Thunder in the mountains: Thunderbird
This came from the Lock Haven Express
28th & 29th March
Thunder in the mountains:
In pursuit of a mystical flying giant
POSTED: March 28, 2009 Save | Print | Email
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Charlie Passell, who resides in 'the gap' off Route 80 near Lock Haven, says he saw a Thunderbird in 1964.
It's a beast as elusive as the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman, but to those lucky few who have actually laid eyes on a Thunderbird, the creature seems as real as you and I.
The huge predatory bird, which has been a part of the mythology and folklore of the region for centuries, has been seen by dozens of otherwise sober-minded individuals who swear the winged animal is large enough to pick up a small deer or even a large man and carry its prey away to its mountain lair to hungrily consume.
The Thunderbird, according to a 1965 "Now and Then" article entitled "Song, Saga and Susperstition of the West Branch Valley," has a wingspread of 35 to 40 feet and a flight speed of 20 miles per hour. It flies like a crane not with flapping wings but with an undulating motion and is so stealthy that it is alleged to be able to fly silently behind its prey and pluck it from the ground before it is aware it is even being stalked.
"When the bird comes upon its prey, a man for example, it glides down behind him silently, catches him in its talons and carries the unfortunate victim to its nest, high in the mountains," wrote Robert H. Boyington in his "Now and Then" article. "There the victim is eaten. First the stomach is ripped open, then a hole pecked in the skull, and the brains eaten. The Thunderbird nests on mountain tops and finds the relatively flattened tops of Pennsylvania's mountains ideally suited to its needs."
The late historian and folklorist Robert R. Lyman Sr., a Coudersport resident, was among the first to document Pennsylvania Thunderbird stories dating back to the early-1800s. His 1973 book, "Amazing Indeed" has become something of a classic in cryptozoological circles.
(Cryptozoology is, literally, the study of hidden animals, and its adherents spend much of their lives searching for evidence of Sasquatch, Mothman, The Jersey Devil and any other number of strange and mysterious creatures.)
The Thunderbird gets its name from the Native American legend of a flying monster so massive that its flapping wings produced thunder, but Lyman, for one, believed the animals were made of flesh and blood rather than of distant myth.
"Put aside the tall tales," Lyman urged in "Amazing Indeed." "Disregard the denial of orthodox science. Be assured that there were and are a few survivors of a remarkable bird that the Indians and white men called thunderbirds. They inhabit high mountain ranges and are seldom seen."
The earliest Thunderbird stories Lyman was able to uncover involved sightings in Potter and Tioga Counties, but by 1930 the winged terror was allegedly spotted in Clinton County by amateur historian Hi Cranmer, of Hammersley Fork.
"I first saw a thunderbird in April, 1922," Cranmer wrote in a letter to "Fate" magazine (which features "True Reports of the Strange and Unknown!") in 1963. "I was standing by my gate at dusk when one flew over, heading north. It passed a pine tree with branches standing 50 feet, so that I could estimate its wingspread fairly accurately. It was 35 feet. I was alone at the time and never mentioned the incident for 35 years."
But three and a half decades later, there was another Thunderbird sighting, this time witnessed by others besides Cranmer. With other eyewitnesses, Cranmer felt comfortable detailing his earlier encounter with the avian menace.
"I went outside and saw a huge bird flying lazily 500 feet above," he said of the 1957 Thunderbird appearance. "Its wing motion reminded me of a blue heron, but the bird was lighter and grayer in color. I called the American Legion in Renovo, and inquired if anyone had seen a big bird half an hour before. A man who had just come in said it had flown over Westport, came down Fish Dam Run, and then up Two-Mile Run. He said its wingspread was 25 or 30 feet."
Cranmer was a former lumberman who spent his last years recording his stories of Clinton County's lumber glory days, many of which were published in The Express. He was also fond of ghost stories and preserved for posterity many tales of the spirits and specters he believed haunted his beloved Kettle Creek Valley.
He was perhaps the most oft-quoted Thunderbird witness, having had his stories recorded in Lyman's book, the 1965 "Now and Then" piece and Mark Hall's more recent book, "Thunderbirds: America's Living Legends of Giant Birds" (2004, Paraview Press).
In fact, author Hall spent a long day visiting with Lyman and listening to his own stories of Thunderbird encounters just months before the latter's death in 1974. Interestingly, Lyman indicated to Hall that Cranmer's stories, while well-told, might be taken with a grain of salt.
"Cranmer was also the source of some extravagant tales regarding local history in the Black Forest," Hall wrote. "Robert Lyman found he had a tendency to take a subject with some basis in fact and embellish it, but Cranmer's recollections and claimed sightings are only a small part of the Pennsylvania Thunderbird record."
Intriguingly, Hall also wrote that Lyman shared some unpublished research with him during that visit, which seemed to indicate a correlation between Thunderbird sightings and missing persons reports.
"The possible relationship of Thunderbirds to disappearances of people in the Black Forest was not a point made by Lyman in reporting on the birds," Hall wrote in his own book. "But his research on the Black Forest included 11 cases of total disappearances that have occurred there over a period of 100 years. Other tragic mishaps might have been responsible, but the cold statistics drawn from his research show that eight children and three adults disappeared without a trace of remains."
Another source for myriad Pennsylvania Thunderbird tales is the work of former Express Jersey Shore editor and columnist John Rasmussen, who wrote frequently about sightings of the flying behemoths in his long-running "This n That" column for the paper.
Hall visited with Rasmussen as part of his book research in 1977, and said the Express editor had not heard of any new Thunderbird reports for at least two years previous. He said the dearth of more recent sightings could be the result of eyewitnesses convincing themselves that the birds' perceived massive size might be a trick of the light or distance.
Among the more credible Thunderbird witnesses was Mrs. Sarah Boyle, wife of then-Clinton County Sheriff Jack Boyle. The Boyles had a little camp up on Little Pine Creek for several years, and from there Sarah claimed to have seen the winged mammoths on at least two occasions.
The first, according to "Amazing Indeed" was in 1968, when she saw one flying up the valley. The second time, about a year later, a huge grey bird landed in the middle of the creek in front of her camp. She was amazed at the size of the thing.
"As it raised to fly its wingspread appeared to be as wide as the stream bed, which I would say was about 75 feet," she said.
Another rather compelling Thunderbird encounter was reported by an unnamed Lock Haven couple in "Amazing Indeed." At the time of the book's publication in the early 1970s, this couple had a camp along Carrier Road in the Robbins Run area and had seen the birds frequently during the previous decade.
One day, Lyman wrote, the couple was riding in their car when they saw one of the flying terrors heading straight for their vehicle. The wife screamed, "It's going to pick up the car or smash the windshield!" But instead it swooped down low in front of the car, snatched up a dead woodchuck with one claw, and flew on.
The wife described the creature's claw as being at least four times as big as her hand, and that its legs were as large as her arm. The couple told Lyman the birds soar very high in the sky and have a cry like a child's scream. They appear to become more active just before a thunderstorm, they said, perhaps providing an explanation for the Thunderbird moniker.
As fascinating as these stories may be, sadly there is no way to evaluate their veracity today based on first-hand interviews with on-the-record witnesses. Lyman, Cranmer, Rasmussen and the Boyles have all gone to their reward, alas, leaving just the printed accounts of their stories behind for us to mull over.
There is, however, at least one living county resident who claims to have seen a live Thunderbird and is willing to talk about it.
Charlie Passell, a 62-year-old Vietnam War veteran and self-described "hippie" lives in delightful disarray in an area generally referred to as "the gap," a road that juts off Route 220 at the intersection of Route 80 at the Lock Haven exit.
Bright, cheerful, creative, well-informed and free spirited, Charlie is a one-of-a-kind character who lives in a home without electricity or other creature comforts. And that suits him just fine, thank you very much.
In 1964 Charlie was a Lock Haven High School senior who was out joy-riding in his old Chevy with a group of pals when they came upon a strange looking bird perched on a dead hemlock near Bush dam.
"We were riding around and we saw a bird," he said when I paid him a visit Thursday afternoon. "It wasn't an eagle or a raven. It was definitely something different. We were up around the Kettle Creek area. We called it taking a ride around the block' in those days. I forget who was with me."
Since Charlie was under the legal drinking age in 1964, one must assume that he and his pals were definitely not drinking Utica Club pilsner beer at the time.
The bird that the allegedly sober young fellows saw that night "had longer legs than anything we'd seen before. It couldn't have been a heron, which I've seen over the years. The legs were about two and a half feet. It hung around for a while and took off. Its wingspan was much longer than my reach."
Charlie told me he would search his old high school diaries for more details of the incident, and when I returned the following day with Express photographer Bill Crowell and Managing Editor Lana Muthler an old family friend of Charlie's he said he'd examined his 45-year-old journals the previous night, to no avail.
"I went through my old diaries from my high school days but there's nothing in there about it," he said. "But it's in my brain somewhere."
"It was weird," he said of the mysterious feathered monster. "It was sort of an off-white color. I just don't know what that was."
Did he have any idea at all? Any guesses? Perhaps a prehistoric terradactyl that had somehow survived into the current era?
When pressed, he said he guessed it might be something like a "crossover" bird, a missing link between a prehistoric bird and the birds of today.
"I'm not going to say it was the Utica Club," he adds with a laugh, "because I was underage. So we won't go there."
The way that you wander is the way that you choose,
The day that you tarry is the day that you lose.
Sunshine or thunder, a man will always wonder.
Where the fair wind blows.