In Search of Panther Creek

We were only guilty of trespassing on private land. We hadn’t damaged anything. We hadn’t broken into any buildings. We could have turned around right then and left no evidence of our transgression.

But we had passed through a quarter mile of scrub oak and hawthorn trees—they had left us cut and bleeding—and we wanted to find another way back to our campsite, back to the other side of the lake.

The canoes were stacked near the waterfront, stranded like so many turtles—upside down—beckoning to us to free them, or just one of them. Summer camp hadn’t started yet. No one would miss a canoe until we were long gone from the place. Camp staff could retrieve it from the far shore.

The paddles, we reckoned, were inside the shed. We discussed our plans, in whispers, and gave furtive glances across the dam, toward the barracks that held a hundred girls for a week at a time through the summer. Our trespassing felt a heavier sin than it had on other lands; we were two boys now crossing land owned by the Girl Scouts of America. Our presence there alone was proof of some delinquency.

Four small screws held the hasp and padlock to the weathered plywood door. The hasp had been installed backwards, with the screws exposed. We could simply unscrew them. No need to break anything to get to the paddles.

David and I had walked out the back door of my house three days before. The first mile was covered with scrub and blackjack oak forest, cut by river bottoms full of sycamore trees, sandstone boulders, snapping turtles and water moccasins.

The woods gave way to rolling pastureland, to a cattle ranch that stretched beyond the horizon. Sometimes I’d stand on a knoll under a blue sky flecked with rising clouds, and I’d wonder if anyone had ever walked there, if anyone had stood alone in that place. Then I’d stumble onto a horseshoe or a bottle or a glove.

I guessed at the history of that place—mostly from what I found by accident: a spent rifle shell, a broken shovel handle, the decaying remains of a truck chassis. These were the edges of a jigsaw puzzle, but just the edges. Whose horse kicked off a shoe or whose truck chassis coasted into oblivion—these people remained strangers to me.

Even the land remained hidden; I only knew what I had seen, what was visible. I didn’t know where the open country gave way to woods again, where I might find cliffs, where a creek was born or even which river it finally found.

I had speculated about the source and fate of the creek. I had crossed it once, at midwinter. But I had never known more, not even its name. I sent a cashier’s check to the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, and in return they gave me Panther Creek.

I showed the maps to David, and that spring we stepped off my parent’s back porch in search of Panther Creek and whatever else might be hidden in the Osage Hills of northeastern Oklahoma. We crossed Panther Creek on the first day. On the second day, around mid-day, we came to Strike Ax Road. I had not known that a road bisected that land. Next to the road stood a line of charred fence posts, black against the green spring grasses, betraying a history of lightning strikes or of a cigarette butt carelessly tossed in the late summer. The rusted barbed-wire strands lay on the ground, long fallen from the armature of burned posts.

We had seen a lake on the map, just a mile from our road crossing. In open country we could have covered this mile by early afternoon. But the woods were thick with undergrowth, and we didn’t arrive at the lake until just before nightfall. Rain had fallen all afternoon; we were soaked through even as we gathered damp firewood. We coaxed a smoky fire at the edge of a rock outcropping and hung our clothes to dry.

The next morning we found that we were not alone in that place. At the north end of the lake, a quarter mile away, we saw a small wooden shed. No house, no people, no dogs. Just a shed. We dismantled camp and stashed our packs between two boulders.

My heart pounded as we opened the shed. I found two of the longest wooden paddles and set them softly in the canoe. We carried the canoe to the shore and pushed off. My arms shook as we paddled. Trespassing was no longer our greatest crime. We were now guilty theft. A chill ran up my back as we hugged the shoreline.

I turned us slightly into the open lake, beginning a long arc that would point us toward our camp. We paddled hard as we approached the shore. The aluminum hull scraped bottom. My legs were weak as soon as we jumped from the canoe. The landing had made more noise than we had wanted.

We crouched between the boulders again, deliberating the fate of the canoe. It wouldn’t sink; camp staff would eventually find it. We pushed it into the lake, toward the shed.

We hiked out of the thick woods and away from the suffocating feeling of being caught. That night we made camp in the open, under a clear blue-black canvas of stars, and built a fire. We talked of our misdeeds, and we assured ourselves that everything would be made right; the camp staff would find the canoe, they would re-attach the hasp. We consoled ourselves with this.

We knew someone would wonder what happened there—what story was to be told of an abandoned canoe and a breached hasp. They might look into the woods and wonder who had skulked around that shed, and who had broken into it, unseen, unheard, unknown.

But they would never know. The canoe, floating aimlessly in the lake or jammed by the wind into overhanging branches, would never reveal a week-long hike across Panther Creek. Those who found the canoe would never know this.

I hope the camp staff laughed when they discovered the canoe, laughed at a story they would never know. I hope they have forgiven us.

I once found a truck axle in that remote country, miles from any road. When I found it, I laughed—laughed at what bizarre story might explain an axle there.

On the cattle ranch that bordered our property—on fall afternoons—my father and brother and I shot clay pigeons. We would then search the tall, dry grass for shells and boxes and whatever else we had brought with us—to clean up any evidence of our visit. Our father encouraged us to pay attention that way, to care for the land. We went to that place many times, over many summers. Sometimes we would stay there until sunset and then walk home in the dark. We knew the land well enough to cross it in the dark.

I could easily find the place again—by small landmarks: a cow’s scapula, the rusted end of a steel barrel, the domed top of a boulder that grew smaller each year as the grass and soil encroached. I remember the cow’s scapula was half buried, oriented north-south, like the gnomon of a sundial.

That entire country was too large to know. But that hillside, where my father and my brother and I had returned so often, was small enough that I could know every detail of it—what kind of beetle bred there, where the fire ants lived, which grasses carried ticks, how long ago a fire had charred the land, how the hailstones collected in gullies during a thunderstorm.

In other places, the land would continue to disclose her secrets little by little, by chance, by some insoluble geometry of luck. But not there. Not in that place.

I had been there so often, nothing remained hidden. I was sure there were no secrets left in that place.

The year after I left home for college, my father called me on the phone. He told me he had taken a group of boys to the same place, to shoot clay pigeons. One of the boys had found a stone ax head there.


Photo Credit:  Getty Images

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Paul Burnham

Paul Burnham is a civil engineer in northwest Montana. His essays and short stories have appeared in Catalyst, DASH Literary Journal, daCunha-Global, Flathead Living, and through the Entrada Institute.

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