Bigfoot Encounters

Bigfoot aficionados relay beastly tales, insight
By Moustafa Ayad, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005

Rick Noll stands before a crowd of skeptics, believers and sleepers in this nightclub-turned-convention center, expounding on his detailed scientific methods.

Some of the 150 people in the audience follow along, riveted by his PowerPoint presentation, while others seem to have trouble staying awake.

And all the while, this researcher -- esteemed in his field with 40 years of experience -- stands in front of an eight-foot, brown cut out of Bigfoot.

The subject of Noll's research is Bigfoot, the elusive, furried fiend that some believe stalks the forests of North America. The creature has been the subject of myth and lore for more than 100 years in the United States and its spotting is no longer relegated to the front pages of outlandish tabloids.

Bigfoot, Sasquatch, the Beast from the East or whatever you prefer to call him, is an integral part of Cryptozoology, the study of rumored animals that are presumed to exist, but conclusive proof of their existence does not.

In the back of Pitzer's Townhouse Restaurant in Jeannette yesterday, Noll described the intricacies of attempting to bait Bigfoot, the sounds, footprints and behaviors. His appearance was part of the Annual East Coast Bigfoot Conference, which is now in its fifth year.

People came from as far as Ohio to have a hot dog, buy a $10 cast of a Bigfoot foot and share Bigfoot stories in what can only be described as a Sasquatch therapy. They also gathered to listen to the Bigfoot experts tell them secrets about the creature and reaffirm or dissuade their opinions on its existence.

It's a fine line many of those who inhabit the realm of the ape-like, malodorous and legendary Bigfoot must tread. The hunt and the evidence gathering has been a central part of a movement that has swept across the nation since the 1967 public airing of the famed videotape of the black,furry giant strolling across several rocks in Northern California.

"I avoid the word 'believe' because it carries a connotation of blind faith in the absence of evidence," said Jeff Meldrum, a biological anthropologist at Idaho State University. Meldrum is one of the premiere Bigfoot researchers in the country. His lab and students analyze Sasquatch footprints gathered from across the Pacific Northwest and the eastern seaboard to determine their origins.

"The point I try to make, and particularly to my colleagues, is that there is in fact a significant body of evidence that begs for serious consideration into the existence of a North American Great Ape."

Great ape or not, the Bigfoot encounters and tales of muscular, hairy, red-eyed and bipedal monsters roaming the forests of both coasts are not only the works of fiction anymore. The Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society reports that there have been more than 25 Bigfoot run-ins in Allegheny County in the past 50 years. The most recent encounter was in Monroeville, when a man driving on a back road came across what he first thought was a man wearing a fur coat. When he drove closer, he quickly discovered it was not a man but a creature sitting on a pile of rocks.

The creature turned and looked at him and fled back into the woods.

The man fled in his car.

For John Vakovich, of West Newton, Bigfoot's existence in Pennsylvania is intrinsically tied to his life in the area. Vakovich said he has met the great ape more than six times in his lifetime. His last Sasquatch episode, some years back, was while hunting with his half dog.

The beast staring at him and the dog smelled powerfully of "armpit" and though Vakovich was armed he felt no reason to lash out at the 20-foot creature.

"People will laugh at you," said Vakovich, who flipped through a binder full of pictures of giant footprints made either in mud or snow. "But, I know what I saw."

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