Bigfoot Encounters

Braving Bigfoot

by Philip Guidry
"How do you kill Bigfoot?" the guy behind the counter at Bucksport Sporting Goods in Eureka, California, repeated my question.

"With the truth."

With that, he scratched his grizzled beard and disappeared behind a counter full of knives, arrows, gigs, shotguns, and other weapons of mass destruction. He had vanished, just as our quarry had been known to do in these parts, and I was left to ponder the circumstances which had brought us to such an unlikely destination.

It had been a long night, that drive from Los Angeles up into Northern California's Redwood Country. We'd successfully navigated a series of setbacks and snares which culminated in a massive mudslide outside the tiny village of Leggett.

At first we didn't notice the enormous pile of wet soil and rocks which had tumbled down the sharp hillside and covered US 101. In the early morning mist, the only thing visible was the flashing light that indicated Caltrans was at work.

We were the first in line for this traffic jam. We turned off the car, stepped out into the damp morning, and were greeted by Gus, a Caltrans veteran.

"Mornin', gentlemen," Gus greeted us. He was a skinny, older man, with salt-and-pepper hair and a tiny gap between his front teeth. "What brings you all out at this fine hour?"

"Ah, you know, the usual," I replied. "Sightseeing. Salmon fishing. Bigfoot hunting. You know."

"Bigfoot," Gus said with a nod of his head. "I've got some experience huntin' Bigfoot myself, actually."

"Really? How's that?"

Gus thought for a moment, and wiped the falling rain from his face.

"Well, I was s'pposed to go up to Idaho on a Bigfoot-hunting expedition with my brother-in-law."

"What happened?"

"Nothin' happened," Gus said matter-of-factly. "He divorced my sister. The trip got cancelled."

At that moment the Caltrans authorities cleared our passing. Gus wished us well and resumed his duties. We headed north. Bigfoot was waiting.

Timing is everything, they say, and when it comes to adventure, that couldn't be more accurate. We — myself, Fox, and the rest of our cadre of college road-trippers, Bill Diedrich and Jim Sinegal — were on our way to the tiny town of Willow Creek, California, on the 31st of October, 1997. It was Halloween, of course, but more importantly, it was the 30th anniversary of a film which rivals the Zapruder film as one of the most notorious pieces of celluloid in history.

Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin were an avid pair of Bigfoot-hunters who spent their days searching for clues in and around Willow Creek, a frontier town which sits near the Oregon border, right in the center of the Klamath and Six Rivers National Forests. The thick wooded hillsides, sharp, rocky, unexplored mountaintops, and jungly, unsettling rivers made the area a hotbed for Bigfoot-seekers, and after October 22, 1967, the place would become groundzero.

According to Patterson, on that day he and Gimlin were filming near the banks of Bluff Creek, due north of Willow Creek, when they were thrown off their horses. Sensing a movement on the other side of the river, they pointed their 16mm camera in that direction. Captured on their film, in eerie, scratchy live action, is a loping, almost-supernatural, half-man, half-ape creature. The gorilla-like figure turns to glance at the camera for a moment, then scurries into the woods and disappears forever.

When Patterson returned to town, he contacted Al Hodgson, a fellow Bigfoot-hunter and expert. Then he went public with his findings, setting off a firestorm of controversy and piquing the interest of everyone from National Geographic to National Enquirer. While the legitimacy of the film has never been properly determined, it spawned a whole generation of Bigfoot-hunters and conspiracy theorists: men like the British scientist Peter Byrne and Washington State University professor Grover Krantz, as well as Robert Michael Pyle, the Yale biologist whose Guggenheim Fellowship to study the phenomenon led to the book Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide.

Thirty years later, the mystery of Bigfoot was still unsolved. And it was salmon season. We knew we had to go there.

If I were Bigfoot, I probably wouldn't wander far from the isolated hamlet of Willow Creek. We crested a series of elevating bends and found ourselves in the town square, looking out at literally miles and miles of unlogged, deeply forested, forbidding terrain.

In the center of town stood a statue of the Oh Mah Bigfoot, a particular species of Sasquatch which has been sighted time and again by bewildered Willow Creekers. The inscription on the statue read:

The range of the Oh Mah apparently extends throughout much of the forested area of North and South America. Due to its nocturnal habits and extreme elusiveness it has gained a legendary status in many areas of its occurrence. This redwood statue, carved by Jim McLarin as a gift to the people of Willow Creek, is a near life-size interpretation of a male Oh Mah based on descriptions of persons claiming to have observed such creatures. Locally many thousands of huge human-like Oh Mah footprints have been found and inspected by large numbers of people. Oh Mah reports published over 100 years ago are essentially the same as those being made today. The Oh Mah is a perplexing historical and modern day zoological mystery.

Unfortunately, Willow Creek consisted of the Oh Mah statue and little else. Hodgson's Store, the former Willow Creek storehouse for Bigfoot memorabilia, artifacts, and speculation, had been closed down. In fact, no hominid paraphernalia was to be found. For that matter, no one even wanted to talk about Bigfoot. The town was empty. We stopped a rancher who barreled through town in a pickup truck.

"There ain't no Bigfoot around here," the rancher said. "But if I were you, I'd watch out for them crankster gangsters in Hoopa."

He sped away.

We checked into the Bates-esque Willow Creek Motel and attempted to rent a boat with the Bigfoot Rafting Company, a sleazy low-rent operation based out of the kitchen of the only restaurant in town, Cinnabar Sam's. If Bigfoot was not to be found, there were certainly still some salmon out there.

Rocky, the cook at Cinnabar Sam's who also happened to be the proprietor of the Bigfoot Rafting Company, assured us that we'd have "no problem with the river today," instructed us on the inflation of our rubber raft, and told us he'd pick us up at the take-out point, "about three or four miles away."

Every member of our ragtag expedition was a bit skeptical about the do-it-yourself nature of the operation, but we were only doing a little fishing, and the Trinity River looked deceptively calm that day.

It was about 11:30 in the morning - plenty of daylight for leisurely meandering and hoisting in some Northern California salmon.

And for about four hours, that was what we did: we leisurely meandered. The fish weren't biting, but the scenery was breathtaking — at times it seemed like the lush mountains simply tumbled straight into the river, and at this point the rocks on the Trinity served as colorful decoration rather than dangerous obstruction.

But then the sun does what it usually does in those parts at about five o'clock: it began to set. The skies grew darker. The water below us began to move more quickly, and it was suddenly much deeper than before. We packed up our fishing gear, and started to paddle. Seriously paddle.

We weren't concerned. If the take-out point was four miles from where we began, we expected to round the next bend and find the dirty, grinning face of Rocky awaiting our arrival. Still. there was that deep-rooted nagging feeling that maybe, just maybe, things were a bit awry.

We paddled harder. The water fought back harder. The rapids grew larger. The sun began to disappear behind the mountains and redwoods. We began to take in quite a bit of water. The left side of the raft wasn't turning properly. The temperature, I could tell, was also dropping. Suddenly our situation did not look so promising.

Those first moments of doubt and worry were creeping into my mind when, distracted, I failed to notice an enormous boulder rearing its ugly head from above the water's surface. In split-seconds we'd run aground on the boulder, and while water rushed around us on all sides, our rubber raft was suddenly stuck, Noah's Ark-style, atop this big-ass rock.

It took about ten rough minutes of choreographed, momentum-changing rocking back and forth to free the raft from its rocky grip, and when we finally splashed back down into the flowing rapids, I'd earned myself a new unflattering nickname: 'Captain Phil.' Once we'd landed back in the water, we all noticed the significant temperature decrease. By this point we were all shivering and wet, and the boat was taking in serious amounts of water. Everything was floating now, including the poorly-named 'drybag.' Then Diedrich pointed out, to our collective shock and horror, the left side of the boat.

It was deflating before our very eyes. Our raft was sinking.

Five- and six-foot rapids pitched more water into the boat. It was now almost impossible to properly steer the boat, as the soft, collapsed left shank was causing us to spin uncontrollably. In a matter of minutes, we were soaked from head to toe. With the temperature plummeting, hypothermia was on my mind.

We ditched the raft on one of the river's more navigable banks (most of the banks were either too steep to climb, or too cluttered with logs and bushes). Fox and I embarked on a hurried quest to scrounge up some firewood, for the possibility of having to stay overnight in these unfamiliar woods was suddenly very real. It was now roughly seven-thirty.

Diedrich and Sinegal scampered off into the woods, searching for any path to safety. Their eyes were flickering across the woods when both of them happened upon a large set of human footprints.

Before their imaginations could take hold, they returned to the boat.

There appeared to be no safe route, and the soft mist returned to the skies. Soon, there would be no dry firewood, either.

We had no choice. We climbed back into the raft and shoved off, hoping the rapids would diminish. Either way, it was a sketchy proposition — in the darkness even a calm river would pose problems. But in the woods there was certainly no escape. As I stuck my paddle back into the icy fast-moving water, I could hear my teeth chattering.

You hear about this type of shit on the news all the time, my mind screamed at me. Bunch of city kids disappear into the woods, then turn up drowned or eaten by a bear days later.

I could picture some yokel deputy sheriff commenting to the reporter from KTLA about how these "unskilled outdoorsmen" got themselves into a "bad situation" which could have been avoided if the victims had used "common sense." It would look a lot worse, I reasoned — after all, I'd grown up in rural Louisiana, Sinegal in rural Pennsylvania, Fox spending summers in a secluded cabin in Lake Tahoe, and Diedrich spending hours camping and exploring the deserts outside his home in Palm Springs. We weren't exactly the West L.A. Hollywood Brat Pack, but of course that was how it would sound when they turned up our beaten, drowned bodies in Six Rivers National Forest.

What the hell was I thinking? I told my screaming brain to piss off, and plunged my paddle in and out of the water with as vicious a frequency as I could manage. My cohorts said very little, and paddled harder.

A particularly imposing bend stuck its fingers out into the river, and I prayed that, once we'd crested it, we'd see the take-out. Instead we were greeted with (what we later learned) a series of Class IV rapids, which ripped through a short cliff and smashed into our half-deflated boat.

A wall of water flew over our heads, and as the boat was crushed into a V-shape, I saw Diedrich's large frame being tossed over my head and toward the swirling whitewater. With more strength than I possessed, I grabbed him and yanked him back into the boat. There was a brief moment of recognition from the others, and Captain Phil or no, I'd redeemed myself.

But there was no time to rest on the laurels of my accomplishment. Water was still rushing in at us on all sides.

Whitewater rafting at night is one of those exercises left to seasoned river guides and brain-damaged daredevils. There is no sport about it — the thrills normally associated with rafting are replaced by a numbing blindness and a total lack of control that, far from feeding the necessary adrenaline, makes things extremely deadly. For those who feel that death is perhaps the ultimate thrill, I recommend whitewater rafting at night. Also Russian roulette.

Divine intervention and a shift in the winds allowed us to dock the boat. We scrambled out of our deflated death trap and, without a moment's hesitation, sprinted into the thick and thorny woods. I recall a rush of wind as I ran forward, then tiny painful flicks as overhanging branches and leaves smacked into my face, and being weighed down by soaking wet clothes. I can remember little else.

In my blind rush forward, I could feel the ground gently sloping upward. Before long I was in a dead climb, grasping soil, bushes, and whatever else I could find for purchase. The top of the cliff was close. I reached for the branch which would put me over the edge.

It snapped, of course.

The tumble was short but painful. Without pausing to inspect my body for injuries — I was afraid of what I might find — I resumed my climb. Sinegal, the most muscular and athletic of the bunch, had scrambled to the top. This time, I saw the error of my ways and reached for more legitimate footholds and handholds. I shimmied up an overhanging branch, and Sinegal helped pull me to (relative) safety.

Diedrich was the next to arrive. As Fox arrived at the top of the cliff, it was discovered that the tackle box had been left behind.

"Who cares?" I said. "Let's get the hell out of here."

"We can't," Diedrich reminded us. "The car keys are in the tackle box."

So Fox climbed all the way back down to the docked raft, stopping to catch his breath every fifteen feet or so. He grabbed the tackle box, left the rest, and returned to the hill, dangerously out of breath and suffering from severe exhaustion at this point.

We were in some sort of plateau, a field covered in an eerie foglike mist. There was a house on the edge of the property, I could tell, perhaps some sort of ranch. An idea to knock on the door for help was proposed; in my days of travel, I knew that four soaked, dirty, lost rafters knocking on the door of an excitable crazed rancher at nine o'clock at night was not a good idea.

So we scavenged through the tackle box, taking only things we'd need to make it through the ordeal.

On the other side of the field was more woods, and what looked in the darkness to be a dirt path leading up the hill. It was a hundred-yard scamper across the field, and there was nothing to provide cover from the view of the ranch house. Fox was in bad shape from his repeat climbs, and just as we broke into our group sprint across the misty field, Diedrich's back gave out.

I felt my lungs close up, and my breaths seized. I'd lived with asthma long enough to know when an attack was imminent. I reached into my back pocket for my inhaler. It was gone — it had fallen out of my pocket and into the river.

We made it to the other side. Between Diedrich's back, my asthma, and Fox's exhaustion, Sinegal was the only healthy one in the bunch. So when we took off up the dirt path, he was the one to lead.

That lasted barely a few minutes, before a branch (rendered invisible by the darkness) scraped against Sinegal's chest. Sinegal burst into a horrified fit. Although it was only temporary, this lapse of reason and composure left us all shaken. We stopped for a few moments, and our nervous, out-of-breath chatter served one purpose: to (hopefully) discourage any animals lurking nearby from rising up out of the woods and ending our whole dreadful saga.

Needless to say, I was no longer interested in finding Bigfoot.

Shaken, horrified, and desperate, we hiked through the steep forest. We reached the top of the hill, and the concrete ribbon of Highway 299 unfolded before us. We flagged down the first car that drove by. It was a police officer.

The officer stepped out of the car, observed our ragged, hellish appearance, and radioed to headquarters a sentence I shall never forget for the rest of my life.

"I found those missing rafters."

We had been reported missing by California Highway Patrol and the Humboldt County Sheriff's department. After our return to Willow Creek in the back of the police cruiser, sleep found us quickly at the Willow Creek Motel.

The next morning, we were in the process of checking out and getting the hell out of Dodge when this woman from the Bigfoot Rafting Company arrived. She was just checking on us to make sure we were okay.

She asked us what exactly had happened out there the night before. When we'd given her the abridged version of our escapades, she was shaking her head.

"Rocky told you it was four miles to the take-out? It's actually twelve miles. That silly Rocky."

Murmurs of lawsuits were discussed. Desperate to save her ass and the collective ass of the Bigfoot Rafting Company, she brought up Bigfoot again.

"You guys said you were here to look for Bigfoot," she said. "Why don't you give Al Hodgson a call?"

That was probably the one name that could have slowed down my irresistible impulse to get out of Willow Creek. I paused momentarily while shoving still-soaked gear into the back of the Jeep.

"You know Al Hodgson?" I asked her.

"Of course," she replied. "Everyone knows Al Hodgson."

An hour later, Al Hodgson, the legendary Bigfoot hunter, stepped out of his car at Cinnabar Sam's, right on time. I noticed he was holding something in his hands.

It was a Bigfoot print.

The plaster print was flawless. Seventeen inches long, milky white, it represented the highest standards a Bigfoot hunter can hope to achieve.

"It's nice to meet you all," Al Hodgson said, and as I tried to shake his hand, he stuck the Bigfoot print in my hands.

"But I can't take this."

"Take it. I've got plenty more where that came from."

I turned over the print. Engraved on the bottom was the date: 'October 1966.'

1966, I marveled. One full year before the Patterson-Gimlin film was taken.

"Funny thing about Roger Patterson," Hodgson said as we sat down to breakfast. "When he called me after getting that film footage, I told my wife, 'It's over. Bigfoot's real. The whole world's gonna' know.'

"That was thirty years ago.

Hodgson, his hair white and his features wrinkled with age, sipped his coffee. His deep, dark eyes reflected God-knew how many stories of these mountains, and of the missing link.

He told us stories for the next hour, incredible, fantastic, often-unbelievable stories. He was the first person contacted by Roger Patterson after the film had been shot. He told of the 100-year-old Hoopa tribal chief who recalled literally dozens of Sasquatches roaming the Willow Creek hills in his youth.

Then the old man threw us for a loop. He launched into a strange Christianity-fueled theory regarding Bigfoot and his relationship with mankind. Bigfoot was more than the missing link, Hodgson, said — he was a special being, perhaps sent by Jesus Christ Himself.

I called for the check.

We thanked Al Hodgson and wished him well. We tucked the print safely away in the Jeep, and I took one good look around Willow Creek. The mountains seemed so much steeper, the woods so much thicker, the terrain so much more forbidding, on that day than when we arrived. I looked down at the pristine white footprint, then back into the wilderness. Whether or not there was a half-man, half-ape hominid roaming the woods, Bigfoot was definitely real. You could sense it, feel it in the legend inscribed on the Oh Mah statue, hear it in the reverence of Al Hodgson's voice, hear it when the birds cried from their treetops. One most never underestimate the power of folklore, I realized, and if a legend is believed strongly enough in the hearts of people who care, then it does exist.

I climbed into the Jeep, and we returned to Los Angeles.

Copyright Philip Guidry 2000 - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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