Bigfoot Encounters

Georgia's Swamp Ape, Fact or Fiction?

By Wayne Ford, sculpture by Sam Mitchell

Athens Magazine, April 2001

Former University of Georgia student Jason Leathers and his companions were moving quietly along a path on Skidaway Island looking for wood storks when they heard the bushes rustling. They saw a black hairy body. "I motioned for my friend to stop," Leathers said. "We didn't want to surprise a bear: That's when it stood up on its hind legs. I couldn't see the front of it. Then it took off running and dove into the water.

The figure was bipedal and stood close to seven feet tall. "For 30 seconds after that I couldn't move. I was petrified. I looked at my friend and said, 'What was that?' He was like, 'let's get out of here."

This encounter with what some people might call the "Swamp Ape"
was in late October 1994 on a barrier island off the Georgia coast. Leathers, who is from Lawrenceville, is now working on his doctorate in entomology at Oregon State University in Corvallis. He earned his undergraduate degree in ecology from the University of Georgia and a master's degree in entomology from the University of Kentucky.

Leathers said he and his friend never discussed the encounter again. "I don't think either one [of us] really believed it. I still don't know what it was," said Leathers. He is convinced it was not a bear.

In August 1999, two young boys said they observed a towering hair-covered figure standing in a wooded area of Morgan County, near sundown. " I got a good look at it," said 12 years old Brad Lockridge of Atlanta, who was visiting with this friend Matt Massey at Matt's parents' home on Lake Oconee. "It looked mad. I've still for it in my memory, I can still see its eyes."

Standing in the pine forest not far from the small town of Buckhead, where they made the sighting, Brad insisted, "It definitely wasn't a bear." The creature had a flat face more akin to an ape rather than the snout and face of a bear.

He and Matt believe they encountered an animal that has been popularly branded as "Bigfoot." A year later, in August 2000, and about 15 miles south in Putnam County, two women had taken a wrong turn on a dark country road when they saw something. Amy Kitchen, a medical transcriptionist from Tallahassee, Florida and her husband were visiting her husband's brother who lived in the Lake Sinclair area. Unfamiliar with the roads, she, accompanied by a female friend had made a wrong turn and was slowly driving on Blue Fill Road about 10 pm with her windows down. That is when she saw the creature about 6 feet away.

"The thing was huge. It was really tall and its head looked like it went right down \into its shoulders. It didn't have any kind of neck, so to speak. Its arms were larger than normal and kind of thick. It scare me to death," she said.

Kitchen said she had never believed stories of Bigfoot. "I've never seen anything like that in my life," she said. "It was not a bear. I have lived in Alaska, I've seen bear and moose, and this was not a bear."

Long believed to be a phenomenon of the Pacific Northwest, where the mystery predates the arrival of white explorers, tales of man-like ape have lingered beneath the surface of public attention in Georgia and indeed all of the South for decades.

Reported sightings of the creature, known also as "Sasquatch" and some times in Georgia as the "Swamp Ape" were only occasionally reported in newspapers. But today the Internet has provided a forum for people to tell stories they have sometimes held back for years. The reports have come in from the dense interior of the Okefenokee Swamp to the rugged remote regions of the North Georgia Mountains. These are stories of hunters confronting the creatures; people happening upon huge ape-like animals in forested areas; and drivers seeing such animals crossing the road during late night hours.

Reports have come in from Georgia counties including Walker, Bartow, Lumpkin, Rabun, Sumter, Tattnall and Charlton. A few scientists in the academic field of wildlife biology and anthropology have publicly said the issue warrants serious study, but their peers scoff at the mention of an unknown primate surviving in the forests of America.

How could such a creature remain unidentified if it exists? Proponents cite that they believe it is nocturnal, intelligent, and physically powerful possessing keen senses of sight, smell and hearing, all of which help it avoid humans. Some assert it may consider man a natural enemy, thus its effort to avoid people.

Much ado has been made through the years about the major piece of evidence n the study of Bigfoot: The footprints. One such footprint has led a Texas police detective to assert that a species of primate does live in the Georgia forests. One anthropologist called the print the best evidence for the creature's existence in the Eastern United States that he has examined.

The print was cast in 1997 by Pike County sheriff's deputy James P. Akin. It was found along Elkins Creek, which flows into the Flint River. The cast is 17.5 inches long and 8.5 inches wide and was made after a man and his wife reported strange goings-on in the woods around their rural Pike County home.

What made the cast unique is that it picked up dermal ridges left in the muddy print. . Dermal ridges are the patterns that make up fingerprints, often used by police to identify people because each person's print is unique. They are found on hands and feel.

Dr. Jeff Meldrum, associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University, has studied hundreds of purported Bigfoot print casts, including some that were clearly human footprints, misidentified animal prints and even potholes that eroded into the form of a foot.

"I have examined a lot of material from cast of the Rock Mountains and have found little to really catch my attention as this cast did," Meldrum said. "This particular footprint, immediately upon looking at it, was very consistent with the proportions and anatomy that I have examined with other tracks that are reasonable credible as one can establish," he said.

Meldrum found a "quite stunning" fact about the Elkins Creek Print. The dermal ridges lacked particular tension creases that show up on human prints but are absent on the feet of apes. "Right off the bat, you have to ask: If someone were faking this why would he think to include - even if he knew - a ridge pattern that was devoid of these flexon creases and situated in such a position and oriented in a typical fashion that is consistent with non-human apes?"

Police fingerprint examiner Jimmy H. Chilcutt of Conroe, Texas who began a study of primate fingerprints some years ago has studied the prints of the great apes, fingerprinting them at zoos and at the Yerkes Primate Center in Atlanta. He wanted to see how they differed from human prints. At the time, it had nothing to do with Bigfoot.

In a report delivered to Meldrum, Chilcutt states he found that the dermal ridge patterns in the Elkins Creek footprint did not occur in humans or any known primates. But they were consistent with two prints cast in the Pacific Northwest that had similar dermal ridge patterns and were also unidentified.

Chilcutt concluded: "The Elkins Creek Cast is that of an unknown primate."

That startling report has motivated Akin, who is now a school teacher and two friends, Steve Hyde and John Prescott, all of the Griffin area south of Atlanta to hunt for what they believe is a species of ape that has a breeding population in the forested areas of the Flint River corridor.

On their hunting trips, Hyde takes a .375-caliber rifle, big enough to kill an elephant. A mature male Bigfoot is estimated to be several feet tall or taller and around 800 pounds. He admitted he was surprised at first by thoughts of Bigfoot in Georgia.

"James Akin was like me, he felt it was a Pacific Northwest Phenomenon," Hyde said, a computer programmer for a rock company. "When we found our group, we decided we wouldn't make the same mistakes some other researchers do. We would not chase reports, the reason being that if you chase reports you are at the mercy of whoever calls you. We don't have the time, the resources, the manpower to do that kind of thing."

What these men do is identify areas that are most viable in terms of habitat, seclusion and foot sources. "Down here you have pockets where they can live, but they're not that large. You may have one or two family groups in a particular area," Hyde said. "Based on our evidence, we have fairly good area nearby and we will study it over a period of time.

Hyde convinced Akin to have the Elkins Creek cast examined by a scientist. At first went to Washington State University anthropologist Dr. Grover Krantz (who believes sasquatches exist), then to Meldrum who forwarded it to Chilcutt. Earlier this year, Hyde traveled to Carbon Hill, Alabama to examine an area where sightings, coupled with loud creams have occurred over many years.

"I talked to some of the locals who had actually seen the animals," he reported. "They said, "We don't want to see it harmed. We don't want people running around in the woods trying to shoot it. Basically, we just want to know what it is."

Hyde said his group has to go farther into the woods than hunters would normally travel and away from roads. "Most deer hunters set up tree stands fairly close to a road, generally within 100 yards or so. They don't want to carry deer back that far to the truck. Hunting activity tends to be anywhere you've got roads close by."

Hyde is only one of a few people in Georgia who actively investigate the mystery. John Butler, a special education teacher in Decatur, has traveled armed only with a camera to several places in Georgia, including the Lake Allatoona area. He has a unique interest. Butler believes he has found evidence of territorial and trail markings made by the apes. The markings have to do with the way young trees are pushed together or twisted.

Although his opinion on the markers is not widely held by other researchers, Butler believes the markers are characteristic of the South because the apes are pushed into tighter areas of habitation and are thus more territorial. Butler, who grew up hearing tales of such creatures in his native Ohio, acknowledges his interest in Bigfoot is a delicate matter to bring up with acquaintances. "They might think you are crazy," he said. "They have this idea of one solitary Bigfoot walking around. And they think about tabloid sensationalism in supermarkets you see, like, "Bigfoot Kidnaps Woman" - and that type of nonsense. I'm a family man, an educator. It something of a hobby for me."

Bobby Hamilton, an Eastern Texan who started the Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization, which has a website collecting data, is also a hunter. He has identified an area of Northwest Louisiana as a safe haven for the creatures. "Safe havens are hard to find," Hamilton said. "But don't think that on 500 acres you can't place a bunch of them because you can."

Hamilton said he has seen these animals on four occasions and he doesn't think that the known evidence, such as footprints, feces samples, hairs or photographs will do anything to change scientific opinion. "My friend and I set up feed plots, and we sit in the trees with high powered rifles with expensive night vision gear. The first chance we get to harvest one, he's harvested."

White the 1967 Roger Patterson-Bob Gimlin film showing an ape-like creature in Northern California is probably the gold nugget of Bigfoot lore; John Green is perhaps the icon of the Bigfoot researchers. Scientists for the most part have not seriously investigated the mystery, leaving it to nonprofessionals who have taken an interest. Green is a retired newspaperman from British Columbia, who first saw tracks in 1958 and came to realize here was a mystery that transcended mere folklore. Green, now 74, wrote a book on the subject in 1978. In the early 1960's he accompanied millionaire Tom Slick on Bigfoot expeditions. "I usually carried a .308 caliber rifle," he said.

Although he is not too familiar with the South, Green asserted that the idea that Bigfoot is a western thing is mistaken. There have been ample reports from the South, he said.

"The overall problem is that no one has actually produced a Bigfoot. That is certainly an excellent argument to say there is no such thing. There is no getting around that. The only thing is - if you assume there is no such thing, then you have to find some other explanation for the sightings and the footprints." He continued: "Something makes the enormous, roughly human-shaped footprints and in a time when we can put a man on the moon we can't explain what is making them. Thousands of people have claimed to have seen huge hairy bipeds and we don't have any explanation for that either."

The explanation often put forth, Green said is that "humans have some kind of inborn need to imagine monsters. That's easily said, but there is no evidence for that rather. "No person in the world who has carefully examined the evidence comes away believing there is nothing to the phenomenon. Either there is about as fascinating an unknown animal as you can find or else there is some absolutely bizarre human conduct manufacturing the evidence; and this has been going on throughout history."

Green has always been disappointed that a thorough scientific effort hasn't been made. "If you had a team going at it from the zoological point of view and also from the view of human conduct then one side or the other has to come up with a real blockbuster," he said.

Green, in part because it was his profession, has encouraged people to report their sightings to newspapers because the report would be permanent. They could go to a University or a museum and that's the worse thing they can do," he said. "They might get a polite reception but ultimately they would not be paid the slightest attention."

With the advent of the Internet, information on Bigfoot sightings has increased. The Internet has several sites that seem Bigfoot reports.

Green noted that he has seen more old reports filed with Internet websites than reports of new sightings. "It's a great relief to them. For a lot of people this is quite a cross to bear. They know it's real and nobody will treat them with anything but ridicule. It's a rough situation to be in."

Meldrum is one of the few in the academic field to actively investigate reports. "Based on the evidence the very least I could say is that there is ample evidence to justify continued research into the possible existence of Sasquatch," Meldrum said. "At most I could say that based on my assessment of literally hundreds of credible footprints - - just looking at the footprints alone and ignoring all of the other evidence - - I think it's an extremely high probability that these footprints are in fact a trace of an unidentified ape."

Some Bigfoot researchers believe an answer to the mystery will soon arrive. "It could be any day, given urban sprawl," said Butler, who believes such growth is putting pressure on Bigfoot habitats.

But men like Hyde, who are heavily armed, have another goal. "The scientific community has said over and over, the only way we will accept these animals is if you provide a specimen. The standard of proof I have to meet is not mine…. it's theirs."

And then there are the people who have seen something in the forests, like Amy Kitchen. "There is a Bigfoot - - definitely," she said.

And Jason Leathers. "I'm afraid to camp by myself now" he admits.
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© Wayne Ford, author of this article is chief of the Oconee County Bureau for the Athens Daily News/Athens Banner- Herald.

Credit Source: J. Lewis for Bigfoot Encounters

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