November 26, 2023

FTV: Mythical Beasts

     No, I am not thinking about the Wykon or the Hodag.  If you are wondering, the first is the school mascot for the West Iron County (Michigan) school district and the latter is a tourist attraction who roams the forests somewhere in the northern counties of Wisconsin.  No, what I have in mind are the creatures, critters, or (possibly) beasts that have been (pick one) a) rumored to be found in, b) have been seen in, or c) are at least talked about existing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  In no particular order, I will present the (ahem) ‘evidence’ and let you decide.

     Let’s start with the biggie – the one every state, province, or region with wild country galore wants to claim as their own:  Bigfoot (aka:  Yeti, Sasquatch, Skunk Ape . . . you can look up the rest).  Once the TV show Finding Bigfoot came to call north of the Mackinac Bridge, surely the true ‘Squatch believers felt their hearts go ‘pitty pat’.  It was only a matter of time before the U.P. would have proof that Bigfoot was one of their own.  As they do on the series mentioned above, the core players gathered for a townhall kind of meeting to hear testimony from people who claim to have had a Bigfoot encounter.  Some are very interesting stories, but without video, photographic, or other hard evidence, it is difficult to verify these anecdotal claims.  Nonetheless, the FB detectives chose a couple of these folks and went to the areas where  their alleged contacts took place.  

     The FB hosts use various methods to investigate these claims.  They usually seek physical evidence scouring the spots where encounters have taken place or trek off into the boonies, usually at night, seeking their elusive prey.  Calling out into the night (I will make no attempt to recreate the sounds ‘expert ‘Squatch callers like BoBo Fey use) or smacking tree trunks with big sticks are favored tactics.  They then wait for a call or tree smacking response to their invitation to chat with any Bigfoot who feel inclined to answer them.  The U.P. episode followed this familiar script . . .  and then went south, big time (at least in my eyes).

     Of course, the Upper Peninsula is known for the pasty.  Pick your ethnic group – like those areas who want to claim Bigfoot as their own, every nationality who populates this remote region of Michigan takes credit for bringing this culinary delicacy to the region.  Excuse me while I show my bias – no matter which group brought the concept to the U.P. (historians favor the Cornish), it had to be the immigrants from Finland who perfected it.  The Bigfoot crew lost what little credibility I had afforded them when they took to planting pasties on tree limbs with the hope of attracting a shy ‘Yooper Bigfoot’.  I watched this show with muted interest off and on when everyone was hunkered down during the COVID 19 Pandemic, but this episode pretty much killed what fleeting interest I had in the show.  In that no ‘Yooper Bigfoot’ was lured out of hiding by the smell of pasties, then we must concede they do not exist…right?  

     The two memories Finding Bigfoot did stir for me were the night hikes we took the three summers I worked at the Huron Mountain Club.  When the club guides would take kids from the club on overnight camping excursions, we would often engage in a ritual known to those who have worked at the HMC as ‘moon killing’.  No celestial bodies were harmed – it was just the name used when we would take a couple of flashlights and night hike to their camp site for something to do.  If there were any ‘Yooper Bigfoot’ hanging out, we were in prime country.  The trails through the big pines were well marked so we weren’t in any danger of getting lost.  Pointing a flashlight into the dense stands of trees never revealed anything except maybe the eyes of a few startled deer.  Just the same, it was a little unnerving to see the flashlight beam fade out in the spaces between the big Hemlocks and White Pine.  If a creature wanted to play hide and seek, these vast old growth forests were just the kind of place they could have gotten away with it.

     The second memory?  Snipe hunting.  Rookie moon killers were always offered a chance to go ‘snipe hunting’.  Some of the stories describing exactly what a snipe is and how to catch one were quite imaginative.  A few who got pranked with this tale were actually disappointed that there were no such creatures to hunt.  While we never did see any Bigfoot signs (or snipe either for that matter), some of our night hikes did stir up some wolf activity.  Full Moon nights were especially great for hiking to the top of some of the Huron Mountain summits.  A favorite near Ive’s Lake had a particularly open view where one could see the surrounding peaks and Lake Superior in the distance.  Hearing the wolves howling in the distance and then answering each other had an eerie sound that is hard to do justice to in print.  I guess you had to be there.

     Another one of the elusive beasts said to haunt the U.P. forests is the mountain lion.  Trail cam photos have captured many images of these big cats in more recent years, but back in the day, the Department of Natural Resources had a party line anytime one was reported:  “There are no mountain lions in Michigan.”  I have been a believer since my third year at the HMC.  We were taking a day hike to the top of Ive’s Mountain when we ran into a grandson of the Longyear clan.  Their family has maintained a residence at Ive’s Lake and he spent a lot of time there.  We exchanged pleasantries and John mentioned he had been on the far side of the mountain taking photos of some mountain lion cubs playing outside of their den.  He used a telephoto lens because he did not want to intrude on their secluded hideaway.  As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words and from that day forward, denials about mountain lions in Michigan always made me chuckle.

     We had a mini-reunion in Marquette with Todd from the WOAS West Coast Bureau recently when he was back in the U.P. visiting his folks and brother.  Over lunch, Brian (our central U.P. rep from Ishpeming) and his father told me their mountain lion tale.  Years ago, they were bird hunting with Brian walking down a two rut road to the left of his dad.  To their right was a field of ferns that had already turned yellowish-brown but were still standing.  In the middle of this patch, Brian spotted an similarly colored pole sticking up our of the top deck of fern leaves.  He was pondering what it might be when the top end of the pole twitched.

     Brian was struck a little dumb when he realized what he was seeing and gestured to his dad in the direction of the ‘pole’.  Tom, his dad, thought he was pointing out a partridge to the right of the track they were on and he waded into the ferns to try and flush it out.  Brian was a little horrified when his father unknowingly charged toward the mountain lion who was obscured by the thick layer of ferns and his first thought was, “Oh no, he has the car keys!”  Fortunately, the beast took the sudden rush forward as his cue to exit the area, much to their relief.  Yes, they called in their sighting and got the party line:  “There are no mountain lions in Michigan,” but they knew better.

     Back in the late 1970’s, I had gone back to Marquette for a weekend and I told my folks the story of the cubs playing on Ive’s Mountain.  My dad was not at all surprised.  He said, “I was going to camp ten years ago and I saw a mountain lion cross US 41 just before I got to the rest stop at Tioga Creek.  He was going left to right (to the north) and you could tell it wasn’t a deer (too low to the ground), a bobcat (too big) or anything else.  The legs moved differently than a bear and I could see that long tail sticking out.  I have no doubt it was a mountain lion.”

     Amazingly, I saw a mountain lion crossing the road almost ten years after my dad’s sighting.  It was on the same stretch of road only I was traveling toward Marquette and not toward L’Anse.  At the time, I observed exactly the same things dad had and ruled out anything but a mountain lion.  The only difference was the direction of travel – mine was going south.  I doubt it was the same animal, but we still laughed that maybe he was finally going back to wherever it had come from when dad encountered one.  It is no surprise neither of us had bothered to tell anyone else because everybody knew ‘there are no mountain lions in Michigan’.

     How about smaller critters?   When the Forest Service was working on an interpretive trail in the Courtney Lake area, one of the signs for the script they were following described a badger hole in a sand bank along the trail near Six Mile Lake.  I had questions about this but kept them to myself because I figured they wouldn’t make something like this up.  Just because I have never seen a badger doesn’t mean they couldn’t be here.  I shared this information with a fellow teacher some months later and they said, “You know that old sand pit across M38 from Six Mile Lake?  I was hiking through there a few weeks ago looking for blackberries and I saw a badger scurrying along toward the lake.  This encounter took place less than a mile from the badger hole on the trail we were working on.  Sadly this trail was never completed but the last time my wife and I hiked that portion of the trail, the badger hole was still there.

     Possums in the U.P.?  I am told they don’t like the cold weather much but occasionally they can stray this way.  They can’t swim the Mackinac Straits or cross Big Mac, so they would have to take the land route north from southern Wisconsin.  I was given this information by a wildlife specialist who did a Michigan United Conservation Club program we arranged for the students in Ontonagon.  One of the critters she had with her was a possum, so when I asked if there were any in Michigan, she said yes, but in lower Michigan.  I was relieved she told me the migration story because I saw what could only have been a possum cross in front of my truck as I was driving east on Paul Bunyan Avenue.  It was another case where I didn’t share the tale because it didn’t make sense – at least until this program presenter told me it was rare, but possum sightings do occasionally happen in northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.

     I have had similar ‘first encounters’ with creatures of the avian kind.  Today it isn’t uncommon at all to see Sandhill Cranes, Turkeys, Pileated Woodpeckers, and Turkey Vultures in Ontonagon County, but it hasn’t always been so.   I wasn’t aware of Sandhill Cranes until I spent two summers at NMU’s field study station at Cusino Lake in Alger County.  When we were doing classroom field studies on the Kingston and White Rat Plains, we often heard them. Their loud, rattling call is hard to miss, but we never set eyes on them the first summer I was out there.  The second summer, the Biology professor running one of the classes I was auditing as a grad student was determined to show us Sandhill Cranes before our four week class ended.  Even though I had worked there a previous Summer and my advisor, Pat Farrell, told the prof, “Ken  knows his way around and and get you to the areas you will see them,” the Bio guy never asked me for directions.  We never did see any cranes and after the prof left, I spent the next four weeks locating one acre plots so I could measure the dry stumps left over from turn of the century logging (so I could estimate the board footage that had been removed).  Ironically, every day I worked on my own on the Kingston Plains, I heard and saw Sandhill Cranes.  It took me some time to realize they can be found in Ontonagon County as well and, on occasion, even within the village limits.

     Pileated Woodpeckers put the capital ‘E’ in ‘elusive’.  I had seen signs of their work on trees as long as I can remember.  I had heard them at work (that loud knocking you hear in the woods is them working on a dead tree) but I had never actually seen a live one.  Twenty years ago, I happened to look out at the tree that used to decorate our front yard and there were five of them sitting on various branches.  They like old growth trees for the bug content, but they also began to visit the suet feeders we put out every winter.  Pileateds are now frequent visitors and even with their shy nature, we have spotted them on utility poles on River Street in downtown Ontonagon.  They fly with an unusual ‘flap-flap-glide’ motion and the bright red crest on their head make them easy to identify, even at a distance.

     Turkeys and Turkey Vultures share only part of their name.  I first encountered a tree full of vultures along a farm field on the south end of the Norwich Road.  I had never seen one, let alone a tree full so I stopped just to be sure I wasn’t seeing things.  That first encounter happened almost 40 years ago and they, too, have become a common occurrence in the area.  Turkeys?  I never saw a Turkey in the wild in the northern U.P. until this millennium.  The DNR started a program to reintroduce them in lower Michigan (and then eventually the U.P.) in the 1950s, but their populations were found mostly in Menominee, Dickinson, and Delta Counties.  A hardy species, they have now moved as far north as the Keweenaw Peninsula.  If you haven’t seen a herd of them crossing the roads in recent years, you are in the minority.  We had 17 of them waddle down our street, up our driveway, and across our backyard on route to the Ontonagon Golf Course two winters ago.

     How about the grand-daddy of large creatures out there, the Moose?  Moose were known to inhabit the swamps of Upper Michigan in days of yore, but the rapid growth of the U.P. deer herd had an adverse effect.  The White Tailed Deer carry a parasitic worm that infects Moose and most people thought they died out (save for the population on Isle Royale).  In 1985, the DNR transported 59 Moose from Ontario to the area north of Champion, MI (western Marquette County), they spread out and sightings became more common as the herd grew.  The latest census shows there to be over 350 Moose in the U.P. and my father documented them with photos he took in the 1990s of a Moose crossing the mouth of the Silver River in Baraga Country.  Having hunted in the hills east of Huron Bay since the 1940s, he said he had never seen any Moose sign.  The year of the first Moose transplant, he came upon the skull and antlers of a full grown male in an area he had been through many times in the past.  It had to be a resident Moose who had lived out his life with no desire to be found.

     If you have your own story about encountering Bigfoot in the U.P., I would love to hear it.  I won’t even ask to see photos, casts of footprints, or DNA analysis of fur or scat samples. 

Top Piece Video – Want to know about more mythical beasts?  Just as Sheb Wooley