Saturday 20 June 2009

Giant Turtle Hunt

See original story here

In '49, search for a giant turtle consumed Churubusco By Dan McFeely Posted: June 17, 2009

CHURUBUSCO, Ind. -- Deep beneath the murky waters of Fulk Lake, a giant turtle -- a monster, they say -- trolls along the muck, looking for food and avoiding humanity. For all the creature knows, the shores above are still lined with madly curious townsfolk; divers are still suiting up with nets and harpoons; and reporters are still poised with their cameras and notebooks.Sixty years have passed since the traps failed to catch the Beast of 'Busco -- a mammoth alligator snapping turtle large enough to strike fear and elusive enough to drive a man to poverty in a failed quest to find it. Yet even so long after all the hubbub, some folks still wonder. "The neighborhood just went crazy," said 97-year-old farmer Jim Guiff, who was 37 when his nearby land was trampled by the curious throngs. "They had to close the road; the cars were just bumper to bumper."They gathered to catch a glimpse of one of the most notorious natural mysteries ever reported in Indiana: an aquatic, Hoosier version of Bigfoot. Instead, they witnessed a man who dreamed of big money and became obsessed with proving that he was telling the truth. Six decades later, another large crowd will descend on 'Busco, as the locals call it, not to search for the turtle they call Oscar, but to celebrate his legend.The 60th annual Turtle Days Festival, which begins today, draws thousands as one of the longest-running community festivals in Indiana -- a four-day event with a turtle-themed parade, turtle races and fireworks -- in honor of a giant turtle few actually saw in 1949 and whose existence is still up for debate.

A classic story

Guiff is one of the doubters. Twice, he found himself caught up in the hoopla when he heard one of the traps had worked."When I got over there, the turtle wasn't in the trap," he said, shaking his head. "There was no turtle to be found."But even naysayers admit the legend has been good for the town, which almost immediately capitalized on the attention -- local diners advertising turtle soup and "Oscarburgers," businesses offering rewards for catching the beast -- and the town, population 1,800, proudly refers to itself as Turtle Town USA, with turtles on the official town letterhead.Professor John Gutowski, an authority on American folklore, actually moved to Churubusco for several weeks in 1971 to research the events of 1949, producing a 200-page dissertation on the "Beast of 'Busco," beginning a career fascination with the event and how it transformed a community."It's such a classic American story," said Gutowski, who studied folklore at Indiana University and is now a professor at St. Xavier University in Chicago. "I love to tell the tale whenever I can."That tale actually began in 1898, when Oscar Fulk reported seeing a giant "prehistoric turtle" in his private lake just north of town.As much as 50 feet deep in spots, the murky waters, as well as the muddy bottom of the roughly 7-acre lake, provide ideal habitat for snapping turtles, which are often found in Northern Indiana.Alligator snappers, the largest freshwater snappers in North America, can live more than 100 years in the wild and are found primarily in Southern rivers -- but the theory is that Oscar could have migrated up the rivers and found his home in Fulk Lake.By the spring of 1949, the lake was owned by Gale Harris, who claims he saw the turtle and said it was as "big as a dining room table" and weighed as much as 400 to 500 pounds.No experts today claim to have ever seen an alligator snapper that big. The biggest ever reported is 265 pounds, a record held by a snapper at the Bronx Zoo.

Hoaxes and hucksters

Many doubted Harris, although he was a Nazarene Christian who did not drink, smoke or tell lies."I can assure you with absolute certainty that Gale Harris believed that he had encountered a giant turtle," said Gutowski, who interviewed him and his wife, Helen, for his dissertation. Using nets made of chicken wire, a makeshift periscope rigged with headlights from a truck and other jerry-built tools, Harris launched a yearlong hunt for the turtle, nicknamed Oscar by the newspapers. Throughout the spring and summer of 1949, hundreds lined the banks of the lake, watching as Harris tried just about anything to capture the turtle: harpoons, baited traps, a winsome female sea turtle. Even helmeted divers came to town with equipment paid for by a Chicago newspaper. Oscar dodged every try.Hoaxes began to emerge. One diver bought a turtle from a Southern state and claimed to have pulled it from Fulk Lake. Another local sold airplane rides over the lake and tried to increase sales by building a fake turtle floating on tires. By September, Harris was desperate and began the nearly impossible task of draining Fulk, which he almost completed. Still, Oscar was nowhere to be found.Some say he just nestled down in the muck and waited for the commotion to end. Others say he somehow escaped into the ditches -- or some underground stream -- and made it to another lake.Rusty Reed, a local turtle collector since the 1980s and owner of two of the largest alligator snapping turtles in existence today -- Crunch weighs in at 165 pounds and his Oscar (no relation) at 135 pounds -- believes it is possible the Beast of 'Busco was able to survive."They can burrow in mud for long periods of time," Reed said. "I think it's unlikely, but it's possible."

Dreams washed away

Before the lake could be drained completely, Harris was hospitalized for appendicitis. The pump failed, and a few months later, a dam gave way, sending water -- along with pipes, boats, traps and a tractor -- rushing back into the lake bed. The hunt for Oscar was over. More than 20 years later, Gutowski asked Harris what he thought became of the beast."I think, and people say, and guys from zoos say, that there's an underground current coming into that lake and that he got into that," said Harris, "and went to some other lake."The Harris family made a little money selling hot dogs and drinks to spectators through that long summer, but they neglected their farm and spent too much on equipment trying to catch the elusive beast. The quest left them broke, and within months, they were forced to auction off the farm (and a 200-foot-long net) to pay debts. Subsequent owners have refused to let anyone search the lake, take no official part of Turtle Days and declined to comment. By the time Gutowski arrived in 1971, the Harris family was living in a nearby town, and Gale Harris was commuting to Fort Wayne to work as a night maintenance supervisor at a college. Later, they moved to Florida, where he died without ever catching his beast. In the interview with Gutowski, Harris admitted his obsession was fueled by the promise of riches."It was that big, and it was that much publicity about it," Harris told Gutowski on June 20, 1971. "I don't know."I won't say maybe a millionaire, but I'd have a way lot more than I got today."

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