Conspiracy Corner: Within the Woods

Harmon Lanager, Staff Writer

Welcome back, true believers, to this week’s Conspiracy Corner. America’s national parks can often be a place of beautiful calm and serenity, a welcoming sight to the tens of thousands of hikers who venture within. But for the many who come and go without issue, there are a worrying number who fade into the tree line and never resurface. More than a thousand people have disappeared in national parks across the country. Most are easily explainable, but there are cases that defy explanation, leaving only baffled investigators and eerie implications. 

Theodore Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman and passionate conservationist, established the national park system in 1916. Usually these parks allow people a glimpse into the natural world, and thousands every year visit to go hiking or camping. Yet, over the course of a century, a string of bizarre disappearances has occurred within the national parks. And it shows no sign of stopping soon. 

The Missing 411 is a book series written by one David PaulidesPaulides, a former police officer, investigated a number of strange disappearances in national parks. What was even more worrying was the discovery that, despite the sheer number of people who have gone missing in these parks, the National Park Service did not keep a database of the missing victims. It was only by compiling scattered reports from individual police departments that Paulides gained the details of the many vanishings.  

In 1969, a 6-year-old boy by the name of Dennis Martin went missing in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park during a game of hide-and-seek. He simply hid behind a bush on the edge of the campsite and never came out. A large-scale search with 1,400 people was organized but failed to turn up anything substantial. A suspicious detail to keep in mind is the involvement of 60 Green Berets in the search effort. Supposedly, they were on a local training exercise and joined the rescue parties. But one should note that search and rescue efforts are well-out of the usual operations for the Green Berets, especially given their reluctance to cooperate with fellow searchers. So… what really brought them out there? 

Not far from where Dennis disappeared, a strange incident occurred the same day as the boy’s vanishing. Harold Key, a 45-year-old man, was in another part of the park and reportedly heard an “enormous, sickening scream.” Not long after, he saw a dark, hairy figure running through the woods with something slung over its shoulder. This was not the first sighting of the creepy “wild men” of the park. One particular example was in 1973 when a park ranger was attacked by a squatter who attempted to pull a gun on the ranger. After a struggle, the squatter fled into the forest and became known as “the Wild Man of Cataloochee.”  

Years later, bones of a small child believed to be that of Dennis were found nine miles from where the figure was sighted by Key. 

Worrying enough, child abductions by strange, hairy figures do not seem to be rare occurrences in national parks. In 1863, a three-year-old girl was with her father as he tended to a lumberjack camp he owned in Michigan. Her father noted that she disappeared in a matter of seconds and, overcome with worry, organized a search with two other men. She was found the next day along a river with only minor injuries. A happy ending to a potential tragedy. Yet, this is where the case takes a turn for the bizarre. 

The little girl claimed that she was kidnapped by something she would only refer to as “Mr. Wolf,” who supposedly kidnapped the young girl, fed her berries through the night, and released her in the morning. 

A similar case occurred in 1955 in when 2-year-old Ida Mae Curtis disappeared in Kootenai National Forest. Her mother claimed to see her carried off by a bear. Frightening, yes, but becomes all the more eerie when she adds that the bear was “cradling” her in its arms. She was found two days later a mere 300 yards away in a small shelter of sticks. After the ordeal, the girl went on to claim that the bear fed her till she was found. 

The last case we shall mention is possibly the creepiest of all and shows that children are not the only victims of these disappearances. Whatever lurks in the forest, it doesn’t care how old you are. Eric Lewis was an experienced climber, age 57, and disappeared while climbing Mt. Rainier in Washington State. He was accompanied by two other climbers; the three were connected by a cable attached to their belts.  

From this point on, the incident reads like a classic campfire story. Eric was the third man in line and was in the back of the group. The two climbers in front, Don Storms and Trevor Lane, stopped to rest. Noticing that Eric never joined them, they reeled in the line to find just a knot… Eric Lewis was gone. They searched for him and retraced their movements. The ground was covered in snow, so following his footsteps should have been easy – except he left no foot prints besides the ones following his companions. Nowhere did they find signs that he broke off from the group. With bad weather coming in, the two were forced to return to camp and report their friend’s disappearance. A search was organized with climbing teams and even a helicopter. His climbing gear was found in an ice cave 200 feet below where he went missing. The body of Eric Lewis was never found. 

And these cases are but drops in the bucket compared to the wave of bizarre disappearances throughout America’s national parks. People disappear in a rolling cloud of mist, missing children are found dead dozens of miles from where they vanished, and many more bizarre stories come out every year. What could be causing it? Some say Bigfoot, others blame forest spirits not unlike the Fey of Irish myth, and a few turn to the pages of Algonquin folklore, pointing to the infamous Wendigo as a possible culprit. UFOs are a prime suspect as well as Satanic cults or creatures from other worlds.

In the end, I don’t think we’ll ever truly know. What I do know is that nature is a frightening, unforgiving thing. Out in the woods, away from our modern conveniences and safeties, we are brought back to the time of our ancient ancestors who huddled in their caves come nightfall. Back to the time when we weren’t the top of the food chain, when we were more prey than predator. So next time you go camping, sit a little closer to the bonfire and keep an eye on the tree line. You never know what lurks in the forest, waiting to remind us why we used to fear the dark.