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Fearsome Critters

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The term fearsome critter is found in early lumberjack folklore for any of the mythical beasts that were said to inhabit the frontier wilderness of North America.

Fearsome critters were an integral part of oral tradition in North American lumber camps during the turn of the 20th century,principally as a means to pass time (such as in tall tales) or as a jest for hazing newcomers. In a typical fearsome critter gag, a person would casually remark about a strange noise or sight they encountered in the wild; subsequently, another accomplice would join in. Meanwhile an eavesdropper would begin to investigate, as Henry H. Tryon recorded in his book, Fearsome Critters (1939) —

“Sam would lead with a colorful bit of description, and Walter would follow suit with an arresting spot of personal experience, every detail being set forth with the utmost solemnity, and with exactly the correct degree of emphasis. At the end, so deftly had the cards been played that the listener was completely convinced of the animal's existence. This method of presentation is widely used. For the best results, two narrators who can "keep the ball in the air" are necessary, and perhaps an occasional general question is tossed to someone in the audience, such inquires being invariably accorded a grave, corroborative nod.”

Lumberjacks, who regularly traveled between camps, would stop to swap stories in time spreading these myths around the continent.Many fearsome critters were simply the products of pure exaggeration; while a number however, were used either seriously or jokingly as explanations for unexplained phenomenon. For example the hidebehind served to account for loggers who failed to return to camp, while the treesqueak offered justification for strange noises heard in the woods. A handful mirrored descriptions of actual animals. The Mangrove killifish, which takes up shelter in decaying branches after leaving the water, exhibits similarities to the upland trout, a mythical fish purported to nest in trees. In addition, the story of the fillyloo, about a mythical crane that flies upside-down, may have been inspired by observations of the Wood Stork, a bird that has been witnessed briefly flying in this manner. In particular instances more elaborate ruses were created using taxidermy or trick photography.

The character of the fearsome critters themselves was usually more comical than frightful. Often the greater emphasis is placed on behavioral traits with little or no detail mentioned on their appearance, as in the cases of the hidebehind, teakettler, Squidgicum-Squee, and hangdown. Some like flittericks or the goofus appeared to be ordinary animals that just behaved out of the ordinary. The more physically emphasized and improbable creatures seem to be distinguished by how far the storyteller could push the boundaries of biomechanics. Both the tripodero and snoligoster demonstrate facets more in common with mechanical apparatuses than animals, and the hugag and sidehill gouger seem to be more a play on applied physics than fanciful inspiration. While much of the literature that has been written on the subject echoes a naturalist's perspective, commonly specifying a range of distribution, behavioral habits, and physical appearance, it should be noted that as many of these myths were never widespread it is common to find a lack of consensus on a specific fearsome critter, if not clear contradictions. To illustrate, the wampus cat differs widely between Vance Randolph’s We Always Lie to Strangers and Henry H. Tryon’s Fearsome Critters, with Tryon describing a cat with pantographic forelimbs and Randolph portraying it as a supernatural aquatic panther.

Critter Description
Argopelter A beast which amuses itself by hurling twigs and tree branches at passers by
Axehandle hound Reputedly subsisted on axe handles left unattended; mentioned in Jorge Luis Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings
Cactus cat Feline of the American southwest with hair like thorns that intoxicates itself by the consumption of cactus water
Fur-bearing trout A species of trout which grows a thick coat of fur for warmth in its cold climate
Glawackus A fierce brute resembling either a panther, lion, or bear
Hidebehind A brute which would seize unwary lumberjacks and devour them, and was said to be so swift that it could hide behind the nearest tree before a man turned around
Hodag A favorite varmint of the Wisconsin swamps affixed with horns and spikes complemented by a maniacal grin
Hoop snake A snake which bites its tail to enable it to roll like a wheel
Jackalope A rabbit with the antlers of an antelope
Jersey Devil A predatory creature said to terrorize lifestock in the pines of Southern New Jersey. Often described as winged and bipedal, and sometimes connected to witchcraft and devil worship
Joint snake A snake that can reassemble itself after being cut to pieces
Sidehill gouger A beast legged for hillsides having legs on one side taller than the other thus always traveling in a circular path
Snipe The subject of a famous ruse of many a camp consisting of a wild goose chase for the animal
Splintercat A legendary cat in the Pacific Northwest that uses his incredible speed and stiff forehead to smash into large trees, knocking the branches off and withering the trunks
Squonk The most melancholy of creatures which because of its deformed countenance refuses contact with all life and will dissolve in tears if ever gazed upon
Teakettler A small vermin which makes a noise like the sound of a tea kettle
Wampus cat A large phantom cat

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