ver a hundred years ago a rich tradition was formed around certain mythical animals, collectively called fearsome critters. Stories of these animals were carried by early loggers, or other tradesmen, by word of mouth in the form of tall tales and practical jokes. Their origins, characteristics, and relevance are largely overlooked today, but to yesterday's logger these creatures formed an integral part of a culture forged far away from society and the conveniences of home. Many such myths were use as a way to induct new recruits at lumbercamps. Veteran loggers would often ease inexperienced woodsmen, refered to as "greenhorns," into actually believing that such creatures existed. Frequently these greenhorns were sent on fool’s errands, such as: trying to catch the elusive snipe or find the nest of the upland trout (a fish that is said to leave the water to nest in trees). After a few fruitless hours in the frigid cold, these novice loggers would inevitably get the joke and return to camp.
A fearsome critter is any of various outlandish, tall tale animals
originating in the oral traditions of North America, especially in
the jests and tall tales spread by forest tradesmen around the
turn of the twentieth century.|
Fearsome critters played another important role as entertainment in tall tales. In the age before both radio and television, after a long days work, loggers would swap stories in bunkhouses about encounters from dungavenhooters, gumberoos, hodags, etc. Alternatively these stories provided rationale for unexplained occurrences throughout the work week. Trees shattered by lightning or wind damage could be attributed to the work of the splintercat (an animal that rams trees in order to secure prey from its branches) or stange noises might be blamed on the treesqueaks. However, the range of phenonmenon fearsome critters could account for ranged widely from simple mishaps to more complex issues. The hidebehind, for instance, was used both to justify forms of paranoia and to explain why a logger might fail to return to camp.
The characteristics of fearsome critters mark several interesting departures from the legendary creatures of classic mythology. As for many fearsome critters, the emphasis is placed principally on their behavioral attributes, even if little information is given of their physical appearance. This trait is especially prominent in those named specifically for their disposition such as: the hang-down, hidebehind, or come-at-a-body. Interestingly enough, some fearsome critters, if they could exist, might otherwise be mistaken for actual animals if not for acting contrary to their accustomed nature. The goofus, for example, is a bird that flies backwards because it is far more curious in seeing where it has been than where it is going.
Others seemed created with attributes intended for the sole aim of utterly dooming the animal. The sidehill gouger for instance has legs of uneven lengths trapping forever in an endless, circular path around hillsides. While the hugag is prevented from grazing due to its long, upper lip and laying down due to its jointless legs.
While Old World legendary creatures have been affixed in collective memory through the story, song and film, North American fearsome critters have yet to be so engrained. This is of great interest to the students of folklore as, being a relatively young tradition, it gives us a window to how such myths can differ and are formed. Accordingly, even dozens of accounts of the same creature have come into existence and faded away long before they could be harmonized and cemented on the popular conscious. To illustrate, William T. Cox in his book Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwood (1910) describes the hodag as about the size of a rhinoceros and having a, “large spade-shaped bony growth” that the creature uses to knock over trees. However in most accounts, such as Henry H. Tryon's Fearsome Critters, the hodag is popularly described as a terrifying creature with bulging eyes and a row of spikes down its back. Accordingly, it is important to note that the consensus on a particular fearsome critter can varry widely.