In Ghostly Campfire Stories of Western Canada, Barbara Smith combines truth, legend, and a healthy dose of suspense! Smith weaves together over thirty bone-chilling tales perfectly suited for reading aloud on family camping trips or quiet nights at home.
The whole Campfire Stories series is appropriate for readers aged eight to eighty-eight, and includes helpful tips on how to tell a great story.
If you enjoy the tale, then be sure to sign up for our newsletter before October 31 for a chance to win this book and discover more ghostly tales to thrill and chill! (All the giveaway rules & regulations are at the bottom of this page.)
The Graveyard of the Pacific
prologue Sailors are a superstitious lot. They’ll tell you that it’s bad luck to start a voyage on a Friday and that changing the name of a ship will bring ill fortune, but the most feared of all omens is seeing a phantom ship—the image of a vessel still plying the world’s waterways years, even centuries, after it has sunk. Unfortunately, sightings of phantom ships are frequent enough that there is even a name for them. Such a vessel is called a Flying Dutchman, in honour of the first recorded phantom ship. That ship was sailing around the Horn of Africa, whereas the ship in this story came to its demise just off the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Troy and Mark had been friends for years. Both were athletes and loved sports, but other than that, their interests were as different as could be. Through high school, Troy had excelled in everything to do with science, while Mark had an easy time learning languages. After they graduated, they spent their gap year working side by side at a store in Winnipeg’s North End. Come September, though, their easy togetherness would end because they were going off to universities on nearly opposite sides of Canada.
“Let’s do something mind-boggling before we leave for school,” Troy suggested one afternoon in early August.
“Like what?” Mark asked.
“Well, we’re both in good shape, so why not try hiking the West Coast Trail? It’s on the west side of Vancouver Island.”
Mark glared at Troy. “I know where it is, man, but are you crazy? I’ve heard that hike’s insane.”
“Exactly. That’s why we should do it,” Troy countered, offering his friend a fist bump.
And so it was that a few weeks later, the two young men packed up every bit of hiking gear they owned and flew to Victoria, British Columbia’s capital, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. From there they made their way west to the town of Port Renfrew to start their adventure.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this!” Troy could barely contain his enthusiasm as they started out the next morning.
Mark nodded, mutely wondering how he had been talked into doing this hike. Once he saw the rugged scenery and amazing views from the trail, though, he was sold. By the time they made camp at the end of the first day, they were exhausted but exhilarated.
“Hey, I know an old ghost story from around here,” Mark said.
Troy snorted sarcastically.
“Yeah, really. There’s a pub near Port Renfrew that’s supposed to be haunted by the ghost of the original owner. Do you want to hear the story? It’s pretty creepy.”
The only reply to Mark’s question was the sound of snoring from the sleeping bag next to his, so he settled in for the night too. Tomorrow would be another long day of strenuous hiking.
By day three of the hike, the two young men were thoroughly fatigued and lingered at the camp they’d made, but the following day, completely revived, they were off again, full of enthusiasm and energy for the last days of their adventure.
It was twilight on the sixth day as they approached the northernmost point of the trail. They agreed that the trip had indeed been a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
“Pachena Point’s just up ahead. Want to camp here for the last night?” Troy asked.
“It’s only another few kilometres to Bamfield. We could spend the night in a comfortable hotel there instead.”
“What? And miss one more night under the stars? I think not,” Troy said. “Besides, you’ve never told me that ghost story you were talking about.”
“New rules. I’m not going to tell the ghost story till we get to sleep in proper beds. And just for the record, there aren’t any stars out tonight. It’s totally cloudy.”
“You sound like an old lady,” Troy said teasingly before rolling over and going to sleep.
Mark tried to do the same, but he couldn’t relax. His mind was racing, he was restless, and he had an uncomfortable feeling that something was just not quite right. “Maybe I’m more tired than I thought,” he muttered to himself under his breath.
He sat up and looked out across the darkening sky and the calm water below. He had to admit that the hike had been everything Troy promised. Canada’s western coastline was definitely a sight to behold. Better breathe this all in before we head back to the prairies, he thought. Too bad it’s overcast tonight, but the air is fabulous. It even has that electrically charged tang to it, like there’s going to be a thunderstorm.
Just as Mark was about to lie down again, he noticed a small bright spot on the horizon. He looked again. A patch of light hovered out there just above the horizon. Was it mist? It must be mist—but a bright, white mist. He’d never seen anything like it before. As he watched, the cloud of mist thickened and began to glow, and there was something inside the mist. A moment later, the cloud brightened even more, and Mark could clearly make out a shape inside. It was an old-fashioned ship that appeared to be battling heavy winds and enormous waves.
“What the . . . ?”
“Mark reached down to shake Troy awake but then thought better of it. What if I’m so tired that I’m seeing things? He’ll never let me live it down. This can’t really be happening. Must be my imagination.
But the ship was really there: an old-fashioned ship battling strong winds and enormous waves, all encompassed in a brilliant white cloud of mist. The vision was so clear that Mark could see people clambering up the ship’s rigging to get as far above the deadly waves as they could. There were women clutching children, hanging on for their lives. They seemed to be screaming in fear, but no sounds escaped from the cloud. The details of the scene were distinct enough that he could make out the name printed on the ship’s bow: Valencia.
Mark’s mind raced. This can’t really be happening. Am I asleep? Is this all a dream? He shook his head and pinched his arm as he watched the silent tableau play out before his eyes. Wind and rain battered the beleaguered ship, and waves swamped the deck. Men working along both the port and starboard sides of the vessel fought to launch lifeboats as people struggled across the lurching deck toward the small boats, their only hope of survival.
A huge wave slammed across the ship’s bow. Mark’s heart pounded in his chest. That must have washed people overboard. At least the passengers in the lifeboats will be safe.
But they weren’t. Horrified, Mark watched as the first two lifeboats flipped over as they were being lowered, throwing every soul to a dreadful death. A third lifeboat made it to the surface of the churning water before capsizing. Mark felt sick. People are drowning by the dozens. Please let me be dreaming. I can’t watch this much longer!
Then, slowly, the bright white mist and the ghastly vision enshrouded within it began to break apart into mere flickers of light before fading away. Within seconds, there was no longer a cloud of mist and certainly no sinking ship with passengers fleeing.
It must’ve been a dream, Mark told himself again and lay down with his sleeping bag pulled over his head. The next thing he knew, Troy was shaking him awake. Mark felt terrible, as if he had the worst case of flu ever. And that dream—that was no mere dream. That was a nightmare! There was no way he was going to tell Troy. They only had a few more kilometres to hike, and they would have accomplished their goal of hiking the West Coast Trail. Just in time, before this trail drives me completely crazy, Mark thought.
The two friends broke camp while munching on granola bars for breakfast. They helped each other hoist their backpacks into place and headed toward the last section of the trail. Mark lagged behind Troy because he kept looking back at the sea where he’d seen—or thought he’d seen—the strange drama playing out before him.
“Keep up!” Troy called back.
Mark took one last look out over the water. There was nothing unusual, not so much as a sign that there ever had been anything unusual, certainly not a foundering ship in a cloud of bright white mist. I guess I’ll never know exactly what it was I saw last night, he thought, turning back to the trail. He drew in a couple of deep breaths to clear his head. There was that electrified tang in the air again. Could it just be the smell of the sea, he wondered before turning to follow Troy on the path.
Mark had only taken a few steps when he heard a rustling in the grass beside the trail. A snake? Mark hated snakes. He quickened his step, but the rustling kept pace with him. Then he saw the tops of the bushes at the side of the path move. This was no snake. It was a person: a wet and dishevelled-looking man gestured at Mark to come to him. The man’s body shimmered as if it was made of billions of tiny, bright specks of white. His voice cracked like an old radio report as he spoke. “Wait! Don’t walk away from me. I need help. Our ship was tossed against the reef in the storm.”
Mark was too startled to move. The air was sharp and unnaturally chilly. This guy has to be from that ship I saw last night. But it wasn’t real. It couldn’t have been. It was a mirage, and so is he.
The cracking voice spoke again. “You must go for help. A few of us made it to shore, but the waves were so bad that most of those poor devils were washed back into the sea, God rest their souls. I might be the only one alive, but I’ve got to get help in case there are others.”
I’ve lost it completely, Mark thought as he gulped in as much air as his fear-filled body would allow. I’m just going to keep walking till I catch up with Troy. If this guy’s real, then he can follow me. If he’s not real, I’ll get my head examined as soon as I get home.
The apparition kept talking. “My friend went overboard. He was the one who talked me into signing on with that boat in the first place. We hadn’t worked for weeks. We were staying at the Valencia Street Hotel in San Francisco. He said this ship would bring us luck because she was called the Valencia, like the hotel.”
Mark stumbled forward. “Guess your friend was dead wrong, eh?” he said, wondering if he was talking to himself. But there was no answer. He looked around. The trail was empty. The man had simply vanished. No one was there. The biting, acrid scent in the air was gone. Mark hurried to catch up to Troy. He would be so glad when this trip was over.
When they reached Bamfield, the relief was almost too much. Mark had no energy left at all. They found a place to get a hot meal, and he let Troy do most of the talking. The restaurant was busy, so they had to ask to share a table with a fellow wearing a Parks Canada uniform.
“Sure, you can join me,” the man said. “You two look like you survived the West Coast Trail.”
“We did indeed,” said Troy.
Mark took a sip of coffee. “You know this area well then, do you?”
“As well as anyone, I guess.”
“Do you know if there were ever any shipwrecks off Pachena Point?”
“Shipwrecks? Yes, absolutely. The part of the trail you just hiked used to be called the Dominion Lifesaving Trail. It was put in way back in 1907 so shipwreck survivors could get to help. It must’ve been some job laying out that first path in the wilderness, but it had to be done.”
“Well, the final straw was the wreck of the Valencia. She ran aground in January 1906. Nearly 150 people drowned; there were very few survivors. It’s still considered the worst shipwreck on the West Coast in terms of lives lost. Those waters aren’t called the graveyard of the Pacific for nothing, you know.”
By now, Mark’s hands were shaking so badly that he could barely get his coffee cup to his mouth.
“They say that the Valencia’s a phantom ship now, a Flying Dutchman, that her image is still seen just off Pachena Point, losing her battle against the sea. I’ve never seen her myself, but I’ve heard the tales about her.”
“Like what?” Mark asked, his voice coming out much higher-pitched than usual.”
“An old-timer around here used to talk about the day he found a cave right at the water’s edge. It was low tide, or he wouldn’t have noticed it at all. He said if the tide had been any higher, the cave would’ve been blocked by a boulder. Anyway, this guy claimed that he rowed his dinghy into the cave. Didn’t spend too much time inside, though, because the first thing he saw was an old lifeboat floating there, with eight skeletons in it.”
The man and his story had even caught Troy’s attention by now. “But how’s that connected with the Valencia?” he asked.
“The name was right there on the bow of the lifeboat: Valencia.”
Mark leapt to his feet, jostling the table. “I need some air,” he said and rushed from the restaurant.”
Troy joined him a moment later. “Hey, buddy, what’s wrong?” “Nothing,” Mark mumbled.
“Okay. So, how ’bout telling me that ghost story while we’re waiting for the bus back to the airport.”
“It’s in a book I have at home. I’ll lend it to you. No, I’ll do better than that. I’ll give it to you. I don’t ever want it back,” Mark told his friend emphatically.
“Well, in the meantime, buck up, my fellow camper! We did it. We hiked the West Coast Trail. Definitely the trip of a lifetime, eh?”
“You can say that again.”
Mark never did tell Troy about the phantom ship or the strange man he had seen on the path, but he would certainly have a story to tell his grandchildren—that is, if his heart ever slowed to its normal beat so he could live long enough to have grandchildren!
EPILOGUE The Valencia Street Hotel, where the two men had been staying, collapsed in the great San Francisco earthquake in April 1906, four months to the day after the Valencia sank. It would seem that those two friends who signed on with that doomed ship were destined to die that year in a structure—either a ship or a building—named Valencia.
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