The tradition of summer camps in North America goes back about 150 years. Cities were seen as dirty and dangerous (which they often were) and nature was idealized. Religious groups set up summer communities in the country with cultural and educational programs. Scouting based camping on a military model, and many camps steeped themselves in putative Native American themes. Most give kids a chance to be away from their parents and have some of their most important formative experiences.
Camping experiences usually include ghost stories (because what could be more fun than being dragged into the dark woods and scared out of your skivvies?). Most share the usual themes of ongoing danger to kids—which sounds bad, but kids love them. Some are peculiar to certain times and places, as was the primary ghost story of my youth, that of Jacques the Axeman. Aside from having a perfectly scary name, the story was bound to a particular time and place. Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario is well known for its summer camps, and while this story comes from mine, I’d be surprised if it didn’t exist in other forms at nearby camps. As summer wanes, I’d like to share my first encounter with a real ghost story, one that seemed just a bit too real.
Like many who spent their summers at camps in the Park, it doesn’t take much for canoe trip stories to flow out of my memories. The sight of an island may make me giggle, a lone pine on a point may make me nostalgic, the memory of a portage may make my knee ache. But one of my earliest memories was born on Little Otterslide Lake during my first trip.
That’s not quite right. A hint of the memory came before, in subtle gestures, hushed voices. The trippers would discuss our route quietly, wondering just loud enough if we should stop at Burnt Island Lake. Surely overnight would be out of the question. But would a lunch break be too long? Should we bypass it altogether? In a tone that belied the response, they would glance around furtively, saying, “Don’t worry about it. There’s nothing to worry about. Really.”
So we worried. We were a group of young boys, none of whom had ever tripped in the park. None of us wanted to betray our ignorance. We heard older kids speak of “the Ink Lake portage”, whatever that was. It sounded ominous. We heard we would have to hang our food in trees so that beasties couldn’t easily get to it. We heard of the dreaded “axe pack”. Some camps had wanigans, heavy boxes carried by a tump strap lashed to the head. We had the axe pack, the pack with the pots, cutlery, and of course, the axe strapped to the outside, its sharp end in a leather pouch. The trippers looked us over, quietly discussing who would be up to carrying such a burden.
None of us wanted to be the first to hesitate, and the morning of departure, we climbed into our heavy cedar strip canoes and paddled away from camp. The staff in the sterns of the three canoes cajoled us to paddle harder, promised us a good dinner. But they weren’t sure about lunch, or about where our dinner would be. They kept hinting about Burnt Island Lake. Our route was set with the Ministry, we could not deviate, but the counselors were visibly nervous.
As we passed the cemetery that held the remains of Tom Thompson, our counselors reminded us of the mystery of the artist’s death, how his body was found floating in Canoe Lake with seven turns of fishing wire around his legs. Soon after we hit our first portage, where we had to pick up our canoes and packs and walk to the next lake. The portage around Joe Lake Dam was remarkably uneventful—except for my dropping the eggs. The back bacon proved more durable.
Each stroke of the paddle brought increasing tension among our counselors, and bled into us. Our moods lifted briefly as we passed Arowhon Pines, a lodge which, we were assured, offered a level of luxury unlike anything we could possibly imagine. But each stroke, each portage brought a bit more gloom to the group. We were hungry, none of us accustomed to steady physical work. We whined. We complained. We begged for lunch. With great reluctance, the tripper pulled over to a campsite on the south shore of Burnt Island Lake, glancing around at the streaked cliffs across the lake, at a hint of a trail into the woods, and down the length of the lake.
He pulled over one of the counselors. Before speaking, he looked over his shoulder to make sure we couldn’t eavesdrop. “Hey, see that canoe out near that island?” he said a little too loudly. “Can you tell if he’s paddling with one hand or two?”
Curious. What could he be talking about? Who would paddle with one had? Lunch was set up quickly; heavy sourdough bread, peanut butter, honey. As we finished, the tripper looked at the counselors and said, “Maybe we better check it out. The danger should be pretty low this time of day.”
“OK, guys, listen up! We’re going for a little hike in the woods. You must follow every direction I give you and do it quickly. If you hesitate, if you wander off, I can’t be held responsible.”
We looked at each other, and queued up behind the tripper, looking around at what dangers might lurk in the woods. The tripper found an old track, two overgrown ruts about the width of a car. We followed it.
At one point, we approached a clearing. He held up his hand, and motioned us to stop. He wandered ahead a bit, then returned to confer with our counselors.
“I found it,” he said. “Doesn’t look like anyone’s been around in the last week or so, but you can never be sure.”
He motioned us to follow. In the clearing was a hearth and chimney, and foundations for a few more. There were rusted axles, carts, and other detritus of a time before. We looked around us, in awe of this intrusion into what we were told was a “forest primeval”, even though we didn’t really know what that meant.
The tripper looked up suddenly, and said, “OK, time to get out of here. Move!”
We got back to the campsite, packed up our lunch, and headed back onto the lake. The staff were paddling a bit harder than usual, throwing brief glances astern.
When we crossed the portage onto Little Otterslide Lake, the tripper seemed relieved. We set up camp on the island, the side furthest from Burnt Isle.
As the sun set, and we finished the last of the Tripper’s Delight (if you don’t know, you don’t want to), the counselors sent us to wash the dishes, watching over us, glancing at the lake. We moved to the fire, our first night in the wilderness.
“Well, I suppose these guys are old enough to know,” the tripper said, glancing at the other counselors.
He sat down on a flat rock, his elbows on his knees, and starred into the fire.
“Boys, I’m not going to tell you what I’m about to say is true. That’s for you to decide, each in your own heart. But it’s the story that’s been told in this park for a number of years now, and with all the things that have happened, well…”
We looked at each other, each of us deciding on our own whether we really wanted to know this. None of us wanted to be the one who ruined the story, so we moved closer to the fire, our tripper stoked it with fresh pine, and began the tale…
The story really begins quite a while ago, when this park was used for logging more than anything else. Loggers came from all over the country to cut the white pine, some of them hundreds of feet tall (the trees; there are no Paul Bunyans in this story). It would take five grown men holding hands to circle a single tree. Only the best of the lumberjacks made it in Algonquin.
One of those was Jacques. I don’t know his last name; I don’t think anyone does, but back in the day, everyone knew him. Jacques was a legend. Each year, the lumberjacks would gather to share stories, have contests, and just have a little human company, their work being a lonely business. Jacques was the king of the lumbering contests.
This wasn’t about some silly guys in kilts pretending at caber-tossing. This was real working men, showing off their skills. Ever seen log-rolling? They didn’t do that. They skipped over log jams with iron hooks, prying log from log so the current could carry them to the mill. Falling in could mean a painful death, one where you’d wish for drowning to escape the crush of the cut timber.
Of course, they did chop and saw at trees. They climbed, they cut, they showed off for each other, and if a lady happened to be present, they smiled a bit. Jacques had the biggest smile of all. It wasn’t work for him to win. He just did it, easy as breathing.
One day, during a meet-up, Jacques was put up against another lumberman at the chopping contest. No one seems to agree on his name, but I’ve heard it was Robinson, so we’ll stick with that. Now loggers aren’t known as the nicest, soberest bunch, but usually, they’ll look out for each other. Not Robinson. He had a reputation for moving in on other people’s stands, hiring stronger men and shorting their pay. He was going places, and he told everyone he met.
The prize was to be a special one, not the usual keg of beer or ten dollars. It was widely known among the loggers that Jacques’s family was suffering. His wife and kids were living hand-to-mouth, the death of his youngest having sent his wife into a dark depression. Jacques never asked for help, only gave it. But the lumbermen knew who would win this contest, and pooled together a prize for a man too proud to ask. They bought him a share of forest too large for any single man but Jacques, a share that should keep him and his family fed for many seasons. It was their way of thanking the humblest and best among them.
Each man was set up near a white pine, close enough for everyone to see, but not so close that they’d clash axe-to-axe. Robinson hefted his standard woodsman’s axe, a lightweight but sharp tool, without a nick or flaw.
Jacques carried his signature double-headed axe, a legend in the north woods. It was said that no other man could lift it much less cut timber with it. But Jacques made it look easy. He would find two pines close together and chop back and forth, felling two trees in the time it took other loggers to shake off a moonshine hangover.
The men stood by their trees, waiting for the signal. The signal came, a united roar from the drunken crowd. Robinson lifted his axe with obvious effort, as if unaccustomed to the instrument. Jacques immediately swung his as if it were an extension of his arms, chips flying with each “whack”. It was clear from the first stroke who would win, and the crowd loved it.
As the men’s axes bit the wood, something strange was happening, something subtle, something unseen until…
One of the drunken lumberman noticed an odd swaying to Jacques’s tree, something not right. At first he wasn’t sure if it was the whiskey or the wind, but by the time he called out, it was too late. As Jacques worked, muscles bulging, hips turning into each cut, the tree began to tumble toward him. Trees fall slowly, but they fall, gaining speed as the final pieces of wood holding the trunk together tear. This ripping sound, coming earlier than expected excited the rest of the crowd, but by the time Jacque saw what they did, the tree fell.
Most people agree that Robinson dropped his axe and ran quickly to Jacques’s aid, but what could he or anyone else do? The injured man lay unconscious for days in camp. A doctor of questionable credentials was brought up from Ottawa, and after collecting fifty dollars and a gallon of liquor, declared Jacques a goner.
But Jacques was made of stronger stuff than most, and soon after the drunken sawbones left, he woke up. He tried to speak, but all that came out was senseless grunting. He tried to stand, but found his right arm and leg unresponsive to his commands. He gestured to his companions to fetch his axe. They tried to make him lay back down, but he simply leaned on his axe, and dragging his right foot behind, made his way to his green canoe and paddled off, his one strong arm pulling the craft through the water. They never saw him again.
Unless you count tales told in the night. Men would see a lone green canoe, paddled in a strange way off in the mist. Sometimes they would hear the sound of an axe in the woods where no one should have been. Sometimes, in the depths of winter, strips of deer or beaver meat would mysteriously appear in camp just when needed.
Jacques’s family starved during the harsh winter after the accident. It was said that the sound of children laughing brought him so much pain that he avoided human contact, fearing what he might be capable of.
A few years later, the pines were gone. Birch grew in the fields, and hardwoods took over the hills. Loggers were replaced by a gentler breed, the tourists. On the shores of Burnt Isle Lake, a lodge catered to city folk looking for a taste of the forest primeval, just not too bitter a taste. The lodge did well, run by a man named Robinson who, it was said, used to log these same shores.
Robinson had heard all the fairy tales about Jacques, but paid them little mind, until, one day, a tourist went missing. When a bad thing happens to a tourist, they all tend to disappear back to their warm city homes, never to be seen again. Robinson sent out teams of men to search, but none of them knew wood lore and they came back with only bruises and scratches.
On the third night, just as everyone had begun to give up hope, a form appeared through the mist. A distinct “thump-drag” could be heard as he approached, a limp form over his shoulder. Jacques limped up to the side door of the lodge setting down his double-bladed axe and his passenger, the lost tourist, cold, a bit thin, but otherwise unharmed.
Jacques’s face was hideous. Over the years since the accident, one side of it had sagged, food collecting in his beard, his eye glaring out to the side. Knowing how others saw him, he turned wordlessly to go back to the woods, but Robinson stopped him.
‘Jacques, you’ve saved my business, and of course a life. Please let me repay you. Please take a job as my night watchman. You’ll get a warm bed, regular grub, and two dollars a week. It’s got to be better than how you’re living now.’
Was it guilt, sympathy, or some other motive that caused Robinson to be uncharacteristically generous? No one can say, but many of the loggers on that fateful day had muttered that Robinson had “fixed” the tree before Jacques started in on it, stealing a good man’s future while ensuring his own.
Whatever the reason, Jacques was soon living in a small room with a wood stove and a cot, sleeping during the day, patrolling the night. The sight of him frightened the guests too much for any other job.
For a loner used to the silence of the woods, he managed pretty well, chasing away the occasional bear, dragging drunks out of the snow before they froze, and generally keeping the lodge safe.
No one knows for sure what caused him to break. Some say he discovered Robinson’s betrayal. Others say it was after saving a young girl from the dark, who, on seeing his face, screamed and clawed at him, crying for her father. The one thing that is certain is that the lodge burned.
It was a windy winter night, the northern lights dancing in the sky, and somewhere a spark caught. The fire quickly spread, no alarm being raised, and the lodge quickly burnt to the ground, leaving only some chimneys and foundations on the shores of Burnt Isle.
Only one guest escaped. Before he died, he swore he saw a figure limping into the woods leaning on an axe, crying.
Since then, people like to blame Jacques for every little problem in the park. When a girl scout troop disappeared in the 40s, people whispered his name. When a couple of tourists were “killed by bears” in the 70s, some said bears don’t use axes.
Campers sometimes return from trips to Burnt Island Lake with stories of a strange sound in the night, a sort of “thump-drag”. Some don’t return at all. And on some misty mornings, a green canoe can be seen paddling strangely across a lake, an axe handle leaning against the thwart.
“Of course, that was a long time ago,” he said, poking a stick at the glowing coals. “If Jacques were still around, he’d be an old man; a crippled old man, not a threat to anyone. Still, it’s better to be safe. If you see a green canoe paddled solo, if you hear the thud of an axe or the sound of a limping man, just let me know. Don’t be a hero.”
We weren’t heroes, and we didn’t sleep.