Mysterious light draws thrill seekers to Michigan forest

PAULDING, MICH. - “I can see it right now!” Bob Anderson said excitedly, staring into the trees.

It was a cool summer evening, and the 61-year-old from L’Anse had brought a few of his fishing buddies down a dead-end road into the Ottawa National Forest to see the famous, mysterious phenomenon known as the Paulding Light, which is said to appear frequently at a remote spot in the woods of the western Upper Peninsula.

Those who’ve seen it say it’s a bright white light, glowing deep inside the woods, changing size and shape before fading into the darkness.

“Right now, down at the bottom of the gap — see it?” he asked. The other three guys craned their necks and tried to spot it, but didn’t. They looked unconvinced.

Anderson wasn’t deterred. “I took a lot of skeptics down here, made them believers” he said.

For half a century, the Paulding Light has been a legend in the Upper Peninsula. But it’s not easy to find. You have to take narrow U.S.-45 to Paulding, which is a tiny speck of a town near the Wisconsin border. Then turn down unmarked Robbins Pond Road — also known as the remnant of old U.S.-45 — which is now little more than a gravel road encroached on its sides by the creeping forest. About a half mile in, it dead ends at a guardrail overlooking a tree-filled valley where the former highway vanishes into the woods.

This legend spread by word of mouth, and later by TV shows about the paranormal, and people have enthusiastically speculated on what it could be ever since it was first seen. That is, until a few years ago, when a group of engineering students from a nearby university conducted experiments at the viewing site and claimed to have solved the mystery once and for all, in a fairly unexciting way.

But, despite the proof the students offered for their explanation, a lot of people still come to the forest in hopes of seeing the light for themselves. And a lot of them still refuse to give up their belief that it’s truly something magical.

As it grew darker outside, Anderson’s buddies started getting antsy, especially when a cloud of mosquitoes launched a full-blown attack on the group. He sensed their impatience.

“Come on, buddy,” he said, looking toward the spot where he said the light appeared. “We’re waiting for you.”

Close encounters of the blurred kind

The first recorded sighting of the Paulding Light was in 1966 when a group of high school boys reportedly saw it and told the local sheriff.

The official legend says the light comes from the swaying lantern held by the ghost of a railroad brakeman who died when he was crushed as he tried to stop an oncoming train from hitting railcars stalled on the tracks. This was logging country more than a century ago, and local residents say there were a number of railroads that ran through the forest and are now buried in the underbrush.

Some believe it’s the light of the train, which itself is now a ghost. Some claim it’s the distraught spirit of a grandparent looking for a lost grandchild with a lantern that needs constant relighting, the reason the light seems to come and go.

Others have speculated that it’s swamp gas. Or something related to the Northern Lights. Maybe even something extraterrestrial.

All along, doubters noted that the light looks rather similar to automobile headlights at a distance, and their location just happened to coincide where there’s a sight line to a highway. Plus, reports of the light began pretty much about the time that highway was constructed.

Through all the debate, curious visitors have flocked to this remote town, turning a hidden, abandoned gravel road into one of the state’s most popular tourist spots.

“I’ve seen it where there’s 50 cars there, both sides of the road and all the way back,” said Jason Lannet, the 43-year-old owner of the Paulding General Store, which sits at the town’s only intersection, a few miles north of the viewing area. “I get a million people that come looking for directions because they’re lost.”

It got so popular that the U.S. Forest Service felt compelled to erect a big sign in the middle of the woods at the end of the road, noting that it’s the place to see the famous Paulding Light. “Please do not litter,” the sign asked politely.

Robbins Pond Road had become a party spot. And as a teenager, Lannet and his friends would grab some beers and hang out with everyone else there, watching for the light. In a very small, very rural town with few entertainment options, going to see the Paulding Light was a big social event.

And though he’s seen it countless times over those years, it still holds a sense of mystery for him.

“I know from when I’ve been out there it’s weird when you see it, ‘cause every night it’ll be dim and then it’ll come,” he said. “I’ve seen it where it looks like it’s in the ditch right next to your car. I wish I knew what it was.”

Shedding light on the subject

Jeremy Bos wanted to know what it was, too.

In 2010, he was an electrical engineering grad student at Michigan Tech in Houghton and was trying to find a project to engage the members of the Society of Photo Optical Instrumentation Engineers — a club for those who study optics. The idea of solving the riddle of the infamous Paulding Light was more exciting than the usual optical club offerings. And about a dozen students joined him on a road trip to Paulding.

“When you tell them about how it’s a spooky ghost story, it got people really wanting to get involved,” said the 39-year-old, now an engineering professor at the school.

They brought a spectrograph and a telescope to the dead-end road, sent each other driving down the new highway while blinking their lights in a prearranged pattern, and recorded the results.

Every time the light appeared, one look through the telescope showed what sure looked like the headlights of oncoming cars, which could be seen clearly through the lens, sometimes with the distinct outline of the car coming down the road, which is about 8 miles away. The group even shot a video through the telescope so others could see, and posted it online. The flickering, they said, was caused when cars went over a hill.

Mystery solved, they announced.

Not everyone agreed. To this day, Bos still gets flak from people who refuse to give up their belief in the supernatural origin of the light. Some people say the light they’ve seen in the woods is too bright to be headlights. Some say it moves in ways no car can. And some, he’s found, don’t have a particular objection — they just want to keep believing.

“It’s the same with anything,” he said. “There is scientific evidence to disprove all sorts of things, and people still choose to believe the more fantastical, maybe because they view science as taking away the mystery of things and they want to hold onto some of that mystery.”

Even before the experiment was done, people from the area heard what the students were aiming to do. Some locals came by and angrily told the group this was a waste of government money — though, in reality, it was self-funded by the optics club. One woman kept bringing her photo albums featuring pictures she’d taken of the light over the years to show them her proof that it’s real. Others acknowledged that, yes, those were headlights in the lens of the telescope, but insisted that it wasn’t the actual Paulding Light.

“Long before roads were even involved, this light is in some of the history that is in the area,” said Linda Schulz, 55. “Even in the Native American history they talk about the light, and this is long before there were roads.”

Schulz is the owner of Running Bear Resort in Paulding, which offers six small cabins with beds, a heater and a kitchen that she rents to hunters, fishermen, snowmobilers and seekers of the supernatural. Each cabin has a ledger, and each is filled with stories from guests describing their encounter with the Paulding Light.

“People want to debunk this mystery and say it’s headlights,” Schulz said. “You might be able to see them from a distance. But when the real mystery light shows up, it’s a light of its own.”

Even among those who accepted the results of the experiment, some told Bos they didn’t appreciate him spoiling the fun for everyone.

“I had a good friend of mine ask if next I wanted to disprove Santa Claus for the kids,” he said.

The shining

Late in the evening, a round, flickering light suddenly appeared in the distance, where the trees disappeared into the horizon. And it grew brighter as it lingered.

“See it!” Anderson yelled to his fishing buddies.

Everyone looked over to the gap in the trees. The sun had set not long ago, and the woods had grown a lot darker. There was no missing this light. It was as bright as, say, a lantern.

“That’s pretty freaking cool there,” one of his buddies said, in sincere awe.

The fishermen were among the first to see it that evening. But they weren’t the last. And like everyone else who’d show up that night, none of them believed the phenomenon was caused by headlights after witnessing it themselves.

“That’s pretty long lights for a car,” said 65-year-old Terry Nestle of Ithaca, squinting at the light in assessment. “That’s a long-lasting light. That’s not a car topping a hill.”

“It’s weird how it gets brighter, then dims out, then gets brighter,” said his friend,  Rick Michael, 61, of Midland.

The two had come from downstate to the Upper Peninsula to explore the woods on their four-wheelers. So far, they’d found an abandoned hunting shack and the ruins of an ancient, one-room schoolhouse, swallowed and hidden by the forest. The spooky Paulding Light was next on their list, and they’d come roaring out of the valley on their four-wheelers, up to the gravel road, just in time to see the light glowing persistently through the trees.

“I just can’t see how that’s a car,” Nestle said.

Two teenagers pulled up after driving 45 minutes from Ironwood and sat on a patch of grass overlooking the valley just beyond the guardrail. They, too, knew about the experiment.

“Most people will just say it’s car headlights. They’re wrong,” 16-year-old Michael Hatfield said with certainty as he and his friend watched the Paulding Light come and go, over and over.

Every few minutes, the darkness was interrupted by the beams of car headlights coming in from the highway and parking along the gravel road in long rows, just like the general store owner said. It was Monday night. It was ink black outside. Mosquitoes were swarming and biting. Yet none of that stopped a spontaneous party from coming together in the woods.

Some people just sat in their vehicles to watch. Others got out and walked into the forest. Most gathered by the guardrail. All of them had heard that, not long ago, someone had debunked the story of the lights. And each of them came out to see it anyway.

“Maybe you just gotta be a believer in the light, I think,” Anderson said. “You either believe it or not.”

Detroit Free Press


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