There’s Fearsome Critters in Them Thar Woods

Some of the most obscure, and uniquely fascinating folklore comes from 1800s-era lumberjacks. Working long, hard days in the isolated woodlands of North America, lumberjacks would often come up with tall tales and legends of the beasts that lived in the woods. Affectionately known as the fearsome critters, the lumbermen used them to create entertaining stories and tease gullible newcomers about local strange occurances. Hear that strange howl in the night? Sounds like a whumpus. Lost an axe? It was probably devoured by the fearsome axhandle hound.

The sources for the fearsome critters varied. Some of these strange beasts were absorbed from Native American traditions. Others were real creatures given extraordinary names and abilities, such as the glutton (wolverine) and the fisher-cat (fisher-marten). In general, though, they originated from that fine oral tradition known as “bullshitting.” Two or more loggers, keeping the story and description going, would try to convince a gullible new logger that these strange beings actually existed. Many acted like fables, telling the new recruit what not to do: don’t leave your axe behind or it’ll get eaten by an axhandle hound; don’t wander away from the camp at night or you’ll get eaten by a hidebehind. Their names are reflective of this, giving an idea of the creature’s behavior, or were a play on words, like the aforementioned hidebehind, and the come-at-a-body. Almost all were humorous, and all were pretty fantastic.

A few of these beasts still exist in popular culture—we’ve all heard of snipe hunts and jackalopes, for example.  Many of them have vanished, like the lumbering trade, from the social consciousness. Fortunately, there’s a site out there called with e-texts for two of lumberjack bestiaries: Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods (1910), and Fearsome Critters (1939). In addition, there’s a dictionary which lists most of these critters from early-Americana. There’s a ton of information on there, including some high-res images from the books.

There’s still a lot of acreage in the Great Lakes region—Wisconsin, Ontario, Minnesota, and, y’know, here in Michigan—filled with mile upon mile of virgin white pine or mixed forests relatively untouched by man. The area’s riddled with museums and protected forests, whose visitors centers feature authentic lumberjack gear and looping videotapes of real imitation “logging footage” documentaries. The real cool part is going out into the dense wilderlands, into the still silence of raw nature. Standing out in the deep woods, isolated from the comforts of civilization, you can see why the fearsome critters came into existence… and why an immigrant or young logger would fall for such yarns.

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