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W-File: gh_trappertree.html

Type: Ghost
Location: Rhinelander

Source: The book Northern Frights by Dennis Boyer (published 1998) pages 66-69.

The Trapper in the Tree

Introduction by Dennis Boyer

Logging ghosts are found by the hundreds throughout northern Wisconsin. Not surprising for one of the most dangerous occupations on earth. Not surprising for the enterprise that profoundly alters the landscape in a few decades and leaves a legacy of slash fires and hard-scrabble stump farming.

The human cost of felling the northwoods pinery added a grim chapter to the annals of this forestry holocaust. Nineteenth-century accounts painted a gruesome picture: mangled bodies, crushed skulls, amputations, river jockeys swept away on logjams, and crews starving and freezing to death in isolated bunkhouses.

Wisconsin has many places where you can hear logging legends and lore. The Hayward and Antigo areas have quite a few knowledgeable woodsmen who spin yarns. But perhaps the best place to capture the oldtime flavor is in Rhinelander. The Rhinelander Logging Museum acts as a magnet for those seeking to preserve the memories of the early pinery logging effort. The parklike setting with its towering trees and cabin-style building sets the mood.

There, museum volunteers and an assortment of hangers-on keep alive the folk knowledge of pre-chainsaw, pre-Iog skidder, and pre-truck logging. Memories of their fathers and grandfathers keep the stories fresh in their minds. Not content with the myths of Paul Bunyan, they are almost smug in the knowledge of blood relationship to real heroes. Several visits over a ten-year period lead to a friendship with one of the museum regulars. But this acquaintance was already in its ninth year when he took me for a walk in the grove of trees where the wind in the tops hushed out the city sounds. Willard was finally ready to tell his ghost story.

The Story From Willard

The woods to the east of Rhinelander are haunted by the Trapper in the Tree. Especially out by Lake Thompson. Way out on the east end of the lake. That's where his body was found.

And what an unusual find it was too. Two men working a big crosscut saw. They were sectioning a tree that had already been dropped. They first hit empty space - a hollow section. Then they met odd resistance. Then they hit metal.

What it was, they broke through into a cavity. Then they cut through the mummified body. Then they sawed into his rifle. You'd better believe that they were quite surprised when they looked into that cavity. The man was preserved like a piece of dried fruit.

My grandad Jacob was one of those men. And you could easily say that he was haunted for life just on the basis of that discovery. He told the story hundreds of times. But there was more to it from him than just a sliced mummy in the tree. There had been sightings of a, ghost for years before this discovery. It was said that a ghost beckoned people and motioned them to follow him. I guess he wanted his remains to be found. But who in his right mind follows a ghost? And who would think to look for a ghost in a hollow section of log twenty feet above the ground?

So how did that man come to be in that tree? Grandad knew exactly how because of the story his father told him. His father and his father's brother came in the early days. They lived on trapping until the logging jobs opened up. They ranged all the way up to the Michigan line.

In those days, not all the Indians had been pushed back into the reservations yet. There really wasn't much government up here yet to do that. Anyway, the Indians-mostly Chippewa, but some Menominee, too-still ranged through much of the forest. They trapped, too. And they really didn't like the competition.

I must be honest, too. It just wasn't the competition. The brothers here robbed some traps. So you might figure they made an enemy or two. As it turned out, the Chippewa caught up with them out near Lake Thompson. The brothers thought they'd give their pursuers the slip by splitting up. So the one brother climbed a tree to break up the trail.

On what happened next we can only speculate. The Chippewa must have gotten close and he must have discovered a hole up in the tree. So he slipped in. Then you can guess that he got stuck. The way it works in a tight vertical space is that the more you struggle, the more you sink into a tighter spot.

The other brother came back and searched. He always heard yelling on the wind in the tree tops. But he could never pin down where it was coming from. He probably thought he was already dealing with a ghost.

It's horrible to think of slow death in that tree. But it's also oddly. humorous to think that body in sap could have been the biggest bug found in amber in a couple of million years if they had not cut the tree down. Gives you all sorts of opportunity to call a fellow a knothead and how he's stiff as a board.

The upshot was generations of hatred toward the Indians in my family. I'm ashamed to say that I've got grandchildren in grade school who hate Indians. Like all stories this one has two sides. Or at least another perspective. That would be the Indian perspective.

They knew something bad happened to one of the trappers. Old Indian men told me it was long thought that the trapper turned into an evil spirit and flew away. But when they learned of his fate when the tree was cut down there was an even heavier feeling. It seems that there is a feeling that a horrible death like that gives the victim the power to impose a powerful curse. With that is the sense that the cutting of the log and the body set loose some powerful bad medicine that festers and builds over time. It grows because nobody knows how to combat it.

This was certainly true in our family. The bad feelings just kept building until the explosion of hate on the boatlandings in the 1980s. That's when the tavern fights and the scuffles at basketball games started to escalate. I really think that spirit of the trapper may have moved into my son.

You could see it in his eyes: the bile, the venom, and the irrational grudges over things that are over and done. And he infected others with it. He was worked up something fierce and convinced others it was a political or justice issue. He never had an answer for me why he didn't tackle any of the thousands of other unfair situations.

From what you've told me, some groups and places have patron ghosts the way others have patron saints. You make those things sound positive, or at least harmless. But I guess here we have a different case. There can be patron evil spirits too, can't there?

The biggest question is, how does this work? Is it just some malignant natural thing loosed on us through human bumbling? Sort of like bumping a hornet's nest? Or does the evil spirit lay in wait and lure us in? Or did people with hate in their hearts stir up spirits who would otherwise rest?

Find out these things if you can. Go down to the Mole Lake Chippewa and to the Forest County Potawatomi. I'll give you a couple of names. No one wants to see me on account of my son. Let me know if we can put the Trapper in the Tree to rest and whether that will heal my son.

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