Bigfoot Encounters

"On the trail of Bigfoot"
by Bill Donhue, Special to the Tribune...

Peter Byrne Is Trying To Make His Lifelong Dream Come True: He Wants To Find Sasquatch

July 2, 1995 -- You feel, the moment you enter Peter Byrne's home in the woods of Oregon, that you have stepped onto a BBC film set.

Here is Byrne, 69 and thoroughly Anglo-Saxon, dashing about in a khaki shirt appointed, at the neck, with a gold ascot. Here is the book Byrne wrote about a grand elephant he discovered in the wilds of Asia. And all about you--evident in the whir of computers and the quick bustle of underlings--is a great sense of mission.

"We want to find a Bigfoot," Byrne says, taking a seat in the kitchen. As he stares at you, his windbeaten brow wrinkles above his blue eyes. "Ideally, you could walk toward it and, holding your hand out, shout, `Good morning!' I wouldn't want to hurt it, you know. I'd simply like to communicate.

"If I could do that," Byrne adds quietly, "it would be the fulfillment of dreams, of hopes, the culmination of a life's work."

Yes, you may think Sasquatch is just another fake Elvis in a monkey suit, but Peter Byrne most decidedly does not. He believes--believes the mystery is out there just waiting for a good man to crack it. He has believed ever since he was an imaginative youth in Ireland and his father told him stories of an "abominable snowman" that haunted Nepal, eluding humans and exuding a terrible stench.

"My father," he recalls, "always said that he and I would hike up there, to search. We never did, though, so in 1947 I went with a friend, straight into the Himalayas."

Byrne opened Nepal's first tiger hunting concession and, whenever he could, he trailed the snowman. He found some footprints and even an odd, hairy hand, but there was nothing definitive.

So in 1960, he turned his sights to America; he spent much of three decades pursuing Sasquatch through the Northwest. And again, he attained no absolute proof. The best he had on his 65th birthday was a plaster cast of a very large footprint.

Time was running out.

But then, in 1992, good luck struck. Byrne received from Boston's Academy of Applied Science a very generous five-year grant. It provided enough money to found the Bigfoot Research Project, and to hire two assistants to help him launch the most high-tech monster search the world has ever seen--a search that relies on police gear, wildlife research equipment, a Jeep, a video camera, and, above all, a phone line.

Byrne has a toll-free number, 1-800-BIGFOOT, and a dozen or so people call in every month to report sightings. The old hunter takes notes and then, if a sighting sounds promising, he rushes off to investigate--to peruse the crushed twigs or watch witnesses imitate the horrible scream.

Every detail is logged onto computers. Eventually, if all goes as planned, Sasquatch's migrational patterns will become clear, and Byrne can jump into a helicopter.

There are, on standby, two Bell 206 choppers equipped with the infared sensors used to track prison escapees. These would zero in on the beast, and Byrne would shoot a small dart. The dart would loop into the Sasquatch's flesh, extracting a small bit of tissue--enough to fill up, say, one tiny test tube--and ultimately the creature would lope off, unharmed.

And the cameras would whir: You know the tabloids would be there. Indeed, they can't wait.

Last year, the crew of "Unsolved Mysteries," an independent syndicated TV show, spent a week with Byrne filming a mock Bigfoot hunt that was replete with a Hollywood stunt man wearing oversized shoes.

Byrne has also been covered by "Ancient Mysteries," "Sightings," and the Australian Broadcast Corporation, and newspapers ranging from The Hood River News to The New York Times.

The critics are out there

With all the fame has come criticism. For instance, Grover Krantz, a Bigfoot believer who teaches anthropology at Washington State University, argues that Byrne is "a sham, a fake."

Krantz takes issue mainly with Byrne's opposition to killing, which evolved after decades of watching bumbling tourists murder Nepalese tigers.
"I argue for humane treatment too," says Krantz. "But in order to attain protection for the Sasquatch, we have to prove they exist. And Peter knows that the only way we can do that is by bringing in a body."

John Green, a retired Canadian journalist who has written several books on Bigfoot, is even more critical.

"Peter Byrne is a fraud," Green says. "He tells the public that Sasquatch is near human because that's what they like to hear."

Green is certain that, "if Sasquatch is real, he's just an animal."

But Byrne feels the truth is far more complex: He likes to think of the creature as a convict.

"As a child," he explains, "we played a game called Convict 99. One person was the fugitive. Others were the police; they tried to put themselves in the mind of a fugitive. Now we're trying to do the same thing. Bigfoot is out there, but where? Where is he hiding?"

It's a vast question and, trying to answer it, Byrne has forded an icy, chest-deep stream on snowshoes and slept out on winter nights with nothing but a small fire to warm him.

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