LOOKING FOR MR. BIGFOOT
BY PHIL BUSSE for the Portland Mercury
September 14, 2000 -- There are three concrete molds of large feet lying in the grass at the base of Richard Noll's truck. About the size of a frying pan, they stand out distinctly against the dry, brown grass. Noll claims they are impressions left behind by Bigfoot as it walked alongside a riverbank somewhere in the dark recesses of the Pacific Northwest. He won't say exactly where, though. Held on the fringes of Carson, a small town in Washington, the annual Bigfoot Daze conference serves as a gathering point in time and space for a loose community of Sasquatch enthusiasts. Noll arrived the day before and, in the late afternoon, explained to a group of about 50 Believers how to determine whether a footprint is a hoax.
Like hundreds of other Bigfoot enthusiasts, Noll is fiercely independent, but at the same time, drawn to a community that provides a stage for him to express his unwavering belief that Bigfoot is out there somewhere... waiting to be discovered.
"It would be kind of sad if we found Bigfoot," Noll suddenly says, unexpectedly. "Without the possibility of Bigfoot there is no wilderness left." He pauses again and adds, "the possibility of Bigfoot is the possibility of wilderness."
Whether it's a shadow in the wilderness that can't be explained, or a strange noise in the dark--Bigfoot is about believing. In the past 15 years, a smattering of Bigfoot enthusiasts have coalesced into a small but energetic group of Believers. By 1998, there were 15 bona fide organizations around North America, with an estimated 2,000 self-acclaimed Bigfoot seekers--almost as many as the estimated number of Bigfoot roaming the back country.
There's a group of neighbors in Placerville who routinely meet and talk about Bigfoot's whereabouts in northern California. In Washington, a man named Cliff Crook signed up his wife and son to form Bigfoot Central. Even in Maine (about as far away from Bigfoot as one can get), there's a group of so-called cryptozoologists who pour over hair follicles, footprints, and a grab bag of evidence.
Here in Oregon, the self-proclaimed largest Sasquatch organization in the world, the Western Bigfoot Society (WBS) meets for lunch every Tuesday at the Lighthouse Café in the blue-collar town of Linton. The numbers attending vary from four to 15, depending largely on errands or work conflicts.
"I don't know why we started meeting on Tuesdays," explains Ray Crowe, the director of the WBS. "I think it started because I had something to do the other days of the week."
At the lunch meetings, the subject of Bigfoot is almost as elusive as the creature itself, bobbing in and out of conversation about the members' grandchildren and the Lighthouse lunch specials.
During my first meeting with the WBS, 10 people are seated at the solid oak table talking about Al Gore and the upcoming Democratic Convention. One of the members jokes that Gore was born nine months to the day after the notorious sighting of a UFO at Roswell, New Mexico.
Back on the subject of Bigfoot, Lloyd, a retired veterinarian, claims, "I'm not a believer or a non-believer." He wears a wide-brimmed hat and has the personality of a kind uncle who pulls quarters from your ear. He goes on to tell me that for centuries, there were rumors about giant black and white bears roaming the alpine hinterlands of China. Then, in 1936, the first panda bear was captured. "It was all bullshit until then," he says. "There is new stuff out there all of the time."
Lloyd jerks his thumb towards the densely green hills flanking the restaurant. "There are millions of acres of forest," he says. "You could hide an elephant up there."
Not unlike a group of old college chums who gather every Sunday to watch football, Bigfoot is interchangeable as a purpose and an excuse for meeting. While the reality of the beast may be a bit hazy, the idea of Bigfoot functions as a well-defined core for this motley subculture.
"This is the last, greatest hunt in the world," says Sam. "It gives us a reason to look at the hills differently." In 1993, Sam (who prefers not to use his real name) spotted what he believes were three Bigfoot standing in a quarry at the base of Saddle Mountain, near Seaside. But even he has his doubts. "To a lot of people I have to ask: are you really trying to find this thing or are you just enjoying a mystery?"
Ironically, as long as Bigfoot is never captured, these groups will have a reason to exist. Until then, there are no absolute answers for those attending these meetings, only speculative questions: Is Bigfoot a herbivore or carnivore? Friendly or mean? And, ultimately, does he even exist?
From sorority girls to NASA scientists, any gathering of humans develop their own invisible hierarchies and rules for belonging. The interior dynamics of the Bigfoot community are no different, with gripes ranging from petty personality conflicts to serious theoretical disputes.
Even Ray Crowe, the amiable and polite director of the WBS, has his detractors. They believe that putting an open and public face on the Bigfoot community plays too much into the general public's perceptions about the creature. After years of ridicule by everyone, from tabloids claiming that Sasquatch has taken Marilyn Monroe as his bride to Nike using the elusive beast as a foot model for a national television campaign, there is a discernable opinion that the community should shield themselves from the public and shape their image.One long-time tracker stopped attending the annual Bigfoot Daze after Crowe organized a wedding ceremony at last year's event, where the groom wore a gorilla suit. "He's playing into the parody factor," said the detractor, who preferred to stay anonymous.
Another tracker, Richard Knoll, a globally recognized engineer from Edmund, Washington, bemoans that Crowe "just collects information." To Knoll, who painstakingly tries to filter reliable accounts from the hoaxes and "crazies," such an approach is undisciplined. "He just presents what he gets and doesn't analyze it."
While there is no common profile of a Bigfoot enthusiast, most are earnest, 40-plus years old, and financially stable. Many have advanced degrees and enjoy the outdoors. Some have a military background. Seemingly, the only common denominator is the Belief. However, a simple "willingness to believe" is not necessarily a ticket to join this group.
"There is no clear policy," concludes one insider, referring to the unspoken rules that govern admission. But clearly, he continues, some people are "cold shouldered." In this latter group he puts the UFO "weirdoes" ("They give the whole thing a bad name!" one WBS member exclaims) and the greatest pariahs of the community, "the hoaxers"--those who plant phony footprints in the wilderness or claim sightings. Some are simply pranksters; others are current members looking to gain favor from a community that, to a large degree, ranks its members on the amount of information one possesses about Bigfoot.
In July, a psychologist from Southern Oregon, Matt Johnson, was hiking with his family along the coastal bluffs of Cave Junction National Monument. Suddenly he heard a low chirping noise and caught a whiff of a rank smell. He claims the peculiar sound startled him so much, he almost shit in his pants. Instead, he scurried to a nearby bush and from there, with his trousers around his ankles, Johnson claims that he caught an unobstructed view of a seven-foot tall Bigfoot which, at the time, was watching his family. (...this version of the Johnson story is highly embellished from the early morning 40-minute phone call initiated by Matt Johnson to Bobbie Short on July 2, 2000 Sunday where he is tape-recorded relating an entirely different account of the events that caused the 6' 9" Johnson to cry in front of a lady ranger. He begged me to believe him as would a child to his mother. There are too many published versions of this story to be believable coupled with Johnson's strange behavior which included begging, tears, temper tantrums and foul language in letters to Daniel Perez, Bobbie Short and Chris Kraska.)
It is the type of information that fuels this group of enthusiasts--the seemingly sincere conversion of a Non-believer. But, these sightings also carry a vexing dilemma: Where does this new person fit into their dynamic, where information and reputation are the measurements of social rank?
"All it takes is a sighting to put you at the top of the pyramid," claims one tracker. "And," he adds, "that pisses a lot of people off."
Within days, Dr. Johnson was catapulted to the summit of the Bigfoot community. He conducted upwards of 100 interviews with newspapers and TV stations. Within a week of the sighting, Dr. Johnson posted a website explaining the alleged event. He was, in this community, an overnight sensation.
Two weeks after Dr. Johnson's sighting, someone posted an inquiry on one of the more active Bigfoot chatrooms. The question was subversive: "When did Dr. Johnson register his URL?" The insinuation was that Johnson may have requested the domain name before his encounter with Bigfoot.
A barrage of messages jumped to Dr. Johnson's defense, proclaiming that his website was testimony to the new inductee's desire to help validate Bigfoot sightings. "He wants to create a paradigm shift," said one supporter. "He wants to get rid of the stigma and get credibility."
Regardless of this outpouring of support, the damage was done; Dr. Johnson's reputation in the Bigfoot community had been sabotaged.
Days after the question was posted on-line, the same person responsible for the on-line inquiry called the Mercury. "You should look into his medical records," the source urged. "I think you might find that business was a bit slow for the doctor before his sighting." The implication was clear: Dr. Johnson may have fabricated his Cave Junction sighting in order to attract attention and, subsequently, a bit more name recognition for his business.
At a mid-July lunch meeting of the Western Bigfoot Society, speculation ran rampant. Clearly, even if he was bringing good news, the group was uneasy about a newcomer.
"He started selling t-shirts," says one skeptical member. Unlike UFO-enthusiasts whose sightings can yield tens of thousands in honorariums at conferences or book deals, big money is rare in the Bigfoot community. The lack of monetary incentive seems to lend credibility to their sightings. Theata Crowe, Ray's wife, joked that she had only made $7 from her book, How to Cook a Bigfoot.
"As far as I'm concerned," says Theata, "that moves him to the back of the bus.""That was Cave Junction's doing," Crowe interrupts, referring to the concession stand at the National Park that immediately began selling t-shirts after Dr. Johnson's sighting.
All heads turn to him. "I've talked to him a few times now," Crowe tells the group. He pauses. "I think I believe him." His statement stops the conversation.
In Search of Truth
There are two roads to belief, and ever since Galileo proclaimed that the earth was not the center of the universe, these paths have taken different routes--but both still stumble towards an elusive idea of Truth. One road is less an actual pathway than a single leap of faith; the true, unflinching believer starts with the premise that God, re-incarnation, Santa Claus or Bigfoot exists. From here, True Believers cast their belief backwards, lining up breadcrumbs to show how they reached this point. Unexplained twists of fate, miracles, weird noises in the dark, broken tree branches, and the unexplained suddenly add up to a graspable reality.
At a late July lunch meeting of the Bigfoot Society, a handful of members begin to talk about some of the people who have cycled through their organization--and the reasons they aren't around anymore.One member was upset about a tracker who had borrowed his camper about a year ago for a backwoods Bigfoot excursion. "He must've gotten drunk and walked on the roof," the member said. "The damn roof leaked after he dropped it back off."
His wife quickly adds: "And, he left the thing without any gas!"
A few minutes later, the members sitting at the lunch table begin to discuss other former members whose credibility fell short of the group's standards. "You can tell the guys who will eventually see Bigfoot," says one member.
"They talk themselves into it," adds Theata, who is sitting at the far end of the table.
Lloyd, the retired vet, leans toward me and says, "More like, smokes themselves into it." He smiles and winks.
Although popular conception may categorize Bigfoot enthusiasts as easy-to-please believers, the serious Bigfoot enthusiast spends four to six days a month on the ground, hiking through remote Pacific Northwest forests, pawing river banks for footprints and combing tree branches for shreds of evidence.
A man sitting next to me claims he spends four to five days a month in the Pacific Northwest backcountry looking for Bigfoot. He has thick forearms and claims to be a bear hunter. He finishes his sandwich in a blink of an eye.
Four summers ago, he was camping with his son at Squaw Mountain. In the late afternoon, just as the hard edges of the sun were softening, they pitched their tent on a bald spot of the mountain. His son had brought his bugle and was practicing on a perch overhanging the wooded valley below. After a few minutes, they heard a noise from the dense foliage returning their calls. The man grabbed his video camera to capture the sound.
"I know elk vocalization," he says. "This was something else--something with huge lung capacity."
Returning home, he sent the tapes to several local colleges. The University of Washington returned the tape, saying that the sounds were inconclusive.
Bigfoot Comes Out of the Closet
The urge and public demand to document Bigfoot has been a central force in the Bigfoot community for the past three decades. In 1967, two amateur Bigfoot enthusiasts, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin, ventured into the Bluff Creek National Forest; a remote patch of land just south of where Oregon borders California. Only 10 years earlier, the area had been inaccessible except by a two-day hike. When a logging road was constructed in 1958, the crews allegedly found scores of over-sized footprints in the soft sand. A press release referred to the creature's "big feet," saddling the elusive beast with its current popular name.
While riding on horseback through the area, the two men claim to have spotted a Bigfoot. They filmed as it walked across a gray sandbar. Lasting a mere four seconds, the film shows a languid creature calmly swinging its arms as it moves back into the woods. Shot on an old 16 mm camera, the focus is muddy. The image is distant and looks a lot like a person dressed in a gorilla suit.
The so-called "Patterson film" sparked a powder keg of boyhood fantasies and would-be big-game explorers. Over the next decade, countless numbers of amateur scientists set off into the Pacific Northwest woods, hoping to snare the first irrefutable evidence that Bigfoot exists. It is the ultimate romantic search, the type that promises to change the way we think, to provide a solid pathway--not a leap of faith--to the Truth. It was an era that molded a new mentality and set the challenge for Bigfoot enthusiasts.
Perhaps the person who most shaped this era--one that lasted from the surfacing of the Patterson film until three years ago--is Peter Byrne. Polite, charismatic and well-respected in and out of the Bigfoot community, Byrne is a contemporary Indiana Jones. Long before hiking the Himalayas served as a yuppie coming-of-age ritual, Byrne had established a top-notch trekking outfit in Nepal. Then, in 1960, Byrne moved to the Pacific Northwest. From then forward, he was a Bigfoot Enthusiast. In the late '70s, after publishing The Search for Bigfoot: Monster, Myth, or Man? (Pocket Books), Byrnes established the Bigfoot Research Project. For several years, this outfit was headquartered in The Dalles and became a familiar sight for travelers along I-84. On average, he maintained a half-million dollar flow of contributions each year, from benefactors as diverse as the Boston Institute of Science to former trekking clients. One major contributor, Tom Slick, a Texas oil millionaire, also currently funds a hunt for giant salamanders in the California desert. "If the Pacific Northwest was the closet of America," says one current tracker, "then Peter Byrne brought us out."
Using his reputation as a big-game explorer and respected trekker, Byrne gave a certain degree of validity to the Bigfoot community. About half of the Bigfoot seekers interviewed cite Byrne as an inspiration. His research methods inspired others to follow suit, giving a certain scientific rigor to the chase.
In 1997, Peter Byrne retired from Bigfoot hunting and moved to the Los Angeles area. The legacy of a population of Bigfoot researchers that Byrne has left and the ease with which they can swap information on-line may seem to promise a steadfast future for the community; in fact, however, the rise of the internet and a marked increase in the public's appetite for outdoor activities may send Bigfoot enthusiasts scurrying back into the shadows.
This summer, a local chapter of Audubon Society sponsored a five-day "Bigfoot" camp for 12-to 15-year-olds. The century-old environmental organization, which is more associated with bird-watching and quiet strolls through the woods, used Bigfoot as an appealing sales hook to interest adolescents. The teenagers camped near Mount St. Helens, where there have been hundreds of sightings, and learned tracking techniques. Ultimately, though, the Audubon Society distanced themselves from any serious pursuit of Bigfoot. It is just a way to get kids into the outdoors, said Steve Robertson, education director at Audubon. "We don't want to give people the wrong idea that the Audubon Society believes there's a Sasquatch," he said.
Many of the members of the Bigfoot community believe that such half-serious outings threaten to co-opt their personality. For a group of outsiders that take pride in being as elusive as the creature they are hunting, such acceptance may ultimately corrupt their tightly-knit community.
Coupled with the public's tentative embracing of Bigfoot enthusiasts, the rise of the internet has weakened the need for organizations like the Western Bigfoot Society and annual conferences like Bigfoot Daze. By providing a virtual, year-round swap meet for information and Bigfoot data, the internet has taken away one of the primary purposes of these Bigfoot organizations and events. A long-time Bigfoot conference in British Columbia was cancelled this year and attendance at this year's Bigfoot Daze in Washington was poor. Several speakers failed to show. Another "celebrity" said this would be his last Bigfoot conference.
"These events are dying," he claimed, "there is no need to get together."
Standing over a table of books, tracking records and Bigfoot postcards at this year's Bigfoot Daze, Crowe brushes aside such speculation. "No," he says, "people want something that they can hold onto."
"Well," quips one attendee, referring to the potential demise of such events like the weekly Western Bigfoot Society lunches, "at least we won't have to waste our Tuesday afternoons anymore."
His wife adds, "We'll just move on to Loch Ness."
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