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The Snipe Hunt

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Snipe Hunt: A practical joke where inexperienced campers are told about a bird or animal called a snipe as well as a usually preposterous method of catching it, such as running around the woods carrying a bag or making strange noises such as banging rocks together.

When I was a child, my family and a large group of family friends went camping up to the near by mountains. There were probably at least a dozen children on the trip, including my sister and I, along with our parents. We were on the trip for nearly a week, and during that time I had one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.

It all happened one evening when one of my friends parents brought up a snipe hunt. None of the children had ever heard of a snipe, let alone hunting for one, but most of the adults claimed that this was a normal camping activity, right along with telling scary stories around the fire or toasting smores.

The way the adults told it, a snipe was a small and shy bird-like creature. However, while shy, they could be extremely dangerous if you were not able to hunt them correctly. The proper way to hunt a snipe was to take a pillow case, stand out in the woods in total isolation, and hold the pillow case over our head. The snipe was supposed to creep up behind the person holding the pillow case, and climb into the bag. Once you felt the weight of the snipe in the pillow case, you were supposed to close the pillow case immediately. You could then reach in and pet the snipe, but you were not allowed to look at it or it would attack. In order to get rid of the snipe safely, you had to swing the pillow case over your head until the snipe got dizzy and then throw the case as far as you could. Only then was it safe to retrieve the bag and start the hunt again.

All the children were fascinated by idea of this strange creature that had to be hunted in such a specific way, and begged our parents to take us on a snipe hunt. They agreed and we retrieved our pillow cases.

The adults grabbed their flashlight and led the children out into the night and the darkness of the forest. Every once in a while, everyone would come to a stop, and the adults would tell one of the children that this was a good place to begin the hunt. That child was then left in the darkness alone while the rest went off to another spot. This process repeated several times until it was my turn to be left in the dark.

If you've never been left in the woods on a dark night, then you really have no idea how scary this is even without the prospect of a mysterious and deadly bird hunt. It was very dark because there was no moon, so my other senses became that much sharper. Every noise was like thunder in my ears. But no matter how scared I felt, I didn't want to be labeled as a coward in front of my friends and their parents, so I continued to stand there holding my pillow case over my head, with my eyes closed to make sure that I could not see the forbidden creature. My eyes were useless in the dark anyway.

I felt a weight enter the pillow case. Shocked, I closed the mouth of the pillow case as swiftly as a could. The thing inside the bag wiggled and moved, as if trying to escape its bonds. But then, as if it knew it had been caught from being caught before, it stopped moving.

I stood frozen in place. Everyone said that it was safe to pet the snipe as long as you didn't look into the bag, but I was not sure if I had the courage to reach my hand into the bag to feel what I've caught. After several minutes of indecision, I decided that I had to know a little about the creature, if only for the sake of my curiosity.

I very carefully eased my hand into the bag, making absolutely sure that I did not even look at the bag as I reached in. I can't even begin to describe how the snipe felt. In most respects, it felt just like your average bird, except that the feathers felt like it was in patches, and what feathers that were on it felt like a mixture between feathers and fur. Just like the adults promised, it made no attempt to harm me as I petted the creature.

I grew bolder, carefully feeling for its beak and even finding its taloned feet. Both the beak and the talons felt unusually sharp, and I knew without a doubt that this creature could hurt me given the chance.

A scream filled the night. It was so loud that I almost screamed, myself. But, what was worse, I flinched. I instinctively withdrew my hand from the bag as quickly as I could and dropped it. As the bag hit the forest floor with a thud, I remembered the adult's stern warning: you had to make the snipe dizzy before releasing it.

My instinctual need to fight or flight battled within myself. On the one hand, I thought I had enough time to get to the bag and close it so I could dispose of the snipe properly, or I could flee and hope to outrun whatever horror I had accidentally unleashed.

Unfortunately, the few moments that I thought about my predicament, the mouth of the pillow case opened and the snipe emerged.

I'll never forget the sight of it. It looked like a mad scientist's cross between a molted bird of prey and a rat. Its eyes were glowing dimly red in the gloom, its talons were much too long for its body, and it hissed savagely like an alligator or a crocodile.

Finally, with the hope of getting rid of it properly gone, my instinct of flight won out, and I turned to run. But running in the forest is nearly impossible to do without the benefit of light and I did not make it far before I tripped and fell flat on the ground.

In the few seconds that it took me to fall, get up, and try to run again, the creature was on me. I felt its weight now on the back of my neck, and then a sick burning as the talons cut into the area between my shoulder and neck. I realized that it was aiming for my jugular. With one hand holding down on the bleeding wound on the side of my neck, I attempted to scramble away from the vengeful creature, but it kept on me, shredding the clothes on my upper body with its wickedly long talons, leaving more marks in the skin of my back.

I think it's only sheer dumb luck that I somehow managed to keep the deranged bird/rat thing from landing a fatal blow, though my arms and back were in terrible shape from the snipe's relentless assault. I screamed and screamed for help, for any of the others to come and save me.

It seemed to take forever, but the weight disappeared as if something had frightened off the snipe and then the beam of a flashlight fell down on me. I lay on the forest floor, panting in fright and bleeding from several wounds. One of my friend's father's had heard me screaming and come running. My jacket was all ready in ruins, so he tore it into strips of cloth to hastily bandage my wounds, at least until we could get them properly treated.

As he carried me back to the camp site, I realized that there was something I was still missing. There was the scream I had heard that caused me to release my hold on the snipe in the first place, so I asked my friend's father who I had heard screaming.

He went silent for a few moments and then told me that one of the children, one of my best friends, had gone missing during the hunt and they still have not been able to find him. All the other adults were out combing the woods looking for him.

After several days of our party personally searching the woods, followed by many weeks of the authorities searching as well... everyone was forced to conclude that my friend had simply become another child who got lost in the woods at night and didn't survive.

But I'm not stupid. I know first hand how deadly those creatures are. Even to this day, over a decade later, I still have the scar on my neck from where the snipe nearly killed me.

Everyone laughed at my insistence that he was killed by snipes. All the adults told me the 'true nature' of the snipe hunt, that it was just a practical joke and there is no such animal that can be summoned with a pillow case. Even my friend's father, who rescued me from the snipe, hadn't actually seen anything and everyone assumed that I had just freaked out and fallen in a thorn bush, which is a common wound on other snipe hunts.

But doesn't that seem just a little too coincidental? One of the most common wound from snipe hunts is scratches! Snipes are real, and snipe hunting is a very real, and dangerous past-time for the thrill seeker who has no idea of the danger involved.

And yet, every year, more and more inexperienced young children are taken out on snipe hunts, by adults or older peers who often just see the whole thing as a joke. Leave a child standing in the middle of the woods for the imaginary snipe.

Well, I have a scar on the side of my neck that says that snipes aren't imaginary. And I have a friend who was killed or disappeared while on a snipe hunt.

So maybe you want to think a little before you send the gullible out into the woods with a pillow case to hunt these seldom-seen and deadly creatures.

It could be the last time you ever see them alive.

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