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When the U.S. Navy confirmed in September that videos of UFOs taken by its pilots over the past several years were real, John Baker's brain went into hyperdrive.
Maybe, the rural Mellen man thought, it's finally time.
Perhaps someone finally would pay attention to the things he and others have been saying for almost 45 years.
Could it be enough to persuade authorities to release more files about what happened in the Mellen area in 1975? Might residents there at last have answers to the strange phenomenon that they and so many others, including police, reported that night?
Baker was just an 11-year-old boy when it happened, but it remains seared in his memory. And headline news stories from March of 1975 confirm that he was not alone.
Something definitely happened. And he's still not sure what it was.
Captured in black and white
The videos that sparked Baker's imagination were recorded by Navy pilots over the past several years and obtained by the New York Times.
Two show pilots off the East Coast in 2015 tracking a black blob — the Navy prefers the term UAF or Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon to UFO — as it jerks back and forth in the sky at 25,000 feet. The pilots exclaim in expletive-laced comments about its speed,
how fast it changes course and how hard it is to track.
Another depicts a similar black blob, this one seen in 2004 near San Diego by two F/A-18 fighter pilots.
The videos sent UFO mavens and websites into a frenzy. After initially denying that the videos were real, the Navy later changed course — and said the videos were classified and never should have been leaked.
"The Navy designates the objects contained in these videos as unidentified aerial phenomena," Joseph Gradisher, official spokesperson for the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare, told the Black Vault, a website that contains a trove of government documents, most obtained under federal Freedom of Information law.
Gradisher declined to speculate about whether the videos showed actual alien craft, and said an increase in such reports might be attributable to the growth in commercial drone traffic.
"These three videos that are out there ... reflect three reports of incursions into our training ranges" that occurred in 2004 and 2015, he said.
Whatever the videos showed, they gave Baker hope — hope that what happened to him might get some attention.
The Baker clan
Baker is no wild-eyed conspiracy theorist who wears a tinfoil hat and worries that black helicopters are tracing his every movement — though in truth he can sometimes sound a bit like one when he talks about that night.
He's 57, married to a clerk at a dollar store and father to a son who's a sheriff's deputy.
Like his father Phil Baker, he works in a wood veneer mill. He lives in a tidy house a few hundred yards down a gravel road from the log house in which he and his brother and sister were raised — and just a short walk from the site of what happened.
A trophy buck hangs on the wall near photos of his parents and siblings. Out back, a wood-fired boiler and stacks of half-cut logs — a benefit of working in a wood mill — await winter heating season.
It's clean and modern and contains nothing that would suggest he's, well, a nut. No wall of computers hooked up to the SETI network. No sci-fi posters of "First Encounters" or Buck Rogers. No stormtrooper suits or wookiee masks.
"I grew up in just a normal, church-going farm family," Baker said. "My dad didn't drink, didn't smoke and I don't think I ever heard him cuss. My grandfather came up here from Stevens Point to work as a cook in the logging camps. We did a lot of family things together, making wood and taking care of our chickens. Just a normal family."
All pretty normal. Until March 13, 1975.
It was about 9 p.m., plenty dark during a Wisconsin early spring. Baker was upstairs in the bedroom he shared with his older brother Monty, listening to the high school
His sister Jane was taking her cats — she always had cats, and they weren't allowed to spend the night in the house — out to the log shed when she came screaming back into the kitchen.
"She was just shouting at my dad, 'There's something not right out there, there's something out on the road."
Upstairs, Baker heard the commotion and went to investigate. His brother stayed behind to listen to the game. "It's just a weather balloon or something," Baker recalls him saying.
"I remember thinking, 'There's no lights on weather balloons," Baker said. "But my brother said we could get 50 bucks for a weather balloon and that was enough to buy a new bike, so I figured I better see what's going on."
It was no weather balloon.
It was the light that first drew Baker and his family — a light that still soothes Baker and intrigues him to this day.
Baker, his father and Jane were on the back porch of the house and could see something glowing on the gravel lane about 150 yards away, just at the crest of a small rise.
"It was like this turtleshaped dome with lights all around it — yellow, green, red — circling it. But it was the other light. It was like it had a halo above it. So bright. If there's a heavenly light, a peaceful light that draws you in, this was it."
Baker and his family were naturally afraid of what the object was, but also drawn by the light. As they ventured down the driveway, they also heard noise coming from it.
"There was this whirring noise, like a blender or something," he said. "But then there was this banging going on, like someone banging on a pipe. Like they were hitting and hitting and hitting something, trying to get it going."
Still, the light beckoned. They inched neared.
"I remember Dad saying, 'We need to get closer to see what it is,' and my mom coming out of the house and screaming, 'Don't go closer or I won't ever see you again.'"
The Bakers backed away, and the patriarch, Phil, went inside to call a friend, George Ree, who was a sheriff's deputy.
"We got something out here," Phil said into the phone. "We don't know what it is, but you better come check it out."
Ree never got that chance.
"As soon as he got on the phone, we heard this bang, like something breaking the sound barrier," Baker said. "We looked out, and it was gone."
Five or 10 minutes later, the deputy arrived. The Bakers explained what they had seen, but there was no evidence to support their story.
"My father asked him to keep it confidential, and my brother told me not to say anything to anyone at school," Baker said. "We agreed that this was something we would have to keep just in the family. We didn't want people to think we were crazy."
It was an agonizing night. No one slept. Baker was worried that whatever it was would return and ... what? Take them? Attack them?
He didn't know what to think.
"My brother cried himself to sleep," Baker said. "He was terrorized. 'They're going to come back and get us. They're going to come back and get us,' he said all night."
That day had been warm for March, an early thaw for the area. But it froze again that night, the cold wrapping itself around the cabin.
"All night, those logs would crack and pop as they froze and expanded," Baker said. "And every time, I thought, 'Oh God, they're back.'"
They never came back.
But keeping the incident quiet turned out to be impossible.
The Bakers, it turned out, were not alone.
A total of 10 sheriff's deputies, including Ree, spent that night chasing bright lights all over Ashland and Iron counties.
"It would get bright, it would move, do a jig, change colors, make a U, go down and dart back and forth," Ree told the Wisconsin State Journal in a story published a week later.
The deputies radioed back and forth as they tracked four lighted objects in the sky — except when one flew directly overhead and radio transmissions blacked out, according to the Journal. Other residents called concerned about the lights in the sky.
"Phones were ringing off the hook," a deputy told the newspaper. We couldn't keep up with them."
The Journal contacted the Air Force base in Duluth, and a spokesman said nothing had been seen on radar — though other people also reported lights in the sky.
That left the Bakers as the only people who actually saw something other than light, earning them precisely the notoriety they had hoped to avoid.
The next morning, Baker and a brother cautiously approached the crest of the hill where they saw the craft on the ground.
"We expected a big burn mark or footprints, a scrap that got thrown aside, something from the government that would tell us it was from our planet. But it was like someone blew a giant fan across there, so there was no evidence anything had been there."
A week later, the State Journal story published.
And then things got weird.
First, a TV documentary called "In Search Of," which later spawned a weekly program documenting mysterious phenomena, called.
It sent a camera crew to record the Bakers and their experiences, which aired in 1977.
That opened the door to all sorts of crazies.
The Bakers ended up in books — "Haunted Lake Superior," and "Inside the Flying Saucers" and "The W-Files."
Authors drew crude pencil sketches based on the Bakers' descriptions of the craft. Some looked like classic George Jetson flying saucers with a dome on top. Others like an upside-down army helmet.
Baker today can't say exactly what it looked like. All he remembers is that light around something about 20 feet wide, maybe 7 feet tall.
Even today, he refers to it as "the object," and that night as, "the incident."
It got weirder still. Baker said government agents — real life Men in Black — came and interrogated the family. Someone from the military came, too, "probably looking for radiation."
Then came the kooks — the curiosity seekers and academics and others. Everyone wanted photos, but neither the Bakers nor police took any.
"I mean, our camera was an old Kodak 126, and we couldn't afford to keep film in it anyway, even if we had thought to get a photo," Baker said. "We only got film for special occasions like Christmas."
They got bizarre notes from people scrawled on the backs blown-up copies of the army-helmet photo, or typed on failing typewriters with dropped letters and fading ink.
"People just wanted more information, photos, anything," Baker said. "But we couldn't give it to them because we didn't have it. All we know is what we saw."
Living with spacemen
What they saw is what convinces people that it was real.
The events of that night eventually faded into local lore — but lore with credibility at its core.
"That's what makes it so believable — because it happened to Phil Baker," said Joe Barabe, mayor of Mellen. He, like other kids, grew up a little bit afraid to stray down the road outside the Baker homestead. Who knew what was down there?
As Baker grew up, he never was treated as a pariah or freak. Everyone in town knew someone who saw something that night.
Eventually, he married and had to tell his wife that she was engaged to someone who had seen a UFO.
"Today when I talk about it, she says, 'I don't know if I really want to hear this,'" he said. "I don't want her to freak out or be afraid of being here alone, so I don't talk about it much. My son, he believes me but he's not really into it. He's like, 'Whatever, Dad.'"
Not too long ago, Baker got a call from two local high school students who wanted to do a paper on what happened that night. So he invited them out and told them the story.
But what is the story? What does he think happened that night?
He pauses before he answers.
"Well, I'm thinking it's probably, I don't know," Baker said, as if afraid to even put it into words. "I thinking it was maybe alien life."
He thinks that because so many people saw it that night and have reported seeing strange things in the skies over Mellen since.
"I'm thinking maybe the minerals in these Penokee Hills might be what attracts them," he said.
And what about the lights? What about that halo of intense white light that beckoned him?
"Maybe they used the flashing lights to communicate or something," Baker said, pausing again to gather his thoughts.
"To tell you the truth I'm not 100% sure what it was," he said. "But I know there's more information out there. I know the government is admitting now that this stuff is real. I bet if you could get into those files, and see what the Air Force really saw that night, it would be phenomenal. Maybe that still will happen one day. Maybe one day we'll know."
Ferns encroached upon the trailhead, slowly but steadily filling in the opening on Canthook Lake Road in the Nicolet-Chequamegon National Forest.
The trail leading to a meadow in the distance showed unmistakable signs that September was drawing to a close, with downed branches and carpets of pine needles and dead leaves littering the path.
Emerald and fall-tinged ochre waves of ferns rippled through the meadow. The bracken fern, some waist high, spread over the entire clearing, and milkweed grew interspersed with grasses and wildflowers.
"I would say anybody who went out there and looked at that would not think that there had been 6,000 people in that meadow," said Jennifer Maziasz of the U.S. Forest Service's Washburn Ranger Station.
The final chapter in the Rainbow Family Gathering excursion into the forest is
being written by Mother Nature, and she seems to be saying that she's satisfied that all is well.
Hundreds of Rainbows, as the people who attend Rainbow Family Gatherings are called, set up camps in mid-June in the remote area south of Iron River to prepare for the influx of thousands over the Fourth of July week.
Their tents and footsteps tamped down campsites and trails. And more — more than 10 thousand more — feet were on the way.
As the number of Rainbows grew with the official opening of the celebration of love and world peace, tent cities sprang up in the woods on the meadow's outskirts plus down two trails.
Rainbows in several kitchen camps worked away in front of hot stone ovens and fire pits they had built to feed the throngs. For dinner, the camps wheeled cool salads and steaming stews in huge vats to a circle at the center of the meadow where everyone gathered. Many built crude tables and countertops from tree branches.
Some yards away later in the evening, Rainbows danced and musicians played in another circle surrounding a blazing bon fire.
From tramped-down vegetation to piles of rubbish and the plethora of fire pits, there was ample evidence that thousands of people were having an impact on the woods.
After their Fourth of July finale, it was time for the Rainbows to leave their home away from home. But in the wake of the gathering, many remained to give nature a boost toward recovery to its pre-gathering state.
Maziasz said the U.S. Forest Service worked with the Rainbows to see the area rehabilitated, and so far the efforts have been impressive.
The Rainbows who stayed behind to clean away garbage and spruce up the camp sites obviously knew what they were doing, she said, and had plenty of experience from previous gatherings. The main thing the Forest Service and Rainbows agreed on was their love of the environment and desire to protect natural resources.
The meadow, once part of a deer farm and blessed with sandy loam soil, bounced back with little help.
Mother Nature will take its course, a Rainbow said.
Bracken ferns and grass were already poking out of the ground in the circles on July 15, and that was good news for the many species of plants, birds and wildlife that rely on the meadow.
"That meadow is an important ecological fixture," Maziasz said.
The campsites took a little more effort. As campers left, cleanup crews ensured all garbage was cleared and taken to the dump. Then they hauled in logs and other coarse, woody debris and leaf litter, making the sites appear as nature intended.
But the work isn't quite done yet for either the Forest Service or Rainbows.
Typically Rainbows return to their previous gathering sites the next spring to make sure that bears haven't dug up the compostable materials that had been buried. Sometimes people accuse the Rainbows of not cleaning away their trash if they see the rubbish blowing around the forest.
For the Forest Service's part, rangers will be keeping an eye open for invasive species starting next year.
Maziasz didn't express too much concern about the meadow, although hikers and hunters can sometimes carry unwanted seeds on their boots into the interior. Mostly rangers will be watching for invasives along the road, where hundreds of cars from around the U.S. and Canada had parked.
But for the most part now that the gathering is in the rearview mirror, everything is back to normal at Canthook Lake.
Although the Forest Service installed a metal gate at the trailhead to let people know the trail was out-of-bounds to motorized vehicles, the area — a popular recreation destination that holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Delta, Maziasz said — is open to public use.
For the past two years, Ashland carpenter Cal Westlund has put in endless hours on a project he will never get paid for.
The project is the rehabilitation of Bohemian Hall, a century-old Ashland east-end landmark. Cal Westlund, his wife, Kelly, and their friends Nancy and Ron Sztyndor fronted $8,000 in 2017 to buy the building for the nonprofit Bay City Cultural Center, doing business as Bohemian Hall.
Since the building was acquired from Western Fraternal Life Association, the successor to the Czechoslovakian fraternal order Western Bohemian Fraternal Association, up to $80,000 has been invested in the rehabilitation project.
That money has come from donations, grants and fundraising efforts such as a raffle held in September. The raffle paid out $25,000 in prizes but only managed to bring in $9,000 for the hall renovation.
"We didn't sell out the tickets," Nancy Sztyndor said. "If we had, we would have raised $25,000. That would have been enough to do the windows. Still, considering it was the first year, we are pretty pleased."
The $9,000 they raised will be just about enough to finish the basement.
"And that is huge," she said.
The next fundraising effort involves a performance by Texas country/punk rocker Jesse Dayton slated for Sunday at Bohemian Hall. The doors open at 4 p.m. with the show starting at 5 p.m. There will be a cash bar, and tickets are available at the door at $10 per person. Dayton is described as an electrifying performer who has worked with artists from Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings to Social Distortion and the Supersuckers.
He is currently touring in support of his latest work, "Mixtape Volume 1."
In addition to pumping money into the building's rehabilitation, the four and a small cadre of volunteers who want to save the venerable building from rotting away have poured thousands
of hours of sweat equity into the structure.
Thus far Cal Westlund has put in a new roof, jacked up the front end of the building an inch and a half so that it no longer sags, worked on replacing the front foundation, put in new insulation in the front entry way and did extensive work in the basement.
He said the insulation work was the most unpleasant job, as he had to work in a narrow crawl space and be very careful of nails sticking through the floor.
"But it needed to be done, and it should help a lot with the building's heating bill," he said. When they bought the building, the basement was an outright disaster area.
"One of the pipes had burst and water had gotten all over the carpet, so it was covered with mold. There were mushrooms growing on the wall," Kelly Westlund said.
"We had to rip out all the walls, the bar, the floor — everything," Nancy Sztyndor said.
VHS Commercial Services of Ashland provided mold remediation free of charge.
The rebuilding process has included a total makeover of the kitchen, including a new stainless steel commercial stove and oven, a commercial refrigerator and freezer, a huge commercial mixer donated by the Kiwanis Club, and new wiring and plumbing.
It has been a monumental task to bring the hall back, and both Kelly Westlund and Nancy Sztyndor said it's nowhere near complete. Still they say it has been worth the effort because of what Bohemian Hall means to Ashland.
"I grew up in the east end," Nancy Sztyndor said. "Everything that happened when I was a kid happened at Bohemian Hall. This was the spot. Every wedding, every graduation, it all happened at the Bohemian Hall. There weren't a lot of places to have those kinds of events, and it was really reasonable too."
She said when Kelly Westlund came to her and talked about how run-down the Hall was becoming, the two talked themselves into buying the building.
Kelly Westlund said she wanted to save an important part of the community.
"It's our neighbor, we see it all the time," Cal Westlund added.
Once the basement is done, plans call for replacing the siding and windows. The group hopes to have at least one side of the building done by next spring.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Jesse Dayton live at Bohemian Hall.
WHERE: Bohemian Hall, 319 11th Ave. E, Ashland.
WHEN: Sunday; doors open 4 p.m., show starts 5 p.m.
COST: $10 per person.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: facebook.com/baycitybohemian.