Darkness shrouded us as we came in sight of the Nature Center at Blacklick Woods.

Darkness shrouded us as we came in sight of the Nature Center at Blacklick Woods.

I was trying not to panic, but the fact that I was quieter than normal and walking faster than usual alerted my friend Debbie that a lot was going on in my head.

I was accompanied by my 10-year-old, 8-year-old and 4-year-old nieces as well as Debbie and her 11-year-old grandson, so I did voice my thoughts.

Somewhere out there in the woods was my 9-year-old nephew.

He was alone and it was getting dark.

It was about 8:40 p.m. when our little party arrived at the park to experience the Sounds of the Night Campfire. We were about 10 minutes late, but a park ranger directed us to the appropriate site and we figured we could catch most of the presentation.

As we approached the campfire, a staff member recommended we take off down the path to catch the tour group headed toward the pond.

I didn't know where the pond was located, although I was there years ago.

Regardless, the walk would be good for the children. I knew the path circled back to the campfire, because I recalled previously following a group of school children to it.

All day long, I had held my nieces and nephew on a short leash because we attended the Velvet Ice Cream Festival in Utica. I worried about losing them in the large crowd.

"If you cannot see me, I cannot see you," I told them. "Stay where I can see you."

Only twice during the day were they out of sight: once when Debbie took the children over to participate in the sack race while I hauled all of our picnic coolers and baskets back to the car and again when the children went into the restrooms.

I knew I was extremely strict with the children, who I have tried to teach to be independent enough to explore the woods and fields on our own farm. It must have been confusing for them, since they are unaccustomed to being in and around the city.

As we set off to find the group at Blacklick, they asked if they could race ahead.

"Go ahead," I said, "run and have fun, I am right here behind you."

Periodically, Lynnelle, who we call Nellie, ran back to me when the older children left her behind. I knew they were just ahead so I was not worried. They have been taught enough manners to slow down once they reached the tour group.

At one point, the children slowed to cross a road in the middle of the trail.

"Stop!" I barked. "You know you are supposed to stop and look both ways. Heather, you and Nell stop right there until I reach you."

Heather, who is 7, grabbed Nellie's hand and the two stopped.

Allen, who we call Bubby, Raqueal and Brandon all stopped on the other side.

"Why did you guys cross?" I asked the older children.

"Aunt Cat, we looked both ways, but there was nothing coming," said Raqueal.

"OK," I said, knowing how she shoulders responsibility as if it were a yoke.

They remained in sight until we reached a parking lot, and Bubby started head right.

"Bub, wait!" I said and he stopped.

"The man said, 'Go right at the parking lot,'" he said.

"Are you sure?" I asked.

Since I have a hearing impairment, I do not always catch everything said to me.

"I did not hear him say that," I said, looking at Debbie.

She shook her head. She had not heard it, either.

"Let's go up this way, and if we don't find it, we will double back," I said.

Once again, the children were off at a dead run.

"They really needed to blow off some steam," I said, and Debbie laughed.

A couple of minutes later, we saw Raqueal sitting on a bench, holding her sides.

"She's been running too hard," said Debbie.

"It looks like it," I said, seeing Brandon and Heather, but no Bubby.

"Bubby took off ahead of us and when he got here, he didn't stop," said Raqueal.

I looked at the forks in the path.

"Which way did he go?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said. "He got ahead of us."

"You mean you couldn't see him when he took off?" I asked, the nervousness causing my voice to quiver a little.

"No, we yelled for him, but he wouldn't answer," she said.

I wasn't sure whether to be frightened or annoyed.

"I'm not sure where the pond is," I said. "I never walk this side of the park."

Debbie and I studied a map at the intersection and thought it looked like the pond was to our left. I kept looking at the path to the right, wondering which to take.

We started walking to the left, but I looked back to see if my nephew was returning.

"It's not unlike him to hide and sneak up behind us to scare us," I said.

We continued walking and with every step, I was more and more anxious. A lot of time was passing and the light was quickly fading.

"Why had I not gotten more specific answers at the campfire?" I thought. "Why didn't I stop Bubby at the parking lot?"

I was trying to remain calm, because the children were a little unnerved as well.

"Why would he do that, Aunt Cat?" asked Raqueal. "Why would he take off like that? We sat down on the bench at the forks to wait, but Bubby didn't."

It would be a couple hours later before I learned that he was competing with Brandon to see who could run the fastest and make it to the campfire first.

We walked for so long that Debbie complained that she needed to sit down when finally the Nature Center came into view.

"Oh, no," I said. "That is the Nature Center. Oh, no, we are on the other side of the park."

The panic rose in my voice.

"I know where we are now and it's not good. There are benches right up here," I said to Debbie. "You stay here with the kids; I'm going to look for Bubby."

I dropped my heavy bag next to her and set off down the road.

About half a mile to a mile later, I was mentally berated myself. I had left my cell phone in the bulging bag and never thought to bring it or call for help.

"Dear God, watch out for my boy," I prayed. "Don't let anything happen to my baby."

Finally spotting a park ranger, I flagged him down. I was in hysterics until he told me Bubby was waiting with another ranger until they were able to find the rest of us.

"I don't know whether to hug you or spank you," I said to Bubby as they reunited us, tears of joy and frustration rolling over my cheeks.

Once we were home and Bubby was sufficiently scolded and snuggly tucked into bed, I gazed down into his peaceful, freckled face. It would have been me who was lost indefinitely if anything had happened to the precious little boy lying safely in the bed.

Cathy Wogan is a staff writer for ThisWeek Community Newspapers.