THE NATURE OF THE BEAST
By Scott Forslund
© Pacific Northwest magazine, owned by Pacific Search Publishing...
Paul Freeman never intended things to turn out the way they did. Right after he said he saw the creature last June, he boasted that someday he would shoot one down -- if only to prove his credibility; yet sometime in the months that followed he was the one who became the prey.
It began with a trickle
of interest from local newspapers and television stations, and it grew
into a torrent of fascination from Sasquatch hunters, UFO freaks and religious
fanatics all over North America. By autumn his story had received equal
attention from 'The Times' of London and the 'National Enquirer'. Ever
since Freeman claimed to have seen a Sasquatch, people wouldn't leave
That very morning a long article appeared on the front page of the Vancouver 'Columbian'; Freeman's address was printed on the third line. Already Freeman's wife had endured two unannounced visits that day -- one from a Seattle reporter who had consumed her afternoon with questions; the other from a crusty old codger who begged her to let him come in and tell her about the hidden lair where he routinely conversed in English with 19 sasquatches, after luring them out with M & M's peanut candies. She managed to get rid of the old man, but the reporter was more determined. He had returned that evening and was sitting across the kitchen table from Freeman now, asking a lot of questions about the photos -- slightly underexposed close-ups of large humanlike tracks made in an elk wallow in the Mill Creek watershed of Oregon's Blue Mountains. Freeman was trying to be helpful, but the phone had been ringing incessantly and the reporter wasn't getting what he wanted. At eight o'clock there was a knock at the door. Freeman shook his head in apology, walked to the door and opened it, revealing a man dressed in jeans and a brown T-shirt. "Cedric Jon Erik Beckjord, director of Project Bigfoot," the man said, extending his hand. He sidestepped neatly past Freeman and edged his way into them rapidly, "Notice how the vegetation is quite thick all around the tracks but non-existent wherever the foot pressed into the mud," he said, pointing at one with a grubby finger. "Gone, as if burned away by some extraterrestrial being.
Freeman screwed up his face indignantly, but the telephone rang before he could say anything. "Probably that lady from the TV station." he muttered. Freeman was wrong -- but not by much. The telephone call was from a reporter from the 'Vancouver Sun' in British Columbia. She wanted to do a feature story on him for the next edition.
The morning of June 10th dawned surprisingly warm and clear over the Blue Mountains, a mountain range that stretches from the Idaho panhandle into east-central Oregon. At six o'clock sharp, Paul Freeman slid onto the seat of his white sedan in Milton-Freewater, and a few minutes later pulled onto Highway 11 northbound, crossed the Washington state line and drove to the U.S. Forest Service district ranger's office in Walla Walla.
After a long stint as a butcher for the local Albertson's store, he had recently taken a job with the Forest Service patrolling the Mill Creek Watershed in the Umatilla National Forest. Located in the heart of the northern Blues, the watershed straddles the Washington-Oregon border and provides drinking water for the city of Walla Walla. Freeman's job was to keep the trails clear of windfall and trespassers. Freeman had been hunting and trapping since he was nine years old, and he was a natural woodsman, He never finished high school, deciding instead to work with his father in the logging woods of Missouri. His present Forest Service job did not pay well, but it was nice to be paid at all to ride around in a dense fir wilderness on a bay Morgan or sorrel quarter horse. He carried only a folding knife, a chain saw and an axe, and almost every day he saw deer, elk and bear in the watershed's forested canyons or on its craggy, exposed ridge-tops.
Freeman arrived at the main office in Walla Walla just before seven o'clock to trade his white sedan for a Forest-Service-green three-quarter-ton Dodge pickup. His supervisor was at a training session in Redmond, Oregon, that day, and he had requested that Freeman patrol the perimeter roads of the watershed by truck instead of the watershed trails by horse, so he could carry water samples back to the office that evening. When Freeman arrived at the small white intake cabin used for storing equipment at the watershed perimeter an hour later, the temperature was pushing 65 degrees. It was going to be a warm day. He picked up a shovel, an ax and several water-sample bottles, carried them out to the truck and started up the gravel road. His plan was to drive the switchbacks up Tiger Canyon to Skyline, turn toward Tablerock Tower and return. As it turned out, he could not make it to Tablerock, seven miles up the road, the remnants of a big snowdrift, melting fast in the warm air, made the road impassable. Freeman stopped the truck and basked in the thick silence of the forest. On a clear-cut section of ridge at the top of the canyon, he saw a herd of elk feeding on the young grasses. The Forest Service wildlife biologist had asked Freeman to monitor the size of the herds -- the watershed is opened to elk hunters for a few weeks every autumn -- so he drove the pickup to the base of a blown down tree that blocked a nearby logging spur, and parked. He headed up the spur on foot, watching the herd's movements, careful not to frighten the elk.
When Freeman was less than a hundred yards downwind of the herd, he stopped and began counting. He had just murmured "eighteen" when some of the elk became agitated; moments later the entire herd spooked and ran, disappearing into nearby timber or over the ridge. Puzzled, Freeman continued up the logging spur. Two hundred yards farther he smelled a terrible stench, an overpoweringly sweet, acrid smell, redolent of decaying flesh. A slight wind was blowing toward him from the direction of a heavily timbered section a few hundred yards ahead, where the road switch backed out of sight. It was about 10:30.
As he walked toward the curve in the road he remembered that a retarded boy had been lost in the watershed during the previous autumn hunting season. Maybe the stench was the boys corpse, he thought, exposed in the spring thaw. He made a mental note to make a report when he returned to Walla Walla.
But as Freeman started around the curve, the stench rising, a massive fur-covered creature bounded down into the road from a l0-foot cut bank. Freeman gasped, stunned; he stopped dead in his tracks and stared, trying not to panic. Standing before him, also staring, was a huge creature, covered almost entirely with reddish-brown fur, looking for all the world like some hairy prehistoric man. It stood still on two bent legs, slightly hunched over like a linebacker waiting for the slap, watching Freeman with the wild, menacing look Freeman had seen in the eyes of bears, mountain lions and bull elk he had startled in the past. Freeman slowly began to shuffle backwards down the road, easing himself away from the thing. He could hear its heavy breathing and could see massive muscles rippling in its stomach, legs and shoulders. Its nose was wide, its nostrils flared. Its face was the color of a deep suntan, its eyes black. Hair grew from almost directly above its eyebrows and covered a forehead that dished up to a high crown. Freeman guessed that it was eight feet tall, easily 800 pounds, and probably capable of tearing his head from his shoulders -- something Freeman was not at all sure it did not plan to do.
As Freeman backed away, his Vibram-soled work shoes caught on a rock embedded in the road and he stumbled, almost falling. When that happened the hair on the creature's shoulders rose up and forward like hair on a grizzly's back. When Freeman had retreated a dozen yards, the creature suddenly turned and began walking away in swift, graceful strides, looking back over its shoulder every few steps. Its buttocks were furry, massive and muscular; its palms and the soles of its feet were bare. When it was more than a hundred yards away it looked back a final time, then disappeared behind a thick stand of white fir at another curve in the logging road. Freeman sprinted down to the truck, digging in his pants pocket for the keys. He jammed the key into the ignition and drove wildly down the spur. When he arrived back at the small intake cabin he didn't even notice the watershed caretaker standing in front. Freeman darted straight past him into the cabin, picked up the phone and dialed the ranger's office in Walla Walla.
"This is Paul Freeman," he said, his voice quavering controllably. "I think I've seen a Sasquatch." "Freeman...." There was a long silence at the other end, followed by a snicker. "Have you been drinking, old boy!"
Since the turn of the century there have been 2,127 eyewitness reports of large, apelike creatures or massive unidentified tracks in the United States and Canada, more than half of them from the Northwest. Between northern California and southern British Columbia, the creature known as Sasquatch makes about 100 personal appearances a year, and many of the sighting reports make Paul Freeman's seem tame by comparison.
In 1948 a Chehalis Indian named Henry Charlie reported that a Sasquatch chased him a mile down a road. Charlie was riding a bicycle and the Sasquatch easily kept pace.
In 1957, Gary Joanis of Eugene, Oregon, reported that a nine-foot sasquatch lunged out of the brush while he was hunting, scooped up the deer he had just shot, and carried it away under one arm -- even after Joanis emptied his 30.06 rifle into the middle of its back.
In 1966, local newspapers reported that an albino Sasquatch descended a tree and chased a young Yakima boy; friends found him later in shock on the ground, clutching in his fist a large tuft of white hair.
In 1970, a Wilsonville, Oregon, woman reported that a "huge, manlike animal" threw her 15 feet over a barbed wire fence, into a clump of thistles. Her husband found her an hour later with burrs on her slacks and a musty smell on her sweater.
On the evening of April 7, 1980, the chief inspector of the Ontario Humane Society was on his way to visit relatives in Weiser, Idaho, when he saw two hairy creatures stroll onto highway 95 in the Payette National Forest, then spring in a single leap over a six-foot embankment on the other side of the road.
A year later, a man from Lacey, Washington, reported to the Thurston County sheriff's department that a nine-foot creature with long, furry red hair flagged him down as he drove home from a party in the wee hours of the morning. According to the police report, the driver had hardly stopped his small foreign car before the creature walked up to the grill, lifted up the front end and tossed the vehicle into a roadside ditch. And last October, several people traveling in the dome car of a train bound from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Calgary, Alberta, saw a 10-foot apelike creature standing 300 feet from the tracks. Later one of the witnesses said, "It was waving its arms as if trying to fly."
Still, the elusive creature that has become known as Sasquatch is not an exclusively Northwestern or even a North American phenomenon. Similar miscreants have been reported in the Caucasus mountains north of Iran, the Ten Shan range on the Sine-Soviet border, the mountains of Guatemala and Ecuador, and in the wilds of eastern Africa. The beast has taken the name Bigfoot in California, skunk ape in the American South, 'yeti' or abominable snowman in the Himalayas, 'alma' in the Soviet Union, 'agogwe' in Tanzania and Mozambique, and shiru in Central America.
One of the first celebrated Sasquatch reports did not even occur in the Western Hemisphere, but in the Himalayas long before mountaineer Eric Shipton brought back photographs of strange tracks from there in 1951.
In 1887, Sir Laurence Waddell, a major in the British medical corps, wrote that his expedition survived passage over an unfamiliar, treacherous pass only by following a single set of massive, manlike tracks. Waddell attributed the tracks to some anonymous Samaritan, but many Sasquatch enthusiasts nevertheless add that one to their lists.
The Northwest can lay exclusive claim only to the name 'sasquatch', rooted firmly in Northwest Indian lore. One of the first to point this out was John Green, a Victoria newspaperman who became interested in Sasquatch stories while publishing a weekly tabloid in the town of Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia, 25 years ago. Green has compiled thousands of reports and written four books on the subject since then.
According to him, the name Sasquatch was popularized 50 years ago by J. W Burns, a schoolteacher on the Chehalis Indian Reserve near Harrison Hot Springs in the 1920s. Burns was a sometime magazine journalist and a lifetime Sasquatch enthusiast. The stories he wrote for several magazines published in the 1920s told of a terrible creature known to Pacific Coast Indians as the wildman of the woods. Half human, half-monster, it was said to possess gifts of ventriloquism and hypnotism.
Around Puget Sound
it was sometimes called 'Hoquiam'; in the Cascade Range it went by the
name 'see-ah-tik'; around Mount Shasta it was called 'see-oh-mah'. But
on Vancouver Island and in the Fraser River Valley where Burns lived,
the wild man was called 'sokqueatl'
SHADOW OF A DOUBT
Each morning before the trap and skeet shooters arrive at the Vancouver Gun Club in southern British Columbia, a stocky Swiss immigrant named Rene Dahinden drives a 1949 GMC flatbed truck, fitted with 30-ply tires from a Boeing 737, far out into the muddy bog beyond the shooting circle. Then, with shovel and sluice, he separates the spent shot from the peat bog -- ten cents per pound of lead, 30 tons per year. For this the gun club pays him a total of $6,000 -- a far cry from the days when he had a home and family, a good-paying job and credibility among his neighbors. But Dahinden isn't sorry.
"My life isn't taken up by frivolous nothingness anymore," he says. "For years, I have focused my life on the sasquatch." Sometimes, though less frequently now, Dahinden sets up a vintage 16 mm Keystone Continental movie projector in the bare sitting room of his ramshackle house trailer behind the club, and passes an evening watching the single tangible result of his decades-old search: a 24-foot strip of celluloid, to which he has acquired a 51 percent interest. Two Yakima men, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, took the film in 1967 after a three-week search on horseback for sasquatches near Bluff Creek in northern California. Hundreds of tracks had been found in the area a few weeks earlier. The familiar footage shows a black-furred beast walking over a sandbar toward a hillside hued with scarlet and gold, occasionally swinging its massive arms and shoulders around to peer straight into the camera. "I know more about this damned film than Patterson and Gimlin themselves," Dahinden declares. Then adds, "peculiar to massive limbs with well-relaxed muscles." D.W. Grieve, a reader in biomechanics at the Royal Free Hospital of Medicine in London, concluded that the Patterson-Gimlin Sasquatch seemed to walk "with a gait pattern very similar" to a big man moving fast. Nobody has produced convincing evidence either way.
Whether authentic or not, however, the film was convincing enough to become immediately lucrative to its first legal owners (Gimlin, Patterson and Patterson's brother-in-law, Al De Atley, each owned 33 percent shares when the film was made). Less than two weeks after the film was developed 'Argosy' magazine paid the partnership $3,500 for the first photo rights; by the mid-1970s it had aired on a Smithsonian Institution special, appeared in dozens of books and magazine articles, and formed the substance of an adventure film, 'Bigfoot: The Mysterious Monster', which grossed more than $24 million. (An estimated 60 million people viewed the Smithsonian special alone.) Yet Dahinden, now one of the film's biggest defenders, was not a great fan in the early days.
"I was out to destroy it," he said. "In my mind that was the only way to take that film. I was looking for the guy in the fur suit, the guy who got the payoff." For three years Dahinden investigated Patterson's background and business records, and studied scientists' remarks on the film. When he could dig up no solid evidence that the film was faked, he set out to get a piece of the action for himself.
His second goal proved easier than his first. Roger Patterson died of Hodgkin's disease in 1972, leaving a legacy of potential lawsuits. Patterson allegedly had sold and resold the same film rights to different parties. Moreover, he had cut Bob Gimlin out of the profits from the start because Gimlin would not leave his work and private life to promote the film full-time. After convincing De Atley to sign over his 33 percent share in 1970, Patterson routinely sold film rights as if he were the sole owner, even though Gimlin legally owned 33 percent. Seeing the opportunity that Gimlin was passing up, Dahinden persuaded Gimlin to let him hire an attorney and sue the Patterson estate in 1974.
In return, Dahinden
would become a partner with Gimlin, sharing half of whatever film rights
Gimlin had after the lawsuit was settled. On February 6, 1976, Patterson's
widow settled out of court, leaving Gimlin and Dahinden with exclusive
publication rights plus 51 percent
Motivated by the prospect of a half-share of whatever revenues he could prove were rightfully due to Gimlin, Dahinden sought out all contracts he could find related to the film. He became a one-man collection agency. He sued Acropolis Books, American National (Film) Enterprises, Simon and Schuster, Gulf and Western, Metromedia, and several other parties that allegedly had made the mistake of believing Patterson's sole-ownership pitch.
"There were so many crooked deals," recalls Bob Gimlin, who has since returned to a quiet ranching life in Yakima, making only an occasional foray into the woods to search for sasquatches. "Besides the money Rene suddenly decided I had coming, he discovered many stolen films that made their way into movies and books. Rene became like a dog chasing his tail, initiating lawsuit after lawsuit. It was intruding on my private life. I didn't even care about the other lawsuits, but because Rene and I were partners I was being carried along." Embittered and discouraged, Gimlin signed over his entire rights to Dahinden for ten dollars on September 29, 1978, leaving Dahinden with a majority ownership in the film. Even then he never called the film a fabrication, adding "I could've made a lot more money by calling it a fake." (Patterson's widow [Patricia] still owns the remainder.) Since then, Dahinden has managed little more than to pay his legal fees with the settlements he has received, but he has no intention of stopping now. "I'm a great fan of Mao Tse Tung's writings on protracted war," Dahinden says. "Mao looked 20 years ahead; that's what I'm doing. If somebody else finds the Sasquatch first I'm just an 'also ran.' But as soon as that happens, this film will become as important as any 24 feet ever taken."
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