How Far Do You Go for a Detail?


Ephemeral Spectre
Aug 26, 2005
Don't know if the Fort section is best for this, but he was a dogged researcher, so maybe he would have appreciated this. I've been writing occasional pieces for Troy Taylor's "Ghosts of the Prairie" newsletter, and one tiny bit about a "lemming fall" in Living Wonders by John Michell and Robert Rickard nagged at me.

Living Wonders gives the date of the event as 1952. I drove 80 miles to the University of Oklahoma (which I do occasionally anyway) and dug out Sally Carrighar's article, "How My Dog Trained Me," from the Saturday Evening Post of Dec. 5, 1953, about her life with Bobo the Malemute. In Carrighar's book Wild Voice of the North, an announcer at a party says the article is coming out in a "few weeks."

But Carrighar writes more than once that she has been gone from Alaska for more than a year. She left in August, which we now can say was in 1952. Before that, she spent a happy spring and summer with Bobo (and a colony of lemmings). But during the previous winter, when she didn't know how to handle an Alpha-type sled dog, there were some tense moments.

Said winter began, really, the previous October, when Bobo's owners left Alaska and Carrighar came into possession of him. So that had to be 1951. This was "three or four months" after she finally obtained a handful of lemmings to study -- in June or July, 1951. But she had just arrived after nearly a year in San Francisco -- where she'd gone after her summer of failing to find a single lemming. So that had to be 1950. And it was the April before the unsuccessful lemming hunts that the lemming fall supposedly occurred. Oh, that the Fortean Times founders could make such an error! :)

Anyway, here's "Lemmings from Heaven":

Category: Fafrotskies (Ivan Sanderson’s shortening of “things that fall from the sky”)

From: Carrighar, pp. 25-28 and passim.

Where: Unalakleet, on the shore of the Norton Sound in western Alaska, about the 64th parallel

When: April 1950

Who: Naturalist Sally Carrighar was a “near witness,” and she spoke to others who witnessed the “mice from the sky”

How close to source: Sally Carrighar reported this odd lemming legend in her book Wild Voice of the North

Phenomena: In 1949-50, nature writer Carrighar lived in Alaska, gathering material for a book on northern animals. She soon focused her attention on the small, plump rodents known as lemmings. Lemming populations grow explosively every few years then their numbers dwindle to the point of near-extinction. During their population spurts, northern predators live almost exclusively on them. Despite their ecological importance, little was known of these bob-tailed rodents.

“In every far Northern county, on every continent,” writes Ms. Carrighar, “the primitive people call lemmings ‘mice from the sky.’” As she mingled with the Inuit (Eskimo) inhabitants of the village of Unalakleet, she soon learned why: Several of them claimed to have seen lemmings drifting down from on high, “falling in bigger and bigger circles that turned same way as sun” (that is, clockwise when looking at the ground). Even those who did not witness actual falls were familiar with lemming footprints that started from nowhere and led away to the nearest grass or hiding place. Reggie Joule, a native bush pilot Carrighar held in high esteem, claimed to have seen such tracks on the roofs of cabins at Point Hope, where he grew up. “I think lemmings fly,” was his final word on the subject.

One day in April 1950, Frank Ryan, the native postmaster of Unalakleet, told Carrighar that lemmings had just landed at (appropriately enough) the end of the local airstrip. The nature writer hurried out and found, indeed, fifteen spots where the rodents had apparently coasted in for a landing. “The blacktop was covered with less than an inch of new, light, soft snow – too shallow for any lemming to tunnel under it without thrusting up a ridge on the surface.” The tracks continued “more deeply” on from the landing points, as if the animals had been nearly weightless in transit. They were definitely lemming tracks, because mice left tail marks between their footprints and there were none here. The tracks were so new and sharp, even the imprints of longer, dragging hairs on the animals’ paws were visible.

“In each case the tracks led off the blacktop to a clump of grass, where the lemming evidently had burrowed down among the roots.” [Carrighar, p. 27]

Oddities: While certainly an odd story to the man on the street, reports of small living things falling from no visible source are numerous. The books of Charles Fort are full of them. Even the apparent loss of weight (until touching the earth) is common in “fafrotskies” of all kinds. It is rare for mammals to be the subject of sky falls, however. Fish, frogs, snails and other so-called lower life-forms are much more common.

Ending: Ms. Carrighar had the misfortune to spend a year in Alaska during a population crash of the lemmings. Despite the sky fall, not even the native children could find any. Carrighar even convinced the Coast Guard to ferry her out to St. Lawrence Island to seek them, but no one could locate any at all. She left Alaska for the winter and returned the next spring.

Legend: The legend most people associate with lemmings is their “suicidal” tendency to march to the sea and drown. This is indeed a myth, helped along by the infamous 1958 Walt Disney film “White Wilderness.” (When the lemmings being filmed refused to march over a cliff into the sea, off-screen grips with push-brooms shoved them over the edge!)

A more scientific view is that when the lemming population explodes, the animals are forced to migrate to find more food. Sometimes they wander over cliffs or into rivers in their marches. Even this idea is not accepted by many modern biologists, who believe the whole legend to be greatly exaggerated.

Naturalist Dennis Chitty, who studied the animals for nearly fifty years, seems to think there is something odd about lemmings. The notes that he and his fellow naturalists took between 1935 and 1949, such as the following, make interesting reading:

“Bake Lake. Lemming were abundant in the summer of 1943. In November they migrated, presumably toward Eskimo point. In May 1944 they were practically non-existent. Numerous carcasses were seen lying in the glare ice on the lakes as if they had frozen to death.” [Chitty, p. 8]

Chitty admits that lemmings that move out onto sea ice will die from starvation and exposure, thus they “in a sense are committing suicide.”

Explanation: Sally Carrighar tried and failed to think of an explanation for her flying lemmings. They possess nothing like a flying squirrel’s membranous “wings”. A powerful wind might have scooped them up by their long, fluffy fur, but “the snow was as light as eiderdown and it lay as level as it had fallen.” An owl might have dropped one struggling lemming, “but hardly fifteen in a space about twenty yards square.”

Comments: Not only are there mysterious lemming arrivals, there are equally strange departures. During her 1950 hunt for live lemmings, Sally Carrighar visited the small village of Shishmaref, located on a mere sandbar, a few acres in size. She and her Inuit assistant found lemming burrows easily and dug into a dozen or more. Even as she admired the intricate construction of the tunnels, Carrighar wondered where the animals were. It was summer, food was plentiful, trails in the grass had been used quite recently, but not a lemming was to be found on the islet. “Since this was a small, narrow island, the only direction the lemmings could have taken was toward the sea. They could only have crossed the wide, smooth beach . . . a migration of two hundred yards, but a death march.” [Carrighar, p. 33]

When she finally did obtain five lemmings in 1951 (one of which eventually produced two litters), Carrighar had two habitats built in a large house she occupied in Nome, one on the first floor, one on the second. She studied the animals for several months – then they, too, began to disappear. One, kept upstairs, ended up in a drip-pan beneath an oil heater on the first floor (it died from its oily bath). The writer slowly transferred the lemmings downstairs, and finally there were four left topside. “What became of the final four never was known. I had heard them regularly, running about, spinning their wheel, chirring – and then from a certain day on there was silence.” [pp. 164-165] An Eskimo youth helped her take apart the whole room and sift through the soil, grass, and sticks of the animals’ environment, to no avail. “They were just gone – a fact to be added to the rest of the lemming mysteries.” Perhaps Ms. Carrighar underestimated the abilities of small animals to escape captivity, but the consensus still seems to be – lemmings are strange little critters.

Carrighar, Sally. Wild Voice of the North (New York: Doubleday, 1959 [1953]).

Chitty, Dennis. Do Lemmings Commit Suicide?: Beautiful Hypotheses and Ugly Facts (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).


Disciple of Marduk
Aug 24, 2001
HM The Tower of London
Don't we have a thread on lemmings somewhere?

Must admit, the stories about the flying and disappearing lemmings have revived my interest in them, after learning years ago how the Disney lemmimg incidents were staged!

Reminds me of the wolverine story I read in Fate magazine years ago, which implied that wolverines were somehow both intelligent and capable of supernatural activities - getting into locked buildings, neatly spiriting away food from closed fridges, that sort of thing.


King-Sized Canary
Aug 25, 2001
escargot1 said:
Reminds me of the wolverine story I read in Fate magazine years ago, which implied that wolverines were somehow both intelligent and capable of supernatural activities - getting into locked buildings, neatly spiriting away food from closed fridges, that sort of thing.
One of those Peter Haining books I read as a kid featured a story about a hunter bothered by a superintelligent wolverine. No idea where he got it from, as with a lot of his stories I never read it anywhere else.