave behind the horrors that stalked the world and, at least for a bit, be a normal person, doing a normal thing. He picked up his SR-25 from its resting place on a nearby log and let his gaze rest on the mountains, drawing in its beauty before raising his shemagh over his face and stepping out of the clearing. With luck his next camp would be resting in the shadows of those giants before him.
Hours had passed, and the sun began drawing the end of its arc across the clear skies above him. Thomas had made good ground since the morning. He checked his Garmin watch to see that in the last five hours, he had covered fifteen miles. The mountains were now only a few hours away and by his judge of things, did seem close enough to make camp at the base of them before nightfall.
Something seemed off to him though. Even in the dead of winter, there was always some type of life always moving through the forest. A snow hare, fox, caribou, it didn’t matter the size, there was always something. Save for a few birds he saw when he left camp that morning, it was almost like this part of the forest was empty.
It seemed impossible for Thomas. When he was sent into the Russian taiga to assist a hunter in tracking an ancient witch, known for her ferocity and complete decimation of ecosystems, there were animal tracks and presence of life to be found everywhere. Here, there were none. No sounds of wolves’ howls filled the air, creatures didn’t jump from limb to limb in the trees. It was almost as if Thomas had mistakenly stepped into different, dead reality.
Odd enough as the situation Thomas found himself in, he didn’t feel like he was in danger. Over his career, he had developed a sixth sense, a gut-feeling to when danger would occur. He always felt watched when on mission, like at any moment, a denizen of the night would spring from some unknown hiding place and drag him down to his grave. But the peace of the forest was impenetrable. The wind still blew, dancing to its own frozen song, the sun shown its victorious bright light, and besides the utter absence of the wildlife, nothing felt wrong.
Maybe nothing was wrong.
As he approached a clearing and stepped through the trees, he knew; something was.
Before Thomas, was the remains of a campsite. Three colorful tents sat in tatters, a cooler looked as if it had been thrown, with its contents across the field and, just as the forest he had come from, no life was present.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Thomas sighed. He checked the chamber of his rifle to ensure he had a round ready and began his approach to the ruins.
He made his approach slow, listening over the crunch of each footstep for any sign of life at the camp, his rifle itching to be raised at the first sign of movement. Thomas scanned from tent to tent, to the edges of the clearing, then up to the tops of the trees, looking for anything that could be waiting to pounce.
He had been ambushed like this before once in Mongolia. A group of cultists had been possessed by their pagan god and built destroyed camps in the desert to lure in unsuspecting travelers for more sacrifices. When he got close to the camp the group emerged from the sands with their sabers thinking they had made an easy kill.
But even then, vultures flew over the skies.
It did nothing for his nerves when he made it to the first tent. This one was the most intact out of the three, with only small holes in abundance throughout the sides of the fabric. Thomas noted the remarkable resemblance to bullet holes, as if someone took an automatic rifle and slew who ever was resting inside. He readied his rifle and sidestepped around the tent to the still closed entrance. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, readying himself for what he would find on the other side of the fabric door.
Slowly, he undid the zipper.
The inside of the tent was unremarkable. Devoid of life, and the resident looked like he left in a hurry, leaving their sleeping bag half open and a bag of half eaten chips next to it, their pack still nestled neatly in the corner. He stepped away from the tent and looked at the ground around it. Footprints led into the forest.
“You left in a hurry,” Thomas spoke to the air, “what were you up against?”
Satisfied that he would find nothing here, Thomas started for the second tent. This one had seen its better days. The top of the dome dent had collapsed, as if taking an impact from a large weight, a portion of the fabric near the end had been ripped open to a shoulder width hole, revealing the head of a sleeping bag. No footprints, or drag marks surrounded this tent.
“Ripped from the bag and into the sky? Why the different MO from the first tent?” Thomas puzzled. He felt he would find his answer, or at least, some semblance of knowledge at the third tent. He didn’t even need to approach to know he would not find that.
The final tent lay in tatters across the camp site. Orange strips of fabric littered the area around the campsite, leaving only the frame of the tent standing. Snow had been kicked into the tents remains, covering the bag that had been left by its former resident.
Thomas stood in wonder of the situation. He approached the center of the camp where a few large logs surrounded a firepit, empty bottles of alcohol lay strewn about. Sitting at one of the logs, he held his hand out over the embers of a once large flame.
“Still warm,” Thomas remarked, “this happened recently.”
He gathered his thoughts, something about this didn’t make sense. Three tents, all attacked in different ways. It was uncommon for cryptids to work together on hunts. Different species usually preferred to stay to their own, segregating their parts of the animal kingdom. It wasn’t to say that they wouldn’t accompany each other on hunts when they were desperate, but Thomas knew the things that lived the in the forest of Alaska were capable enough, and large enough, to handle a three-person camp by themselves. He would have seen scuffs in the snow, where the creatures would fight over the remains of those they killed, greedily picking over the meager scraps three people would provide. The weirdest of all was there was no blood, anywhere in the camp. With the ferocity the camp had been attacked, there should have at least been blood, but Thomas found none. Just like the rest of the forest, this place was dead, the only proof anything had been there was the ruins he now occupied. The only clue Thomas had left to go on was the footprints he found at the first tent. If he wanted to know what happened here, he would have to find out what happened to that person.
Before he rose from the log, Thomas spotted a box half buried in the snow next to him. Picking it up he found it was a frozen, but still usable box of ammunition. .308 caliber, the civilian equivalent round his 7.62mm rifle was using, close enough to allow it to fire. Not seeing a rifle at the camp, at least Thomas knew his survivor was armed however, he wasn’t sure how much that would help them or, if they were still a survivor at all.
As the sun drew lower still from its perch in the sky, Thomas reached the edge of the clearing. He looked back, over the campsite, and to the mountains, which for so long, was something that called to him at arm’s reach, now seemed impossibly far away. With a deep breath, Thomas followed the footprints into the wood line.
Thomas tracked the prints for around an hour. They led him through an erratic path through the forest, twisting and turning in no particular direction. At times the prints would stop behind a felled tree or mass of foliage, as if they stopped to hide from their pursuer, before taking off again in a different direction than before. What ever destroyed the camp wasn’t happy they let one get away it seemed.
Thomas assumed that they followed the survivor through the branches, seeing as how there were no tracks but the survivors. This still puzzled Thomas because, even then, there would have been debris from the impact of the creature littering the ground where they jumped, and hiding behind objects, not beneath them, would give the creature clear sight to the survivor. That clue ruled out fliers too. No, the assailant had to be ground based. The only thing that made sense to Thomas at this point was a specter of sorts, ghosts or demons with little to no tangible effects to the world around them unless, they were extremely powerful. Thomas had dealt with them before, on many occasions in fact. But even they would leave signs of their existence. For the life of him, Thomas could not figure out what this creature was.
As the sun dropped lower in the sky, it’s light no longer produced the warmth it had given the world through out its time over the forest. Thomas drew his shemagh higher across his face, leaving only a slit for his eyes. He was starting to get worried. Tracking the footsteps through the dark would be a challenging task, especially with the possibility of an unknown creature stalking the area. He would need to find camp soon, but if he did, the chances of the survivor still being alive would decrease from slim, to none. He would press on, deeper into the unknown, something told him he had to.
It was then he felt it.
As the light began to fade, giving way to twilight, Thomas felt that twisting knot arise in his stomach. He wasn’t alone anymore. His senses came to high alert, eyes scanning his environment, ears straining in an attempt to hear the slightest breath that was not his own. There was no sound, no movement, but Thomas knew, he had just become a target; a hunt, was on.
His pace quickened, lining up with the frantic steps of the tracks he had been following. He wanted his target to feel like it had the upper hand. In his peripherals he caught a flicker of movement between the trees thirty meters away. It was fast, quiet. Still Thomas moved forward, the dead forest never felt so alive.
The tracks took a right turn heading up a shallow embankment, Thomas followed them, and whatever was with him gave chase. They took him to the bottom of a shallow cliff face, as he moved much as he thought the survivor was at this point in their journey, he saw what they were running to. Just there, was a hole in the cliff, a cave, and the footprints headed into them.
He heard them then, the scurrying of feet through the snow. Walking, then running then-
Thomas turned to the direction of the sound, raising his rifle. About ten meters from his barrel sat no creature, there were no footprints, no sounds of his assailant. Instead nothing more than a sapling stood before him. A single growing tree among its siblings of giants, birch by the looks of it. But why, in the dead of winter, did this child have green leaves sprouting from it. The forest had returned to death, Thomas was alone once again, save this sapling that defied what mother nature had instructed it to do.
The weirdness of the situation overpowered him, and the twisting feeling in his gut ensured Thomas that he was not safe, but he had found his survivor.
When Thomas stepped into the cave, he was greeted by a tunnel that twisted and turned for about twenty meters before he saw light coming from around a bend. There was a fire here, giving Thomas hope that his next clue to the situation was alive. He took a few more steps before hearing rustling from in front of him.
“Hel-” Thomas began to speak when he got to the corner, but his greeting was cut short by the report of a rifle and debris falling from the wall beside him. Planting himself firmly against the cave wall, ensuring that he would not be the next thing to be struck by a bullet, he spoke again.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Thomas yelled into the cave.
“Please, just- just go away.” The voice was a surprise to Thomas, he hadn’t counted on his survivor being a woman, especially one with a voice that filled the air such as hers. Soft and sweet, even when panicked.
“Did you come from the camp?” Thomas replied to her, ignoring her pleads.
“I have a gun; I know how to use it.”
“I’m not here to hurt you,” Thomas spoke calmly, “I found your camp a few hours ago, I tracked you here. I’m a friend, I’m here to help.”
“I know you’re scared,” Thomas continued, “I can help you, but you need to let me.”
“How do I know that?” The woman joked back. She was afraid of Thomas, it made him think what ever she saw looked close enough to human to be mistaken as one, it could possibly even talk like them.
“You’re alive, aren’t you?”
“Look, I’m going to come out, but if I do, I need to know you’re not going to shoot me. I handle things like this for a living, and I’m no good to you dead.” Thomas spoke slowly to her, trying to calm her as best he could. “Put the gun down,” he continued, “Can you do that for me?”
“Okay,” the woman spoke, almost in a whisper, “just- please- don’t hurt me.”
Thomas heard the clatter of steel against rock. He stepped from his cover into the light of a dimly lit fire, illuminating a small cavern. The woman sat, pressed against the back wall, rifle by her side, knees drawn to her chest, tears streaming down her cheeks. She was younger than Thomas, maybe twenty-eight, short brown hair clung to her face. One of her pant legs were stained a dark crimson color, she had been injured.
Thomas removed his shemagh from his face before approaching her, revealing that he was in fact, human. Taking a knee in front of the woman, he stared into her deep blue eyes before speaking.
“It’s going to be okay. You’re safe now.”
As she broke into tears, Thomas thought back to the mountains, their majesty once a tangible place, now seemed an impossible dream.
This is my first time writing a story like this and will be posted in parts as I finish them. Also this is my first time posting any of my writings online. please let me know if you guys like it.