When he went missing, officials said maybe he got swallowed up by a peat bog.
His name was, or is – as he’s still officially missing – Dave Shippee. One autumn night in the early1990s, at a friend’s rustic cabin in the northern Minnesota woods, on a guy’s weekend before opening deer season, Dave Shippee disappeared. His three friends said he went outside, to relieve himself, as they had all done intermittently, throughout a long game of poker.
Only Dave never came back.
At first his buddies thought it was a prank. But as the dark wore on, and temperatures plunged, they knew it wasn’t a joke. Dressed in only jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, no amount of beer was going to keep Dave warm enough to survive the night.
After dawn, officials were notified. Searches occurred. Theories postulated: A bear. A faked death. A serial murderer. Then a source, reportedly close to the investigation, suggested that Dave Shippee, unfamiliar with the lay of the land, made a wrong step outside the tiny cabin, and instead of finding a path back, wandered deeper and deeper into the dark forest, eventually stumbling into one of the region’s enormous peat bogs, swallowed whole within moments, essentially drowning on land.
Growing up on northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, I’d heard the term peat bog, but not often. It held a vague image as part of the nearby sprawling boreal forest, a scrubby, spindly treed, marsh running north of the forty-seventh parallel. No one ever mentioned the phrase peat bog and killer in the same sentence. A bog seemed an improbable reason for Dave Shippee’s disappearance, but more plausible than the whispers of a phantom yeti. Before long, the case went cold.
Maybe it was my recent marriage to a man with a cabin in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region that renewed a dormant interest in Dave Shippee. The sparsely populated area comprises a wedge of wilderness between Canada and the rugged northern shore of Lake Superior. I couldn’t recall the specific area Dave Shippee went missing from, but it could have been somewhere within the forests and swamps of the remote Arrowhead.
I decided to research if the case had been solved. But then something else disappeared. Dave Shippee’s name. Gone from any news outlet, from any state death records. Not one-hundred percent certain of the correct spelling of his last name, I scoured the Minnesota missing person’s website, trying every possible variation. Nothing.
Then I scrutinized the missing person’s circumstances section, combing the known facts at time of disappearance for every missing Minnesota male in the last thirty years.
I checked Wisconsin. Just in case.
My mystery folded in on itself. What happened to Dave Shippee? His disappearance transformed from a long-held curiosity, to something deeper. Now, I had to know.
In the phone records, there was a David Shippee listed in St. Paul. Each time I called, a woman’s voice mail listed family members by name, including Dave. But what message could I leave?
It seemed unlikely, but I wondered, could the name Dave Shippee belong instead to one of the buddies from the cabin?
I could leave this Dave Shippee a message. A man who, if his wife’s voice mail was any indication, was alive and well, twenty miles away from me.
“Hello. By any chance, were you involved in the investigation of a missing person?” And between the lines, what I’d really be asking is, did you do something bad? Because the truth of it was, I never bought the peat bog theory.
In the middle of a doubt-swirled sleepless night I wondered, could I have the state wrong? I was an airline pilot, traveling constantly, when he disappeared. Did I read about it someplace else? Yet, in my memory, the story was engraved in Minnesota, no less than if chiseled into the high stone palisades of Lake Superior’s shore.
A new nation-wide online search revealed a deceased David Shippee.
From Idaho, but who had once lived in Minnesota.
And died at age 29, in 1986, on the other side of the planet, in Tibet, on the third day of a historic rafting expedition of the Yangtze River. The team buried that Dave Shippee along the shore and pressed on.
A book was written about the expedition. And something peculiar, it was written by a man with my last name: Bangs.
The next day I phoned the Dave Shippee in St. Paul, at a number listed as his place of employment. Amped up on adrenaline, struggling to sound nonchalant, I was finally speaking with Dave Shippee. But not the Dave Shippee, and this Dave had never heard of the story.
Before we hung up he said, “You know, there was a photographer Dave Shippee from Minnesota who died on the Yangtze River. And the strangest thing – turned out my father went to college with his father.”
I wished that were the strangest thing, I thought to myself.
Now the mystery of a young man gone missing, one that hovered for years, deep in the background of my own mind, had fractured and split into two. The old case of Dave Shippee. And the new mystery, of a cold trail turned frozen. As if he never existed, to anyone but me.
It’s the kind of scenario that could drive you a little bit crazy. And if you lean toward relentless on the OCD end on the spectrum, needing to get to the bottom of things as my husband generously calls it, then this could push you almost over the edge.
Right into the void of an existential peat bog.
But I know what I read, what I remember, what haunts me. Dave Shippee, by some name, existed. And he went missing, somewhere, from a tiny cabin in a cold, dark woods. And maybe his body vanished into a peat bog, but the more his story disappears, the more I’ll never believe he went in alive.
Kathleen Bangs is a former commercial airline pilot, international aerospace journalist of the year award recipient, and on-air network television aviation contributor. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, and a variety of newspapers and magazines. A non-ice skater, she once spent a five-year detour covering the world of Russian Olympic men's figure skating. Kathleen is presently writing a memoir set on a Caribbean island.