Rural Legends and Myths Abound in the Outdoors

Posted by: Patrick Durkin on May 17, 2012

One of my favorite pastimes as an outdoor writer the past 30 years is collecting conspiracy theories, rural legends and other tall tales from readers.

About the time one story finishes its rounds, another takes its place. And don’t worry. If you didn’t hear one particular myth during its first cycle, be patient. They’re tough. They don’t die. They’ll return soon enough.

Insurance companies do not secretly lobby lawmakers and wildlife agencies to reduce deer herds in hopes of reducing deer-vehicle collisions.

Among deer hunters, the toughest of all tough tall tales involves insurance companies. Every time a wildlife agency says we need to reduce deer populations, we hear stories about insurance companies lobbying or paying off legislators and agency chieftains. After all, the story goes, insurance companies are losing millions to auto-body shops to pay for damage caused by deer-vehicle collisions.

Seriously? People believe lawmakers and wildlife-agency employees take payoffs from insurance companies to reduce the deer herd? Stop it, man. You’re killing me.

The fact is, insurance companies do not lose money on something so predictable. If you own a car in an area with lots of deer-vehicle collisions, insurance companies simply boost your premiums. If insurance companies know how to bet on people to make money on health insurance, life insurance and home insurance, imagine how easy it is for them to profit from deer-vehicle crashes.

But as rural legends go, insurance conspiracies are boring stuff. I prefer funny, entertaining rural legends; the rustic version of urban legends. If you’ve heard about alligators in New York’s sewers, a savvy Kmart clerk thwarting a kidnapping in the changing room, or an indignant mother revealing a corporation’s secret cookie recipe that she was tricked into buying for $250 instead of $2.50, you know about urban legends. Most of us have been fooled at some point.

Based on turkey flocks in spring, rumors of their widespread deaths in winter are often greatly exaggerated.

Allow me to share a few from my 30 years in newspapers and magazines. In every case, I first heard them when contacted by a reader with a hot tip.

During the early to mid-1980s when the Chippewa tribes of northern Wisconsin first exercised their off-reservation treaty rights, rural legends were rampant. In one version, the neighbor of a friend’s friend found hundreds of dead walleyes in a Northwoods landfill, all with spear wounds.

For some reason, he could never get me the neighbor’s name or the landfill’s name, or explain how this man from my hometown just happened to be at a landfill 170 miles away.

In another story, a guy called me to say his friend videotaped agency biologists netting walleyes in lakes Winnebago and Butte des Morts near Oshkosh, Wis., loading the fish into a hatchery truck, and then restocking Northern lakes where the Chippewa had speared.

This guy called three times claiming his friend had a video of the truck, and he was tracking down the cassette for me. Each time he called, he was getting closer to putting his hands on the video. He couldn’t wait to show me the footage.

Odd. Even though he had my home and work addresses and phone numbers, I never saw the video.

That autumn, another reader called to say the brother-in-law of his cousin’s friend heard lots of shooting one night in a Northwoods forest. The next morning, he found 19 dead whitetails scattered around a clear-cut down the road. My question stumped him: “Why didn’t the other 18 deer flee when the shooting started?”

Funny. He, too, didn’t know the clear-cut’s exact location or anyone’s name.

When rumors fly about mysterious deer die-offs or farmers burying deer they shoot illegally, it’s usually an unnamed farm at least 20 miles away.

A different version of that story surfaced a few years later when the state first granted permits to farmers so they could shoot deer eating their crops. A concerned citizen called to say a nearby farmer got one of the permits, and was shooting deer every night and burying them with his front-end loader.

I checked into the story. Imagine my shock when I discovered no farmer within 25 miles of that area had a shooting permit. When I called my informant back and told him what I had learned, he got angry. He told me I was gullible, and said it’s obviously a cover-up. He said he would find the farmer’s name, and get me his address and phone number right away.

I’m still waiting to hear back. It’s been nearly 25 years.

One of the most pervasive myths of the early 1990s was that deer across Wisconsin were eating moldy corn in winter and dying from a nasty toxin. I must have heard 25 versions of the myth. Mysteriously enough, the ailment always struck deer 20 miles or more away. Again, no one provided names or addresses, so I could never interview the fretting farmers where the die-offs occurred.

Around the mid-1990s, I also heard stories about wild turkeys in my area freezing to death on their roosts after a nasty January ice storm. One morning, a co-worker told me 30 wild turkeys were found dead on a neighbor’s farm. I requested the farmer’s name and address. He said he’d check and call me back. Later that day he did. Unfortunately, all he would say is that the farmer didn’t want any media types snooping around.

Again, imagine my shock.

I could go on, but you notice a trend: Much like urban legends, rural legends play on our fears, prejudices and fascination with the unknown.

Even so, if you hear a good story, please share it with me. If it’s true, it will make a good column.

If it’s false, it will make an even better one.

Patrick Durkin

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