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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Unktehi and Wakinyan- South Dakota


In every culture, in every era, humans have always been fascinated by monsters. We love to sit around the fire- or listen to the radio, or read a book, or play a video game- immersing ourselves in tales of dragons, gorgons, yokai, trolls, asuras, tokoloshe, and even stranger beings that lurk in the unseen corners of our world. The phenomena of cryptids is just the newest iteration of this fascination, though our modern age has added a scientific veneer onto these hidden monsters.

With that being said, I wanted to expand this list of state cryptids out beyond the European American legends to include mysterious beasts form other cultures of the North American continent.

Thunder beings and their rivals, the horned water serpents, are prominent in the legends of many Native American peoples, and are known under many names. Among the Lakota Sioux and other Native peoples of the American prairies, the Thunder Beings are known as Wakinyan, and the horned serpents called Unktehi. The Wakinyan often manifest as great birds to do battle with the serpents, smiting them with lightning and driving them into the Earth. Some legends say that the bones of both combatants can be found all over the American West, particularly in the prairies of Midwest and in the Badlands of South Dakota.

These bones are said to have great wakan, spiritual power similar to the Algonquian concept of manitou. People sometimes gather bones from Unktehi for medicine bundles. And there are stories of evil sorcerers using shards of horned serpent bones to “sting” or curse others.

In the late 1800s, European-American paleontologists such as Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope came to the West in search of fossils. Guided by Native stories, they collected many of the monstrous bones and identified those of the Wakinyan as pterosaurs. Unktehi bones found on the grasslands were discovered to be from aquatic reptilian mosasaurs, while the bones from in badlands belonged to extinct mammals.

Why, one must wonder though, are the bones of marine animals found in the middle of the prairies? The answer lies in the late Cretaceous period when a long, shallow Interior Sea ran through North America, dividing the continent into the landmasses of Laurentia in the West, and Appalachia in the East. Mosasaurs, ichthyosaurs, and giant carnivorous fish such as Xiphactinus hunted these waters, while pterosaurs soured above the waves, and dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus and duck-billed hadrosaurs roamed the shores. Over millions of years, plate tectonics pushed up the floor of the Interior sea, leaving the bones of its prehistoric inhabitants entombed on dry land.


It's important to note that the cryptid commonly called a "Thunderbird" by many European Americans is distinct from the Wakinyan. While the former was definitely inspired by the legends of Native peoples, it tends to be thought of as a natural- if unusual- animal such as a giant bird or even a pterosaur. The Wakinyan, however, is a spiritual being that can take many forms. I've talked about the other type of Thunderbird- and an imfamous phantom photograph of one that everyone remembers, but no one can find- in a previous post.

SOURCES

Fossil Legends of the First Americans by Adrienne Mayor

Lakota Belief and Ritual by James R. Walker, edited by Raymond J. DeMallie and Elain A. Jahner

A legend of the Unktehi from the National Park Service website

Information on the "horned serpent" from Native-Language.org


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Specter Moose- Maine

 


Among the pines, an apparition looms.  Towering twice the height of a man, the beast has the form of a moose, but is far bigger than any ordinary member of Alces alces.  Its coat is deathly white. Its antlers spread wide as outstretched arms, pronged with over two dozen sharp points. Is it a ghost? A spirit of the forest? Or perhaps it is merely an ordinary- if impressive- natural mutation.

The first recorded sighting of Maine’s spectral moose occurred in 1891 when hunting guide Clarence Duffy spotted the creature around Lobster Lake. A year later it was seen again by a sportsman from New York who shot at it, only to be chased down and nearly trampled by the vengeful beast.

Regular sightings occurred for several decades. Witnesses described the moose as being white or light gray, with some even claiming that it glowed dimly. It was said to be about 10-15 feet high at the shoulder, much taller than the 8-10 foot shoulder height of an average moose. Its antlers were said to be 10-12 feet wide and festooned with up to 22 prongs- much larger and more complex than the 4-6 foot spread of a regular moose. Some eyewitnesses claimed that the moose would actually vanish into thin air right in front of them.

Some have suggested that the animal was albino. Albino moose have indeed been documented many times, but their eyes are pink or violet, while the eyes of the spectral moose are said to be brown. Albinism would also not explain the creature’s tremendous size and enormous antlers.

Its possible the spectral moose had a condition similar to the Kermode Bears of British Columbia, also known as Spirit Bears or Moksgm’ol in the language of the Indigenous Kitasoo, a tribe of the Tsimshian people. Although these bears have white fur, their eyes and skin do have pigment. The white coloration is due to a recessive gene that stops melanin from being made only in the fur, a condition called leucism (as opposed to albinism, in which all pigmentation is lost in all tissues).

In fact, population of white moose are well-known to inhabit the woods around the town of Foleyet in Ontario. Like the Moksgm’al, these moose are not albino, instead possessing a recessive gene that makes their coats a grayish-white. Its quite possible that Maine’s spectral moose had a similar genetic condition, though again the creature’s alleged great size, and its seeming ability to disappear into thin air have not been fully explained. Perhaps eyewitnesses, startled by the sight of such an otherworldly-looking animal, exaggerated their descriptions.

SOURCES

An article from New England Folklore about the Spectral Moose

An article from Mysterious Universe about the Moose

An article from Lumberwoods.org

A Smithsonian article about the white Moksgm'ol Bear

Ontario's white moose

A 1911 article from the Sacramento Union about the Specter Moose

A post from legendsofamerica.com about the Specter Moose



 


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Book Review- The Van Meter Visitor: A True & Mysterious Encounter with the Unknown by Chad Lewis, Noah Voss, and Kevin Lee Nelson

 


I’ve read many, many books in the course of my research for this blog, and figured I’d start reviewing and sharing some of them in between regular State Cryptid posts.

For five days in late autumn 1903, the small Iowa town of Van Meter was haunted by a mysterious winged Visitor with a glowing horn on its head. Though the story was big news at the time, it  fell into obscurity for decades until paranormal investigators Voss, Lewis, and Nelson turned their flashlights on it.

This book is the culmination of their research. It is as much a character study of historical Van Meter as it is a recounting the Visitor encounters. In my own cryptid research, I often find that the people and circumstances surrounding the sightings are just as fascinating as the creatures themselves.

The majority of evidence is drawn from accounts in local newspapers. This might make the whole Visitor phenomenon seem dubious at first since “monster yarns” were a common feature in papers of the 1800s and early 1900s (see, for example, my entries on the Bear Lake Monster and the Snallygaster). Journalistic integrity hadn’t fully developed yet, and many papers were more like sensationalist tabloids like the old Weekly World News that used to lurk in grocery store check-outs. The details of the Van Meter Visitor, however, feel different from a typical newspaper tall tale. Fantastic as the sightings are, there is a degree of realism in the accounts. It seems that the people of Van Meter definitely experienced something- though whether it was monster, demon, or mass hysteria is still unknown. The authors offer several possibilities as to the being’s identity. Could it have been an alien? A living thoughtform? A demon? A case of mass hysteria? Or something more?

This book was my first introduction to John Keel’s Ultraterrestrial theory, which has become a major theme of my cryptid writings and illustrations. Keel postulated that unexplained, seemingly supernatural phenomena- ghosts, UFOs, bigfoot, fairies, Mothman- are actually manifestations of beings from higher dimensions beyond our own. When they move into our plane of reality, our minds cannot fully perceive or comprehend them, so we translate them into forms that we can handle. The authors speculate that the Visitor may have been one such manifestation.

I’d highly recommend this book as a thorough investigation in a lesser known, but very intriguing, cryptid. You can get a copy here.

And check out my own interpretation of the Van Meter Visitor here. 



Saturday, January 23, 2021

Paleodictyon

 A few years ago I wrote a couple articles for Cryptid Culture magazine. While the publication itself seems to have gone under, you can still order copies of it on their website. Definitely go check it out. There are lots of great articles and illustrations. Here I'd like to share one of the articles I wrote on a most unusual deep-sea cryptid which may have existed since before the dinosaurs.




PALEODICTYON

 It’s often said that the deep sea is as mysterious and unexplored as the distant gulfs of space. There is much truth in this, for new and strange species are constantly being discovered in the unlit abyss. Even those scant few creatures which have been seen by surface-dwellers may be little more than ghosts: brief flickers in a submersible’s lights, enigmatic shapes glimpsed for but a second on an ROV camera, strange carcasses damaged almost beyond recognition by the rough journey to the surface in a fisherman’s net. And in some cases, these phantoms may only be known indirectly from the marks of their passage left in the environment.

In 1976 oceanographer Peter A. Rona was using an underwater camera towed behind a research boat to explore the seafloor along the Galapagos Rift, a volcanic hotspot in the Pacific Ocean near the islands made famous by Charles Darwin. Though the Rift is dotted with numerous hydrothermal vents that are abundant with life, the area Dr. Rona was exploring was far away from the hot, black-smoking chimneys. It was little more than an undersea desert- a flat expanse of mud and silt almost devoid of life. So it was a great surprise when the camera came across a hill of sediment about the size of a silver dollar covered with an intricate pattern of holes. The placement of the holes was so geometrically perfect, and the find itself so out of place, that Dr. Rona at first assumed that the other researchers on the exploration team had somehow played a trick on him. But they were just as surprised as he was by the find.



Later excavations of the holes revealed that they led to shafts that connected to a network of honeycomb-like interconnected tunnels about an inch below the surface. A burrow of some sort.  A burrow so geometrically perfect as to almost seem made by intelligent beings- though there is no need to invoke an intelligent builder here since many animals can create startlingly precise structures.

The first question Dr. Rona and the others asked, of course, was just what animal had made these remarkable structures. No living organisms were discovered when the burrows were dug up. There weren’t even any telltale food scraps, bits of DNA, or other detritus to provide a clue to the identity of these deep-sea engineers.

The mystery only grew deeper as word of the discovery spread. A few years after Dr. Rona formally described the strange structures, he was contacted by paleontologist Adolf Seilacher, who showed him fossil burrows that were nearly identical to the Galapagos Ridge hills. Seilacher’s fossils, dubbed Paleodictyon (trace fossils such as burrows, footprints, and coprolites are given their own distinct scientific names), dated from the Eocene Epoch, approximately 55 million years ago. Other, simpler but still very similar fossil burrows dated all the way back to the early Cambrian Epoch, when large multicellular animals first appeared in the fossil record.  Whatever was making the mystery burrows had apparently existed on Earth with minimal evolutionary change since before the dinosaurs had evolved. Or, at least, with little change in the way it constructed its dwellings. Once this striking continuity was brought to light, the still-unknown maker of the modern tunnels was given the name Paleodictyon nodosum.

Since the initial discovery in 1976, Doctors Rona and Seilacher, along with other researchers, have found thousands of Paleodictyon burrows along volcanic rifts in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Like those first specimens, the other structures were found on the barren seafloor far from the hydrothermal vents and their diverse ecosystems. Perhaps these unknown animals have evolved to survive in this rough environment, adapting to feast on what few nutrients are present in the form of “marine snow”- tiny bits of organic matter formed from bits of dead plankton and other organisms that constantly rain (or rather, snow) down from above.


A large xenophyophore in its shell.


But the question still remains: what sort of animals are making these Paleodictyon structures, exactly?  One hypothesis is that they are a species of giant amoebae known as xenophyophores. These single-celled organisms can be found in the deepest parts of every ocean. Most species cement sand and other debris together to build complex, rippled shells or “tests” which can resemble brains, sponges, heads of lettuce, or other corrugated objects. Some, however, are known to live buried in the sediment, admittedly in much simpler burrows.    

If Paleodictyon nodosum is indeed a xenophyophore, though, why does it excavate such geometrically complex burrows? Laboratory tests have shown that the convex lens-shaped mound over a Paleodictyon burrow draws water down through the vertical shafts, so perhaps the structure is used to pull suspended marine snow from the water column down to the buried amoebae. Alternatively, the tubes could be used for “farming” bacteria on their walls, much like how leafcutter ants in the Amazon will farm fungi on the bits of vegetation, they bring into their nests.  The farming hypothesis is suspect, though, since research has shown that the concentration of bacteria in the tubes is no higher than the concentration on the sea floor above, indicating that there is no deliberate cultivation occurring.

Dr. Rona’s favored possibility as to the identity of Paleodictyon is that the “burrows” may actually be the outline casts of sediment-dwelling sponges or other soft, filter-feeding organisms. This idea is not as strange as it may seem. Many sponges will burrow into mud, coral, or even the hard shells of oysters (the latter by using a weak acid secreted by the sponge’s cells) to protect their soft bodies from predators. As to why no remains of the animals themselves have been found, Dr. Rona suggests that they may have died and been completely devoured by bacteria and small deep-sea scavengers, leaving behind the geometric pit structure as the only evidence of their existence.

It is still curious, though, that in all these years of searching not a single burrow has been found that contains a live Paleodictyon nodosum, or even a few small scraps of their remains. Perhaps it is because the structures are actually much older than they appear. Though the burrows seem freshly dug, the seafloor deserts where they are found are still, quiet places lacking any current and only rarely disturbed by other organisms.  These unusual conditions may have allowed the burrows to persist intact for hundreds of years, long after their builders had completely rotted away.

The lack of a living builder may also simply be due to the fact that the area where Paleodictyon burrows are found has not been explored that extensively. Investigating the deep sea is an expensive endeavor that requires reserving highly competitive slots of time with a submersible or diving robot. Rona and Seilacher simply haven’t had enough time or money to search for these enigmatic builders. Though they have found thousands of Paleodictyon burrows, perhaps these are only the graveyards of a long-dead colony of the creatures. Perhaps the living animals lie just a few miles beyond the submersible’s light, waiting for someone to finally stumble across them.

Paleodictyon has received some media attention, though. Most notably in the form of “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea”, an IMAX documentary chronicling the researcher’s discovery and search for the animal.

On a final, interesting side note, the first recorded reference to Paleodictyon fossils may have come from Leonardo da Vinci. In the Leicester Codex, Leonardo records extensive notes on fossilized shells and other traces of prehistoric marine organisms. Among his drawings is a small, quick sketch of a honeycomb-like structure. Though the sketch is unlabeled, it is not a huge stretch to postulate that this may have been a representation of Paleodictyon, especially since these striking trace fossils are common around the inventor’s childhood home in the valley of the Arno River.

 


Sunday, December 13, 2020

Altamaha-ha- Georgia


The Altamaha River runs through the state of Georgia from the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee all the way to the Atlantic. As the river reaches the ocean, it spreads out into a maze of creeks and runnels snaking among tall saltgrass marshes, mudflats, and ancient shell middens. This estuary is one of the most ecologically productive areas of the Altamaha, providing ample habitat and food for wading birds, mussels, crustaceans, fish fry, muskrats, otters, and more. And if the legends are to be believed, these twisting waters also host a population of unknown serpentine beasts.

Legends of the Altamaha-ha, nicknamed “Altie”, go back all the way to 1830 when a “Captain Delano” of the schooner Eagle reported seeing a monstrous snake-like beast in the river. In the 1920s loggers working along the Altamaha also sighted the beast, but the first major modern report occurred in 1981 when newspaper publisher Larry Gwin spotted it. After this, more people came forward claiming to have seen the creature. The majority of sightings occurred around the small town of Darien and the nearby Butter Island. Altie eventually became the unofficial mascot of the town, and the Darien Visitor Center even boasts a “life-size” model of the creature created by museum exhibit designer Rick Spears.

In 2018 a strange carcass was discovered on a beach near Darien. Pictures show a sinewy gray creature with front flippers and a short head, leading many to conclude it was a juvenile Altamaha-ha. The body disappeared before it could be examined, but skeptics believe it was either a clay model or a decomposed shark.

Early reports of Altamaha-ha described the creatures as large serpents, but more recent sightings claim they have rounded bodies, alligator-like heads, front flippers, and sometimes ridges on their backs like gars or sturgeons. They are described as being gray-green with yellow undersides. Some observers have reported the creatures blowing out water and swimming with an up-and-down undulation like whales or dolphins, rather than the side-to-side movement of fish or aquatic reptiles. Based on this, it’s possible the Altamaha-ha are a species of unknown cetacean or pinniped.


SOURCES

The website of Rick Spears, creator of the Altamaha-ha statue in Darien

An article from Jacksonville.com about the alleged Altamaha-ha carcass

An article from the Coastal Courier about Altamaha-ha

An article from Cryptomundo about Altie

An article from Legends of America

A post from the blog of historian and author Dale Cox

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Skunk Ape- Florida


 The vast Everglades covering southern Florida are, for the most part, open wilds. Yes, there are cities on its edges and a few rough roads cutting through it, but the majority of the “Sea of Grass” is undeveloped, natural sawgrass marsh, palmetto brush, and hardwood hammocks filled with alligators, gars, black bears, wading birds, and perhaps a few undiscovered primates.

For decades folks have been sighting hairy bipeds wandering the Glades. These creatures are commonly called Skunk Apes due to their distinctively pungent odor. They are said to have black to reddish-brown fur and may sometimes have a greenish tinge due to algae growth.

Tales of skunk apes allegedly go back to pre-colonial Native legends- though as is often the case, the existence of these “legends” is suspect and might just be an invention of modern folks to add some historical weight to their sightings.  Regardless, sightings of the creature really took off in the early 1960s around the time that sightings of Bigfoot were becoming more common in the Pacific Northwest. One of the first major encounters with skunk apes occurred around 1966 when several gorilla-like creatures invaded the community of Holopaw, forcing open garage doors and frightening people.

Interest in skunk apes grew greatly throughout the 1970s, to the point that a bill making it a misdemeanor to harm or harass the creatures was drafted by State Representative Paul Nuckolls in 1977. The bill never made it to committee, sadly.

In 2000, several night-time photographs of a hairy, ape-like beast were sent to the Sarasota County Sherriff’s Office. An anonymous letter included with the photos described the creature as an “orangutan”, but many folks came to the conclusion that the being was a skunk ape. Skeptics, however, claim that the creature may be merely a person in a suit.

If skunk apes are real, it’s possible they are part of the group of southern “swamp apes” which are lighter, smaller- and smellier- than their sasquatch cousins. Swamp apes are also often reported to have only three toes on their feet and three fingers on their hands, though alleged casts of skunk ape footprints show them with four toes. As their name suggests, swamp apes are typically found near wetlands as opposed to the drier old-growth forests that bigfeet seem to prefer.

Folks wanting to learn more about Florida’s mystery primates should check out the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters, run by Dave Shealy and located in Ochopee along the Tamiami Trail right in the middle of the Everglades.

SOURCES

The website of Dave Shealy's Official Skunk Ape Headquarters

An article from Smithsonian Magazine about the Skunk Ape

An article from The Orlando Sentinel about the Holopaw Gorilla

A Cryptomundo article about the Skunk Ape

A Twitter thread from Darren Naish about the 2000 Skunk Ape photo

The Field Guide to North American Monsters by W. Haden Blackman



Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Bear Lake Monsters- Utah

 

Straddling the border of Utah and Idaho, Bear Lake is a long, deep body of water lying along a shifting fault line.. The lake’s vivid blue waters- which are caused by an abundance of dissolved calcium carbonate- have drawn people to its shores for centuries, from the native Shoshone, Ute, and Bannock, to more recent European trappers and settlers. And also, according to settler Joseph C. Rich, a small population of aquatic monsters, . In an 1868 article for the Deseret News, Rich wrote: “The Indians say there is a monster animal which lives in the lake…They represent it as being of the serpent kind, but having legs about eighteen inches long on which they sometimes crawl a short distance out of the water onto the shore.”

The story quickly caught the interest of newspapers all over the west, eventually even reaching the ears of the leaders of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City. The church fathers, including Brigham Young, would inquire about the monsters when they were in the area around the lake and quickly discovered that nearly everyone claimed to have seen the beast or at least knew someone who had. 

 Descriptions of the monster varied. Sometimes it was said to be long and limbless like an eel. Other times it had dozens of little legs like a centipede. It was often said to have sleek brown fur like an otter, and little ears- or at least ear-like tufts of fur on its head. 

 Sightings of the monsters (sometimes singular, sometimes plural) became very popular in local papers, and led to a proliferation of hoaxes and tall tales. One particularly colorful encounter with the beast was related by Quill Nebaker in 1907:

 “By this time all of the folks but me were terribly frightened and they confidently expected that the monster would smell the fresh-baked pies in the cellar and turn over the house in order to get them. Confidentially, I rather hoped he would in some way get the pies, but I sensed the danger to my loved ones and set my mind at work to devise ways and means to divert the animal’s attention in case he decided to come up our way. At this juncture my dog, which seemed mesmerized before, let out a terrible howl that attracted the monster and here he came full tilt, mouth open wide enough to swallow the front porch. Here was my time for action. And while I dislike to speak of myself, I must confess that I arose to the emergency... I noticed my large graphopohone (sic) standing on the table ready for use. An inspiration struck me- I called to mind the value of music in taming the snakes and wild animals of the forest- and I decided to try it. Hastily winding up the machine, I opened wide the front door, squarely in the face of the approaching monster, and turned loose my music.

As it happened, the record on the machine was that incomparable tune, “Home, Sweet Home,” and as its strain floated out on the midnight air, I noticed that the monster halted, then stopped. His head being low, a reminiscent smile played o’er his features, and as the chorus was reached we were surprised to see the monster’s tail switch ‘round toward his neck. As we watched we noted a stringed instrument, something like a lyre, at end of the animal’s tail, and as “Home, Sweet Home” continued, that monster didn’t do a thing but utilize his several hands or feet in playing accompaniment to that grand old tune. Ah, but it was sweet, and as “the band played on” we really fell in love with the Bear Lake monster. As I moved to his side, the monster seemed to welcome me as a friend of other days and before “Home, Sweet Home” was ended the animal’s head rested on my shoulder and we were mingling our tears together.

All was going splendidly and I had definitely decided to adopt the animal and make him a member of my family, but just there sorrow, deep and tearful sorrow, shook the frame of my newly made friend, and he began to weep. Great streams of tears poured from his eyes, and finally they flowed so copiously that the monster floated away in them. Thoughts of his subterraneous home were too much for him, and though he seemed loth (sic) to go, he waved us a sad farewell and disappeared from sight.
A point of particular interest just here is that as the monster passed the barn it left my barbed wire stacked up nicely, and on top the pile left that lyre on which it had played that accompaniment. Imagine my surprise at discovering that stringed instrument to be a portion of a bale of that wire and a part of my pigpen worked up into the most approved form.”

                                    ---“Quill Nebeker Sees Monster” Logan Republican, 21 September 1907

 From the beginning, the Bear Lake Monster was known by local people to be nothing but a tall tale. Nevertheless, a number of outsiders were convinced the beast was real. Twenty-six years after publishing his first sighting of the beasts, Joseph Rich admitted that he’d made the whole thing up as a way to draw interest to the Bear Lake area. Yet despite this confession, sightings of the monster continued all the way until 2002. Whether these were honest reports by people who genuinely believed they’d seen an unknown animal in the lake or just more tall takes, is up for debate. But hoax or not, the monster remains a fond piece of Bear Lake folklore.

SOURCES

An article about the beast from the Utah Outdoor Activities website.

A library of newspaper reports about the monster from the USU Digital History Collections

An article from Utah Humanities

The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest!

A scan of Quill Nebaker's account of the musically-inclined monster