The bare branches shake in the wind, and the clouds trail across a nearly full moon. The nights are growing darker and house windows are alight with jack-o-lanterns.
Halloween is almost here.
The end of October is dedicated to silly costumes, pumpkin carving, hot cider, apple bobbing and paper bags full of candy. It is also a time to celebrate the delicious thrill of a spooky tale -- maybe the one about the slime-covered creature that lives in the lake, or the hairy monster that hides in the trees, or the ghosts that haunt the old buildings in town.
What makes a good scary story? It has to be almost believable, but not quite. It has to tickle down your spine like a cold shiver, but leave you more tickled than truly frightened, and it has to be as much fun to tell again as it is to hear the first time.
The Mat-Su Valley has no shortage of such tales.
The underground caverns and ghostly hauntings of Palmer
Ask people in Palmer for a Halloween story, and more often than not they'll say, "Isn't there something about underground tunnels?"
These fabled passageways, said to link the original Colony buildings in Palmer, have grown to mythic proportions over the years. Some people describe how they are so large cars can be driven through them, and others whisper about satanic ceremonies and sacrifices rumored to be held in their depths.
In 1987 when Maureen Kelly first moved into one of the staff houses built in the Colony days, she hadn't heard any of these rumors. But she did hear voices.
Once or twice while Kelly lived in the old house, she said she could hear people speaking, far away and muffled.
"I heard them in the basement, which was a very creepy place to begin with," Kelly recalled.
She said she couldn't make out any of the words and for a moment she would doubt if she had heard anything at all. She said she didn't ever think they were ghosts, and it didn't make her like her cozy old house any less, but it was a sort of spooky mystery.
Eventually she mentioned the voices to someone in Palmer, and they told her about the underground tunnels that connect the house to several other Colony buildings built in the 1930s. Now, Kelly is fairly certain she knows what happened.
"I'm sure it was high school kids in the tunnels," Kelly said. She said the entrance to the tunnel system had long been walled off in her own house, but other entrances were rumored to still be open at the time and for some years it was considered a great dare for teen-agers to try to access them.
While there has never been any proven evidence of satanic worshipping in the tunnels, nor are they large enough to drive a car through, they do exist.
According to longtime Palmer resident Janet Kincaid, the tunnels are part of a heating system installed during the Colony days. Pipes ran steam from a boiler near the Matanuska Maid creamery and provided heat to several of the nearby buildings, including the staff houses like the one Kelly lived in. The narrow corridors are just barely five-feet tall and were used by maintenance staff to access the heating system and pipes. Contrary to rumors, however, Kincaid said the passageways do not run all the way to the Valley Hotel.
The heating system does, however, extend to another building she owns -- the Colony Inn. During the 1930s, the building served as a dormitory for nurses and teachers and provided a back-up boiler for the system. While Kincaid said she doesn't believe in ghosts, she admits the lower levels of the building below ground where the boiler was located are a little frightening.
And while Kincaid may not believe ghosts roam the halls of her inn, she knows others have a different opinion. School children have often talked about the old dormitory being haunted by spirits, and a group of them were given a real scare several years ago.
Kincaid said she was doing a walk-through of the building after she bought it and was preparing to renovate it and turn it into an inn and restaurant. She and some other adults were inside the building when a group of children passing by on the sidewalk decided to peer inside the window.
"They had their noses pressed against the glass and we looked out at them," Kincaid recalled with a laugh. The children, certain they were seeing spirits of the dead, yelled and ran down the street.
Kincaid said she stuck her head out of the building and called out to them, telling then it was all right, it was just them. She said she even invited them to come and have a look around, but the youngsters turned down the offer.
"Oh, no," they said. "It's haunted. We heard a nurse died in there."
A ghost and a skeleton
Palmer isn't the only town with its share of eerie tales. According to a 1987 Frontiersman article, phantoms have often made their presence known in the old town of Talkeetna as well. One of the more famous ghosts reportedly belongs to Mike Trepke.
"Trepke was an old gold miner who died alone in a cabin by his claim on Birch Creek one rainy September years ago," according to the article. The problems began, according to Talkeetna residents, when they brought the miner's body back to town to be buried. The people dug the grave one day and buried him the next, and because of the constant rain, the grave had filled with a couple of feet of water overnight.
The Talkeetna residents had to stand on the coffin to hold it down in the water and eventually were able to pile enough dirt on it to sink it.
"It sounds a little gross, but it's true," then-Borough Mayor Dorothy Jones said in the 1987 article. "When Mike was buried they had to throw in rocks to hold the casket down while they were giving the service. The way the story goes, Mike doesn't like all that water and keeps looking for a warm, dry place."
The old miner's ghost was further aggrieved, according to the tale, by his daughter's refusal to honor a pact he had made with his wife. The couple was to be buried side by side, but when his wife died in Oregon, the daughter buried her mother there instead. Later, the daughter reportedly sold the land where Trepke was buried. In the early 1980s when a new owner took over the land, he decided to find the miner's grave and relocate it at the town cemetery.
According to the Frontiersman article, the landowner chose Halloween to dig up the miner's bones. One Talkeetna resident recalled how the casket stank and dripped water when they pulled it out of the ground.
The coffin was placed in the landowner's driveway that night, but, according to the tale, it was mysteriously transported to the landowner's kitchen.
"Tony found it sitting on a pair of sawhorses," a Talkeetna resident recalled. "It was covered with candles and was still dripping water." The landowner reportedly "came unglued."
"Ever since, he's claimed there are spooks bedeviling that house," according to the article.
Another Talkeetna ghost might have been stirred into action five years ago when two Mat-Su Borough officials uncovered a frightful scene.
Mat-Su Borough Manager John Duffy and fellow borough employee Steve Cypra were inspecting some borough property near the Talkeetna River when they spotted something in the distance.
"What's that?" Duffy recalled the two men asking each other. They got closer and started removing some of the debris from the area when they were able to make out a skull and other bones.
"It was a skeleton," Duffy said.
Duffy said they contacted the Alaska State Troopers initially, but eventually the borough historian took over the investigation because the skeleton was found to be nearly 100 years old. Based on some beads and containers found with the bones, the skeleton was believed to have been from the early 1900s. It was a gravesite that, because of erosion, had been slowly exposed.
"It gave me the willies," Duffy admitted.
The Loch Mirror Monster
In the murky, green depths of Mirror Lake lurks a monster with the body of a man and the face of a beast, a monster that hides in the algae and muck and waits for an unsuspecting swimmer to get within its grasp. Or maybe it is just a dead man with a rubber mask still stuck to his face who occasionally floats to the surface.
Whichever it is, any Boy Scout who has attended Camp Gorsuch can tell you it's a tale that has made some of them hesitate to jump into the waters of Mirror Lake.
Camp ranger and program director Scott Powell knows the story well and each year, as the campers gather around the fire and peer nervously toward the lake, he shares the spooky details.
"The story goes that when the camp was beginning back in '55, the staff said they needed to start traditions," Powell said. Every Boy Scout camp needs a scary legend to make the evenings a little more fun. And so the staff started talking about the "Erby Monster" that lives in the lake among the great balls of green algae.
According to the story, Dennis Clymber, one of the staff members, went home on the weekend thinking about this invented tale and remembered he had an ugly rubber mask from Halloween.
One evening, the campers had been sitting around the fire discussing the Erby Monster, when they decided to go down to the lake for a late-night swim. Clymber, who had brought his rubber mask with him, decided to have a little fun. He snuck down to the water, pulled on the rubber mask and dove under the dock, coming up right beside the swimmers.
"Just to scare the campers, and it worked," Powell said.
The Scouts all ran back to camp as fast as they could, yelling about the Erby Monster. The staff, who were all in on the joke, laughed and laughed. And then they waited for Clymber to return.
"They kept waiting for him, but he didn't come. He wasn't down at the lake, either," Powell said. "They couldn't find him anywhere."
Eventually, concerned that Clymber had gotten into trouble in the lake, the staff called for rescuers to come and search the water.
"They never found anything of Dennis Clymber," according to the story.
For a while, the camp rangers stopped telling the story of the Erby Monster because of the bad memories. Then, a couple of years later, a Scout was out for a swim when up from the lake came an ugly green head.
"The campers screamed bloody murder and ran up to camp," Powell said. When the Scouts described what they saw, the staff realized it sounded just like Dennis Clymber's rubber mask. Once again, the lake was searched and dredged, but there was no sign of the dead man.
Powell said some people speculate that somehow the rubber mask became suctioned onto Clymber's face and suffocated him. He died and settled down to the bottom of the lake. But the underwater algae give off oxygen bubbles that fill the mask and occasionally cause the mask and the body of Clymber to float to the surface of the lake. But it only happens every other year.
"Every odd year, we are looking for Dennis to rise again," Powell said. "And we tell the campers we don't want them to be afraid of the monster in the lake …. It's just a rubber mask and some bones. We don't want them to run away. We want them to grab it and bring it back to camp."
And that is the tale of the Erby Monster that keeps Scouts wide-eyed at Camp Gorsuch.
"We tell the story like it's true, and it's amazing because they do believe it," Powell said.
When interrogated by doubtful Scouts or the media, Powell will confess he made up the entire tale. But the spine-chilling details, and the occasional air bubbles in Mirror Lake, keep the story alive.
Monsters of the furry sort
Hunters have sworn they've seen its footprints. Hikers have gathered its hair and photographed its tracks. From Louisiana to the Palmer Hay Flats, Bigfoot has covered some country.
Organizations all over the country say they have documented evidence of these half-ape, half-human creatures that prowl the forests. In some cases they are mild-mannered beats. In other cases, they are accused of stealing children and attacking livestock.
The Mat-Su Valley has not been immune. At least once a year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office in Palmer gets a call from someone who says they've seen evidence of Bigfoot.
The creatures have as many names as they are stories and supposed photographs of their existence. Believers in British Columbia call it "Sasquatch," those in the Southern United States call them "skunk apes" and in Alaska and Asia they have been dubbed "Yetis."
According to Web sites such as www.cover-ups.com, these beasts walk upright, stand six to nine feet tall, weigh 300 to 600 pounds and have muscular, massive bodies covered with hair. Their facial features are human-like, their skin is dark and leathery and they have been spotted individually and in groups around the world. "Experts" in the Bigfoot field speculate that the creature is a pre-hominid Neanderthal man.
Bigfoot and its relatives didn't just move to Alaska when white people came. Alaska Natives, too, have their share of spooky tales describing pseudo-humanoids. Many Native groups have legends of a hairy man who lurks just outside of the village and, under the cover of fog or when a child wanders too far from home, he grabs the youngsters and carries them away.
While no abductions in the Mat-Su Valley have been attributed to Bigfoot yet, there have been reported sightings.
The most recent one, according to Nick Cassara of the Palmer office of Fish and Game, was late last winter.
A group of people had come across what they felt were the tracks and bed of a Bigfoot. They photographed the trail and the depressed area in the snow where it had apparently bedded down and slept. They even collected some of the creature's hair, and brought it, along with the photographs, into the Palmer office.
When asked what he concluded based on the evidence, Cassara said flatly, "It was a moose."