Michigan’s Enduring Enigma of Michael Larson’s Disappearance in the Porcupine Mountains


A photo from 1965 shows Michael Larson outside a cabin with squirrels he'd bagged.

In a shroud of unanswered questions and relentless speculation, the disappearance of 19-year-old Michael Larson, a top student at the University of Wisconsin, continues to baffle investigators, his family, and a curious nation more than half a century later.

In the early morning hours of April 22, 1968, the Wisconsin State Journal captured the end of Easter break for college students. John E. Mollwitz, the reporter, aptly described the mood, “It’s back to the books for University of Wisconsin students, and not too many of them looked happy about this prospect as they stepped from planes and buses Sunday."

The 1966 high school graduation photo of Michael Larson, taken about two years before his disappearance.

Among the sea of unenthusiastic students was a young man named Michael Larson. A 19-year-old resident at the University of Wisconsin, Michael was last seen at his parents' home on Fremont Avenue in Madison, Wisconsin, that Monday morning. He left under the premise of getting a haircut, a routine so mundane that his mother could not have imagined it would be the last time she would see her son.

Investigators would later discover that Michael left in his green 1962 Volkswagen sedan, wearing green trousers and a black sweatshirt. He also had a poncho, a Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park map, and $650 recently withdrawn from his bank account. It was a setup that soon began to sketch the contours of a mystery.

Two days after Michael left, his car was discovered in a location as puzzling as the items it held. A Michigan Department of Conservation officer found it abandoned on a remote side road in the Porcupine Mountains. What baffled the investigators was the scene at the site—an unlocked vehicle, keys in the ignition, a full gas tank, missing license plates, and chillingly, small droplets of blood on the front seat cushions. The owner was missing.

A map of the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park with sites highlighted important to the Michael Larson case.

“The owner of the car was traced through oil change stickers,” an article in the Ironwood Daily Globe reported.

A federal law requiring vehicle identification numbers on passenger vehicles was passed in 1968 and took effect on January 1, the following year.

In an odd coincidence, the search led police to another Michael Larson, a patrol officer, also living in Madison, who shared a name with the missing student, but not the green Volkswagen found abandoned.

With the perplexing false lead behind them, the investigation returned to focus on the missing Michael Larson. Authorities approached his parents, searching for any information that might illuminate the circumstances around their son's disappearance. Police reported, “Mrs. Larson stated that her son, Michael, is a top student at the University of Wisconsin. He has no known illness, no enemies, no family or girlfriend problems. Michael has always been very quiet and has been described as an introvert by friends of the family.”

Michael “Mike” Larson was officially reported missing and described as 19 years old, 6 feet tall, weighing about 170 pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes.

Michael's brother, Tom, shared additional insights about his missing brother as his mother. Tom described his brother as an introverted yet adventurous individual with a penchant for outdoor activities and a fascination with maps.

Mike didn’t fish or hunt, but he loved trips. He and Tom had gone canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota, and on another trip, Mike took another brother into Canada. Tom’s first backpacking trip was with Mike when they traveled to Grand Portage, Minnesota, to take a boat to Isle Royale National Park, hike its considerable length and then ride a boat back to the Upper Peninsula.

“Mike liked being outdoors and doing those kinds of things,” Tom said.

In fact, in March 1966, when the brothers were still in high school, they spent spring break on a hiking trip to the Porcupine Mountains – the same place where Mike’s car was discovered in April 1968. The plan to hike to the Porcupine Mountains and stay in cabins maybe should have been postponed until a warmer time of the year.

“It was his idea (Mike’s) and it was a tough hike,” Tom said.

The boys encountered hip-deep snow to walk through. Their itinerary included spending nights in cabins at Lake of the Clouds, Mirror Lake, and the Buckshot Cabin, situated along the Lake Superior shore.

The investigation, despite its intensity, remained stalled. Madison Police Capt. Hiram Wilson summarized the frustrating state of affairs in a comment to the Wisconsin State Journal, "(Michael’s parents) said his university grades are excellent; he is not facing military service at this time; and he had no apparent problems that would cause him to leave without telling them.”

In a final, desperate attempt to find some trace of Michael, Sheriff Powelson turned to the local hunting community in November 1968. He asked the hunters, soon to be out in droves for deer hunting season, to keep an eye out for any clues that might provide a lead in the enigmatic disappearance of Michael Larson.

An article from a local newspaper report that bones had been found in the Porcupine Mountains in 1968.

At the onset of the hunting season, a Detroit-based hunter found a human leg bone emerging from a freshly snow-covered ground near Lake Superior. The eerie discovery was about a mile east of the Buckshot Cabin in the Porcupine Mountains. "It was a boot laying on its side, but it was not a long branch sticking out of it. It was a human leg bone still attached to a foot inside of the boot,” revealed David Young, a former park ranger, in his book “True Bear Tales.”

Upon investigation, the other boot was found 50 feet away. "The boot, which was still laced with the foot inside, had deep teeth marks in the inseam and sole. The bite marks appear to have been those of a bear,” Young wrote. Later, the human bones found were sent to the State Crime Laboratory in Lansing for detailed analysis. The results indicated the bones were those of a white male over 17 years of age, Sheriff Powelson told the Bessemer Herald.

In February 1969, a seemingly abandoned campsite was discovered about 10 miles from the bone discovery site. Among the items found were a canoe, a tent, and canned goods. But the mystery deepened when a man named John Corser from Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, claimed the gear as his own, unable to explain why he waited so long to claim them.

There was a suspicion that the campsite might have belonged to the missing person, Michael Larson. However, Corser said he had never met Mike or had seen anyone matching his description. Despite this, he vaguely remembered reading about Michael's disappearance and even speculated he might have helped in the search.

Brothers Tom and Dan Larson on a visit to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in June 2022. (Tom Larson photo)

Michael's brother Tom Larson has been spearheading a renewed search for answers.

“My brothers think he may have gone up there and committed suicide,” Tom says, a contention he doubts.

During initial interviews after Michael’s disappearance, his father had told police he thought his son “might have planned a trip someplace, possibly Canada, and does not think that foul play has occurred.”

"He never gave up believing Mike was still alive,” Tom said about their father's enduring hope.

Current Park manager Mike Knack emphasizes that solo hiking is a high-risk venture given the harsh environmental conditions and wildlife encounters. "These are prime conditions for hypothermia, and/or getting lost due to fresh snowfall,” he stated.

“Additionally, April is often the time of year when bears come out of hibernation and most desperately (are) in search of calories,” he adds. “The park typically experiences the highest frequency of bear-human conflict in the early spring.”

“I do find it to be highly unlikely that Michael’s disappearance and the discovery of the boots and bones are not related,” Knack said. “Although we do not know the exact route that Michael took, he had previously hiked to Buckshot cabin and was somewhat familiar with that area.”

Michigan State Police forensic anthropologist and human remains analyst Hanna Friedlander from Lansing searches the woods at the Porcupine Mountains with the aid of a cadaver dog team in summer 2022. (Ontonagon County Sheriff's Office photo)

The family still hopes clues will emerge, particularly by comparing Tom's DNA and any found artifacts. In 2020, it was confirmed that there was no record of the Porcupine Mountains bones in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, the national-level registry of unidentified remains.

Recently, law enforcement officers searched with cadaver dogs where the bones were found, but the search yielded no significant findings. Tom hopes that publicizing the story might jog memories and generate new leads.

After over half a century, this case remains the only unresolved missing person in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

Source: Showcasing the DNR: Missing in the Porcupine Mountains

Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of MDNR

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