Bigfoot, Fact or Fable?

Washington's Blue Mountains, -New evidence may tell

“The wind shifted and that's what it was, the mules smelled this critter! The mules weren't seeing it... they could smell the thing. As I was coming around the river with the mules, I looked back; I was looking for it that time. About halfway across the ridge, I picked it up going down into the brush. I was telling one of the guys and they went up there to look at the tracks and they couldn't believe it!” They said, “That can't be no bear, because there ain't no claws, and it's bigger ‘n longer than any bear we got in this country.” ...Wes Sumerlin

Stories have always been told about things that happened along old Mill Creek Road, the trail of bumps and switch backs that winds up from the farms of southeastern Washington to the hushed and empty ranges of the Blue Mountains.

The large, human-like footprints found along the creek. The sounds heard late at night outside the lonely cabins on the upper end of the road. The man who was riding his motorcycle and saw something in the brush, 10 or 12 feet tall, that made a weird, high-pitched scream.

As far back as the 1920s, there were reports of a family of huge "man-creatures" skulking up near homesteads along the nearby Coppei River. Six dairy cows were said to have been herded away by the beasts. One by one, the homesteaders left and moved back to town. But the stories persisted. As long as anyone remembers, it has been an item of belief for many here that Bigfoot walks the Blue Mountains of Washington State.

"Up north here, we growed up with this thing. People would say, 'Look out for the wild man.'
Man, how can you doubt it when you still got diapers on and they got a picture of you pointing at a Bigfoot track?" said Wes Sumerlin, a Walla Walla mountain man whose alleged sighting of two hair-covered creatures about seven miles off Mill Creek Road last summer has led to hopes of the first scientific evidence of the legend.

Sumerlin and two colleagues came back with clumps of hair that Ohio State University researchers are testing for DNA comparisons. The tests, said Oregon primate zoologist W. Henner Fahrenbach, "could legitimize, to my mind at least, the sightings, the footprints, everything. It would put one item of concrete evidence behind all the circumstantial evidence."

From Northern California to the dense forests of British Columbia, the legends of Sasquatch have been handed down over hundreds of years, a Northwest version of the fearsome fable — from the Grendel of Beowulf to the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas — that is as old as the forest and the night. Now, years after much of the forest has given way to suburbs, the Sasquatch is in resurgence all over the Northwest, a cultural phenomenon that is at least as remarkable as any scientific evidence uncovered in the DNA labs.

Mainstream scientists have scoffed at reports of a man-animal lurking in the forests of the Northwest, something akin to the great apes that dwelt in East Asia approximately half a million years ago. Not only is it unlikely that one wouldn't have been seen and clearly photographed by now, but it would be difficult for so large an animal to find adequate food in the wild lands that remain, - -they say.

"As an evolutionist, I'd love to see the thing. But to my knowledge, most of the time when these things are finally traced down, they prove to be hoaxes of one type or another, or they never finalize them into any resolution," said Daris Swindler, professor emeritus of physical anthropology at the University of Washington.

On the other side are a handful of anthropologists, zoologists and others who say that it is possible that they could have crossed the Bering Sea along the ancient ice passage into North America - and survived by cunning, brawn and shyness in the huge tracts of forests in the Northwest. The mountain gorilla, for centuries the subject of wild tales among Africans, wasn't officially discovered by European scientists until the 1840s, they note.

"We have an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence. We have footprints by the tens of thousands... I have a giant footprint that is 22 inches. And they go bigger than that. The second thing we have is sightings, and they number in the thousands. They're from people in all walks of life, from game wardens to loggers, plain old grandmas, police officers with 1,000-candlepower searchlights," said Fahrenbach, who teaches a course on Bigfoot science at Portland Community College.

Grover Krantz, anthropology professor at Washington State University, estimates that there have been approximately a quarter of a million Bigfoot "events" over the past 40 years. He said he has tracked nearly identical reports from the Northwest into western China and the former Soviet Central Asia, supporting his theory that the ancient gigantopithecus — the greatest ape that ever lived, some 8 or 9 feet tall — did not die off in Asia 400,000 years ago but crossed over into North America, and survived in small numbers.

The Bigfoot story last August in Walla Walla started with some youths who said they had heard screaming sounds up in the mountains. A local rancher said all his cattle had come down off Biscuit Ridge, where the good feed was, and gone over to Black Snake Ridge, where there wasn't any feed.

The rancher talked to Sumerlin. "I said, 'What about the deer, the elk?' He said, 'I haven't seen any of 'em for about a week.' He said, 'Hell, there aren't even any birds up there.' There ain't nothing sticks around when those critters are there," Sumerlin said.

He talked to Paul Freeman, who has spent much of the last several years looking for Bigfoot, and Bill Laughery, an ex-game warden. The three of them decided to drive up and have a look the next morning. They hiked in off the main road and started climbing into the highlands. Then, Sumerlin said, he got "a whiff of something." "Smelled like somebody skinning muskrats. And then I thought, 'Hell, there ain't nobody skinning muskrats up here.' " Freeman had gone on ahead, but Sumerlin called Laughery back. "I stood there just a second or two, and all of a sudden I smelled it: a real pungent, heavy odor like an animal that's in rut. Like you can smell a bull elk or a buck deer," Laughery said. The two men were interviewed separately but gave identical accounts.

Sumerlin and Laughery said they moved together into a clearing, where they found a number of small trees twisted and broken, so fresh they were still dripping sap. There were large clumps of long hair, some black, some dark brown, caught on the trees where they were broken.

Laughery started to walk on when Sumerlin said he saw something moving in the trees. "It's like you can't see it, but you can see the daylight breaking behind it," he said. "Bill was there — he packs those sneaky little spy glasses around — and he said, 'Wes, I see something, but I can't put a head on it.' ... I got down by him and he was talking about it while I was walking toward it, and then he said, 'Hell, it's gone.' I was looking at the back of the critter, I was just seeing part of it. But he was looking on the other side, and he was getting a good look at it. But basically we saw the same thing. It was a big, hairy critter, about 7 foot tall, I'd say, covered with hair." "It was 7 to 8 foot tall, buckskin brown, I could see it well enough to see fringe about 1 inch high, a little, on the top of the head," Laughery said. "We were 87 feet away and we stood and watched that for four or five minutes, and it didn't move at all. I looked it up and down. I couldn't see its face. ... I got a quarter-view. And then the minute I turned to Wes to say something, -it took off."

Laughery and Sumerlin said they thought that there were actually two creatures, one that moved off down the canyon, another that headed down a small trail. They both saw the big one jump the trail, 15 feet in one leap, and they got a better look at it. They followed it down 60 to 70 yards through ferns and low bushes.

At about that time, they said, Freeman came running up and kept moving toward the car. According to Sumerlin, Paul said,"'Let's get the hell out of here." But instead, the three of them sat down, quietly. "We sat down three or four minutes and started hearing that brush snapping ," Sumerlin said. "We heard a snip, and then we heard another snip, and every time we heard a snip, we'd point. We didn't say nothing. And pretty soon we got up and went over there and we could hear it breathing. Just a real heavy breathing." From far down in the canyon, they said, there was a whistle. And then a grunt, and a crash of bushes, and whatever it was was gone.

Their story has been discounted by some Bigfoot investigators because it involves Freeman, who is believed to have faked some Bigfoot evidence in the past. But Sumerlin and Laughery said they know all the stories about Freeman and he could not have faked what they all saw. Sumerlin has a good reputation in the Blue Mountains, even among skeptics. Hair samples the trio collected finally will tell the tale, Sumerlin and others believe.

Paul Fuerst, associate professor of molecular genetics at Ohio State University, said technical problems have delayed completion of the tests until at least the end of this month. Fuerst said the tests, if they can be completed, "will either show that it was something we know, a bear or a squirrel, or they will show whether it is in fact an unknown species."

Originally published Monday, January 22, 1996
By Kim Murphy writer for the Los Angeles Times/Washington Post Service
Article provided by Marlene Trask.

In the fall of 1996, Vance Orchard sent me a notice that the hair attributed to this article, had been tested at Ohio State University but found to have no matches - in other words they couldn't identify it other than to say it was an unknown primate hair; it matched none of their samples. ...Bobbie Short

Paul Freeman (1943 - 2003)
Vance Orchard (1917 - 2006)
Grover S. Krantz (1931 - 2002)

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