WELCOME TO CAMP KESTREL YOUTH
The moonlight dimly illuminates the almost still waters of Crescent Lake. Each star glistens along the gentle wake as the loons call out into the dense Maine wilderness. A cloaked figure canoes alone, drifting the seemingly vacant waterfront.
“Our paddles keen and bright, flashing like silver; swift as the wild goose flight, dip, dip, and swing. Mmmhmmm,” they softly sing to themselves as the blade of their paddle breaches the surface of the lake. “Our paddles keen and bright, flashing like silver; swift as the wild goose flight, dip, dip, and swing. Mmmhmmm,” they repeat approaching shore trailing a bloodied tarp wrapped in rope behind them. Exiting their vessel, they begin to pull the soiled canvas ashore. A bruised limb slips through from the poorly wrapped makeshift body bag. “Our paddles keen and bright, flashing like silver; swift as the wild goose flight, dip, dip, and swing. Mmmhmmm,” they continue to chant dragging the corpse uphill.
“HUH!” An aggressive bellow echoes across the lake followed by cheers of brothers young and old. Stopping in their tracks, the cloaked figure turns towards the lake pulling their hood back revealing their severely burned face. Seemingly pleased, with a maniacal smirk they turn once more continuing into the shadowy thicket before them.
On the other side of the lake, Jaxon, an adventurous boy of nine, sits around a campfire shared by over a hundred other boys. The amphitheater has benches crafted by fallen trees, a campfire bowl, and a small stage for songs, skits, and cheers. Being his first summer, and only the second night of camp, he’s both excited and nervous about what may lie ahead. As the campfire comes to an end, the youngest boys wander off to their cabins. Trailblazers, populating three of the ten camper cabins, these are the youngest boys on the grounds. Camp Kestrel Youth has been a tradition in Cumberland County for almost seven decades. Generations of fathers and sons continue to attend year after year learning wilderness and survival skills. Named after the American Kestrel, this small-bodied falcon species is known for its fierce intensity and impressive aerial dives. Killy! Killy! Killy! The boys will shout, imitating the Kestrels loud series of calls. Used as a ‘repeat after me’ with the Trailblazers, they seem to respond back more enthusiastic than the older boys.
Moseying along, Jaxon distractedly shines his flashlight into the trees as his bunkmates pass by making haste towards their cabin. An inquisitive boy for his age, Jaxon found joy in examining indifferent things.
“The odd one outside,” his mother would tease as he dug around the sandbox instead of inside of it.
He knew his interests strayed him from the other boys, but he didn’t mind one bit. As his flashlight wanders through the tall birch trees slightly off trail, he spots a tattered roof in the distance. Curious, he begins to step into the wood.
“Jaxon let’s roll dude. The cabin’s this way,” one of his cabin counselors states in an encouraging tone.
Dropping a coin from his pocket marking the location on the trail, Jaxon continues with his counselors following his bunkmates to the cabin.
Hardwood floors, planked walls, and bunk beds fill this spacious cabin occupied with rambunctious boys hooting and hollering jumping bed to bed telling their own exaggerated versions of campfire tales. Jaxon makes his way around the madness to his corner bunk that he’s crafted into a comfortable nest. As the counselors attempt to wrangle the other boys for lights out, Jaxon snuggles up with a well-dated trail map of southern Maine.
“Alright boys, time to chill. You can read quietly on your bed, but lights are going out in two minutes,” one of the counselors declares as the others help the campers clean up games and toys off the cabin floor. Once the floor is cleared, the boys scatter to their beds finding their flashlights and books before the lights go off. “Three…” the counselor begins to count down. “Two…” hand on the light switch the counselor looks around the cabin ensuring each boy is in their bed. “Wait a minute. Where’s Finley?” he questions, gesturing towards an empty bunk. PFFFTTT…the entire cabin burst into laughter as a ghastly stench extends into the living area.
“I’m in here coach,” Finley responds seemingly ill. Waving off the other boys, the counselor holds back his laughter walking towards the bathroom.
“You feel alright bud?” the counselor inquires.
“Yeah…beans really don’t agree with me. You can turn the bunk lights off, I’ll be out in a second,” Finley returns.
Jaxon rolls his eyes as the other boys laugh at the counselor’s disgusted expression. Hopping out of bed, Jaxon grabs Finley’s flashlight from his cubby.
“Thanks,” Finley replies seeing his flashlight roll under the stall door.
Jaxon quickly makes his way back to his bed as the lights go out. A few minutes pass, most of the boys have settled and the quiet concert of small woodland creatures are accompanied by the echoes of loons from the lake. Finley flushes the toilet; minor snickering is heard from some of the other boys.
Tiptoeing towards his bed, Finley points his flashlight towards the floor lighting his path. Tick. Tick. Tick. Finley stops. There’s a gentle knock at the door. Tick. Tick. Tick. Again, but a bit louder.
“Go to bed Finley,” his counselor mumbles rolling over in his bed.
Curious, Finley sneaks towards the door illuminating his light out of the window. There’s nothing. Reaching for the handle he looks to his counselors’ bed, turning the knob ever so lightly. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. Frightened by the aggressive slamming, Finley falls to the floor screaming. Everyone instantly sits up in their beds as the counselor closest to the door turns the light switch on helping Finley off the floor.
“What the heck is going on Finley?” the counselor demands.
Shaken up, Finley points at the door in fear. The counselor grabs a hockey stick, wielding it in a hostile manner. The entire bunk stands in their beds hoping to get a better look. Jaxon, disinterested, marks his place in the trail guide and throws a few things in his knapsack. Another counselor reaches for the door opening it forcefully only to be met by the delightful grin of a raccoon munching on an apple core. The counselor lowers his weapon shutting the door relieved and annoyed.
“Alright boys, the show’s over. Backs on beds please,” he announces to them all turning the lights off. Dispersing once more, the boys head back to rest. “Finley bud…it’s time for bed dude. It’s just a raccoon.”
Muttering to himself in disbelief that a raccoon could create such a violent thud, Finley slowly climbs his ladder to the top bunk above Jaxon’s nest. Jaxon’s bag has vanished, and pillows are stuffed under his blanket to emulate him sleeping peacefully. He’s gone.
Sneaking up the hill towards the dining hall, Jaxon proudly displays the smile of a free adventurer. Making a quick stop on the little league field, his mouth becomes agape looking up in awe at the clarity of the constellations. Taking it all in, Jaxon inhales the fresh Maine air with a welcomed feeling of belonging. Content, he continues to grin approaching the entrance of the dining hall. Reaching for the handle, the rustic door frame creaks as he slips in quietly. Marching towards the snack station he begins making himself a PB&J quietly singing along to a campfire song.
“Our paddles keen and bright, flashing like silver; swift as the wild goose flight, dip, dip, and swing. Mmmhmmm,” he cheerfully hums on.
Wrapping the sandwich in a few napkins, he refills his canteen, then snags an apple on the way out. Shuffling back down the hill towards the amphitheater, he passes an opening in the trees displaying the effervescent waters of Crescent Lake. The clear night reflects the stars off the gentle wake shimmering vividly in the moonlight. With his sandwich still at hand, he decides to enjoy his midnight snack by the waterfront. Remembering what his counselors mentioned about not being too close to the water without a lifeguard, he keeps a respectful distance from the shoreline finding a seat atop the grassy hill overlooking the lakeside entrance.
Placing his knapsack aside, he contently munches upon his fortune of freedom and adventure. A kestrel falcon calls from the distance. “Killy. Killy. Killy,” Jaxon responds softly to the falcon giggling at himself. The gentle lapping of canoe paddles passes close to the floating docks of the waterfront. Jaxon is still. Weary of who may be canoeing, he scoots further up the hill keeping his panicked eyes on the water. Reaching the rubble road in front of the woodshop, he stands, staring anxiously out at the water through the trees. A loon calls out from the distance frightening Jaxon. He jumps, then laughs at himself once more. Walking down the hill, he reaches for his knapsack throwing it over his shoulder. Underneath his bag lies a coin. Covered in a thick red and brown sludge like substance, he wipes it clean with his bandana. Examining it closely, his eyes widen in fear. Placing the coin in his pocket, Jaxon scrambles hastily towards his bunk. Shining a light along the mulch-covered trail, he searches for the coin he had dropped earlier in the evening. It’s gone. Digging in his pocket, he pulls the coin from his trousers. Dead branches crumble in the distance as if someone’s walking towards the trail. Jaxon’s flashlight nervously shakes as he lightly steps backward towards his bunk. Stumbling over an uncovered root, he tumbles breaking his fall with the palm of his hand. Cringing at the sight of blood, he holds the minor abrasion close to his chest. More kindling cracks as the footsteps grow closer. Standing promptly, he sprints the remainder of the trail. Reaching his bunk, he slips his shoes off on the porch carefully opening the side door by his bed with his good hand.
Once inside he pulls his hand from his chest wincing, as the blood has almost dried his wounded flesh to his shirt.
“Jaxon?” Finley groggily questions rubbing his eyes.
“Are you hurt?” Finley continues sitting up in his bed.
“Shhh…you’re going to wake up our counselors,” Jaxon whispers glancing around the bunk.
“Sorry,” Finley answers climbing down from the top bunk clumsily.
He begins rummaging through his cubby pulling out a first aid kit.
“Here, let me help you out,” Finley pulls some supplies and begins to bandage up Jaxon.
“Why do you sound like that?” Jaxon asks.
“Like what?” Finley questions pulling the protective film from a plaster.
“Sawry,” Jaxon mocks struggling to cover his own laughter.
“That’s just how I talk…I’m Canadian,” Finley mumbles slightly embarrassed.
“You should be good for tonight, but be sure to head to medical tomorrow,” Finley finishes, placing his kit back in his cubby.
“Hey, Finley look…” Jaxon begins apologetically.
“Thanks for helping me out, I really appreciate it,” Jaxon remorsefully utters.
“Hey man, every falcon is a brother that learned to fly, right?” Finley jeeringly quotes from the campfire.
“Killy. Killy. Killy,” Jaxon smirks shaking Finley’s hand.
Sunlight beams through the uncovered cabin windows as reveille echoes throughout the campground. Waterfront counselors laugh and banter as they return to their bunks after an early morning of rescue drills in Crescent Lake. Most of the Trailblazers have been up but are told not to leave their bunk until reveille is played. Some sit quietly reading, others climb to their friend’s bunk to play a card game or chess. One of the only negative things about being a Trailblazer was the location of their bunks. Furthest from the flagpole. Before each meal, all of camp gathers around the flagpole lining up by bunk and age group. Raise the flag every morning with announcements and lowering it each evening folding it properly so that only a triangular blue field of stars is visible. It is a great honor at Camp Kestrel to be a part of folding the flag, but you could see the slight fear in any boys’ eyes as they grip the symbol tightly, so it never touches the ground. Sleeplessly shuffling up the hill, most of the counselors look like zombies while the Trailblazers sprint ecstatically to their spot in line. Explorers, the middle age group, approach from the east of the dining hall, and Commanders, the oldest age group approach from the northwest. Commanders have the shortest distance to walk but are always the last to arrive at morning flags. Lumbering in barely awake still in their pajamas, sometimes the stragglers get a slow clap to encourage hustle.
“Good morning Camp Kestrel!” Andrew, the Camp Kestrel Youth Director begins.
A towering, seemingly powerful man, with a low, yet authoritative rich tone in his voice. Reminds a lot of us of the eldest oak tree overlooking the rest of the forest. Unintentionally intimidating those in his path, anxiety fades as they’re greeted with a smile and a firm handshake.
“Today’s going to be another beautiful day in this gorgeous state of Maine. Be sure to put on sunscreen before heading out to morning activities and don’t forget to fill your canteens as much as possible. Speaking of canteens…Jaxon Reid?”
Embarrassed, Jaxon raises his hand as Andrew waves him towards the flag pole.
“Ooooooo…,” the rest of the camp snickers. Andrew raises his hand to silence the crowd.
Walking towards Andrew, Jaxon avoids eye contact staring at his sneakers in disgrace.
“Now Jaxon, would you do us the honor of helping raise the flag this morning?” Andrew asks.
Surprised, Jaxon raises his chin admirably agreeing as Andrew places the flag in his arms.
“Choose a member of your bunk to help you out.”
His whole bunk waves their arms wildly, knowing they’ll get to go in for breakfast first if they raise the flag. With almost no hesitation, he points to Finley. With a radio call to the office, a bugle is heard the pair raise the flag. Waiting patiently for their dismissal, the boys sprint into the dining hall as the bugle completes.
“Alright, I’m looking for organization this morning. The bunk who orders themselves shortest to tallest goes in first.” Andrew continues.
There’s a moment of madness as all bunks and age groups scramble to align themselves properly. Finley and Jaxon enter the dining hall running directly to the cereal table. Usually, by the time Trailblazers get in, the Explorers or Commanders have demolished the table making it look like someone left a live grenade behind the boxes. Cereal bits scatter the dining room floor, random pools of milk drip off the side of the table, and the bran flakes bin is always untouched. No one knows if they even refill it because no one ever eats from it. Making their way to their bunk table, Jaxon grabs a banana and some yogurt, while Finley cautiously steps towards his seat hoping not to spill the bowl of cocoa puffs that he’s overfilled with chocolate milk.
Other bunks begin to stampede into the dining hall. Conversations filled with adventure and laughter spark as the boys collectively share meals on the classic elongated wooden bunk tables. You don’t go hungry at Camp Kestrel. Devouring his cereal, Finley notices Jaxon picking at his wounded hand.
“You go to medical yet?” Finley mumbles chomping aggressively on his cereal. Jaxon shakes his head as bits of chocolate fly out of Finley’s mouth onto the table. Finley lifts his bowl drinking the remainder of the milk, some of which he misses completely. Jaxon watches in astonishment pushing his yogurt aside. Finley releases an impressive belch met by the applause and cheers of his bunkmates. He stands quickly to bow then returns to his seat. Jaxon continues to stare in dismay.
“What? It’s not often we make it to the chocolate milk before the Explorers.” Finley innocently expresses while confidently sporting a chocolate milk goatee. “How’d you hurt your hand anyway?” he curiously inquires.
Jaxon leans in closer to Finley whispering. “I went for a walk last night…and I think there was something in the woods.”
“Like an animal?” Finley draws closer, eagerly engrossed.
“No, maybe…I think it was a person,” Jaxon replies.
“And they attacked you?” Finley exclaims.
“Shhh…no. I was walking near the waterfront and someone was canoeing but wasn’t…I don’t know. I ran back to the bunk and fell on the trail,” he pauses. “I think someone was watching me from the woods,” he finishes nervously moving his spoon around his uneaten bowl of yogurt. There’s a shared silence between the two.
“I believe you,” Finley adds. “I don’t know either, but…last night when there was a knock at our cabin door, I swear that it couldn’t have been a raccoon. Going to bed, I just told myself it was a Commander or an Explorer playing a prank on us,” Finley explains. “Maybe it was someone, or something, else,” he concludes.
“Let’s stack it up, boys!” a cabin counselor shouts across the table.
Finley shovels some dry cereal off the table into his mouth joining the rest of the boys stacking the dirty dishes. Emptying extra water, juices, and milk into pitchers, it’s always interesting to see what creative concoctions the Trailblazers have on their tables. A counselor places the pile of plates, cups, bowls, and silverware on a tray walking towards the dish return window. Some boys chip in to wipe their table clean as others continue to jokingly dump hot sauce in their neighbors’ space.
Once dismissed by their group leaders, campers disperse back to their cabins to clean before morning inspection. Jaxon and Finley walk together. Hastily making their way down the hill, counselors are seen waving Trailblazers around the usual path. A few of them stand close attempting to block something on the trail, Camp Director Andrew is talking on his phone around them.
“Well, that must be serious,” Harrison says passing by Jaxon and Finley.
Harrison might be a first-year camper, but he knows more about Camp Kestrel than most campers and some counselors. Harrisons brother Dexter is an Explorer, and their father went to Camp Kestrel as a boy becoming a counselor when he was old enough. Harrison can tell you what year a cabin was built, and even the official fire code for each building. His historical knowledge of Camp Kestrel proves close to worthless most times, but it seems to remind him why his family loves this place so much. A bit of a nature expert, he’s well on his way to becoming the next best wilderness survivalist.
“Why’s that?” Jaxon calls out.
Harrison slows down to walk with them. Reaching for his handbook, he thumbs through pointing to a passage under the traditions of Camp Kestrel.
“According to one of the official Camp Kestrel Youth Traditions, no camper or counselor should have access to electronic devices unless an emergency is presented.” Harrison reads.
“Traditions? Sounds more like a rule.” Finley adds.
“Well, the traditions are basically the rules. When the Elders scribed the traditions decades ago, they thought campers were more likely to break the rules, so renamed them to traditions.” Harrison explains.
“Pretty sure there weren’t any cell phones seventy years ago,” Finley argues.
“Finley, enough man.” Jaxon jumps in. “So, what’s that mean?” He inquires.
“Can’t be good.” Harrison finishes as they walk around the counselors trying to get a look.
Only able to make out what looks like a red paint stain dragged along the gravel, Jaxon, Finley, and Harrison head into their cabin.
“Killy. Killy. Killy,” a cabin counselor calls as the rest of the boys shuffle in.
“Killy. Killy. Killy,” the boys shout back.
“Alright! That was great guys. I know we all have questions about what’s going on outside, but Andrew said he’ll update us at lunch. For now, I wanna see neatly made beds, brushed teeth, and bags packed for the day. Understand?” A cabin counselor promptly broadcasts.
“Yes, counselor,” the bunk replies as a whole.
Dispersing around the bunk, the boys speedily throw their things in their bag. Essentials include a compass, first aid kit, canteen, a map of the camp, a watch, and of course, a baseball glove to play catch in between activities. After brushing their teeth most boys complete making their beds checking the top blankets for ripples, tucking in the ends under their mattresses, and placing their pillows just so. Standing proudly next to their beds when completed awaiting inspection. Between the three of them, Jaxon, Finley, and Harrison make it a friendly competition of who will finish first.
Bunk inspection at Camp Kestrel has become increasingly less serious than previous decades. They used to go as far as measuring the hair length of campers and even checking underneath their fingernails. In recent years, inspection is more to encourage a positive routine. Out of breath, Harrison makes the final fold of his sheet standing superior at the foot of his bunk. Jaxon follows close behind making his way to the front standing astute humorously giving a silent salute to Harrison.
“Cheese and rice,” Finley shouts from the top bunk having trouble keeping his fitted sheet around the mattress.
Finley circles on his hands and knees tucking each end as the other pops up. Harrison and Jaxon attempt to hold their laughter as Finley becomes increasingly more frustrated. As the counselor approaches, he begins to check off items on his list. With a moment of silent anxiety, the counselor grins giving Harrison the all good.
“Harrison. Well done. Head out scout,” the counselor nods.
Harrison runs off releasing an audible sigh of relief looking back to make a face at Jaxon. Returning a humorous smirk to Harrison, Jaxon silently awaits his cue to leave.
“Jaxon. Well done,” the counselor nods.
Jaxon begins to grab his things ready to leave.
“Hold on speed racer,” Jaxon’s counselor stops him. “Your bunk is all clear, however, you share said bunk with Finley. Assist your fellow Falcon, then you may both head to first activity. Be sure to hustle. You don’t want the bugle to beat you,” he finishes.
“Yes, counselor,” Jaxon returns.
“Sorry Jaxon,” Finley expresses from atop the bunk.
“It’s alright Finley, let’s just get it done. I think Harrison is waiting for us outside,” Jaxon answers.
Jaxon assists in completing Finley’s bed, then they both grab their knapsacks sprinting out the door. Harrison points to his watch and starts jogging down the trail to their first activity of the day, woodworking. Barely beating the bugle, Jaxon and Harrison find a seat while Finley struggles to catch his breath in the doorway. Digging through his bag, Finley pulls out his inhaler taking a few puffs before hobbling to the bench next to his friends. Chuck, the woodshop director, silently makes his rounds of the tables placing precut pieces of pine, a few strands of thin leather straps, and a bottle of bonding agent to share between each group. His presence sends goosebumps down the back of your neck as he passes behind each camper. An uncomfortable silence fills the woodshop as each Trailblazer nervously looks around to each other scared to utter a peep. Decades of experience with Camp Kestrel Youth, tradition is among Chuck’s top priorities.
“Falcons. Welcome,” Chuck starts. “As I’m sure most of you have heard, tonight is a historic event at Camp Kestrel. The Hatchet Hunt,” he continues.
The boys chatter amongst themselves for a moment.
“Enough!” Chuck shouts muzzling the room once more. “Now, as Trailblazers you are ineligible to participate in said hunt, however, today we will be making our very own hatchets with-“
“Why can’t we participate?” Jaxon interrupts.
“Well. And your name is?” Chuck inquires approaching Jaxon’s table.
“Jaxon, sir. Jaxon Reid,” he proudly returns.
“You see Jaxon. The Hatchet Hunt has been an annual tradition for the Camp Kestrel Youth long before even myself stepped onto these sacred grounds. A monumental search for a hatchet, nay, an artifact, of historical and cultural significance. Only a handful of Explorers and Commanders participate each summer. Trailblazers must earn their right to become a future runner or decipherer through experience, determination, and perseverance,” Chuck elaborates.
Captivated, most of the boys sit patiently daydreaming of becoming the next runner or decipherer. Jaxon sits staring back at Chuck seemingly unmoved. As Chuck continues to explain the woodworking project, Jaxon turns to Harrison.
“Is this hatchet thing real?” Jaxon asks.
“Of course it’s real, it’s just that no one has ever found it,” Harrison whispers.
“Well then, how do we get it?” Jaxon eagerly responds.
“Dude, we can’t. The clues were written forever ago and the last person who thought they solved it went missing,” Harrison explains. “My dad was in his bunk his third summer. The guy was the first Explorer to ever be a decipherer. During the hunt, decipherers aren’t allowed to leave the dining hall. They must give the information gathered to their runner who searches through camp under the first waning crescent moon of the sixth month wielding only their wits and a flashlight,” he expands.
“Okay, if he didn’t leave how did he go missing?”
“That’s the thing. He never told his runner that he solved the clues during the hunt. The next morning, he told a few of his bunkmates and they didn’t believe him. Why not tell your runner? The next night, he left. He wanted to find the hatchet for himself. Awaking in the middle of the night, the original Elder cabin was engulfed in flames. The fire destroyed about half of the cabin before they could put it out,” Harrison describes.
“And…did he find the hatchet?” Jaxon leans in.
“No one knows. He was never seen again,” Harrison concludes.
To be continued…
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