Pioneers in the Dark

What Became of Them?

By Marcia McGreevy Lewis

Little things made us feel the shadowy presence of our predecessors at the cabin. They left behind chipped dishware, knife handles made from deer horns, and mustache cups as drinking mugs. We pictured swarthy people with dense facial hair. The stereoscope they left fascinated us. We gazed through the lenses at side-by-side pictures that morphed into a 3D image. Elegant ladies in bustled gowns and gentlemen who drove Model Ts appeared before our eyes.

They also handed down larger legacies, like the weathered black leather couch with its clumpy horsehair stuffing and river of cracks. A foot-pedaled grinding wheel for sharpening knives and axes led us to imagine the former owners as swashbuckling pirates posturing with their swords or perhaps backwoodsmen hoisting their hatchets. The chamber pots they left received lots of use since the outhouse was at the end of a cold, dark walk in the moonlight.

Wind whistled through the cracks in the logs like an apparition screaming to get in. We often heard scampering footsteps softer than those of the pack rats that ruled the attic, which made us conclude they were ethereal. The nocturnal smells of skunk spray tormented us. We assumed the skunks were aiming their odiferous weapons at the apparitions every night when they roamed. Every day we wondered what spectral phenomenon would grab us and carry us away.

The former owners of our cabin had long since abandoned it. It was their choice, we had nothing to do with it, but they seemed to be haunting us. What did they want? Did they have unfinished business? We had to acknowledge their existence, because upon their mysterious disappearance they had left behind the detritus of their lives.

We were endlessly curious about them. My siblings and I made up wild stories that both petrified and intrigued us. Had they left because of some trauma? Did they all get sick and die right there in the cabin? Were bodies buried beneath the floorboards? Why did they leave everything behind? Did they blame us for having displaced them? Were they angry enough at us that they sent the spiders that spun webs in our suitcases and the bugs that bit our ears while we slept? When we smelled the gag-inducing skunk stink at night, we were certain our predecessors were just outside the door, hunting us down, making us pay for taking over their lives.

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Forest Service Boat at Priest Lake. USFS.
The Leonard Store at Coolin. P. Cox.
The author's family cabin at the lake. Richard McGreevy.
Sunset at Priest Lake. Chandra Neils, USFS.
An island in Priest Lake, circa 1920. Water Archives.


This was in the 1940s and 1950s, when I was a kid who loved to roast marshmallows around a fire, waterski, and sunbathe slathered in sunscreen. Priest Lake was the perfect place for all of it. As we trudged up the path at the beginning of each summer, the fragrance of pine trees wafted to greet us and our swings called to us from the front porch. Set among tall trees, the log cabin was usually damp and dark. We pulled the string latch, which surprised the mice, whose droppings we found everywhere. It took days to clean them up and to air out the mustiness. The cabin had one main room, a massive river rock fireplace, and a kitchen. The sleeping loft had a door that we left closed to keep the main room warm when we had a fire.

Our refrigeration was an ice box into which we manhandled, with immense tongs, mammoth blocks of ice. We loaded those blocks into our boat at the now-gone Outlet Resort before we crossed the lake to our otherwise inaccessible cabin. There was no indoor plumbing, so we brushed our teeth at the hand pump and bathed in the lake, but the wood-burning stove was our greatest challenge. Only on the rare occasion when my mom cooked a meal that was less than charbroiled could we digest (or almost digest) it.

Fortunately, my dad cooked breakfast most mornings. He’d open the loft door and wake us with, “Up and at ‘em.” No sleeping in at the lake—it was pull up to the table for either hotcakes or hash browns with trout caught the day before. When huckleberries were ripe in the late summer, we harvested the pin prick-sized berries, regardless of rain, bee strings, or sunburn, because Mom made huckleberry pie.

After breakfast we dumped coffee grounds in the angleworm patch to attract them for the next day’s fishing and then set to our jobs: rolling logs down the hill to the chopping block, pulling weeds in the badminton court, or depositing powdered lye in the bright-orange “Rose Room” outhouse, which smelled like anything but a rose. We hand-washed the laundry, peeled vegetables for dinner, or chopped and stacked wood. 

Endless hours later, it was time for water sports: swimming or slalom skiing on the lake. We kids became adept at taking off from the dock on one ski, which allowed us to cross back and forth over each other’s wake. Other favorite things were rifle practice, movies at a resort site on the lake, and devouring s’mores around an outdoor fire, when smoke in our eyes was a minor annoyance compared to the chocolate melting over squishy marshmallows and graham crackers.

A dirt road that paralleled Priest River took us to Outlet Resort. Our cabin was located right where the lake emptied into the river, so we delighted in floating our rowboat downriver. When we reached the deserted Diamond Match Company plant, we rowed back against the current. That toughened our muscles for logrolling.

Usually once each summer we’d make an all-day excursion to Upper Priest Lake, stopping along the way to visit friends who lived near Linger Longer Lodge, which was sold for private use a few years ago. We’d slip through the narrow passage between the upper and lower lakes and find a spot on the bank to enjoy a picnic. These pristine surroundings brought home why we had chosen this twenty-mile-long lake dotted with islands. It wasn’t just the trout and sunbathing.

Sometimes for a “cosmopolitan” outing we’d boat to Coolin Resort [see “Coolin—Spotlight,” IDAHO magazine, August 2019]. It was just past the rock slide and had a grocery store and a small restaurant. Outlook Resort was a trailer park in comparison, but we loved Outlook because it had candy bars, Idaho Spuds™ among them.

Nights were cozy around a crackling fire in the cabin. After a day of rowing down the river, pushing each other on swings, and playing badminton, we settled into games of canasta, checkers, and gin rummy. Often a game of quadruple solitaire popped up, with raucous opponents slapping down cards hard enough to rouse dead bodies. Then we’d shiver our way to the loft in hopes that mountains of weighty quilts would cut the chill. They never did. Other disturbances included when my dad used the chamber pot at full volume or when he shot rats in the attic. In the latter case, my eldest sister held the flashlight while Dad fired. Once, days after he had been shooting at rats, a body crawling with maggots fell through the ceiling onto the table during dinner.

When I was about eight, as I sat in the two-hole Rose Room, my worst fears were realized. I had waited until the last minute to make the scary trip because the outhouse was a perfect place for a wraith to catch me. Dusk, the haunting hour, had settled in. When I could wait no longer, I sprinted outside, streaked to the outhouse, and latched the door. The lock reassured me that no apparition could penetrate my stronghold. There were only the flies and me and the odiferous lye, a smell that seemed to be shrouding at least ten dead bodies.

Then I heard whistling. I prayed that it was the wind but what followed was crunching. That could be porcupines but then there was creaking. I held my breath and beseeched the gods that the noise was the ever-present black bears rather than ghosts. I’d never prayed for bears before but I was desperate. It didn’t work.

Now there was the definite sound of scratching. I pulled up my pants, rolled up the Sears and Roebuck catalog for a weapon and climbed stealthily on top of the toilet seat. I hesitated to show my eyes through the air vent that circled the ceiling, and I was barely tall enough to stretch that far, but I needed to eyeball the enemy. I stretched, gripped my cudgel, and readied myself to bludgeon the ghoul—or at least stare it down. I saw nothing, so I silently rotated 360 degrees, not once, not twice, but three times, before I ascertained there was no specter.

The next step was the hardest. I needed to “screw my courage to the sticking-place” in Lady Macbeth’s words, which applied in spirit although I wasn’t into quoting Shakespeare at age eight. I jumped from the seat, jammed open the door, and raced to the cabin at Mach speed.

Once again I had outwitted the phantoms but they kept at us, and we kept evading them. They never gave up, seducing us by being silent for a spell, and then beguiling us with warming breezes through windows that somehow mysteriously popped open. Our predecessors ensured that we never forgot them, and we never did. They kept us on edge, ever-watchful, always wishing they would reveal themselves so we could talk to them.

I’d tell them that they didn’t need to scare us into listening. I wanted to ask them who planted the apple trees, if they caught lots of trout, and who left the shipping crate-sized salt lick for the deer. I would have welcomed them if they could have found a more appropriate way to communicate.

Closing up the cabin at the end of each summer seemed to take days. We washed the floors, removed food from the screened window box, and sealed up the place tightly. That’s what the mice and spiders preferred. They settled right back in.

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Marcia McGreevy Lewis

About Marcia McGreevy Lewis

Marcia McGreevy Lewis lives in Seattle and is a retired feature writer for a Washington newspaper. Her writing has appeared in F3LL Magazine, Life in Lit, GO World, ROVA, Third Act, Today’s Christian Living, and in the book Chicken Soup for the Soul. Contact her on Facebook, on Instagram, marcialewis25, on Twitter, @McGreevyLewis and at Linkedin: marcia-lewis.

One Response to Pioneers in the Dark

  1. Sandra Carlson - Reply


    Just returned from our annual Priest Lake stay with family and friends; now 68 years for me. Fun to visualize every place and experience you passionately describe.

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