When I was 13, my uncle invited me on a week long camping trip along Wisconsin’s Kickapoo River. Our only means of transportation would be our legs and my uncle’s canoe, so we packed only the bare necessities.
It was a beautiful morning in central Wisconsin. I was in the front of the canoe; my uncle was in the rear. We were in a difficult section of the river with downed trees and shallow water full of jagged rocks, so it was my responsibility to pay close attention and direct my uncle away from obstacles.
“Uncle Ross!” I screamed. “Look, is that someone’s head?”
I was petrified, but the expression on my uncle’s face suggested he had seen this sort of thing a million times.
“You’re letting your mind play tricks on you. Let’s take a look,” he said
We paddled toward the object bobbing helplessly 20 yards downstream. We were within a few feet of it when my uncle froze, face white as a ghost. There was a severed head face down in the water. It appeared to be of an older, balding male with a “Bobo the clown” comb-over haircut.
“Don’t touch anything!” my uncle demanded. “I need to alert authorities immediately. I’m going to find the nearest road, and get a ride into town to use a phone. You need to stay here to watch our things.”
“What in the cornbread hell are you talking about? I’m not gonna sit here by this head waiting for its owner to wash up on shore. What if the murderer comes back and finds me? Then there will be two heads bobbing in the river,” I said, now crying.
“Brandon, don’t be silly. This thing has been here for a long time. If somebody wanted it back, they would have gotten it by now. This is not an option; we cannot leave our things here for somebody to steal, and I need to alert the authorities. Sit here on shore; I’ll be back as soon as I can make the call.”
Twenty years ago, we didn’t have cell phones. A quick phone call meant hiking two miles to the nearest country road, waiting for a car, riding into town, and locating a phone. I sat alone (other than the dead guy) in the middle of the woods thinking that every sound I heard was sure to be my last, for roughly four hours-the longest four hours of my life. Finally, in the distance, I see an entourage of vehicles with flashing lights and sirens. This is the only time in my life I’ve been relieved to see what appeared to be every cop in Wisconsin heading in my direction. And not just cops, there were media, fire fighters, the coroner and, like some Marvel comics superhero, my uncle Ross leading the pack.
The media set up, the coroner prepared the body bag, and the detectives readied their cameras. A raft was inflated and four men, including my uncle, piled in to retrieve the head. The scene would have done even the best crime show writers proud. The detectives began taking pictures of the face-down head and the surrounding area, talking to the group on shore about every detail. Everything onshore and in the river that seemed out of place was photographed and documented. Once satisfied that all the critical information was gathered, the coroner reached into the water and pulled out…a duck.
The severed head turned out to be nothing more than a dead duck. It had obviously been there awhile, bloated and perfectly round. Its flesh was completely pale, and most of its feathers were gone, all except those of a perfectly formed ring of soft down that possessed an uncanny resemblance to a balding man’s hairline. It was the scariest and funniest day of my life. The experience taught me that no matter how well you think you know the great outdoors, it can and will always surprise you, which is exactly what keeps me coming back for more.
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