We like to think of ourselves as down-to-earth types, but our region appears to be a hotbed of otherworldly activity.

MINNEAPOLIS — We like to think of ourselves as down-to-earth types, but our region appears to be a hotbed of otherworldly activity.

The northern Minnesota area around Floodwood, Willow River and Deer River is becoming "the bigfoot capital of the United States," according to one expert. In Wisconsin, three communities have annual UFO Days. "Phantom pigs" have been reported at the State Fair's Swine Barn. Minnesota had 16 sightings submitted to the National UFO Reporting Center from July 1 through Aug. 21.

These reports of strange phenomena have kept members of the Minnesota branch of the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON, busy and will be addressed at the organization's public conference Saturday. Presentations will include "UFOs in Renaissance Art," "Close Encounters: Beyond the Basics" and "Mysterious Creatures of Wisconsin and Minnesota."

MUFON's 65 Minnesota members are not wacky conspiracy theorists but earnest enthusiasts, many of them engineers and scientists. There's a lot more doubt than certitude in their ranks, more open questions than firm answers.

"I don't know that aliens are visiting," said Minnesota MUFON director Lorna Hunter, "but I want to know."

Added abduction researcher Craig R. Lang, "I knew a lot more before I started doing this than I do now."

While MUFONians, most of whom are baby boomers and seniors, acknowledge that some outside observers might want to plop tinfoil hats on the heads of those investigating close encounters, crop circles and the occasional cattle mutilation, all they ask from others is an open mind.

"I think the majority of people in MUFON would prefer to be seen as serious-minded investigators," assistant director Bill McNeff said. "There are a few strong-minded and independent souls who don't give a hoot what people think of them. But most of us would like to be seen as people doing a scientific investigation."

Added Lang, "I say if you're skeptical of (reports of close encounters), you should be. I'm skeptical of anyone who has all the answers."

Believing that we have all the answers in any field requires no small amount of hubris. For instance, those who claim that spaceships couldn't get here because of the travel distance were assuming that nothing could exceed the speed of light, a notion now under question.

"In the 1850s, they were going to close the Patent Office because everything had been invented," Lang said. "And in the 1890s, they had all the physics wrapped up and were wondering what physicists were going to do. Just when you think you know everything, that's when everything is probably about to blow up."

That might help explain why UFO and mysterious-creature sightings are on the rise, while skepticism about them is on the decline.

"Definitely, there are more people who are willing to report UFO sightings to us and not ask for anonymity," said McNeff, a retired electrical engineer who was 14 when reports about a strange crash near Roswell, N.M., first fueled his interest. "For years, people who reported UFOs tended to be ridiculed. That continues, but it's less and less so."

Interest in these phenomena never has been higher. The TNT alien-invasion series "Falling Skies" was cable's top-rated drama last summer, and TV documentary series such as "UFO Files," "Paranormal State" and "Ancient Aliens" draw millions of viewers every week.

"Ancient Aliens" raises the kinds of questions — Who built the Easter Island statues? Why are pyramids in different hemispheres so similar? What's up with Stonehenge? — that took the "nay" out of many a naysayer.

"People in my family who laughed at me for being invested in this have watched 'Ancient Aliens' and gone, 'Hey, maybe there's something to this,'" Hunter said. "They make people think."

Adrian Lee started thinking about the topic while earning a Ph.D. in history.

"It was a shock that the more I looked at Renaissance art, the more I saw UFOs," Lee said. "It was like the emperor with no clothes."

Now a paranormal researcher and lecturer who said he "has spoken to ghosts and spirits on an almost regular basis," Lee called UFO-laden Renaissance art a reflection of the primary source material.

"In the Bible, there are all these references to flaming wheels in the sky," he said, "or a dragon-like machine that comes down and opens its mouth and small folks come out of it."

While Lee will be talking art history Saturday, Dean DeHarpporte will be delving into paranormal connections to UFOs.

"It's hard to separate them after a certain amount of time," said DeHarpporte, who as a retired meteorologist will never mistake a weather balloon for a UFO. "There is some evidence that UFOs may be in a different realm, an alternative reality, whatever you want to call it, and able to manifest in our dimension when they want to.

"I'm the first to admit that it gets more murky "… but we're just starting to be able to understand the human consciousness."

So it makes sense that, when asked if he has had a close encounter, Lang said "no" — and then added after a pause, "not that I know of."

Lang has investigated many abduction reports, just as Lewis has scrutinized scores of creature sightings, from phantom chickens near Green Bay to accounts of the bigfoot/werewolf amalgam Windigo near Ross, Minn.

Hunter looks into agricultural phenomena.

"The last crop circle was 2008 in Boston, Minn., and we believed it to be a hoax," she said. "And there's been nothing lately as far as classic cattle mutilation, but we had a couple of reports of decapitated goats up by Fergus Falls."

Yes, it helps to have a sense of humor in this arena. Hunter, who works at the post office in Long Prairie, Minn., said, "I get those 'Men in Black' jokes all the time."

Meanwhile, Lewis, when asked how he came to be the man behind the website Unexplained Research, said, "I blame Wisconsin (his native state). We have three UFO capitals of the United States, and all of them have UFO Days. Some of them are more a parade and a beer tent, which may account for a few of the sightings."