Ellie Searl Stories



LOVE: Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place. ~Zora Neale Hurston

We shoved a five-dollar bill into the padlocked honor box and drove into the camping area. Pine needles, damp from a downpour the day before, blanketed the entrance. The weather had turned dry, clear, and warm - a few rays of sunlight managed to sneak through the slatted openings of dense forest walls and ceiling of intertwined branches. Aside from my husband Ed, our thirteen-year-old daughter Katie, and I, there wasn't another soul under the thick stands of evergreens and hardwoods.

Why an eerily deserted campground? In the middle of summer? In this prime location overlooking the spectacular shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula? Maybe we were early and throngs of campers would crowd the grounds in a couple of hours. We'd find out soon enough - the hard way.

National campgrounds were usually jammed to the hilt on lovely Friday summer afternoons. Everybody and his sister would be pitching tents, unrolling sleeping bags, gathering kindling, or pumping gas into a Coleman stove. And those who couldn't do without creature comfort would be arranging webbed orange and white lawn chairs in front of RV-generated TVs, blaring battery-operated radios, letting their kids zoom motorized Big Wheels all over the place, and ruing they hadn't found a full-service campsite instead of one with measly water pumps and outhouses.

I loved camping - real camping - and the worst part of it was the commotion created by others who didn't possess a love of nature nor exhibit a true respect for the Forest Spirits, as I liked to call them. Real camping, to me, meant not going to an establishment with such luxuries as electricity, showers, flush toilets, snack bars, and laundry facilities, and especially not KOA Kampgrounds with their Kamper Kabins.

Real camping meant 'roughing it' - giving up those everyday comforts of city living and making do with as little as possible and still eating well. Real camping meant filling a bucket with river water for washing, or scraping pots and pans with sand to get off the sticky stuff, or peeing in the woods. Real camping meant wrapping potatoes in aluminum foil and burying them for at least an hour under red-hot fire-pit coals, or being lulled by rain drumming against the canvas and moving your sleeping bag away from the leak in the tent, or not having a bath for a week.

Real camping meant loving the noises of the forest, lakes, and streams - wind rushing through evergreens and knocking pinecones to the ground, waves rippling against the shore, water spilling over boulders. And the creatures – the hoot of an owl, the call of a loon, the human-like breathing of a raccoon, the stitch of a cricket, - and yes, even the buzz of a mosquito. Real camping was a way to pay tribute to that part of nature that hadn't been restructured by human hands - hadn't been excavated or stripped bare or fashioned into concrete.

Real camping meant a space for a tent, logs for a fire, clean water supply, coffee, food, and, ok, an outhouse. That's it.

Katie fell in love with camping - real camping - when she was a little tyke. She loved cooking outdoors and heating water for washing dishes. She loved 'baking' muffins in a wrought iron frying pan on top of the stove and tossing muffin crumbs to the crows. She loved poking the campfire at night and watching the sparks fly off to join the Milky Way. She loved to empty the cooler when the ice melted and throw away soggy bread and rewrap the cheese. She loved to shake the pine needles from our sleeping bags and hang them on the line to air out.

The August she turned ten, we camped from St. Ignace, Michigan, to Jasper, British Columbia, celebrating her birthday in Banff National Park with s'mores made from stale graham crackers, toasted leathery marshmallows, and non-melting chocolate bars that had outlived their expiration dates, all purchased from a mountain store that looked as though it hadn't seen a customer for months. But Katie didn't care. She loved that she would be climbing atop Athabasca Glacier the next day and that the day before she had climbed two miles up to the mountainside teahouse overlooking Lake Louise.

I was glad no one was around. This tranquil place was ours, and, for the moment, we were private guests in nature's living room, soaking in the ambiance of nature's hospitality - quiet, peaceful, serene.
We had our pick of campsites, so we chose the one with the best view of the lake. Delighted by this magnificent spot and giddy with excitement at seeing Lake Superior for the first time, we ran across our campsite and stood on a grassy ledge that overlooked the lake. Directly below us, and to either side, was a vast steep, white, expanse of a sand dune that fell straight down about 100 feet before it leveled off and merged with the rocky beach. The sand cliff continued in both directions until it faded into the distance up and down the lake. Gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.

Katie kicked off her shoes, stretched out her arms, and with a whoop to the gods of beauty, leaped from the ledge onto the top of the dune, skiing down into the hill on the backs of her heels. Sand swirled behind her as she bounding down the bank. Ed and I followed, throwing off our shoes, leaping onto the dune, echoing Katie's whoops as we sank our feet into the soft, sun bleached sand.

We were halfway down the dune when we saw them. Black flies. Hundreds. Thousands. Pouring out of the sand hill - showers of black flies erupting from under each grain of sand we overturned, as though they had been lying in wait for unsuspecting souls to open the gates of sand prison. The flies swarmed around us, slamming against our bodies, attaching themselves to our arms and our legs and stomachs and ears and necks and hair.

The onslaught stunned me to a standstill. In just a few seconds, my clothes and exposed skin looked like chain mail encrusted with live, black, twitching fringe. I stopped just long enough to study the damn pests after I squashed one when it bit my wrist. It looked like a regular house fly. Nothing particularly unusual about it, except for a blood-filled tail end, which was oozing its red payload across the back of my arm.

"They're out for blood!" I shouted. The buzzing blitz and the stinging got me moving again.

"Oh! God!" Katie screamed. "Oh! God! They're BITING!"

The flies were relentless. And they were ravenous. We flailed. We slapped. We twitched, ducked, swerved, lurched, and jumped around. All to no avail. They outnumbered us. Every fly on every speck of exposed skin bit us - demons dizzy with their human feast. They bit through our shorts and through our tee shirts and into our scalps and behind our ears.

"Get back to the car! NOW!" Ed yelled.

We tried to race back up the steep dune, but it was impossible to move fast and still gain a solid foothold in the loose sand. Like a strong undertow, every step up slid back down, landing below where it started. And the flies kept coming. I got on all fours and tried to claw my way to the top. I could only inch up a short section at a time. My skin burned with the pain of biting. Blood dripped off my chin to my arm.

"I can't climb up the hill! They're eating me alive!"

"Get to the water!” Ed yelled. “GO - into the water! Out run them. Move fast!"

We charged down the hill, sliding most of the way, and ran onto the beach. The rough stones dug into our bare feet.

Screaming with shock, panic, terror, helplessness, confusion and pain, we stumbled over the sharp rocks and into the icy water, each of us covered with miniature black winged terrorists' intent on sucking every ounce of blood from our capillaries. "Ouch!" . . . "Damn!" . . . "Shit!" . . . "Get OFF!" . . . "Oh, God - Oh God - Oh God!" . . . "What the hell?" . . . "STOP!" . . . My feet are freezing!" . . . "Jesus Christ it's cold" . . . "Fuck this!"

We thought the flies would give up once we hit the cold water. But they followed us. The deeper we went, the deeper they went. Up to our knees. Up to our waists. Up to our chests. They crawled higher and higher on our bodies, biting anything not submerged. And those that didn't stay on our bodies swam around us in circles, churning the water, creating black wake-like undulations, all the while eying us, like itsy bitsy sharks toying with their prey before taking off an arm or a leg or a head. They swam and danced in the waves, taunting us, knowing they had us surrounded - captured. We had nowhere to go - except deeper into the water, and deeper, until we drowned, and then their feeding frenzy could continue without interruption.

"Dad! I can't stand it!" Katie shrieked. "What'll we do?" Tears and blood merged into a trickle across her cheeks and plopped into the water.

I swear I saw a frenzy of fly excitement as the pink droplets fell onto the predators. They seemed to tread water with their quarter-centimeter legs and wings, their tiny mouths agape, like starving baby birds anxious for supper. They probably even squealed in high-pitched exhilaration - a squeal that only evil creatures with supernatural auditory capabilities could hear - at the meal provided by three giant, two-legged insect-buffets sent by the Biting Black Fly Gods to nourish the sand dwellers on Fly Feast Day!

Ed tried to stay calm and reassuring. He spoke the obvious, slowly, with confidence. "OK, this isn't working. Let's just go back up the hill to the car. Don't run up. That's what makes the sand slip back. We'll get out of this before you know it." He smiled and slapped a fly off his mouth. "It'll be over soon. I promise."

"Yeah, right. Like I'm going to get to the car any time soon!" I hissed, trying to make someone responsible for this insane predicament. I knew Ed had no way of controlling the horror, but my emotional state wasn't in any condition to think straight, and it felt good to get mad.

Waving our arms and slapping our bodies to stop the biting, we slogged and struggled out of the water to the beach, across the stones, and to the bottom of the steep sand hill.

"Ok, now plant your hands and feet squarely into the sand. Wait an extra second or two before taking another step - so the sand doesn't cave out from under you.” Ed’s advice sounded solid - grounds for hope.

We dug and waited and inched - dug, waited, inched - slowly, steadily, painfully up the sand hill to the overhang - and as we climbed and continued to fight off the vicious beasts, they mocked us, laughed at us, elated they had wrangled themselves and their tiny armor under our shorts and tee shirts and underwear, biting and stinging where we couldn't reach, enjoying our feeble attempts to swipe them away.

When we finally climbed up and over the grassy ledge, we were astonished to see the state of our white sedan. It look like a fly-cloud had burst open, unleashing its contents directly onto our car, covering it with a sinister other-worldly organism - pitch black winged aliens geared up for one last ambush to suck the last bit life left in our exhausted, limp, soggy, sandy, fly-caked bodies.

The Hitchcockian vision shocked us into a temporary stupor. Nobody moved.

"What the hell?" Ed whispered, as though he didn't dare disturb their reverie and cause them to swarm and devour us on the spot. "Get your shoes. We've gotta move. FAST. We need to Get. The. Hell. Out. Of. Here." He paused just long enough for Katie and me to retrieve our stuff. " . . . OK . . . One . . . Two . . ."

On three, we charged the car. Waves of black fly-clouds swirled around us as we opened the doors, flopped onto the seats, and shut ourselves inside, safe from the black barrage. But flies managed to get into the car with us, continuing their reign of terror as we sped out of the campgrounds and onto the main road east. We used everything we could to squash them - rolled up maps, purses, shoes still in our hands, anything. And just when the buzzing settled down and we felt fairly certain we had killed them all, one of us would be bitten on the thigh or on the upper arm, sending us into a fly-search frenzy all over again. It wasn't until we were an hour away from campgrounds that we felt confident we had gotten rid of the menace.

Our bloody bites started swelling and began to itch. We owned a small first aid kit, but there wasn't enough equipment to do triage on our wounds, so Ed pulled into the first drug store we happened upon. We bought cotton balls, peroxide, calamine lotion, Tylenol, benedryl, band-aids, a bunch of candy bars, and a six-pack of Coke. The pharmacist told us about the flies.

"Well, first of all, people from around here don't go out much right after a rain storm, especially to the sandy areas - like the dunes or the lakeshore. That's when those biting flies appear - after a storm, when the weather gets nice and the sun comes out - like today. You must not be from around here. Otherwise, you'd know." He sighed like he was weary of people who didn't understand this part of the world nor prepare for it. "See, they hatch where it's wet, and when the sun comes out and it gets nice and dry, they swarm all over the place. They're tenacious, those flies. They'll find human flesh even if they have to travel practically to the middle of the lake to find it."

He laughed at my surprise.

"Oh, sure, even the fishermen have trouble with them - way out in the middle of the lake. Nothing stops those flies. Except Skin So Soft. Avon. Somebody just recently figured that out. Must have happened by accident. Who'd think? Sorry, don't have any left in the store."

"Avon?" Katie was startled. "Perfume?"

I chuckled. "I wonder what Avon thinks about that. I can just imagine their slogan: "Skin So Soft: Attracts Men, Discourages Flies."

"Where you folks from?" The pharmacist asked.

"Youngstown, Ohio," Ed answered. “We're camping our way back home from Chicago." He paused, "We didn't know about the flies. Are they going to be everywhere now across the Upper Peninsula now?"

"Can't say. Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on where you go. Where you headed next?"

"Up to Whitefish Point where the Edmund Fitzgerald went down."

The pharmacist shook his head and scanned the shelves of prescriptions, as if searching for an answer. He swallowed and shook his head. "Sad story, that one. Lots of people lost family. Lots of 'em - families torn apart. My brother . . . only 23. Lived down in St. Joseph. He was an oiler. Thing broke in half and went down. Just like that."

"What a tragic loss. I'm so sorry. There are disasters . . .," Ed looked at me and smiled. ". . . and then there are disasters."

Perspective - I thought. Katie, Ed, and I might have been knocked silly by flies, but we hadn't been knocked clean off the face of the earth.

The pharmacist took a deep breath. "Can't let the little things get you down," he said through an exhale. "Some things aren't worth fretting over." He rang up our supplies. " About those flies. By the time you hit the road to Whitefish Point, it'll be late, and the flies won't bite anymore. They don't like to bite at night. Probably by tomorrow, they'll just be a few of 'em flittin’ around. Part of country life around here. You get used to 'em."

I smirked and mumbled under my breath that I'd never get used to those goddamned flies. Katie started to laugh and whispered in my ear. I couldn’t make out exactly what she said, but I think it had something to do with roughing it, real camping, and we weren't dead.

At the car, we tended to bites, shook sand off our clothes, cleaned out the car, and scarfed down snacks. Then, feeling and looking stupid and pathetic - wet, dirty, dotted with calamine lotion and band aids - we headed east, bypassing Tahquamenon Falls, a spot we had hoped to see, but fly phobia and chagrin had killed any enthusiasm to enjoy whatever was supposed to be such a great view.

We found Paradise at the crossroads where Route 123 turns south toward Mackinaw Bridge and Whitefish Point Road turns north toward the lighthouse, which, with its deafening foghorn and great beams of light, stood watch as the colossal waves of a November storm tore apart and sank the Edmund Fitzgerald.
We could have driven out of black fly territory and made our way home that night. But we didn't. We decided to stay for a while in Paradise - a picturesque village with a great looking diner and lots of gift shops in the center of town, a mysterious bell tower and Whitefish Point a few miles north, and a charming cluster of cottages a few miles south - Cloud Nine Cabins - each with electricity and plumbing - each with a full kitchen, a bathroom, two bedrooms, a living room, a fireplace, and rustic chairs overlooking Whitefish Bay. Clean, comfortable, dry, beautiful - and safe.

Cloud Nine. That would be the extent of our camping for the time being. In Paradise.

EVS 02/10