Thursday, October 16, 2008

Caribou Tales: Last of a Kind

Caribou TownshipAn amazing story awaits the reader below. And as is almost always the case, this amazing story is true. It happened in our county, a generation ago. I'm not sure if there are still hermits out in Caribou country as I call it, but I know there were still some in the early to mid 1980's when my mother used to tend to some of them living there at the time in her capacity as the Kittson County Homemaker (A Homemaker was a person who basically travelled all over our very rural northern county to people that were underserved, undereducated, homebound, etc., and taught them about personal finance, how to keep a clean house, and even personal hygiene...) Such people are what make our northern communities special and unique. We care about people, but we also know how to leave them alone if they so wish...

Last Man of an Ancient Culture
by Ken Korczak

In the northern part of Kittson County, Minnesota, which borders Canada, are the wild woods of Caribou Township. Few people dwell there, but my brother who lives nearby in the tiny town of Lancaster says he knows of a few “old hermits” in those woods. When you write about the paranormal for as long as I have, you develop an intuition about where a good story might be hiding. Whenever I hear about people living in isolation, chances are that something about them is off kilter. So after asking around, I was delighted to uncover this spooky story of an old Caribou hermit who died back in the 1970s.This old man had contact with almost no one, except for the two people that told me this story. I’ll call them Dan and Clare. Back in the 1970s Dan and Clare were newly married. Dan was from the Twin Cities, but Clare was born and raised in the rural Lancaster area. One of the first thing she told her new husband was that she had a “special great uncle” who lived like a hermit deep in the Caribou woods. He was some 90 years old.

She was his only connection to civilization. The old man was originally from Wales, now part of the United Kingdom. He came over to the U.S. with his wife, who died in the late 1950s. They had no children. The reason they came to America and had settled so deeply and isolated in the woods was because they were both members of an ancient, extinct religion, which Clare said was pronounced phonetically something like "Gwer Gith I Noone," or perhaps "Gwer Geth High Noon." Gwer Geth High Noon1, as I’ll call it, supposedly was a secret society, a “hidden” European culture or religion that perhaps dated back to neolithic times. Clare said she gathered from talking to her Great Uncle, who spoke only crude English, that he and his wife were among the last survivors of Gwer Geth High Noon, whom were driven out of Europe by the coming of modern times. The old man and his wife escaped to the woods of Caribou township where they could live out the rest of their lives, the last of their kind.Gwer Geth High Noon was based on the worship of various nature gods. Stones were of particular importance. The members of Gwer Geth High Noon apparently believed that the heavier the stone, the more its power “bent the world,” whatever that meant.They also held trees in high regard, especially oaks.Clare and Dan took care of the man as he grew older,although he was remarkably self sufficient. He had lived for years on deer, rabbit, and even raccoon meat. They said he made a vile drink by boiling treebark. (Note: a popular food supplement today called pycnoginal can be found in health food stores and is made from tree bark extract. It is high in vitamin C and other healthy nutrients).

Anyway, one day when Clare went to check on her uncle, she found him dead. He was was reclined peacefully on his rude bed made from torn up rags on the floor. In his hand was a branch from an oak tree. Clare was shocked to find that the man had left behind instructions on how and where he wanted to be buried.The instructions were in symbol form, drawn on the cured hide of a deer, using some kind of plant-based pigment, perhaps blueberries. The parchment contained a detailed symbolic map which showed exactly where his grave must be dug.Apparently, there was some kind of stone monument in the woods, next to which he had buried his wife many years ago. He wanted to be planted by her side under the sacred stone. The map cleverly showed the way to the stone, using natural formations as guideposts. At first Clare and Dan didn’t know what to do. They knew it was illegal to bury someone in the woods. They were also legally obligated to report his death, but were unsure if they should do so. If they did, they could not honor his last wish.This man may have been the last member of an ancient,hidden culture that had survived since the Stone Age.To have him buried in a cemetery full of Scandinavian Protestants or Polish Catholics, the majority among northern Minnesotans, just didn’t seem right. He could have been cremated, but Clare was certain that this violated the tenets of Gwer Geth High Noon.

Letting the dead old man rest on his bed of rags, Clare and Dan decided to see if they could follow the map and find the stone monument in the woods.The map proved remarkably easy to follow, and within 25 minutes of traipsing through thick woods, they found the monument indicated on the map — except it was not made out of stone — it was a metalic international border pylon signifying the U.S.-Canadain border. The tall slender pylon indeed might be mistaken for some kind of sacred monolith by a man from a different culture, and a different time. Dan and Clare knew they had real trouble now. Burying a crazy old man in the woods was one thing, but digging a grave next to an international border pylon must violate about 100 federal or international laws! What to do, what to do? After a few hours of soul searching, Clare and Dan could not decide what was best. They needed more time to think, and judged that one more day would make little difference. It was early October and quite cold outside. The old man’s shack was not heated, so he would preserve fairly well for at least another day.That night they went over and over it with each other.One of the things that touched them strongly was the fact that his poor wife was already buried out there in the woods, alone and waiting for her husband to join her in eternity. It didn’t seem right to leave her there alone, against the kindly old uncle’s wishes. Still, Dan and Clare were respectable law abiding citizens. They were good Lutherans. Before going to bed, they had decided to go by the book, and call the county coroner in the morning. But that night was the second scariest of their lives.

After a few minutes in bed, they began to hear loud footsteps walking toward their bed in the dark bedroom. It sounded like “heavy cowboy boots clomping on a hardwood floor,” they said. They could also hear “raspy breathing.” When they turned on the lights, no-one could be seen. As soon as they turned the lights off, the heavy footsteps walking up to the edge of the bed would sound again.After experiencing this a half-dozen times, they decided to sleep with the lights on, but the light burned out within minutes. As they scrambled for another bulb, they could hear the footsteps racing toward them! By this time is was 2 a.m. and they were dead tired. (No pun intended). Finally, Clare shouted:“Okay, okay, Uncle ***X! We get the message! We’ll honor your last wishes! We’ll bury you next to the sacred stone in the woods, next to your beloved wife!”After this they heard the footsteps no more, although they slept in the living room with all the lights on.

Dan and Clare could not believe what they were about to do, but after a night of sleepless terror, they felt more compelled than ever to finish what they knew they must. The task ahead of them was grisly. They had to carry the corpse of the old man about a half-hour’s walk through the tangled brush of the northern Minnesota woods. By moonlight, they needed to locate the metallic pylon marking the U.S.-Canada border. Once there, they would dig a grave in the hard ground - not yet frozen, but mighty cold - and most likely filled with tangled roots, rocks and undergrowth. It was early October but the ground was not yet frozen. On any other occasion, the evening might be considered pleasant in a brisk, autumnal sort of way.The moon would come up gibbous, and would cast plentiful light. Clare and Dan were actually glad that only a pale lunar glow would illuminate the lurid burial ritual which they must carry out illegally by modern law, but orthodox under the ancient precepts of Gwer Geth High Noon.

Dan and Clare arrived at the old man’s shack just before sundown, and even though they were deep in the woods, they waited for darkness before they dared carry the body outside and begin the old man’s final earthly journey. They half expected his body to be gone after presumably hearing his footsteps all through the previous night, but the old man was there on his bed of rags, very dead. The wait for darkness was nerve-wracking and interminable. But as deep purple twilight set in, they wrapped the body in thick blankets, and using a small trailer which they could pull by hand, they towed the body into the woods. The trip through the woods proved extremely difficult.They had to abandon the trailer after just a 100 yards because it kept catching on brush and branches. Several times the old man’s body rolled off onto the ground, to the great dismay of both Clare and Dan.Every time this happened, Clare cried out “Elgrowtrin-O’lel-Galon!” She had learned this phrasef rom her uncle, and believed it was Gwer Geth High Noon canticle against negative forces. If any of the ancient nature gods were still awake, Clare was eager to have their blessing on this macabre processional!

But eventually Dan was obliged to heave the stiff corpse over his shoulder and weave his way through the woods, following Clare, who held a dim red lamp to help illuminate the way. The gibbous moon was already above the horizon as they reached the half-way point. Dan put the body down and rested for a bit. Clare tightened up the twine which wrapped the body. Then they were off again through the thick wilderness. The trees were mostly bare, but were still thick enough to filter much of the moonlight, exaggerating the gloom. As they walked, each dry branch they stepped on cracked loud enough to be heard half way to Winnipeg,or so it seemed to the jittery couple.After what seemed like hours they finally spied the border pylon among the brush and woods, gleaming dullsilver as it reflected a tricky moonbeam that found its way through the maze of branches overhead. Thankfully, Dan put the body down but didn’t take a minute to rest before he grabbed the spade from Clare and began to dig the grave. If the old man had really buried his wife here some 20 years ago, there was no sign of a grave now. Dan didn’t let himself think about this as he worked the shovel through the difficult turf.

The digging proved exceedingly laborious. They hitroots and rocks aplenty. The ground was cold, hard and sometimes gravelly. Clare took her turn at the shovel.They decided quickly not to go very deep, although they wanted to dig deep enough to prevent an animal from rooting him up, or worse, having the frost push him up next spring. Dan and Clare wanted to sleep nights from here on, and having this body firmly planted beneath the good, rocky, Minnesota-Manitoba regolith was their best insurance of that! After the hole was some four feet deep, Dan took the shovel from his wife and said: “I’ll take 20 more scoops and then we’ll call it good enough.”Clare agreed and held their red lantern high so that Dan could see his work. Dan had the hole deep enough,so now he was just taking slices around the edges to widen it out a bit. Suddenly, the shovel made asickening crunching sound. Clare held the lamp closer and cried out at the top of her lungs:“Elgrowtrin-O’lel-Galon!!”For Dan’s shovel and struck and penetrated the skull of the old man’s wife, and part of her mottled, old skeleton now rolled out of from the side of the grave and fell down at his feet.

Dan screamed loudly andjumped out of the grave with the shovel still in his hand. They both shrieked again when they noticed that her split skull was still clamped over the pointy end of the spade. Clare said: “Elgrowtrin-O’lel-Galon! Dan, put her head back in the grave!”Dan put his foot on the skull, pushed it off the spade and dropped it into the grave. Clare slugged him hard on the upper arm. “Not like that, you moron! You don’t kick somebody’s head off a shovel into a grave!”Dan countered: “Oh, and I suppose you wanted to pull her off with your hands?!”“Oh for Christ’s sake!” Clare screamed.Dan said: “Hey, watch what you’re saying with all this Christ stuff! This is Gwer Geth High Noon, isn’t it!?”Clare grabbed her forehead and said nothing. They both controlled whatever further comments they had and moved quickly to lower the body of the old man into the grave, and into the bony arms of his wife. They wanted nothing more than to be finished and to get out of the woods, but they stayed long enough to make certain that the grave was not only well covered with soil, but also covered with brush and pieces of wood to conceal it further.

When they were finally finished, they hastened their way back. About 200yards along the way, Clare tripped, and was aghast to notice that she had tripped on the old man’s boot,which had somehow fallen off. Dan grabbed it and flung it into the woods.As they continued, they suddenly heard a loud sound of crunching branches and brush, as if something was running through the woods chasing them from behind! Their hearts exploded in their chests. Dan grabbed Clare’s hand and shouted, “Run!” As they sprinted through the woods, Dan thought: “We’ve been sighted by the Border Patrol! They’re after us!”Clare thought: “Uncle’s ***’s has called an avenging Nature Spirit on us! He’s angry because we split Aunt***’s skull!”As they ran, the crashing noise got closer. Dan tripped hard and Clare fell over top of him. The crashing noise was almost upon them. “We’re caught!”they thought. An instant later, Dan and Clare saw a huge black shape move past them, missing them by a mere three feet — it was a gigantic moose, loping through the moonlit woods. They would have felt relief if their nerves were not so jangled. They got up and moved at good speed back to the old man’s shack, got in their pick-up truck and drove home.When they got home, they were astonished by their appearance in the mirror — they looked like haggard coal miners — dirty, white-eyed, leaves and branches stuck in their hair and clothes. That night they slept little. But Clare finally drifted off and had this subtle dream: She fancied that it was 25-below zero on a January night, and that she had somehow traveled out to the see her old uncle’s resting place. Once there,she saw that the snow had drifted high in the woods,and only the peak of the border pylon stuck out from the snow, glinting silver under icy moonlight. She shivered.

Article Copyright © Ken Korczak

1 - A reader of this tale shared this...
this tale of an isolated remnant of an ancient Celtic religion really fascinated me. Being a Welshman myself, I’ve always secretly hoped that some fragments of the Old Religion still meet in the hidden regions of my homeland… as opposed to the 18th century revival of Druidism and 20th century Paganism. This story would really please Margaret Murray if she were still around!

Anyway, I tried to make sense of the phonetic words and come up with something plausible. I know a bit of Welsh so I went to an online lexicon

The best matches I could come up with were:
“Gwer” = “Gwerin”? Gwerin means “the proletariat, the common folk, the ordinary people” according to the site, and can also mean “folk” as in “folk traditions” So this part makes sense. Possibly it could even mean “the people of…” A derivative of “gwerin” means “folklore”. I suspect that “gwergeth” or possibly “gwergyth” could be one word referring to folk traditions or beliefs. This is purely speculation on my part!

“High Noon” probably ends in the letters “nwn”, pronounced “noon” in Welsh. A leap of logic sent me to the word “Annwn”, the Celtic Otherworld. It’s a complete guess but Annwn was seen as a very real place in Celtic beliefs that could be entered into through various portals (e.g. Glastonbury Tor). See the Wikipedia entry on Annwn for more.

So the full title of the old Welshman’s group could be Gwergeth Annwn, the Folk Tradition of the Otherworld.