RALEIGH, N.C. -- Two orange orbs, just about 10 feet off the ground, floated past Steve Woody and his father as they hunted deer more than 50 years ago. The mysterious lights passed them, then dropped down the side of a gorge in the Blue Ridge foothills.
For at least a century, the Brown Mountain Lights have confounded residents and tourists in a rugged patch of Burke County, bobbing and weaving near a modest peak. Are they reflections from automobile headlights? Brush fires? A paranormal phenomenon, or something natural not yet explained by science?
"I didn't feel anything spooky or look around for Martians or anything like that," Woody said. "It was just a unique situation. It's just as vivid now as when I was 12 years old."
Whatever the explanation, tourism officials are hoping all those decades of unanswered questions add up to a boost in visitors making their way to scenic outlooks around Linville Gorge with the goal of spotting something mysterious.
Unexplained mysteries like the Brown Mountain Lights have been the subject of cable TV documentaries and have fueled vast online communities of amateur investigators. Ed Phillips, Burke County's tourism director, is hoping to capitalize on that.
Earlier this month, a sellout crowd of 120 paid $20 a head to attend a symposium on the lights at Morganton City Hall, and there was a crowd outside the door hoping to get in at the last minute.
"It's a good problem to have," Phillips said. "I could have sold 500 tickets."
Interest in the lights has waxed and waned since the first known printed reference to the phenomenon appeared in The Charlotte Observer in 1913. John Harden, a Raleigh-based radio personality, devoted an episode of his 1940s series "Tales of Tar Heelia" to the lights, saying they "not only have attracted the attention of the people of this state, but have aroused the curiosity of a nation as well." There was also a folk song, recorded by The Kingston Trio and others, that posited the lights came from a slave wandering the hills with a lantern in search of his master.
The profile of the lights has dimmed in recent years, although the number of reports doesn't appear to be falling off. Making the area a destination for fans of the unexplained and anomalous helps give Burke County an edge, Phillips said.
"When you look at everything, you look at what people are really interested in, and the Brown Mountain Lights was something I really wanted to bring back to people's attention," he said.
There are plans for another symposium and a contest with a cash prize for the best photo or video of the lights. There are even T-shirts and refrigerator magnets for sale in the area now.
Also in the works is a regular event tentatively called the Brown Mountain Paranormal Expedition, where people will pay to hear a presentation on the lights at a dinner, then travel by bus to overlook sites where the lights have been reported. The events will be guided by Joshua P. Warren, an Asheville native and paranormal investigator who plans to allow attendees to use equipment like night vision goggles in hopes of spotting the lights.
"The folks who attend will have a true firsthand experience of what it's like to be out there trying to judge what's happening with this mountain," Brown said.
The Brown Mountain Lights have drawn serious scientific interest since the 1920s, when the U.S. Geological Survey issued a report concluding the lights were reflections from automobiles, trains and brush fires.
Daniel Caton, a professor in the physics and astronomy department at Appalachian State University, thinks that's part of the explanation for what people have reported seeing over the years. But Caton thinks there's more to the lights, at least in some cases.
Caton said that about seven years ago, he was ready to give up studying the lights when he began hearing from people who said they saw them from mere feet away, not miles across the Linville Gorge. Those accounts sounded to Caton a lot like firsthand reports of ball lightning, a little-understood but naturally occurring phenomenon involving luminous spheres often said to move or bounce about in the air.
Caton hopes to eventually set up cameras at viewing sites that will feed to his website, allowing anyone to watch for the lights at any time. While he's skeptical, guessing that 95 percent of reports of the lights are something like airplane lights, Caton still thinks there are eyewitness reports worth checking.
"The cool thing is, if ball lightning is preferentially made by nature in the Linville Gorge, at least we have a place to look for the conditions that might create it," he said. "Otherwise, it's hopeless to try and study ball lightning because it's just randomly made and you don't know where to look for it."
This is a composite image of how three alleged UFOs maneuvered about in the sky over Melbourne, Australia, in early February, 2013. The final verdict isn't in yet on whether they're birds, aircraft, balloons, bugs or something truly unidentified.
These candle-lit Chinese lanterns can rise high into the sky and are often mistaken for UFOs.
On Dec. 20, 2012, a bright, circular object (pictured at the top of this composite image) was videotaped exploding in the skies above Sacramento, Calif. It wasn't immediately identified, resulting in speculation that it was either an alien spacecraft, military top secret weapon, runaway planet, North Korean satellite, among others. Within a short period of time, it became apparent that this was a weather balloon. The bottom part of this image shows such a balloon as it ascended over Tampa Bay, Fla., on July 2, 2012, and exploded in an identical manner as the Sacramento object, probably much to the dismay of all true ET believers out there.
This is a composite of images shot by two eyewitnesses of a boomerang-shaped UFO they reported seeing over their Burbank, Calif., home on Oct. 5, 2012. Mutual UFO Network photo/video analyst Marc Dantonio concluded the object was likely "a balloon, floating on the wind that has collapsed in half."
This four-image series of lights in the sky was recorded over Warren, Mich., on Jan. 10, 2013. The lights were seen changing into several patterns. The most logical explanation for these types of UFOs is a series of balloons or lanterns.
This composite image shows four different times that alleged UFO were photographed above Earth by either space shuttles or the International Space Station. The big question is whether or not they are truly unidentified objects or if they are more likely reflections from spacecraft windows, meteors or fast-moving spacecraft-generated debris.
What appear to be pink-red UFOs are actually lens flares from the Google Earth street view camera as it snapped images in Texas (left) and New Mexico (right).
These two flying saucer-shaped, pink-colored lens flares were created by the Google Maps camera as it drove through locations in Sedona, Ariz. (left) and Flagstaff, Ariz. (right). The images were snapped in April 2009. Submitted to HuffPost by trenna.
This skybound lens flare was created by a Google Maps camera in June 2008 over Whiteriver, Ariz. Submitted to Huffington Post by Cheryl Weeks.
This very Earthbound lens flare was created by a Google Maps camera in November 2007 at Gulfport, Miss. Submitted to Huffington Post by Jenni Parker.
This seemingly grounded lens flare was created by a Google Maps camera in January 2008 at Eureka Springs, Ark. Submitted to Huffington Post by SE.
This lens flare appears to be following a car. The Google Maps image was created in October 2008 at Escanaba, Mich. Submitted to Huffington Post by Mary Robinson.
On the night of Sept. 28, 2012, a group of strange-looking lights appeared in the sky near Cincinnati, Ohio. First there was one, then, two, then three lights, slowly descending. It turns out, however, that these lights were originating from a group of skydivers performing a pyrotechnics jump at the La Salle High School homecoming event.
Some UFO sightings may be due to a natural phenomenon known as sprites, like this one shown from 2006. "Lightning from [a] thunderstorm excites the electric field above, producing a flash of light called a sprite," said geophysicist Colin Price.
Clouds: Saucer-shaped or "lenticular" clouds that form at high altitudes have been confused with UFOs.
Blimps or advertising balloons: These can look like flying saucers from some angles, especially at night.
On June 19th the Swedish-based diving company Ocean Explorer discovered something they've never quite seen before. They were exploring in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland looking for sunken treasures when a very unusual image suddenly appeared on the sonar. A 197 feet diameter cylinder shaped object was discovered at the depth of approximately 275 feet which resembles the Millennium Falcon from the movie Star Wars.
An image released on June 15, 2012, shows a close-up view of the unidentified object sitting on the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
Close-up of rock bed that forms the Baltic Sea UFO, which still mystifies researchers.
One of several odd stone circle formations, sitting on top of the unidentified object at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
A circular UFO hovers above the Neumayer-Station III research facility in Antarctica on Aug. 10, 2012. Theories ranging from a simple weather balloon to a more elaborate ship from another planet have run the Internet gamut. The next slide shows a closeup of the object.
This is a closeup of the UFO from the previous slide. No official explanation has been offered about the object.
Pictured is a quad copter -- a deliberately manufactured UFO created by special effects wizard Marc Dantonio for a National Geographic special, "The Truth Behind: UFOs," which aired in December 2011. On the left is what the small device looks like resting on the ground, measuring 4 feet in circumference. At right, is how it appeared behind a tree in the night sky.
In February of 2012, this fireball was captured by a Texas police chief's A dashboard camera. F.A.A. say this was probably a meteor, falling to Earth. .
Meteors: Space debris can create a spectacular light show when it burns through the Earth's atmosphere, and sometimes reported as UFOs.
Civilian or military aircraft: Planes can look mysterious at night or in certain light conditions, thus confusing an observer.