Shark in the Woods
I had been waiting for this camping trip since the end of last summer’s camping trip. Some people might call me weird and reckless for wanting to go camping, especially in a campsite up against a seasonally dangerous forest, but the waterfalls they have there are gorgeous. Besides, I knew my Dad would keep me safe. Also, in my defense, and in the defense of said campground I was excited to camp at, the only campsites available were in safe areas. It wouldn’t do for a park to neglect their campers’ safety by not being aware of any and all potential dangers and concerns.
“Haley! You ready to go?” My Dad yelled from the bottom of the stairs. I threw my flashlight, MP3 player, and new book into my satchel. Looking around my semi-messy room just in case I forgot anything, I nodded in satisfaction when I deemed everything packed. I grabbed both my satchel and duffel bag and left my room, closing the door behind me with my foot.
Carefully, I made my way down the stairs. Dad grabbed my duffel, much to my half-hearted protest. He just smiled at me. It was infectious and it only took a moment for me to grin back.
Everything else looked to be packed in the car already, so I climbed in to the front passenger seat as Dad threw my duffel into the back seat. Mom came out of the house and said goodbye to Dad, giving him a hug and kiss. After they were done, she came up to me and we immediately embraced. When we pulled back, she kissed my cheek and told me to stay safe and make sure Dad stayed out of trouble. Her wink and teasing tone told me she was joking and I nodded in mock seriousness. We laughed and hugged once more as Dad got into the driver’s seat. Our doors closed at the same time and, as we pulled out of the driveway and onto the street, we waved at Mom until her form disappeared.
The radio was turned on quickly and we settled into comfortable silence. Due to school and work, it had been a while since Dad and I had had a chance to hang out and do something together. Being away at college meant I didn’t get to see my parents often except for holidays and summers. Now that I was an adult, I loved being around them as much as possible, and not so they could do my laundry. Okay, sometimes. As a teen, I couldn’t stand being around them for some silly teen reason, but now I couldn't imagine my life without them. Funny how things change.
About an hour into our drive, I remembered I had brought my new book. I was eager to start reading it and had no idea how I put it off this long. I stopped staring out into the passing landscape and began to read. Time passed as I became engrossed in tales of pirates and sea monsters. I only noticed just how much time had passed when it was becoming more difficult to read due to the receding light. It looked to be about 2 hours before nightfall. Now, no longer engrossed in my book, I noticed we were only 30 miles out of the campgrounds. The grin came unbidden and Dad must have noticed because he was grinning, too.
“Must be a good book, huh?” He asked. “You didn’t make a peep the entire trip. I expected at least one request for a pit stop.” As my luck would have it, as soon as he mentioned pit stop, my bladder decided to make itself obnoxiously noticed. My eyes widened in panic, then narrowed quickly at Dad as he laughed at me. I stuck my tongue out at him.
In no time he found a gas station and pulled into the parking lot. Before the car even came to a complete stop, I was unbuckled and out the door and on my way to the bathroom; which of course needed a key to use. I ran inside to request the key and then raced to do my business. Once done, I idly made my way back. As I approached the counter to give the key back, I heard two people talking quietly in hushed tones. I crept closer to them, hidden behind a rack of magazines. I don’t normally eavesdrop, but I may have been watching a bit too much TV recently and felt a need to secretly overhear a whispered conversation that had nothing to do with me and pretend I wasn’t.
Now closer, I could hear their topic of discussion. I knew about bears and other common predators in the woods, but sharks? Well, crap! Usually they’re not around here for another month, as far as I know. Why couldn’t sharks be like fish and be ocean predators? Why did they have to be forest predators? Good thing they could not fly very high or else we would all be screwed. But seriously, if they could be ocean predators, at least then I would never have to deal with them because I will never go into the ocean after nearly drowning when I was younger. Why did I like camping again?
I set down the key on the counter and walked back to the car. I sat down in my seat, closed the door, and buckled my seatbelt, all while not uttering a word. Dad noticed my quiet, subdued behavior and didn’t start the car right away.
“Honey, what’s wrong?” He asked. I swallowed and said, “Two guys were talking about there being sharks in the woods. Aren’t they not supposed to come out this far for another month at least?”
Dad seemed to consider this, and after a moment he told me, “How about we ask the rangers when we get to the campgrounds? They’re supposed to keep an eye out on things like this so they can tell us whether or not sharks will be a problem.” I relaxed and nodded. If it wasn’t safe to camp there, the Rangers would let us know.
“Okay, Dad. Let’s go!” I said, grinning and playfully pointing ahead.
“Sir, yes, sir!” He responded, equally playful.
We laughed and talked the last 30 mile stretch until we got to the front ranger station leading into the campgrounds. There were some people there, none of whom looked panicked or worried, which I took as a good sign. Maybe those guys at the gas station were just paranoid. Or maybe they were talking about somewhere else. Hopefully.
Dad lowered his window and got a ranger’s attention inside the booth.
“Hi, I’m here with my daughter to camp for the weekend.”
“Name?” The ranger asked.
“Windstrom,” Dad replied.
The ranger looked up the name on the computer. I leaned forward to get a better look and sort of wished I hadn’t. It looked like it was salvaged from the 90s. Poor thing. How they got anything done on it was anyone’s guess. Reaching into my satchel, I grabbed my MP3 player. I started flipping my way through my music, but was distracted by my Dad asking the ranger about the sharks. The ranger seemed unperturbed and reassured us they were still up higher in the mountains. No sightings had been made. Besides, it was still too cold for them to be traveling so far from their normal areas.
Satisfied, we finished checking in. The ranger gave us our parking permit and some other paper I couldn’t see, most likely our hunting permit, and directions to our campsite. Soon we were at number 47 and I slipped out onto the dirt ground. I sighed in content as I closed my eyes and breathed in the scents of pure nature. I hadn’t realized how much I missed this until this moment.
When Dad shut his car door, I was snapped out of my thoughts and joined him when he opened the back of our SUV. Setting up camp went as smoothly as though we did this every day, despite how long it’s been. The two tents went up with little hassle, though one of the frame poles did slip out of Dad’s grip and smacked him in the chin. Once it was determined he was unharmed, just startled, we cracked up and finished up soon after. Next was getting our sleeping bags and duffels in our respective tents.
With the sun’s natural light fading, I set about building a fire in the round, metal fire pit as Dad set up some lamps in certain areas of the campsite. I grabbed the small, portable stove and got out the plates and ingredients we needed so I could get started on dinner. Due to having to fend for myself in a dorm room for the past year, I was much more proficient at cooking.
“Hey! You can cook! I mean, you could before, but our chances of food poisoning are looking much slimmer than last year’s camping trip,” Dad joked as he came over to where I was cooking, taking a deep whiff of the cooking food.
“Gee thanks, Dad,” I replied, deadpan, fighting a smile. He could hear my hidden smile in my voice and lightly clapped my back. He ducked out of the way as I tried swatting at him with the spatula. I shook my head, laughing to myself as I finished the burgers. The delicious smell of cooked burgers permeated the campsite and my stomach growled in anticipation.
Dad set out our plates, napkins, and ketchup. The weirdo that Dad is, he also put relish on it. I wrinkled my nose at the combination and turned back to my glorious burger slathered in ranch dressing. The first bite is always the best when it’s been a while since you last had something you really enjoy. Dad moaned comically and leaned forward as he savored his burger. I slapped his shoulder, but grinned, blushing and proud that I managed to make such good burgers instead of accidentally killing someone.
“Seriously-” Dad began, but I quickly shot him a look. He chewed and swallowed his bite before continuing. He knows I hate when people talk with their mouth full or chew with their mouth open. Probably why he does it around me. I think there’s even a mental disorder where the sound of chewing irritates you more than normal. Wouldn’t be surprised if I had that.
“Best burger I’ve had in a while. Good job.” I blushed again and took another bite. He reached around to my other shoulder and pulled me close to him. We sat like that for a while, eating our burgers. Living in the city, I rarely heard the calming sounds of nature and, so after I was done eating, I closed my eyes and leaned more heavily against my Dad’s side.
I was woken up by a gentle shake to my shoulder. My eyes opened to Dad smiling down at me and I smiled back, blinking slowly as I was still sleepy.
“Time to go to bed, kiddo.” I must’ve been really tired to let him get away with calling me that. He helped me up and I reached for the plates to start cleaning up, but he pulled me to my tent. Opening it for me, he ignored my quiet protests and told me,
“Just go to sleep. I’ll take care of clean up. See you in the morning. Good night.”
I fell asleep quickly.
Sometime in the night, I woke up. Why must I be cursed with a tiny bladder? Life, sometimes, man. I swear. Very reluctantly, I unzipped my sleeping bag, which I don’t even remember how I managed to get into last night, what with how tired I was, and crawled out. Reaching blindly into my satchel, I felt around until I grabbed my flashlight. Holding it upright, I fiddled with the switch, regretting it immediately as it turned on and I nearly blinded myself. Even more awake now and blinking rapidly to get my sight back, I sighed and stood up as much as I could in my tent. It took a moment to find the zipper, but I was successful in locating the stupid thing.
The tent opened to cold forest air. My eyes snapped open and I quickly grabbed my thick, wool-lined jacket. By the time I got it on, I was shaking a lot. It wasn’t just cold, but very foggy, too. I don’t remember it being this foggy this time of year. Oh well, whatever. I need to pee.
After almost forgetting my toilet paper, I made my way to the sad little bathroom building a few campsites over and relieved my bladder. Once done, I attempted to make my way back. Keyword: Attempted. Have I mentioned I have crappy luck? As it turned out, I didn’t remember which direction I came from. Just wonderful.
All of the campsites are numbered and I think they follow an easy pattern, so I decided I would just trace those back. Peeking around a car to see the campsite number, I cursed.
‘24. Really? How did I get that far away? We’re at 47!’ I thought to myself incredulously.
Grumbling to myself, I took a deep breath, ignoring the tingle in my throat from the cold, moist air, and began my trek back to my warm, comfortable sleeping bag. I was lucky to not have to deal with rocks or roots under my tent, and I brought a thin but nice foam mat. Maybe that’s where all of my luck went.
As I got to the early 40s, I heard rustling to my left. Immediately I stopped and whipped my flashlight around, trying to find who it was. Turns out it wasn’t a who, but a what. Seriously, no luck.
Either the rangers and other campers were lying, or they were blind. How does one miss a shark swimming, flying, whatever the verb is that’s used, around dumpsters, clearly looking for food?
With light on it, the shark was quick to notice me and darted behind the dumpster it had been sniffing around. I just stood there, frozen. Not due to the cold, but fear. What in the world am I supposed to do? It obviously saw me and reacted to my light on it. Do I scream? Do I stand still and hope it ignores me? Does that even work? There was no more time to think as it swam out from behind the dumpster and began to circle me.
‘Please don’t eat me! I’m skinny and stringy and haven’t showered yet so I probably taste horrible. Although I’ve heard you guys eat anything like tires, branches, and basically anything else you can get your sharp, serrated teeth on,’ I rambled in my head as I turned with the shark, keeping my eyes on it.
Suddenly it darted forward and I screamed. My eyes squeezed shut in fright. I lashed out with my flashlight on instinct and gasped when I came into contact with something. A yelp registered in my head and I cautiously opened my eyes. I let out a slightly hysterical laugh as the shark backed up in pain. Did I seriously just hit its nose? I remember reading somewhere that the nose was a vulnerable place for sharks.
As I rejoiced in my victory, the shark recovered from the unexpected blow and got ready to attack again. I wasn’t sure if my luck would hold out. Thankfully it did.
My scream had woken up some of the nearby campers, including my Dad, and he had grabbed his bow and quiver full of arrows. I was never so thankful for our interest in archery than in that moment. I saw the shark on the ground with an arrow through its head.
Feeling the adrenaline starting to wear off, my legs gave way and I slid to the ground in relief. My eyes snapped open to the sound of a bow clattering to the ground and my dad kneeling in front of me, hands on my shoulders as he looked over me in concern.
“Haley! Are you alright? Did the shark get you at all?” I smiled tiredly and shook my head ‘no’. He sighed in relief, muscles relaxing, and we hugged tightly.
A ranger came running up to make sure we were alright. After letting him know, several times, we were okay and explained what happened, even though it was kind of obvious, he left us to ourselves to report the incident. Other campers came over to find out what happened and make sure I was okay. Some of them even complimented Dad on his marksmanship, making him a little embarrassed. He was very humble when it came to how well he shot, but we practiced since I was 10, so we were both very good. I elbowed him in the side with a playful grin, knowing he didn’t like bragging or people doing it for him. I had no such problems and proceeded to embarrass him by proudly rattling off stats. It wasn’t hard for people to believe with evidence in front of them.
When things began to die down and campers who had ventured out went back into their tents, Dad and I decided it was time to do the same. On our way back, Dad was quiet and I looked to him to see what was the matter.
“You okay, Dad?” I asked. I had a feeling I knew what he was thinking about. It was fresh in both of our minds.
“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” he began, stopping to turn to me just before we reached our campsite. Already I could tell where this was going, but I let him finish.
“Do you still want to stay for the rest of the weekend? That is, if the rangers give the go ahead.”
I thought about it, making sure I didn’t jump to a hasty decision. Was I really okay with staying the remaining two days after my close encounter of the shark kind? The answer was surprisingly easy.
“Yeah. Besides, I know you’ll keep me safe.” I smiled up at him and next thing I knew, my face was squished against a familiar, worn leather jacket.
“As long as you’re sure,” he murmured into my hair as he held me close. Silently, I nodded. He gave my shoulders a gentle squeeze before pulling away. He reached around my shoulders and pulled me against his side as we walked the last few steps to our campsite. Just as Dad was unstringing his bow to put away, he stood up and stared at me, eyes wide and panicked.
“What? Is there another shark?” I asked, a little (okay, a lot) panicked as I lifted my flashlight like a mini bat, ready to swing.
“What’s worse than a shark?” I squeaked, eyes darting about the woods.
“What are we going to tell your Mom?”
“Oh.” Yeah, much worse than a shark.