Ever since the mention of that name back in the Summer of 1942, I have had an obsession with finding out more about "Dead-man's Swamp."
Dead-man's Swamp is a particularly inhospitable tract of real estate, originally 12 miles X 18 miles, in the heart of central Northern Michigan. It has historically been singularly resistant to the seemingly inexorable inroads of man, and, in fact, has exacted a high price from many who were willing to test their mettle against its harsh realities. It did not, after all, get its name coincidentally! A number of people attempting to learn its dark secrets lost their lives in that quest.
I spoke with Papa Ruhlig, who was ninety-seven years old, and who had lived his entire life around, and often in, Dead-man's Swamp. He spoke knowingly about several loggers and hunters who entered Dead-man's Swamp and who never returned. They could have been killed by bears who still survive there, they could have drowned, they could have sunk from sight in seemingly firm ground that yielded to bottomless mire. Whatever happened to them we will never know. We can only surmise. They have become part of the mystique of Dead-man's Swamp.
I inquired of Papa Ruhlig why anyone would venture into Dead-man's Swamp. He shook his head; and then tried to explain. "It's a feeling you get there like nowhere else on earth. Maybe it's the danger, the foreboding, the sense of overpowering solitude that makes it almost a compelling place to visit." He continued: "I went there often, but always in daylight. I never went there at night...for I was sure that, if I did, I would not return." And then he added with animation: "Only a fool would enter Dead-man's Swamp after dark!"
I asked Papa what made Dead-man's Swamp so especially dangerous. He mused upon it for a moment, then replied: "biggest thing is getting lost. First you get lost, then you lose your head,...then you are dead...d-e-a-d!"
"But," I protested, "all you really need is a good compass...and you'd be all right."
"Haarumph," he retorted, eyeing me as though I were an imbecile. "Hell of a lot o' good a compass'll do you in there! So much iron in the water the damn thing'll spin like a maple seed in a whirlwind!"
"Oh," I mumbled contritely, and hastily changed the subject. "Tell me about your most exciting adventures in Dead-man's Swamp."
"Actually had two close calls...make that three. Stepped in a sink hole one time, and, if there hadn't been a stout cedar within reach, I'd a been his-try." His voice trailed off, and he shuddered involuntarily before continuing. "The other two times involved bears. Went in there deer hunting one time after a light snowfall. Wounded a forkhorn and started trailin' him. Hadn't gone far when a big Blackie cut in on the trail."
I waited for him to continue. He didn't. "What'd you do?" I asked cautiously.
I got the message.
"The other one was a real doozie...my fault really. I stayed in the Swamp too long. It was almost dusk and I was tryin' to get out before nightfall. I wasn't payin' close attention. Before I knew it, I had managed to get between a cub and its mother. Oh boy! The ole gal let out one woof and came for me. It was her or the water. No choice! By the time I got out'a the Swamp I was covered with mud over every single square inch of my body. I was damn lucky!"
Having heard Papa tell about his harrowing experiences in Dead-man's Swamp, I wondered if there might have been a humorous episode in his lifetime affair with the Swamp. No sooner had I inquired, than a snicker escaped his lips. I sat back, certain I would enjoy the tale I was about to hear.
"I had taken a friend, Jess Thompson, in there hunting.
He set off in one direction, me in another. I hadn't gone far when I spotted a doe and her fawn out in a big marshy clearing. I stopped to watch them awhile. Suddenly I was distracted by movement off to my right. As I looked over, I saw what I first mistook as a large man in a black fur coat standing sniffing the air. It was, of course, a good-size male Black Bear winding. He dropped from sight and I went back to observing the two deer. A moment later the bear burst from cover and bore down upon the deer. They bolted and were able to elude their pursuer. The bear kind of shrugged and sauntered to a big black cherry which he proceeded to climb and began cramming cherries in to his mouth. It was about then that I hatched this plan to enable Jess to bag that bear."
I leaned forward attentively, wondering what possibly could have happened.
"I'd once heard that, if you caught a bear up a tree and tied your coat around the trunk, the bear would't come down. My plan was to get my coat around the tree and go and fetch Jess. So I started crawling through the tall marshgrass toward the cherry tree. I got about half way to the tree when I ran out of cover. I could't see any other alternative but to run as fast as I could to the tree and get the coat around the tree before the bear could climb down. I bolted for the tree running over rough, boggy ground. Well, that bear spotted me the instant I broke cover and started shimmying down the tree. The closer I got to the tree the closer the bear got to the ground. I saw he was gonna beat me so I grabbed my old single-shot 22 magnum and fired a round in the air hoping to stop the bear's descent. The shot however so startled the bear that he jumped out of the tree right next to me. He lit and took off full tilt scalping the ground with his paws as he raced in one direction; I in another. When I looked back, he had covered more than twice the distance I had! So poor Jess didn't get his bear after all...and I never tried to test that coat theory again!"
I asked Papa about other interesting people he had known who had also linked their destinies with the Swamp.
"I've known quite a few at that," Papa mused. There was Art Layton a hunter-trapper who accounted for some one hundred and fifteen bears in his lifetime. Shot the biggest Black Bear ever taken in Michigan--live weight over seven hundred pounds. Shot that bear eatin' a smaller one he'd caught in one of his traps!"
"Whew," I exclaimed.
"However, the most interesting one of all," Papa continued, "was an ancient Indian who spent his whole life in the Swamp. I don't think I ever heard his real name--everyone just called him `Crawdad.' Seems Crawdad had a special fondness for bear meat. Always kept a pack of bear hounds at his place. One afternoon he let his three best dogs: Prince, Duke, and Queenie loose. Why that Queenie was darn near big enough to look a man straight in the eye. Had a head on her like a cinderblock! Leastwise the three of 'em began runnin' a big Blackie. Kept at it all afternoon and all night. Next day when Crawdad went back to find his dogs there was Prince stone dead on the coat he had left. Looked like he had been hit by a freight train. Crawdad backtracked Prince and came to a clearing that looked like the aftermath of Custer's Last Stand. In the middle of the clearing lay a dead bear. It weighed three hundred seventy pounds. And there was Queenie lying on top of him. She had nothing more than a chewed ear and a few cuts. Crawdad began searching for Duke and, when he couldn't find him, went back to begin skinnin' the bear. When he rolled the bear over he found Duke under the bear; dead. That Swamp," Papa mused, "sure has taken its toll over the years...on both dogs...and men." His voice drifted off without the slightest trace of anything...save awe.
"What do you think about the talk of cutting a road through the Swamp and setting up oil rigs?" I braced myself. Papa scowled for a long time before answering. "I think it'd be a crime!" he said forcefully. He abruptly got up and stiffly walked away.
I have thought a lot about Dead-man's Swamp and Papa Ruhlig since then. Papa died before they put the freeway through, before the oil rigs, and before the multiple access roads.
In a way Papa's luck held. He was one of the last to know Dead-man's Swamp as it was in the beginning: sinister, darkly beautiful, captivating.
Some times at the dark of the moon I lie thinking about Dead-man's Swamp and its meaning for modern man. What will happen to us when there are no more places like that: places where we can go to test ourselves...to know deep down what stuff we are really made of? Where can we go to learn the virtue of humility? What will happen if we can't restore our souls in wilderness? I shudder to think how impoverished we all might become in a world without Dead-man's Swamp!
The real name of the Swamp in this story is "Dead Stream Swamp;" so named because of the lack of current in the main stream of the five tributary rivers which meander their way through the Swamp: Cold Creek, Willow Run, Dead Stream, Addis, and Hay Marsh. While Dead Stream is its proper name, many local residents utilize its equally-appropriate version: "Dead-man's Swamp!"
Moreover, compass readings are not affected in the Dead Stream Swamp, as they often are in the swamps of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Other than that, the events depicted in this narrative are authentic; only people's names have been changed.