Tuesday, May 07, 2024

In review: International Cryptozoology Conference 2024

Portland, ME -- April 26th and 27th, 2024

Much anticipated since the previous one, held here in 2019, the 5th International Cryptozoology Conference finally happened!


Events kicked off on Friday night with an informal VIP pizza dinner.  Christopher Packard was presented with the award of Cryptozoologist of the Year!  Following this we were treated to a talk by author J.W. Ocker, the keynote speaker.  


Ocker’s most recent book, The United States of Cryptids, chronicles his epic quest across America to find a cryptid for each state of the Union, in a travelquest that will sound appealing to any of us who have pondered embarking on a journey in search of weird roadside destinations.  Ocker makes no bones about the fact that he is not a field investigator – he is more accurately someone who has adventures based on the search for local cryptid-related beers and museums.  My horror readers will also recognize his name from such chillers as Twelve Nights in Rotter House.


In his travels, he found 40 cryptid statues, 18 cryptid museums, and 24 cryptid festivals.  We were treated to an abbreviated tour of his favorites, the good and the bad, and tantalizing photos of some of the places he went. 


His first conclusion:  “Bigfoot is BIG!”  The prevalence of the Big Guy across the United States first perplexed and eventually annoyed Ocker, who probably had been hoping for more of a variety of idiosyncratic local oddities, but instead found a scattered handful of them, among a preponderance of the Bigfoot variations that dominate the landscape.  Why is this, beyond the obvious presence in pretty much every state, and popular appeal in general?  As Loren Coleman posited to him, maybe – just maybe – it’s because we are a narcissistic species, fascinated by our own reflection in this wildman of the woods.

J.W. Ocker - United States of Cryptids author

Some of the cryptids he found were truly strange (like the flying clam of Battle Mountain, NV, which I now need to know much, much more about), and anomalous local creatures such as the giant, kitchen-table-sized turtle of Churubusco, Indiana, whose legend lives on today in the town’s Turtle Days festival.  Both of these sound like great fodder for local authors to write a book about!


While many of these cases were based on events and legends local to the area, others were more arbitrary, such as the Norfolk VA alliance with mermaids, which was based on their popular appeal and not much else.  In other regions, like Wisconsin (the Hodag, the Rhinelapus, Mt. Horeb trolls, and the Beast of Bray Road!), he found a plethora of unique attractions that put other states to shame.  Wisconsin’s critter lineup also presented a mix of origins – some were unabashedly human-generated, while others originated in genuine cryptid sightings.


At any rate, Ocker’s talk reminded me of the delights of roadside attractions, and the joy of going on roadtrips just for the sake of seeing something weird and different.  It’s a lot easier to do that now, with books like Ocker’s doing some of the legwork for you, and taking their place alongside the original “Weird” series by Mark Moran and crew (Weird US, Weird New England, et al), and websites like Atlas Obscura and the OG, Roadside America.  With these resources ready to hand, you could take fun roadtrips for the rest of your life and never run out of places to visit!


Ocker’s talk was followed by a screening of the film Big Fur, ably introduced by director Dan Wayne.  I don’t think any of us were prepared for what that led to, and I’m glad he mentioned that it was okay to laugh, because almost right off the bat we realized that this was a uniquely quirky film about a weirdly fascinating pocket of North American (indeed international) craftsmanship and the niche society that has grown up around that pursuit – taxidermy.


"Big Fur" Director, Dan Wayne

Not only did the film introduce us to the amazing artistry of award-winning taxidermist Ken Walker, but also it demonstrated the wide range of work within that field, both technical and creative.  Those of you who, like myself, are sensitive to the treatment of animals will not have any trouble here.  Dan Wayne took pains to make this film as accessible as possible, and I think even the most squeamish of viewers will find that barriers have been removed to your enjoyment of this fascinating glimpse of artists treating their subjects with care and respect.


Above all, it is a film that emphasizes the humanness of Ken Walker’s chosen life, and the overriding determination to appreciate and revere the wilderness, and how important it is to fight alongside the conservationists against the tide of greedy corporate desolation that is flattening our continent’s native assets and destroying our large forests forever.  I think that’s something we can all get behind.


On Saturday, I was very happy to start the day off with my talk “Back into the Woods,” updating folks on my Bigfoot in Maine research, with a focus on a cluster of sightings in Western Maine, which will be part of volume 2.  It’s going to be another couple of years before it’s all wrapped up and on its way to you all, but it will be worth the wait!


Biologist and cryptid hunter Pat Spain (yay!) was up next, and once again he entertained us with some fun adventures from his work during his talk, “Cryptozoology Adventures.”  I first met Pat when we shared an Uber on our way to the very 1st International Cryptozoology Conference, held down in St. Augustine, Florida – way back in 2016!  He is a descendant of Charles Fort, which only serves to give him additional Fortean creds.


Spain, in addition to his dayjob in the biology field, is best known for his TV shows Beast Hunter and Legend Hunter, and more recently his travelogue books based on those experiences (all of which I carry at the Green Hand Bookshop!), which are just as entertaining and informative as his shows were.


He spoke about his experiences in the lab and in the field, and how important and even necessary legends are to us.  Legends, beyond leaving clues about little-seen animals, help cultures explain the unexplainable, and also create some interesting leeway and workarounds within cultures.  Ask your local anthropologist about the Boto, and its role in local villages, or how local society treats men who are afraid of crocodiles vs. those who respect the hunting grounds of Mokele-mbembe.

Spain talked about the presence of barracudas in Maine (which I now have to look up, seriously), and participating in the first ever CAT scan of an oarfish, and discussed his opinions on the cadborosaurus, which he posits to have a likelihood to simply be an undiscovered species.  Similarly, he speculates that the legendary Mapinguari is most likely a giant ground sloth.


He related to us all sorts of intriguing facts, including that according to residents of Sumatra, the tigers there are very polite, and that when he spoke with Mike Morwood, who spearheaded efforts that led to the discovery of Homo floresiensis in 2003, Morwood told him that he thought Homo floresiensis survived into as late as the 1920s.  Spain also lauded camera trap operators for their role in documenting elusive species in the wild.


But he hasn’t just hunted legendary creatures – in his show Legend Hunter he also sought out human strangeness, which led him down odd and unexpected paths.  I mean, who knew that he would wind up having a psionic vampire drinking his energy, only to be told he tasted like charcoal and lavender?

Past & current Cryptozoologists of the Year: Packard, Ocker, presenter Coleman, and Spain.

Next up was Jean Tewksbury, former International Cryptozoology Museum docent, and admin of the Facebook group “Eastern Ghost Cat Research,” where she continues her search to establish the presence of cougars here in Maine.  Jean was an avid Bigfoot field researcher when I first met her years ago, but after she had a roadside encounter with cougar cubs here in Maine, she switched her focus to these beautiful big cats.

Jean Tewksbury on mystery cats

Her talk, “Mystery Cats,” was very informative, and included interesting nuggets such as a demonstration of how the most common misidentification for supposed cougars are often actually deer, foreshortened in game camera shots as they feed bent down.  She reminded us that there have been no illegal cat seizures by Maine authorities, despite claims that sightings are those of vanity pet owners’ exotic animals getting loose. 

She also advised that if you have a cougar sighting yourself, you should contact your regional Maine biologist rather than the game wardens, as wardens deal only in hunting laws (there is no hunting season for cougar in Maine, therefore any hunting of them is illegal) – the biologists are the ones who would record and investigate sightings.

If any of you have cougar reports for Jean, I’m happy to put you in touch with her via email.

Dan Wayne escorts the mammoth figure of Patty to her new home in the ICM!

Next up was Chris Packard, continuing in a felid vein with a talk on Mountain Lions: “Big Cats Are Scary: A case study of cryptozoology and folklore.”  While Jean had focused on the real-world ramifications of cougars in Maine, Chris delved into the history that forms the shadowy foundations of those rumors and sightings.  Chris is also the new Vice President of the International Cryptozoology Museum.

Chris Packard on Mythical Creatures

Maine is host to more than one big cat, even counting out the cougar, but the lynx and the bobcat are both nocturnal, making them even more unlikely to be seen than their big cousin, the Eastern Cougar, which is crepuscular (feeding in the half-light of dawn and dusk).

Chris talked about the protean nature of oral history, in which stories change over time to adapt to the changes in the world around us, and gave examples of some of his favorite big cats from folklore, such as the Ding-Ball, the Dungavenhooter (or Dungarvon Whooper in New Brunswick), and the Monkey-Bear-Pig (aka porcupines!).


Many of these are covered in Chris’s excellent book, Mythical Creatures of Maine.

Wen Eldridge - Cryptozoology Facts

Next we heard from Wen Eldridge, founder of the Facebook group “Cryptozoology Facts,” who did a bang up job reminding us of the diversity of cryptozoology with her presentation about “My Favorite 25 Cryptozoology Facts.”  The talk covered everything from the Boston Lemur to I-don’t-know-what, and it is easy to see why Wen has such a following.  She is very straight-forward in her approach, and is enthusiastic and fun to boot!

David Goudsward, a longtime researcher of historic lore, regaled us with “Cryptozoology, Cthulhu, and Lovecraft,” taking us down unspeakable roads.  His past research has focused on New England oddities, and sea monsters (he spoke at the 2016 conference on this topic, if I recall correctly).

First he addressed the challenges of working between multiple frameworks.  Context is everything!  Is it Fortean? Cryptozoological? Lovecraftian?  That out of the way, he dove right into the deep end.  Did H.P. Lovecraft appreciate Charles Fort’s work?  Short answer: he saw him as the source of some good story prompts, but didn’t have much regard for his writing ability. 

This source for material seems to have been taken up by many of Lovecraft’s crowd as well, and between these authors many a report on zoological curiosities and bizarre newspaper clippings about anomalous occurrences were exchanged. 


Goudsward’s take on the Lovecraftian Mythos is that it is cryptid-adjacent, feeding on early exposure to such “monsters” as Komodo dragons in the Bronx Zoo, talk of Gloucester’s sea monster, Nessie, the Cherbourg carcass, Byrd’s polar explorations, lost races in the work of pulp predecessors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, and lots and lots of local folklore heard about in newspapers or from local gossip.   


Lovecraft acted as a conduit for this material, also encouraging his peers to take the time to listen to local stories, and freely divulging the sources for his inspiration, such as his letter to Fritz Leiber discussing the Mi-Go (the name of an alien race from Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness,” but originally drawn from early newspaper accounts of Yeti tracks found in the Himalayas).


The weekend was concluded with by Loren Coleman’s presentation on “Digging into Skinwalker Ranch’s Cryptozoology” and closing remarks.  At least as early as 1974, the strange phenomena at Skinwalker Ranch has included reports of weird animals, starting with Bigfoot-like creature sightings alongside UFOs and other phenomena, and blurring into and out of the taboo skinwalker culture in the region.   


Overall, the area seems to continue to “collect strangeness.”  The current ownership, and the subsequent popularization of the ongoing experiments there via reality TV, have continued to produce interest in this inexplicable place.

Loren continued to stir the pot by reminding us that: the Mormon influence in the region is pervasive, many people have theories that portals on the ranch create opportunities for anomalous creatures to travel into and out of the property, and cause phenomena such as cattle mutilations.  Among the wild and wooly cast of characters are reptilians, a dinobeaver, weird owls, Bigfoot-type creatures, innocent livestock being used as bio-indicators, and dire wolves and other lupine manifestations.  Many strange things have been seen, but no good photographs of creatures have been captured yet.


And on that strange note, the conference wrapped up.  Loren proposes that Bangor, Maine, will be the site of the next conference, as renovations on the new ICM building there proceed apace.


See you all there!!!

Photographic evidence of rare elusive cryptid seen in lecture hall!


1 comment:

Loren Coleman said...

Thank you, Michelle, for your excellent summary of the 5th International Cryptozoology Conference.

One clarification, the International Cryptozoology Museum is a nonprofit, so Chris Packard is our new Assistant Director, not Vice President.

Thank you
Loren Coleman, Director
ICM (moving to Bangor in 2025)