Tales of the Lumberjacks: Fearsome Critters of the Forest
“Fearsome critter” is a term that refers to a group of folkloric creatures that were said to inhabit the frontier wilderness during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The stories of these creatures were typically spread by lumberjacks as a way to pass the time, or sometimes as a hazing ritual for newcomers. Most of the time, they were just meant to be silly stories, and thus many of these fearsome critters didn’t have concrete descriptions, instead being defined primarily by their bizarre behaviors, which are often reflected in their names. In this article, I go into further detail on three of these so-called fearsome critters.
The Squonk is a fearsome critter that was said to live in the Hemlock forests of Northern Pennsylvania. It has been described as having “ill-fitting” skin covered in warts and blemishes. The poor critter is ashamed of its looks, and combined with its typical lack of companionship, it spends its time hiding and weeping to itself, utterly consumed by misery.
The Squonk is known to travel at twilight and dusk. However, during full moons, it prefers not to move, for fear the light from the moon will cause it to see its reflection in any nearby bodies of water. Because of this, it is easier to catch sight of this critter during full moons. The same is true in times of cold weather, when it is also said that the Squonk’s weeping can be heard more clearly.
The Squonk will spend most of its time hiding in a network of tunnels or within its den, only emerging when it feels safe from any other critters or humans that might be in the area. However, the Squonk is a very easy critter to track. Hunters can easily follow the sound of its weeping and the salty, tear-filled trail it leaves throughout the woods.
Hunters who go through the trouble of tracking the Squonk might be in for an unpleasant surprise once they actually come upon the critter. Those who have tried have found them quite impossible to capture. A man named J.P. Wentling is said to have captured a Squonk in a bag only to find the bag suddenly became lighter a short time later. Wentling opened the bag to find nothing but liquid. Unbeknownst to Wentling, the ultimate defense mechanism of the Squonk is to dissolve into a pool of tears and bubbles. Thus, while it is perfectly possible to capture these unfortunate critters, it is quite impossible to keep them that way.
The Hidebehind lives up to the fearsome part of being a fearsome critter. Far from the miserable Squonk, which does everything possible to avoid encounters with humanity, the Hidebehind seeks out human prey within the forest.
Those wandering the woods should beware of the nocturnal Hidebehind, which was given its name due to its ability to conceal itself. Should a person attempt to look directly at this critter, it will hide behind either a nearby object or the very person trying to gaze upon it. The Hidebehind is able to hide so effectively thanks to its ability to completely suck in its stomach, allowing it to become thin enough to hide behind any tree trunk with ease. The Hidebehind can use these skills to easily stalk people through the woods and perform sneak attacks.
Victims of the Hidebehind are in for a gruesome fate. The critter will first let out a “demonical laugh,” which is capable of scaring those who hear it to death. Those who survive this initial attack must then face disembowelment from the Hidebehind’s “grizzly-like” claws. The Hidebehind will then drag the now lifeless body of its victim back to its lair and devour it.
Fortunately, there are some defenses that can be mounted against this fearsome critter. The Hidebehind has a great aversion to alcohol. Thus, an effective repellent is alcohol consumption. How much alcohol is needed to deter attacks from the Hidebehind is unclear, though an early account states that, “One bottle of Uno beer has been proven to be a complete safeguard even in thickly infested country.”
Fire is also said to be an effective weapon against the Hidebehind. Should a traveler find themselves in the forest, keeping a roaring bonfire going throughout the night could keep the critter away.
The Agropelter is another of the more violent variety of fearsome critter that lives in hollow trees in conifer forests from Maine to Oregon. An Agropelter will wait in its tree until someone has the unfortunate luck to walk directly in the critter’s path. The Agropelter will then throw branches at them, usually aiming for the head. Victims are generally found pinned under a dead branch.
There is one notable known survivor of an Agropelter attack, a man known as Big Ole Kittleson. Big Ole Kittleson was lucky; the branch thrown at him was rotten and allowed him to escape relatively unharmed. He was able to give a description of the critter, saying it had a “slender, wiry body, the villainous face of an ape, and arms like muscular whiplashes, with which it can snap off dead branches and hurl them through the air like shells from a six-inch gun.”
The Agropelter is also said to have a diet made up of various local birds and rotten wood. However, the critter’s prey is mainly made up of woodpeckers and host owls, which are scarce enough that the population of Agropelters never gets too large. And speaking of their populations, Agropelters always have odd-numbered amounts of young in each litter and only give birth on February 29.
There is some debate on the actual purpose behind the Agropelter’s attack on humans. Some think the critter is merely trying to get the victim’s attention and the deaths that result are purely accidental. Others think that the attacks are malicious and the deaths are intentional. Still others have a similar, but more gruesome theory, saying that the Agropelter’s attacks are meant to only knock the victim unconscious, with the ultimate purpose being for the critter to kill them at a later time. This theory also posits that the Agropelter will stuff the victim’s body into one of its hollow trees in order to save them for a meal.
This is merely a small sampling of the fearsome critter stories that have been passed around by lumberjacks and other frontier wilderness explorers since the late 19th century. They are a varied group of creatures and interesting pieces of American folklore that are worth remembering.