Whatever Happened To The Lake Conway Monster?

Lake Conway, skunk apeCould a reservoir in Arkansas be the favorite watering hole of a southern Bigfoot? Maybe it once was, but it doesn’t seem to be anymore.

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I loved tramping through the woods, and so of course I loved hearing about monsters lurking in the woods. I vaguely remember a rash of sightings of a big, hairy monster in the woods of Arkansas. It had several names, the most popular being the Fouke Monster, which was sighted by numerous individuals and was the subject of some atrocious films that freaked out 10-year-old me.

There were also sightings at Lake Conway just north of Little Rock. It’s 6,700 acres in size, making it the largest man-made game and fish commission lake in the country, and a popular fishing spot. Most of the sightings come from fishermen in remote parts of the lake.

According to one anonymous testimony (the sort of thing that constitutes evidence for cryptozoologists hunting these critters) it was about 7 feet tall and completely covered with dark hair. It stood at the edge of the lake watching a fishing boat for several minutes and showed no fear or comprehension when a gun was pointed at it.

Sightings of the Conway Lake monster date back to the 1940s, according to this article in the Saline Courier, which cites no sources. They continued until the 1970s before trailing off to nothing.

Several witnesses noted that it had a terrible odor. This led some cryptozoologists to suggest it’s a skunk ape, a mysterious beast shown here in a photo courtesy David Barkasy and Loren Coleman. This shot was allegedly taken in Florida. Skunk apes are found throughout the South although, of course, none have ever been caught. Sadly, no photos of the Lake Conway monster have ever been reported.

So what was the Lake Conway monster? Skunk ape? Bigfoot? A hairy refugee from a nudist chili festival? Did it go extinct like some people said Nessie has? Perhaps it moved away as Little Rock has expanded and more and more fishermen use Lake Conway. It seems a shame, though. The folks around Lake Champlain have kept their monster alive and kicking. So come on, Arkansans, go find the Lake Conway monster, or at least take a blurry nighttime photo of an orangutan!

Legends And Myths In The World’s Highest Forest

quinoa forest “Ladies, be careful,” warns Juan, our guide for Cajas National Park in Ecuador. “This forest is known to have evil elves.”

We are currently in the Quinoa Forest, which we are told, at 13,124 feet high, is the highest forest in the world. Because I’m from New York and don’t believe in elves, the warning does not scare me. However, there are various legends revolving around the forest that stem from Incan beliefs.

For one, elves, or chuzalungu in Cachua, the native Inca language, live in the forest and kidnap women and children. In my opinion, this may have stemmed from the highlanders being short, and if anything bad happened to a woman or child, the wrongdoer may have been mistaken as being an elf.

It’s not surprising so many mystical legends exist here. Walking through the Quinoa Forest, you’ll feel like you’re hiking through some kind of bizarre fairy tale, as you climb over twisted trees and tangled roots. In reality, the jungle gym-like terrain is due to the three feet of soil.Another legend is the Quinoa Forest is home to talking animals. This also stems from the Incas, probably because at that time they didn’t understand the talking macaw. To the Incas, a talking bird would have been preposterous. However, it created a belief that the forest was full of animals that could speak their language.

Finally, there is the legend – or possibly fact – that spirits roam the forest. The reason I say “possibly fact” is that many people have actually died here, from altitude sickness, getting lost, starving or freezing. According to Juan, 20 tourists have died since the boundaries of the park were created in 1979. Furthermore, many locals, including a 10-year-old boy whose skull was later found in a nearby lake, have lost their lives among the dark shadows of the Quinoa Forest trees.

For those who want to learn more about the Quinoa Forest and its many myths and legends, there is currently an Ecuadorian movie being made at the location. I’m not sure of all the details, but the premise has to do with a tourist getting lost in the woods and running into elves, spirits and other mythical characters.

Riding the rails in Wales: a steam train into the Welsh hills

Wales, steam train
If you like old trains, you’re going to love Wales. The region has several narrow-gauge steam locomotives. The website Great Little Trains of Wales tells you about ten of them traveling various routes around the country. Most are clustered in the north and west, which most travelers say has the best scenery.

Having never been on a steam train and knowing it would be a guaranteed hit with our five-year-old son, we took the Vale of Rheidol Railway from Aberystwyth up into the Welsh hills to Devil’s Bridge. Our train, the Prince of Wales, dates to the 1920s and has been lovingly restored. It makes the 12-mile run in about an hour.

We set off to much chugging and hooting, which was taken up by all the children on board. As we cleared the station we saw that strangest of British animals, a trainspotter, filming our departure. Leaving Aberystwyth and the trainspotter behind, we picked up speed and soon started to ascend into the hills. Parts of the route are very steep and winding, which is why a narrow-gauge is used, and goes along the southern side of the Vale (Valley) of Rheidol. To our north the valley opened up to view, a gleaming strip of river winding far below, and here and there a farm. Only a few farms and houses stood near the rails and most of the time we were in countryside. A Red Kite flew by looking for prey. The engineer said that buzzards are a common sight too.

%Gallery-129371%One thing that was very noticeable was just how loud steam trains are. Our forefathers did not get a quiet, relaxing ride!

We continued to climb up the side of the valley past a few farms, thick woodland, and fields covered in wildflowers until we made it to Devil’s Bridge, where the trainspotter from Aberystwyth was waiting to film our arrival. There’s a beautiful waterfall tumbling through thick greenery here, and three bridges passing over it. The lowest bridge is said to have been built by the Devil in an attempt to get an old woman’s soul. The woman was too clever for him, though. You can read the story here. Two trails offer views of the falls.

There’s also a Robber’s Cave that local folklore says was used by three thieves–two brothers and their sister. The cave was a great hideout and they managed to live a life of crime for many years until they accidentally killed one of their victims. The locals came out with dogs and traced them to this cave. The men were hung and the woman burnt at the stake.

If you’ve never been on a steam train before, it’s a fun novelty and a great way to see the countryside. Our son loved it, of course, and all the other kids seemed to be entertained too!

Hiking in France’s Basque Region

Basque, Basque region, France
The Basque region straddles the border between northeastern Spain and southwestern France. For the past five days I’ve been hiking in Spain’s Basque region, and today I and my group are crossing the border into France.

One of our Basque guides, Josu, says the culture on the other side of the border isn’t as strong. While only 28% of Spanish Basques can speak Basque (Euskara), that number goes down to about 15% in France.

“They don’t have as strong of an identity,” Josu says. “They didn’t have Franco, they didn’t have Guernica, they didn’t have the Carlist Wars.”

And that’s an important factor for the whole Basque separatist movement. Being a distinct cultural and linguistic group got them a lot of grief from various Spanish governments. Just like with other minority peoples, that helped strengthen their identity, which in turn increased their separation from the nation. And while the Spanish Basques aren’t being persecuted anymore, they still mistrust the central government. In France there’s been more of a live-and-let-live feeling. ETA, a terrorist group that wants an independent Basque state, has committed relatively few attacks there.

%Gallery-124848%Today politics are on everyone’s mind. There are local and regional elections all across Spain and Josu is standing for mayor of Alcalá, a scattering of 23 villages with fewer than 700 voters. He’s in the Bildu party, a separatist party that was only legalized a month ago and has already caused controversy because of its alleged links to ETA. Some people call it ETA’s Sinn Féin. The supreme court, however, saw insufficient evidence of a link and allowed them to run.

Josu doesn’t think he’s going to win because he hasn’t done much campaigning. He’s mostly running so Bildu will be on Alcalá’s ballot. There’s some tension under his calm demeanor, though.

It’s a shame politics have to mar such a beautiful landscape. We drive only a few miles into France and our route has us walking along the seaside until we reach the border again. The views are excellent, with waves crashing into sheer cliffs and large fingers of rock stabbing out of the surf.

“Legend says that giants used to throw rocks at the people and they’d land in the water like this,” Josu says. “There are stories of witches too. They used to fly to the caves to have their covens.”

One true tale of this rugged shore is about the wreckers. These were a type of land pirate who lured ships onto the rocks and then looted the cargo. Josu tells us the women would stand up on the cliffs holding lanterns on dark nights to fool sea captains. When a mariner followed the signal of what he thought was a lighthouse, he’d crash on the rocks and have a horde of wreckers descend on the surviving crew. Read Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn for a great fictional account of this line of work.

In contrast to the shore, the land is peaceful, with broad green fields and apple orchards. A stately home with graceful, round towers stands proudly in the distance. The cliffs gradually level out and we walk along a wide sandy strand. This is Hendaia Beach, the longest in the Basque region. Like along other parts of the coast, it saw its heyday in the earlier part of the century when elegant villas and casinos housed and entertained the wealthy. It’s still popular for surfers willing to brave the cold waters of the Cantabrian Sea.

All too soon we’ve made it back to the border, where we go for lunch in Hondarribia, a very Basque town. While there we do a very Basque thing–bar hopping for pintxos! The Basque answer to tapas, these elegant little meals-on-bread will fill you up after two or three servings. There’s an endless variety and each bar has its specialties. They’re best when washed down with some txakoli, the Basque sparkling wine.

After lunch we return to San Sebastián, the wealthiest city in the Basque region. This port was the place to be back in the region’s days of high-class tourism, and our hotel, the Hotel de Londres y de Ingleterra, once accommodated the likes of Mata Hari. Check out the photo gallery for their astounding view of the bay.

Still talking about our very Basque lunch, we head out for a very Basque dinner on the outskirts of San Sebastián, overlooking the industrial port. With the sun setting and the ships coming and going, it’s a location to touch any traveler’s heart. We arrive a bit early so we go to a bar along Pasajes de San Juan, a street that seems to be a virtual Basque cultural center. Basque flags and protest banners adorn the windows. Basque is almost the only language heard in the bars as a band goes from place to place playing traditional music, to which everyone sings along as the txakoli flows freely.

Josu looks very at home, joking with crowd and smiling at the band. His mobile rings every few minutes as friends call him to give him updates. He plays it cool, still insisting he’s not going to win. I don’t quite believe his nonchalance. As another politician once said, “You don’t run for second place.”

Dinner is at Casa Mirones. The food is the usual high standard I’ve come to expect from this part of the world, while the view is incomparable. One wall is all glass, and we’re treated a full view of the harbor at twilight, the ships passing by so closely we could call out to the crew. Sometime during the excellent paella, Josu gets the call he’s waiting for. His face lights up and he beams a grin at the world. The table erupts in applause as he announces he’s won.

Bildu made a surprisingly strong showing. In the Basque region they got 25.9% of the vote and their candidates won many regional and local seats. Whatever people think of Bildu, it looks like it’s here to stay.

It’s not every day that your tour guide makes the news.

Coming up next: Politics and people: an immigrant’s impressions of the Basque Country!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.

The Old Leather Man: controversy over digging up a legend

Leather Man, Leatherman, Old Leather Man, The Old Leather ManInvestigators in Connecticut are planning to uncover a local legend, but they’re facing a backlash of public sentiment.

An archaeological team will open the grave of The Old Leather Man, a mysterious wanderer who from 1883 to 1889 walked a 365 mile loop from the lower Hudson River Valley into Connecticut and back. It took him 34 days to make the journey and he was so punctual that well-wishers used to to have meals ready for him when he showed up. He spoke French but little English, slept only in caves and rock shelters, and never revealed information about himself. He got his name from his homemade, 60 lb. suit of leather.

His grave in Ossining’s Sparta Cemetery brings a regular flow of the curious, but local officials are afraid it’s too close to the street and is a safety hazard. They plan to dig up The Old Leather Man and move him to a different part of the cemetery. They also want to take a DNA sample. Legend claims he was a heartbroken Frenchman named Jules Bourglay, but Leather Man biographer Dan W. DeLuca says this is an invention of a newspaper of the time.

The DNA might prove a clue to who he really was and that’s where the controversy starts. History teacher Don Johnson has set up a website called Leave the Leatherman Alone, saying that his privacy should be respected. Judging from all the comments on his site, he seems to have a fair amount of backing.

As a former archaeologist I love unraveling a good mystery but I have to agree with Mr. Johnson on this one. The Old Leather Man obviously wanted his identity to remain unknown, and just because he was a homeless man why should his wishes be ignored? He never committed any crime besides vagrancy, he died of natural causes, and there are no known inheritance issues, so what’s the need?

As a teenager growing up in the Hudson Valley, I loved the mysteries of New England and the Mid-Atlantic states–the strange rock constructions, the Revolutionary War ghosts, Mystery Hill, and, of course, The Old Leather Man. Most of this is the stuff of imagination, but The Old Leather Man was real, living person.

And because of that, we should let his mystery remain buried.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]