High Strangeness in the Kettle Moraine
By Tobias Wayland; with images by Emily Wayland
A bright, gibbous moon reflects off the deep Wisconsin snow, illuminating the forest around us and eliminating the need for flashlights. Emily and I are in the Kettle Moraine State Forest with Jay Bachochin, a researcher who’s been coming here the last two years in search of bigfoot.
"I’ve been coming here for almost two years," Jay says. “I’ve known about Bigfoot since the ‘70s. I never, ever believed in Bigfoot. It wasn’t until 2013 when I went out in the woods, and we kind of heard some real weird, simian-type sounds. And we could not go back to the Wisconsin sound board of all the indigenous animals and identify it. But it sounded simian, and that’s when I started going out, and that’s when I found the footprints. That’s when I had the rocks thrown at me.”
Neither the small parking area nor the trail ahead are plowed, but Jay’s 4x4 SUV was up to the task of getting us here, and we’re dressed for the single-digit February cold, so we trudge intrepidly up the path and deeper into the woods.
The trail that leads us away from where we parked is buried beneath ankle-deep snow, and we’re immediately engulfed in thick rows of pine, cherry, and oak trees to either side. It’s here that I first notice the smell. A musky, rotten odor permeates the air, and I assume that something must have died nearby. I don’t say anything yet. I want someone else to notice it first.
It doesn’t take long before they do. Our path terminates in a T intersection with a wider, smoother trail that’s been tamped down by cross-country skiers, and we turn left to continue deeper into the forest.
“Do you smell that?” Jay asks. “What do you smell?”
"It smells more like an artificial kind of musk...like a heavy garbage smell," Emily says. "The garbage smell isn’t like ‘holy crap this is a landfill,’ it’s more the air around it. It’s kind of fishy."
"It smells like the dump by my parent’s house, as you’re driving past the landfill," she adds.
The smell seems to fluctuate even as we’re discussing it; at times overpowering and then suddenly waning to an odorous afterthought.
"Here’s the thing," Jay says. "We have sensed this and smelled this out here, and sometimes it’s worse than this. I mean, it’s enough to make you gag. Then it goes away. Then it comes back. And there’s air current here, I get that, but there’s really no wind."
He’s right. There is no wind to speak of out here. If this is an odor emanating from some stationary mass of refuse, then I don’t know how it’s so seemingly mobile.
"Take note to see if it follows us," says Jay as we continue along the trail.
We hear dogs barking in the distance—there are a few houses dotting the landscape, even out here—and a short time later the high-pitched howl of a coyote echoes through the forest. An odd, low-pitched howl follows it in response.
“I’ve never heard that, by the way," Jay says of the low-pitched howl. "You can say the lower one, okay, coyote maybe, but then I’ve heard so many people and so many accounts of people hearing mimicry. That real low one, that was weird.”
Wolves possess a lower howl that might explain it, and they do occasionally range this far south, although it’s rare; I’m not certain that I find the idea any more comforting than I would a responsive sasquatch.
We stop halfway through the large loop we’re taking through the moraine to gather our wits and catch our breath. Emily has been on edge since we arrived. She says she feels unwelcome, a feeling she attributes to whatever is lurking in the woods. The feeling is strongest, she says, whenever the smell that has been following us is its most pungent.
“It freaks me out," she explains. "The smell doesn’t scare me, it just happens to be at the same time [as the strong feeling of being unwelcome.]”
As we’re standing on the trail talking, a sound like the crack of a large stick striking a tree trunk emanates from within the forest. I hear it coming from behind Jay and Emily, who are standing in front of me, but they say it came from behind me. Sound does funny things in the Kettle, and the true origin of the noise is impossible to trace.
“You heard it too, didn’t you?” asks Jay.
We nod. Maybe it was a branch giving way under the strain of ice and snow, but it sure sounded like something struck a tree to me.
I see something in the trees, then. A light flashes in the treetops some distance away. It reminds me of a camera flash, and I can see a circular white orb in its center before it disappears. The light is too high up to be a porch light or something similar from a house, and its brief appearance belies that possibility, anyway. Nor could a plane explain the appearance, unless it was tiny and flying through the trees.
“We’ve seen them, too. We’ve seen them here for years," says Jay.
UFOs and orbs are a regular occurrence out here.
“We see UFOs out here, too," Jay says. "You know how you see a satellite in the summer sky? We got them at plane level, and they [fly along] with no sound, just watching. And there’s no way it’s up near the stars because we saw it go off in the distance, then go off through clouds—so it was in our atmosphere. Whatever it was.”
“What else have people seen out here? Lights coming around the corner, that are like flashlights, almost like orbs...on the trail," he continues. "One time, near spring, I was up a kettle path near the bottom, and it turned, you could see the trees, and we’re sitting there talking and I’m looking at this orange flashlight coming down the path. I’m like, ‘that’s weird.’ I thought it was a person. I walked down to them right away. We were ready to, you know, meet them. I turned the corner and there was nothing there. It was the weirdest thing.”
Jay is a regular visitor to Kettle Moraine State Forest; all the better to conduct his research. It’s his frequent visits that give him the familiarity necessary to help contextualize what we’ve experienced so far.
“I try to get out here weekly," he tells us as we follow the trail back to the entrance. "You can do a ghost investigation, but when do you really go back to that location? Six months? A year? But here, I’m out all the time.”
The vastness of this area gives him plenty to explore, and Jay’s intrepidity gives me hope that his hard work will someday pay off.
“We are in a dot of the Kettle," he says. "You walk down there and turn yourself around a few times, you’re lost. This is a speck of the Kettle Moraine. It’s immense. And people don’t get off the beaten path. People stay on the path, where it’s safe.”
I can respect that. Here’s to not playing it safe, Jay. Happy hunting.
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