Published: 1:28 PM 7/16/2013
HOPE MCLEOD / STAFF WRITER
Marlene Charette saw an unusual formation in the sky August 2012 near Ron’s Auto & Towing in Washburn and took a picture of it on her iPhone. She said it looked like a saucer spinning inside a cloud. In 2012, Alan W. Smith of Washburn, an amateur “ufologist,” started collecting and documenting people’s UFO stories like this one. He now has over 100.
WASHBURN – Alan W. Smith used to be a shy man but isn’t anymore, not since painting his truck red and putting “UFO Research” on the side. It looks official, almost governmental with its search light mounted on the dash, a telescope, GPS unit, video camera, and a well-tuned engine in case he needs to track something quickly.
Smith, (53), is a Washburn native who graduated from Washburn High School in 1979 and is affectionately called the “UFO Guy.” He ran a subcontracting business for nearly 20 years, was a truck driver for 10, and now hangs windows and doors for a living. He’s also an amateur “ufologist.”
“I don’t have a degree or anything, just a passion for it,” Smith said.
Since he was a kid, Smith’s been looking for UFOs in the night sky – used to go to Peacey Hill. Today he goes to a clear-cut section of land about the size of Washburn six miles north of Ino. From his lawn chair he can view the entire horizon, and because of time spent in the Navy he said he knows the difference between an airplane, a helicopter, or a satellite.
“The world is not as closed a place as you think,” said Smith who now spends a lot of time collecting UFO stories.
Since going public last year, he’s collected over a hundred of them, which he keeps in a log with dates, locations and descriptions. No names, however, as people prefer anonymity.
“It’s hard for me sometimes, I can’t get out of the parking lot,” he said.
Some days he goes to Ashland to run a quick errand, but it takes three hours. It goes like this: people look both ways before approaching him, then they say, “I’ve never told this to anyone before…” Smith just listens and writes it down. He said he can tell when a person’s fibbing, because their story keeps changing.
“People ask me, ‘Are you going to write a book?’ I says, I don’t know. It depends on (as the years go by) what kind of information I accumulate,” he said.
Lately, there’s been much to accumulate.
On June 29, professional storyteller, Virginia Hirsch, was leading a ghost walk tour in Bayfield. Between 9:40 and 9:45 p.m., while telling a story in front of the Masonic Temple on Second Street, she noticed the 13 guests facing her suddenly drawn to something behind her.
“To be honest, I thought, darn, did that bear show up again?” Hirsch said.
Twenty seconds later Hirsch turned her head to see what all the fuss was about.
“It was a globe – a fairly large one. I would say four of them could fit into a full moon,” she said. “It was pretty big and bright day-glow orange and moving in a very smooth arc from east to west.”
No sound accompanied it.
“It just seemed to be an independent object moving across the sky,” she said.
You’d think she was making it up to spook her guests or to add to her growing collection of regional UFO stories. Some of these stories include a few gathered at the UFO International Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico, where she discovered several reports from Bayfield and Ashland Counties.
Also, she found one in, “Haunted Lake Superior,” by Hugh Bishop– an incident with a lighthouse keeper in the 1800s who saw “something in broad daylight which hung in the sky for an hour and a half before it suddenly exploded, sounding like 30 canons going off,” she said. Hirsch will be adding these stories, as well as the latest one, to her ghost walk tours of Bayfield.
Hirsch’s group was not the only one to notice something in the sky June 29. Dan Clark, chief deputy sheriff of Bayfield County, saw something about 9:30 p.m. – a bright globe approximately two feet in diameter and 100 – 200 feet in the air coming from the direction of Bayfield. He grabbed his binoculars.
“I saw a Chinese lantern flying over Washburn,” he said.
Chinese lanterns are oversized paper bags with votive candles inside which light up the interior.
“People do this a lot around the Fourth of July,” he said. Does that explain what Hirsch saw? Hard to say.
“It WAS a UFO, until he thought he saw a Chinese lantern,” Hirsch said.
People believe what they want to believe, Smith said.
“There was a guy I saw a month ago who said he saw something out at Big Rock in March,” Smith said. “It was orange, kind of cone-shaped. He said to me, ‘I don’t believe in this stuff, but can you explain that?’ I said I can’t, but I’m working on it. He watched it for almost 15 minutes. It stayed right there, but all of a sudden it went ftttttttt and took off.”
Another lady, from Michigan, told him she saw something hovering outside her kitchen window 25 years ago, never told anyone, “but I have to get it off my shoulders,” she told Smith. She stared and stared at it for a long time, then it moved to the right and shot off.
“Her window was open and she couldn’t hear a sound,” Smith said.
Then there was the time when Smith and his step-son saw two lights rise above the tree-line in Mason.
“We thought it was a helicopter, but then one light moved to the right,” Smith said.
They ran to the truck and flashed a light on it. It moved toward them and flashed back two times, “blink, blink.” Smith flashed back, “blink, blink.” It responded. Then Smith flashed three times, “blink, blink, blink” and it did the same.
“’How does it know to do that?’ my son asked,” Smith said.
Then it vanished. Sometimes flying objects are more easily explained.
“Last week the space station changed its orbit and they flew over this area every night from 10-11 p.m. for five days,” Smith said.
It was a huge white light moving at an angle in one direction. But what about the blue ball the size of a tire that followed Smith’s daughter when she went to visit a friend in Rice Lake?
“She never believed in them. She thought I was crazy, but after this she said, ‘Dad, you’re not as nuts as I thought you were,” Smith said.
Though some of his family is skeptical, they’re proud of this “UFO Guy” who puts it out there.
“I’m kind of going through my second childhood,” said Smith, who’s truck looks like a UFO on wheels when it’s all lit up at night. “I always tell people, to make them feel better, ‘Hey, I’m not looking for little green men, but if I find one, I’ll let you know.’”
Smith doesn’t have business cards or a website yet.
“It takes money and time,” he said.
So far he works alone, although he might one day get a second truck and an assistant, but first a radar system.
“It’s not a joke,” he said, though some people think it is.
“There’s nothing really special about the truck. It can’t fly or do anything like that. It’s a research vehicle. I put “research” on it, not investigation, because I’m not going to follow every little lead. It more or less comes to me.”
So if you see the UFO Guy around town and have something to “get off your shoulders,” don’t be shy. He isn’t anymore.
Hope McLeod can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org