By Fred Phillips
My homeplace is St. Pauls, North Carolina, a small town in northern Robeson County, that was once a booming mill town with a history reaching back to 1799 when the first stables and a Presbyterian church were built by Scots-Irish settlers. The town is surrounded by many creeks and smaller swamps which drain into the Big Marsh swamp just on the outskirts of town. The Big Marsh swamp was once a necessity of life for the town folk. The dark waters of the swamp were dammed to provide power to grind grains, and around the turn of the 20th century, the first lights of the town were powered by the waters of the swamp.
Folks, over the years, have hunted and fished these waters to provide for their families and growing up up as an avid outdoorsman, I was no exception to this rule. I was frequently told stories, by those who had retired from braving the waters and deep mud, of the strange happenings of the Big Marsh swamp.
Many of these stories I shrugged off as old men telling tales fueled by coffee and Hardee’s biscuits. One of the frequent topics included strange happenings and ghostly sightings that occurred around “sand ridges” in the swamp. Due to their close proximity to water and the abundance of game, these ridges in the swamp have often long been inhabited by Native Americans and settlers alike. Even today the evidence of this can still be found in the form of arrowheads and other artifacts that sometimes turn up after a heavy rain.
On one of these ridges is where my friend and his wife live. My friend’s wife’s family has lived on this same ridge for over 100 years and where the original farmhouse stood, their house now stands. At the back of their property is the Big Marsh swamp, to the left a smaller branch comes off into a beaver swamp that contains the most beautiful collection of wood ducks you have ever seen in your life. (I was lucky enough to have permission to hunt this spot.) Now as a 6’3 280-pound law enforcement officer, there’s not a whole lot that makes the hair on my neck stand up, but with its dense cattails and twisted sweet gum trees, this swamp resembles something from the mind of Tim Burton more than the picturesque waters I normally hunt. But still the promise of a stringer of wood ducks often pulled me in its dark waters. Then the happenings began.
The first incident began after two seasons of hunting this spot. It had been a warm week in early November 2013. A cold front moved in overnight from the north dropping the temperature from a balmy 70 degrees to a crisp 29 degrees. I arrived alone, as I frequently hunt, I put my decoy bag on, and prepared my mind for the 100-yard wade through the soupy quagmire of fallen trees and waist deep mud. But as I eased down the trail and stood on the bank, I realized today would be different. The cold front had produced a fog over the top of the water that would’ve made Jack the Ripper proud. Standing there staring over the foggy soup I, for the first time, second guessed my desire to put meat in the freezer. But the sound of all the fresh migratory wood ducks staged in the background soon talked me into taking my first step into the waters
The first 25 feet were easy, as the water was open with no fallen trees, the water was above my waist, but the bottom was solid, which increased my confidence in how this morning was going to go. The fog was so thick the headlamp I sometimes use was useless, so I decided to leave it off. I finally reached what I dreaded, a collection of logs in nearly chest deep water that I had to push through. As I made my way through the logs as quietly as possible, I joked to myself as to how I almost knew each log by touch as I pushed them out of my way. As my hand came to fall on a log that had come to rest against my chest, I realized something was wrong, this log had fur.
Now as a sometime trapper, I know the feel of a beaver pelt, and this was not a beaver. The fur was soft and course against my hand, the creature being the size of a large German Shepard. Almost instantly the water in front of me exploded and an unearthly scream much like a child in pain was cut loose by this creature. My immediate reaction was to jump back, and I began swinging my trusty Browning Gold striking this creature with the stock multiple times as I could feel its claws tearing against my waders. As previously stated, I am not built for speed, but Hussain Bolt would have been proud as to the sprint I made for a nearby mud flat. As I crawled onto the flat on my hands and knees, I could hear the creature as it splashed its way to the nearby beaver dam. As I laid there trying to catch my breath, I prayed to God that the sun would hurry and I contemplated making a pact with God that if I could make it out, that I would never return. But my desire to stack wood ducks was too strong to allow this. This was the first happening…