For twenty years, Anne and her family have sold and rented snowmobiles to the thousands of visitors who come to Houghton, Michigan to enjoy the winter-time fun. The start of winter was an important event for Anne, and she had spent the summer preparing for it.
Now, however, it was November and Anne was not yet ready. “There were a few trails that weren’t cleared,” Anne tells me. “And the weatherman said a big storm was coming.”
Anne took the ATV out along the northernmost trail. Small trees – downed in late summer windstorms – had to be cleared from the trail before they were buried in snow.
“It was always easier to get them off the trail now,” Anne says, “than wait for a few feet of snow to hide them.”
All afternoon, Anne worked to inspect the trail and clear debris. It was hard work, but Anne loved it. “To me, there was nothing better than being out there in the woods, in the stillness,” Anne recalls. “But after what happened, it’s different now.”
In the late afternoon as the sky was just beginning to darken, Anne was busy with what she hoped would be the last work of the day. “I was dragging a log and huffing and puffing so I didn’t hear it at first,” Anne recalls. “Barking dogs. A lot of barking dogs.”
Anne set the log down and listened. It seemed that the weatherman was a little off in his forecast because Anne could feel the wind begin to pick up. And just below the sound of the wind howling in the distance, the baying of a pack of dogs.
“I thought it was peculiar,” Anne tells me. “There really never is anybody up there at that time of the year.”
Through the nearly-leafless trees, Anne could see the horizon’s darkling line. She knew she had to hurry if she wanted to leave the forest before the light was gone.
“It was time to go,” Anne recalls. “But, of course, my four-wheeler didn’t get the message.”
Anne’s ATV sputtered and smoked as she tried to start it. She cursed and slumped in the seat. The barking was getting louder.
“Whatever it was – a dog pack or some hunters,” Anne remembers, “they were definitely coming my way.”
Anne thought about what she could use to defend herself against a pack of wild dogs and decided that although a tree branch would not do the job, she felt safer with a solid length of pine in her hands.
Anne selected a stick from the trail-side and crouched beside her four-wheeler. She waited quietly, watching the treeline and the thick shadows gathering. She could hear the braying of the dogs and the crunch of small branches as if the darkness creeping toward the sun’s setting was a wave of force washing over the world.
Anne noticed that the air had a sudden sharp chill and she could see her breath in wispy puffs. The wind picked up again, sweeping up fallen leaves and raining them back down to the earth. It started to snow.
“It was getting dark real quick and I could still hear those dogs,” Anne recalls. “I had to get my ATV up and running.”
Anne began to inspect the machine. She didn’t know much about fixing it, but she could look for obvious problems and decide whether they the thing was salvageable or not.
“I was busy looking all over the damn thing and it was dark,” Anne remembers. “So, I didn’t notice that the barking had stopped.”
Anne looked up from the ATV to see an enormous black dog standing in the road.
It looked to be almost as tall as Anne herself. Its pointed ears swiveled forward and its massive shoulders rose and fell with each sharp breath. Its great snout sniffed the air and beady red eyes shone like a fast approaching train.
“I swear those eyes were glowing,” Anne says. “I thought I was dead.”
The massive dog stood very still and Anne thought maybe it was just a hallucination until the dog was joined by five more just like it from the shadow of the trees.
The six black hounds began to growl and snort, their breath a fog that hung in the air, and Anne could smell them and it was the stench of wet cinders.
Anne was held in the hounds’ unearthly gaze and the only thoughts in her head were images of her body torn apart and covered by the slowly falling snow. How long would it take her family to find her?
From the woods there came a terrifying wail and Anne could not tell whether it came from some kind of horn or from the throat of a living thing. The dogs went quiet at the sound and turned toward the treeline, lowering their heads.
As if in reply, a horse and rider appeared between the trees and stepped out upon the trail. At the sight of them, Anne thought she was already dead, or that if she wasn’t, her final moments would be a lot more interesting than the previous forty-odd years.
The horse was black and grey and over-sized, like the dogs. The rider was massive and he sat upon his horse like a king upon a savage throne. He wore a cloak of mismatched hides and furs from animals that Anne couldn’t recognize. On his head was a helmet that looked like the skull of a great elk and curving away from the helmet were two black antlers and around his neck was a cracked yellow hunting horn.
The rider turned toward Anne and the horse trotted slowly up the trail. The rider’s face was hidden deep in shadow but Anne could see two orange lights like dying flames shining from under the bony helmet.
The dogs, tamed in the rider’s presence, began to follow. It seemed to Anne that the rider was watching her but she really did not know whether he had even seen her. As the rider approached, the black spreading antlers were framed by the twilit sky and the snow seemed to follow him in a swirling white aura.
Anne knew that what she was seeing was no earthly sight but a vision torn from the wild fabric of the universe, a manifestation of a still-unconquered power, a divinity of this or some other world.
The horse turned and took the rider into the trees. The dogs followed and the dark and the woods swallowed them all. In her final glimpse of the strange rider, it occurred to Anne that she could not now say whether the cloak and helmet he wore were clothing or the features of some inhuman body.
Anne’s ATV started up when she tried it, just as she suspected it would. She rode home as quickly as she could from fear of the vision she witnessed and the fast-falling snow. “When I think about it now, it kinda warms my heart to know that things like that are out there,” Anne tells me. “But then I have to ask, What else is out there?”