The Folk Stories Collected by Carlton County’s Swamps

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This is the third post in the Wetland Wednesday series, edited by Gabrielle McLaren.

In the murky water and mosquito-clouded air, the swamps in Carlton County collect stories. 

Cattails on roadsides greet visitors to this small eastern county more reliably than mile markers. The region abruptly transitions from woodland to wetland, so travelers do not know when they will encounter a swamp or its many dangers. While much of Western culture has devalued swamps in favour of more lucrative enterprises, some locals consider the swamps best left alone. Environmentalism is not necessarily the cause of this aversion: people are really distancing themselves from what we call the unexplainable. The danger of the unexplainable fuels storytelling in and around swamps. While these stories partly preserve the swamp from those who might damage it, the swamp preserves–and sets the stage–for a folk culture’s  stories of the inexplicable.

Some of these stories fit a national model of the phantom hitchhiker story. A man drove down County Road Four one summer afternoon. Veering around a bend, the motorist noticed a man standing in the ditch ahead. Presuming this man needed a ride, the motorist pulled over and exited his car. However, the man in the ditch disappeared before he shut his car door. Moving forward to the ditch, the motorist realized the depth would have obscured a man firmly planted on the ground. The bewildered motorist returned to his vehicle and carried on with his day. 

European colonists possessed a deep cultural aversion to woodlands and swamps that still exist amongst some of their descendants today. Puritans attributed unfamiliar encounters in swamps to the devil. Today, many have gone into the swamp or driven past, only to encounter things they cannot explain. These encounters with the unexplainable fertilize inherited fears and generate stories that carry weight with some residents in the present.

Loggers were the first settlers to encounter the inexplicable and share their stories. William T. Cox, state forester, published Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods in 1910 to preserve these encounters from folkloric extinction. Like other rural locales the world over, Carlton County has captured its share of stories. I plan to do something similar and preserve a choice encounter or two for the next generation. Growing up in the region, I had many opportunities to play amongst the sedge grasses. They always gave me an eerie feeling, the grasses always reminding me of clumps of hair sticking out of the water. As I hopped from one to the other, I always thought that one might be a corpse or some supernatural creature would rise out of the water as I inadvertently hopped to it. The grasses, wind, trees, and animals in these wet, isolated areas set the table for the imagination to run wild when you cannot quite see something or name what you see. Environments like this generate their stories of the inexplicable.

Some stories suggest that something is lurking beneath the water’s surface: A young man took a canoe out into the murky water one day for recreation. In a shallow place, his canoe paddle got stuck. He fought and eventually pried it back into the boat. However, the paddle was no longer the only thing in the boat with him. A severed claw lay at the bottom of his feet. It resembled an alligator, but the beast appeared to possess a tentacle that led to the claw instead of an arm. The water was still, and nothing seemed to move. The young man presumed he had stumbled upon the corpse of a yet-to-be-discovered aquatic monster, but continued searches yielded no results. The claw decomposed too much to keep, and thus, this aquatic monster could only be preserved through oral transmission. 

Grasses near Moose Lake, Carlton County. Photo by Blake Johnson.

Folks have also been increasingly encountering bigfoot in the swamps of Carlton County over the years, especially since reality television has taken an interest in tracking down public curiosity number one. A woman in a pickup truck once stopped my father while he walked a dog down the street to ask if he had seen Sasquatch recently. She explained that the creature had been seen nearby and that she had procured a trap for it. My dumbfounded father informed her that he had seen no bigfoot in the area, and the lady drove off to continue her hunt. While some of these stories give people a healthy fear of swampland, others captivate and bring people to seek out swamps and add to the growing lore of the region.

While adventuring in the swamp, you are likely to be greeted by the rhythmic creaking of widow-makers, broken branches resting on the treetops, liable to fall off and strike people below. The noises of the swamp also help lead the imagination to mysterious places, especially when you have a story or two to kickstart your imagination. Stories like: Two poachers were perched in a deer stand overnight in the early morning hours one summer. They started to hear the rustling of a nearby tree. They turned on their light, something they did sparingly to avoid their detection, and revealed nothing but silence. They turned off the light, and the rustling and scratching commenced again. Hoping to meet their quarry, they turned on the light again, only to see nothing. Once again, they turned off the light, and the noise commenced. After the day broke, the poachers examined the tree and found it marked up with half circles. But they remained confused about what had made those sounds and marks as they sat just a few meters away… 

When swamps collect eerie stories and present genuine, tangible dangers, the cultural aversion to them becomes apparent. If you cannot see beneath the murky water, do you risk known dangers and the unknown? In a very practical sense, it seems best to leave well enough alone. Some even argue that these are reasons to get rid of the swamps. However, destroying swampland is more than an ecological loss. Destroying swampland destroys the stories they generate. It destroys the eerie backdrop for elders to tell stories about what they cannot explain. Lost swampland is lost opportunity, lost cultural heritage, and the loss of  the stories that Carlton County’s swamps have collected in the murky water and mosquito-clouded air.

Photo of a swamp with brown grasses, woods in the background, and an overcast sky.
Swamp off County Road 8. Photo by Blake Johnson.
Feature Image: Cattails waiving off Minnesota State Highway 73. Photo by Blake Johnson.
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Blake Johnson

I am currently a Ph.D. candidate at North Dakota State University. My research interests include environmental justice, natural disasters, and relationships between culture and the environment. My dissertation focuses on the evolution of slow violence and the weaponization of scarcity on the Great Plains in the last half of the Nineteenth-Century.

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