Tracking The Bigfoot Trackers
Tracking The Bigfoot Trackers by: Phil Busse
They're dedicated, they're picky and they're an endangered species.
Three concrete molds of large feet lie in the grass at the base of Richard Knoll's truck. They're about the size of a frying pan, and stand out distinctly against the dry, brown grass. Knoll says they are impressions left behind by Bigfoot as it walked alongside a riverbank somewhere in the dark recesses of the Pacific Northwest. He won't say exactly where. It's claimed by believers like Knoll that Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch, is a living species of giant primate. The annual Bigfoot Daze conference, held on the fringes of Carson, a small town in Washington state, is a gathering point for a loose community of Sasquatch enthusiasts. Knoll arrived the day before and, in the late afternoon, explained to a group of about 50 believers how to determine whether a footprint is a hoax.
Like hundreds of other Bigfoot enthusiasts, Knoll is fiercely independent, but at the same time drawn to a community that provides a stage for him to express his unwavering belief that Bigfoot is out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered.
"It would be kind of sad if we found Bigfoot," Knoll says suddenly, unexpectedly. "Without the possibility of Bigfoot there is no wilderness left." He pauses again and adds, "The possibility of Bigfoot is the possibility of wilderness."
Whether it's a shadow in the wilderness that can't be explained, or a strange noise in the dark, Bigfoot is about believing. A smattering of Bigfoot enthusiasts have coalesced into a small but energetic group of believers over the last 15 years. There were 15 bona fide organizations around North America by 1998, with an estimated 2,000 self-proclaimed Bigfoot seekers -- almost as many as the number of Bigfoot supposedly roaming the backcountry.
There's a group of neighbors in Placerville, Calif., who routinely meet and talk about Bigfoot's whereabouts in Northern California. In Washington, a man named Cliff Crook signed up his wife and son to form Bigfoot Central. Even in Maine (about as far away from Bigfoot in the U.S. as one can get), a group of so-called crypto-zoologists pour over hair follicles, footprints and a grab bag of evidence.
Here in Oregon, the self-proclaimed largest Sasquatch organization in the world, the Western Bigfoot Society (WBS), meets for lunch every Tuesday at the Lighthouse Café in the blue-collar town of Linton, about five miles north of Portland. The numbers attending vary from 4 to 15.
"I don't know why we started meeting on Tuesdays," says WBS director Ray Crowe. "I think it started because I had something to do the other days of the week."
At the lunch meetings, the subject of Bigfoot is almost as elusive as the creature itself, bobbing in and out of conversation about the members' grandchildren and the Lighthouse lunch specials.
About 10 people are seated around a heavy oak table at my first meeting with the WBS. "I'm not a believer or a nonbeliever," claims Lloyd, a retired veterinarian. He wears a wide-brimmed hat and has the personality of a kind uncle who pulls quarters from your ear. He goes on to tell me that for centuries, there were rumors about giant black-and-white bears roaming the alpine hinterlands of China. Then, in 1936, the first panda bear was captured. "It was all bullshit until then," he says. "There is new stuff out there all of the time."
Lloyd jerks a thumb toward the densely green hills flanking the restaurant. "There are millions of acres of forest," he says. "You could hide an elephant up there."
These people are chummy -- Bigfoot is both a reason and an excuse for meeting. While the reality of the beast may be a bit hazy, the idea of it remains enough of a core for this motley subculture.
"This is the last, greatest hunt in the world," says Sam. "It gives us a reason to look at the hills differently." In 1993, Sam (who prefers not to use his real name) spotted what he believes were three Bigfoot standing in a quarry at the base of Saddle Mountain, near Seaside. But even he has his doubts. "To a lot of people I have to ask: Are you really trying to find this thing or are you just enjoying a mystery?"
Paradoxically, as long as Bigfoot is never captured, these groups will have a reason to exist. Until then, there are no absolute answers for those attending these meetings, only speculative questions: Is Bigfoot a herbivore or a carnivore? Friendly or mean? And, well, does he even exist?
Any gathering of humans develops its own invisible hierarchies and rules for belonging, from sorority girls to NASA. The interior dynamics of the Bigfoot community are no different, with gripes ranging from petty personality conflicts to serious theoretical disputes.
Even the amiable and polite Crowe has his detractors. They believe that putting an open and public face on the Bigfoot community plays too much into the general public's perceptions about the creature. After years of ridicule, from tabloids claiming that Sasquatch has taken Marilyn Monroe as his bride to Nike using the elusive beast as a foot model for a national television campaign, there is a discernible opinion that the community should shield itself from the public and shape its image. One longtime tracker stopped attending the annual Bigfoot Daze after Crowe organized a wedding ceremony two years ago, where the groom wore a gorilla suit. "He's playing into the parody factor," said the detractor, who preferred to stay anonymous.
Knoll, a globally recognized engineer from Edmund, Wash., bemoans that Crowe "just collects information." To Knoll, who painstakingly tries to filter reliable accounts from the hoaxes and "crazies," such an approach is undisciplined. "He just presents what he gets and doesn't analyze it."
There is no common profile of a Bigfoot enthusiast, but most are earnest, over 40 and financially stable. Many have advanced degrees and enjoy the outdoors. Some have a military background. What's more, simple "willingness to believe" is not necessarily a ticket to join this group. "There is no clear policy," concludes one insider, referring to the unspoken rules that govern admission. But clearly, he continues, some people get "cold shouldered." Among the cold-shouldered are UFO "weirdos" ("they give the whole thing a bad name!" one WBS member exclaims) and the greatest pariahs of the community, "the hoaxers" -- those who plant phony footprints in the wilderness or claim sightings. Some hoaxers are simply pranksters; others are current members looking to gain favor from a community that, to a large degree, ranks its members on the amount of information one possesses about Bigfoot.
Last July, a psychologist from southern Oregon, Dr. Matthew Johnson, was hiking with his family along the coastal bluffs of Cave Junction National Monument. Suddenly he heard a low chirping noise and caught a whiff of something rank. He claims the peculiar sound startled him so much, he was almost struck incontinent. Instead, he scurried to a nearby bush and from there, with his trousers around his ankles, Johnson says that he caught an unobstructed view of a 7-foot-tall Bigfoot, which, at the time, was watching his family.
Johnson's story is the type that fuels the group's enthusiasm, the seemingly sincere conversion of a nonbeliever. But these sightings also carry a vexing dilemma. Where does this new person fit into the group dynamic, where information and reputation are the measurements of social rank? "All it takes is a sighting to put you at the top of the pyramid," claims one tracker. "And that pisses a lot of people off."
Johnson was catapulted to the summit of the Bigfoot community within days. He conducted upward of 100 interviews with newspapers and TV stations. No more than a week after the sighting, he posted a Web site explaining the alleged event. He was, in this community, an overnight sensation.
Two weeks after Johnson's sighting, someone posted an inquiry on one of the more active Bigfoot chat rooms. The question was subversive: "When did Dr. Johnson register his URL?" The insinuation was that Johnson might have requested the domain name before his encounter with Bigfoot.
A barrage of messages jumped to Johnson's defense, proclaiming that his Web site was testimony to the new inductee's desire to help validate Bigfoot sightings. "He wants to create a paradigm shift," said one supporter. "He wants to get rid of the stigma and get credibility."
Without proof and despite this outpouring of support, the damage was done; Johnson's reputation in the Bigfoot community had been sabotaged.
At a mid-July lunch meeting of the WBS, speculation ran rampant. Clearly, even if Johnson was bringing good news, the group was uneasy about a newcomer.
"He started selling T-shirts," says one skeptical member. Big money is rare in the Bigfoot community, whereas UFO sightings can yield tens of thousands in honorariums at conferences or book deals. The lack of monetary incentive seems to lend credibility to the Bigfoot sightings. Theata Crowe, Ray's wife, joked that she had only made $7 from her book, "How to Cook a Bigfoot."
"As far as I'm concerned," says Theata, "that moves him to the back of the bus."
"That was Cave Junction's doing," Crowe interrupts, referring to the concession stand at the National Park that immediately began selling T-shirts after Johnson's sighting.
All heads turn to him. "I've talked to him a few times now," Crowe tells the group. He pauses. "I think I believe him." His statement stops the conversation.
There are two roads to belief, and ever since Galileo proclaimed that the earth was not the center of the universe, these paths have taken different routes. One road is less an actual pathway than a single leap of faith; the true, unflinching believer starts with the premise that God, reincarnation, Santa Claus or Bigfoot exists. From here, true believers cast their belief backward, lining up bread crumbs to show how they reached this point. Unexplained twists of fate, miracles, weird noises in the dark, broken tree branches and the unexplained suddenly add up to a graspable reality.
A handful of members begin to talk at another BFS meeting about some of the people who have cycled through their organization -- and why those people aren't around anymore. One member was upset about a tracker who had borrowed his camper about a year ago for a backwoods Bigfoot excursion. "He must've gotten drunk and walked on the roof," the member said. "The damn roof leaked after he dropped it back off."
His wife quickly adds: "And, he left the thing without any gas!"
The members at the lunch table then begin to discuss other former members whose credibility fell short of the group's standards.
"You can tell the guys who will eventually see Bigfoot," says one member. "They talk themselves into it," adds Theata, from the far end of the table.
Lloyd, the retired vet, leans toward me and says, "More like smoke themselves into it." He smiles and winks at me. Although popular conception may categorize Bigfoot enthusiasts as easy-to-please believers, the serious Bigfoot enthusiast spends four to six days a month on the ground, hiking through remote Pacific Northwest forests, pawing river banks for footprints and combing tree branches for shreds of evidence.
A man sitting next to me claims he spends four to five days a month in the Pacific Northwest backcountry looking for Bigfoot. He has thick forearms and says he's a bear hunter. He finishes his sandwich in a blink of an eye. Four summers ago, he was camping with his son at Squaw Mountain in southern Washington. In the late afternoon, just as the hard edges of the sun were softening, they pitched their tent on a bald spot of the mountain. His son had brought his bugle and was practicing on a perch overhanging the wooded valley below. After a few minutes, they heard a noise from the dense foliage returning their calls. The man grabbed his video camera to capture the sound.
"I know elk vocalization," he says. "This was something else -- something with huge lung capacity."
Returning home, he sent the tapes to several local colleges. The University of Washington returned the tape, saying that the sounds were inconclusive.
The urge to document Bigfoot has been a central force in the community for the past three decades. In 1967, two amateur Bigfoot enthusiasts, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin, ventured into the Bluff Creek National Forest, a remote patch of land just south of the Oregon-California border. Only 10 years earlier, the area had been accessible only by a two-day hike. When a logging road was constructed in 1958, the crews allegedly found scores of oversize footprints in the soft sand. A press release referred to the creature's "big feet," saddling the elusive beast with its current popular name.
While riding on horseback through the area, Patterson and Gimlin claim to have spotted a Bigfoot. They filmed it walking across a gray sandbar. Lasting a mere 4 seconds, the film shows a languid creature calmly swinging its arms as it moves back into the woods. Shot on an old 16 mm camera, the footage is out of focus and muddy. The image is distant and looks a lot like a person dressed in a gorilla suit.
The so-called Patterson film sparked a powder keg of boyhood fantasies and would-be big-game explorers. Countless amateur scientists set off into the Pacific Northwest woods over the next decade, hoping to snare the first irrefutable evidence that Bigfoot exists. It is the ultimate romantic search, the type that promises to change the way we think, to provide a solid pathway -- not a leap of faith -- to the Truth. It was an era that molded a new mentality and set the challenge for Bigfoot enthusiasts. Perhaps the person who most shaped this era -- one that lasted from the surfacing of the Patterson film until three years ago -- is Peter Byrne.
Byrne is a contemporary Indiana Jones, polite, charismatic and well-respected in and out of the Bigfoot community. Byrne had established a top-notch trekking outfit in Nepal long before hiking the Himalayas was a yuppie coming-of-age ritual. Then, in 1960, Byrne moved to the Pacific Northwest. From then forward, he was a Bigfoot enthusiast. In the late '70s, after publishing "The Search for Bigfoot: Monster, Myth, or Man?" (Pocket Books), Byrne established the Bigfoot Research Project. For several years, this outfit was headquartered in The Dalles, Ore., and became a familiar sight for travelers along I-84. On average, he maintained a half-million dollar flow of contributions each year, from benefactors as diverse as the Boston Institute of Science to former trekking clients. One major contributor, Texas oil millionaire Tom Slick, also currently funds a hunt for giant salamanders in the California desert. "If the Pacific Northwest was the closet of America," says one current tracker, "then Peter Byrne brought us out."
Byrne used his reputation as a big-game explorer and respected trekker to lend a certain degree of validity to the Bigfoot community. About half the Bigfoot seekers interviewed cite Byrne as an inspiration. His research methods inspired others to follow suit, giving a certain scientific rigor to the chase.
Then in 1997 Byrne retired from Bigfoot hunting and moved to the Los Angeles area. He left behind a trail of Bigfoot researchers -- believers who now had the advantage of online research and communication. At first it looked good for the community, but in fact, the Internet explosion coupled with a marked increase in the public's appetite for outdoor activities may actually send Bigfoot enthusiasts scurrying back into the shadows.
Late last summer, a Portland chapter of the Audubon Society sponsored a five-day "Bigfoot" camp for 12- to 15-year-olds. The century-old environmental organization, typically more associated with bird-watching and quiet strolls through the woods, used Bigfoot as a sales hook to interest adolescents. The teenagers camped near Mount St. Helens, where there have been hundreds of sightings, and learned tracking techniques, but ultimately the Audubon Society distanced itself from any serious pursuit of Bigfoot. It's just a way to get kids into the outdoors, said Steve Robertson, education director at Audubon. "We don't want to give people the wrong idea that the Audubon Society believes there's a Sasquatch," he explained.
Many members of the Bigfoot community believe that such half-serious outings threaten to co-opt their personality. For a group of outsiders, who take pride in being as elusive as the creature they are hunting, such acceptance may ultimately corrupt their tightly knit community. This and the rise of the Internet have diminished the need for organizations like the Western Bigfoot Society and annual conferences like Bigfoot Daze. By providing a virtual, year-round swap meet for information and Bigfoot data, the Internet has swiped one of the primary purposes of these Bigfoot organizations and events. A longtime Bigfoot conference in British Columbia was canceled last winter and attendance at last summer's Bigfoot Daze in Washington was poor. Several speakers failed to show. Another "celebrity" said it would be his last.
"These events are dying," he claimed, asking that his name be withheld. "There is no need to get together." Standing over a table of books, tracking records and Bigfoot postcards at a recent Bigfoot conference, Crowe brushes aside such speculation. "No," he says, "people want something that they can hold onto."
"Well," quips one attendee, referring to the potential demise of such events like the weekly Western Bigfoot Society lunches, "at least we won't have to waste our Tuesday afternoons anymore."
"We'll just move on to Loch Ness," his wife adds.
About the writer
Phil Busse is the managing editor for the Portland Mercury, in Oregon.
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