By Bill Donahue, Special to the Chicago Tribune.
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.
There 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, and many researchers agree
with him. Byrne 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,
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. He says, "It's like we're trying to find a needle in a haystack and the needle is moving and it doesn't want to be found." Byrne pauses, so again you look into those eyes--those piercing blue eyes that have seen the slopes of Mt. Everest, the roiling waters of the Indian Ocean, the charge of the tiger.
"You know," he says, "we have a theory--and it's only a theory--that he covers his tracks." Not this time. After a while, the phone rings. Some guy has heard weird screams in the woods. Byrne has said, earlier in the day, that 98 percent of the reports he gets turn out to be "rubbish." But still you start hoping . . . Maybe this time. . .
"And what did
it sound like?" Byrne asks, wandering about the kitchen. "Could
you pinpoint where the screams came from?" (In the back of one's
mind, there is the sound of the chopper revving. The blades are twirling
and a beam of light shines down on the trees. Wait, something is moving)
It's a portable phone
that he's using, and he sets it down very close at hand. The next call
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