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Backpacker Magazine – October 2012

Worst Nightmare: Blindsided

A hair-raising tale of wilderness terror that will haunt your backcountry dreams

by: Steve Friedman

Blood (iStockphoto)
Blood (iStockphoto)

After the accident, the camp created a “Badger Bravery Award” and gave it every year to the “most courageous camper,” usually a boy who made his first high dive from the platform on the swimming dock at Lake Towanda. When RR bestowed the trophy, he talked vaguely of Badger’s heroics. How could he know the details?

But one person knew what really happened that evening on the river. Billy Gubin was a strange child before Badger’s death. Eight years old, and he read poetry and kept pet frogs. He liked lanyard-making and photography, and eschewed archery and tennis, which made him a natural target for the camp bullies—but after the accident, he became downright spooky. He stopped talking that summer. In the fall, his grades plunged from As to Fs. He woke his parents night after night, screaming. They sent him to see a shrink, who told his parents that Billy had an overactive imagination and must have suffered a trauma when he was very young.

Badger had loved Billy, as a counselor should love a camper—he wanted to help him feel the wonder of the outdoors, to sleep under the stars, to stop being so scared. Badger had nothing against lanyards, but he wanted Billy to see the beauty in wild things, too. Who knew? A swift-flowing river, a crackling fire, the scent of pines—those things had helped so many boys. Badger didn’t tell others, but they had helped him.

That’s why, after dinner on the canoe outing that Badger was leading—Badger, two junior counselors, and 10 campers, including Billy—Badger asked Billy to float down the Claw River with him. Badger told Billy to sit in the front of the canoe, which Billy now knew was called a bow. They stopped a half mile from the campsite, before a confluence with a much faster river, and pulled their canoe into some reeds, then walked ashore. Badger told Billy to look at the muddy tracks on the ground, and he would see the “faint but telltale signs of a rarely seen apex predator.” Billy thought that phrase was cool. He would never forget it. There, in the mud, was a paw print. And another, and another. Bigger than a big dog’s, with a kind of sloppy M pad in the middle. “Another telltale sign,” Badger said.

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