Thursday, April 12, 2012
"Because Michigan is largely rural and there's a lot of wide open spaces and people tend to spend a lot of time communing with the outdoors, it gives rise to these kinds of legends and stories, just because of the connection people have to their natural surroundings," said Steve Cook, production director of WTCM-FM (103) and --AM (580) radio in Traverse City, and an expert on the Dogman.
The 52-year-old Traverse City resident also is the modern-day father of the creature.
In 1987, Cook wrote a song about the legend to play for listeners on April Fools' Day. But when it aired, Cook's half-fact, half-fiction ditty was no joke to many who heard it. Calls and letters began pouring in, as listeners shared stories of their encounters with a similar beast -- Michigan's Bigfoot, the Wolverine State's Chupacabra.
One of them was Robert Fortney, who said he saw it in the 1930s while fishing the Muskegon River near Paris. When a pack of wild dogs approached him on the bank, Fortney fired a shot from his .22-caliber hunting rifle to scare them away.
"All the dogs scattered out of the way, except a very large black dog with blue eyes. It stood and looked at him for two minutes. He was amazed by fact this thing was standing there looking at him on two legs," Cook said of Fortney's account. "He claimed he never told anyone in his family or friends about it, because he thought he was crazy. When he heard the song, he thought, 'Wow, there's really something to this, I really saw what I saw.' He claimed (it) up until the day he died. That was the first of a more or less avalanche of reports we've received over the years."
Until that point, Dogman had been local folklore.
The Odawa called him Wendigo and the French explorers, a loup-garou, according to a documentary Cook later made after collecting material that included this diary entry by a Comstock resident in 1857: "Near the barn, it stood as if a man, yet it bore the countenance of a grey wolf."
More modern accounts include that by a vanload of hippies who said they were harassed by the Dogman near Cross Village in 1967.
Police took an incident report in 1987 from people who said they saw such a creature in Luther. There are photos of something from the U.P.'s Garden Peninsula in 1968 and Onaway in 2004 and unexplained tracks discovered in the Waterloo Recreation Area in Chelsea in the late 1980s.
"I made it up completely from my own imagination as an April Fools' prank for the radio and stumbled my way to a legend that goes back all the way to Native American times," Cook said.
The song now goes into the station's play rotation every year around mid-September and also has been aired as far away as Arizona and Tennessee and on Armed Forces radio in Japan and Germany.
Cook said profits of almost $60,000 generated by his song and documentary have been donated to animal rescue charities.
"I'm tremendously skeptical," Cook said of the legend, "because I've sort of seen the way folklore becomes built from the creation of this song to what it's turned into ... but I do believe people who think they saw something really did see something. I also think the Dogman provides them with an avenue to explain what they couldn't explain for themselves."
Filmmaker and Ann Arbor native Rich Brauer, 57, who finished shooting "Dogman" in September, said: "Every culture has a mythical woodland creature that they blame stuff on. I don't know what it is about people that they want to blame stuff on something like that. There's an inherent imagination that people have, especially when they go in the woods and start to hear things and their hair stands up on the back of their head. ... It might turn out to be a chickadee on a stick, but up until that moment, it was something huge."
Janet Langlois, a folklore expert at Wayne State University, said that as far back as Greek mythology humans have been drawn to tales about "people who cross boundaries, like centaurs. We're drawn to them and frightened by them. It points out how complicated the relationship humans have with other nonhuman animals or creatures. We're always fascinated by creatures."
Big picture, she sees a larger purpose in such legends that cross cultures and time periods.
"It can range from simple entertainment to other complex, philosophical ideas about the universe," Langlois said. "I tend to think stories, even though they're simple and incredible, are building blocks of thinking about the nature of the universe."