In place of ghosts, look for ‘existential graffiti’ when outdoors

Posted Nov. 02, 2012, at 11:23 a.m.

I don’t have a good ghost story anymore. The one “good one” I had recently was cast in doubt — all because of one chilly night in a remote cabin on the Moose River.

You’d think spending a fall night in an isolated cabin far from any real development would be fertile territory for spookiness, but rather it cemented a suspicion about my one decent ghost story. This original story also came from a night in a cabin, though in this case the cabin was one located at Upper Dam Pool in the Rangeley Lakes Region. Outside this cabin, one of several at the pool, water surged from Mooselookmeguntic Lake through Upper Dam and out several hundred yards to Upper Richardson Lake. This is a storied fly-fishing destination rich in history.

Central to my tale — or at least the tale I had — is the fact that this site once boasted not only guest cabins but also a hotel reached by steamboat. The hotel and its associated dance hall are long gone, but the privately owned neat row of cabins remains.

I was working in the Rangeley Region on recreation monitoring projects and had the good fortune of staying the night in one of the cabins. For whatever reason, there were no other people in any of the cabins, so I was the only person aside from the dam keeper and his wife, who were hundreds of yards away, presumably asleep in the dam keeper’s house. The night was dark following an August dusk that proved fishless. As I settled in and awaited the generator shut-off, I heard voices.

I couldn’t quite make out the muffled words, and it sounded like faint music was being played as well. Upon opening the door, I lost the voices and music and instead heard only the constant churning of the water pouring through the dam gates. I looked to find the late-arriving guests, but I found I was still the only one there. Once I went back into the dark cabin, the voices and music started back up. I thought I clearly heard the clink of drinking glasses mixed amidst the soft party noises.

Knowing the general resort history of Upper Dam and having seen Stephen King’s “The Shining” a few times did not put me at ease. Nonetheless, I didn’t have much choice but to settle into my sleeping bag and try to sleep like a little boy upstairs while his parents have a dinner party downstairs. It was unsettling, but I did manage to sleep well enough.

Fast-forward perhaps 12 years to a Spartan cabin below Holeb Falls on the Moose River, and I’m alone again in a cabin hearing party noises when there is nobody around for miles. Once more, I think of “The Shining” and Jack Nicholson nestled up to the bar in the Overlook Hotel ballroom. As before, I walk outside, and in this case, shuffle down to the pool below the rapids. I walk back behind the one-room cabin off a ways into shadowy woods hemmed in by a steep, boulder-strewn shoulder. Nobody is within sight, and the sounds are all natural. The party sound is gone.

I return to the cabin and my field mouse housemates. The party sounds return. This time, though, I have confirmation to allay my anxiety. I theorize that what sounds so much like slightly muted party sounds must be the acoustic effect of the sounds of strong, running water filtering through and within a small, airy cabin. My original suspicion at Upper Dam was such, but a second encounter gave me more confidence to ignore my senses and the eeriness of it all.

So, I’ve lost my one halfway decent personal ghost story. These experiences, however, hint at what I feel much more commonly in the outdoors.

Places like Upper Dam and the Moose River live in the souls of visitors. Famed destinations such as the terminus of the Appalachian Trail on Mount Katahdin or the lakes and rapids of the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, as well as innumerable other places well-known and little-visited alike imprint on all of those who let nature enter into their being. Is it not too much of a stretch to think that imprinting might go both ways?

It may all be in my head, but when I’m out in the woods and on the waters, I sense ghosts lurking. I don’t see them. I don’t hear them. I don’t have spooky tales to tell around a campfire. I can, however, almost palpably sense the power of being where others have sat — maybe 10 years ago or 10,000 years ago — while they absorbed some aspect of what life is all about.

When we hold a place and an experience dear, just maybe we leave a little marker there. And for me at least, I appreciate these traces of “existential graffiti.”

Next time you’re out in wild places, try a little ghost hunting. You don’t need any high-tech equipment or a medium tagging along with you. Just take a moment to stop and see if you can feel the spirit of those who came before you and their connection with the outdoors. Who knows, maybe you’ll even pick up a new ghost story.

Rex Turner is the outdoor recreation planner for the Maine Division of Parks and Public Lands.

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