Bigfoot Encounters

Peter Byrne and the BRP 1990's... 
Phantom Of The Woods, Phantom Of The Psyche -- If Bigfoot Doesn't Exist,
We Face A Deeper Mystery Of Collective Regional Imagination

By Mark Mcdermott

"...that we do not know you is your perfection and our hope. The darkness keeps us near you." Wendell Berry, "To the Unseeable Animal"

Sunday, July 7, 1996 -- THERE ROAMS IN THE mountains and the mist of the Northwest either a giant bipedal ape or a phantom of the imagination so often dreamed as to firmly exist in the reality of thousands of people. There roams also an old hunter, a man who has spent nearly half of his 68 years in pursuit of this mystery, and who is now conducting a hunt unlike any before. He has downed tigers in India and mountain goats in Nepal, but on this, perhaps his last great hunt, he seeks not a body but proof of a body. He wants to show the world that Bigfoot exists.

The Bigfoot Research Project, headed by veteran Bigfoot hunter Peter Byrne and funded largely through Boston's Academy for Applied Science, describes itself as "a benign, scientific investigation designed to prove the existence of a large, bipedal, hair-covered hominid believed to be living in the forested mountain ranges of the Pacific Northwest."

The project, which operates out of a house northeast of Mount Hood in Oregon, began in August 1992 with five years and, by some reports, a half-million dollars to achieve its end.

When Byrne, an Irishman and former "great white hunter" in Nepal and India, first hunted Bigfoot in the early 1960s, the hunt was conducted much as any hunt would be: out in the field for weeks at a time, well-armed. The object was to track and kill a Bigfoot.

Now, Byrne has at his disposal an 800 telephone number, heat- and motion-sensing equipment, monitors, day-night cameras and two Bell helicopters. And, in a decision unique in the annals of Bigfoot hunting, Byrne most decidedly does not wish to kill a Bigfoot. He has armed himself only with a tissue-collecting dart, which would take only a small bit of Bigfoot flesh.

How exactly does one hunt a Bigfoot?

"Mostly we just sit around and drink coffee," said Byrne, "and wait for one to come through the door."

KEVIN JONES IS A DEER hunter. The 31-year-old Salem, Ore., resident cleans aquariums for a living, but whenever he has the chance he heads for the woods. Like most hunters, there is a particular place that draws him back again and again. He has been hunting in the foothills near Grants Pass for close to 10 years. Three years ago, he says, he saw something he cannot forget.

Early morning had burned into a bright autumn day when Jones decided that any deer nearby were now likely bedded. He walked into a small clear-cut and found a stump to rest on while his hunting partner caught up. He had been waiting a few minutes when out of the corner of his eye he saw something moving in the old growth bordering the cut.

As he turned his head to look, out walked a 7-foot-tall female Bigfoot, followed by an apparently younger one about half the size. Jones watched the pair undetected for five or 10 seconds. The younger one, he noticed, seemed to be playing, walking kind of lackadaisically, planting its heels with each step. The adult paused and looked directly at him; she was now about a hundred feet away.

Jones was holding a rifle but was too completely awestruck to consider using it. "It was like, whoa . . . they really do exist!" he said. Upon seeing him, the female turned to the small one and seemed to beckon it forward. Not running but a little more hurried, they crossed the cut and disappeared into woods on the other side.

"I'm open-minded, and I'd heard about this kind of thing but never really given it much thought," he said. "After I'd seen one, it kind of shattered my whole idea of reality. I had it in my mind how things were, but everything isn't always as it appears to be."

He told his hunting buddy and he told his wife, but he told no one else for nearly a year. He began researching the phenomenon and came across the (800) BIGFOOT number. "I called them just to get more information, but ended up kind of spilling my guts. You just have to tell someone."

Jones was brought up religiously and taught not to believe in evolution. Since his encounter, he has become a self-educated student of anthropology. What he saw, he said, was very human-like. It had big, pendulous, hair-covered breasts, and indeed hair everywhere except around its eyes, and a small spot above its breastbone. He estimated it weighed between 450 and 525 pounds.

"I still find myself in disbelief," he said. "I sometimes feel blessed and sometimes cursed. It has caused problems in my life. I spend more time in the woods now, and probably less time with my family than I should." Jones can't stop wanting to see it again; now when he goes into the woods, he never goes without a video camera.

It is sightings such as his, clearly and consistently described, which give the Bigfoot Research Project clues to go on.

Peter Byrne has never seen a Bigfoot, but he has no doubt such a creature exists. "Look, I could be anywhere in the world," he said. "If I didn't believe there was something out there, I wouldn't be here. There is too much evidence, too many sane people who have seen something - and who have seen the same thing - for this just to be myth or hallucination."

He has been looking for large ape-men off and on since the late 1940s, when, hunting big game in the Himalayas, he saw his first yeti tracks. In the late '50s Byrne was hired by Texas oil heir Tom Slick to lead expeditions into the Himalayas of Nepal in search of the yeti, or "abominable snowman." His connection with Slick eventually brought him to the United States to take part in the Pacific Northwest Expedition - the first large-scale hunt for Bigfoot.

"I flew over here, went down to Texas," he recalled, "and looked at a map of the Northwest and realized it was an area four times the size of the Nepal Himalayas from Northern California to Alaska. It's a tremendous, huge area."

This is a point Byrne stresses. "A lot of roads, yes," he said. "A lot of people, yes. But still, there have been 73 aircraft lost in these mountains since World War II - that's an FAA statistic - and Bigfoot is not something sitting on the ground. This is something elusive, shy; something moving that does not want to be found."

THE NORTHWEST HAS ALWAYS been known as a robust and prodigious land. Early European explorers were struck by the richness of the streams, woods and peoples they encountered. When tribes told of the existence of large ape-men, it hardly seemed unfathomable; the land seemed big enough to produce just about anything.

It has become increasingly harder to fathom ever since. At this point, as we debate how much and how wild a land it will take to support a small population of owls, Bigfoot seems only a story we tell ourselves in tabloid newspapers and children's movies. Among Bigfoot believers, however, there is a body of evidence regarded as borderline proof of the animal's existence.

First, there are the footprints, thousands of which have been found, and which are usually measured between 14 and 18 inches long. Washington State University anthropologist Grover Krantz, one of few academics to take an interest in Bigfoot, published a book which analyzed this evidence and concluded that many of the footprints are indeed authentic. Krantz identified "dermal ridges" on many of the tracks he examined - essentially skin prints - and argued that it would be impossible to achieve such widespread and detailed fakery.

Second, there are the sightings, both historical and contemporary, which are so frequent and from so many different sources that, as Byrne argues, it would seem as implausible for there to be no Bigfoot as for there to be such a widespread public hallucination.

Newspaperman John Green, a contemporary and critic of Byrne, has logged more than 1,300 sightings; Byrne has recorded more than 1,000 as well, but for the purposes of the project has whittled them down to just under 100 fully "credible" sightings. He determines credibility through interviews, a 13-page questionnaire and, more than anything, his judgment of that person's judgment and intent. It is not an exact science.

Finally, there is the 1967 film made by the late Roger Paterson of Yakima, which seems to show a female Bigfoot bending over a stream in Northern California's Trinity Alps. The short, shaky film is regarded by many believers as the greatest piece of evidence for the existence of Bigfoot. It has been examined by Universal Studios and Disney, both of whom concluded that it most likely is not a hoax.

Nothing thus far found, however, qualifies as scientific proof. Daris Swindler, professor emeritus of physical anthropology at the University of Washington, said the Bigfoot phenomenon is not regarded seriously by most anthropologists or the scientific community.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, it's about 9.995 outside the conventional consensus," said Swindler. "We need more evidence. I find it hard to believe that there is a population of large primates in these or any woods that we have not discovered. I'd love to see it myself, though. As an evolutionist, I'd love to study a 7- to 9-foot living primate."

REPORTS OF LARGE ape-men haunting these parts - stories, if you prefer - go as far back as histories of the Northwest go. Native peoples have had various names for what we call Bigfoot, including sasquatch, omah and sealtik. Peter Byrne likes to point out that Bigfoot was not a myth in any of the tribes' histories - as, say, raven who brought fire to the world - but was known more as "that big hairy tribe that we stay away from."

British explorer and trapper David Thompson was one of the first whites to encounter the phenomenon when, in the late 18th century, he found large tracks that didn't seem to be those of a bear. Lore continued to accumulate from trappers, loggers, and other outdoorsman as the Northwest was settled, but it wasn't until the late 1950s that Bigfoot hunting began. At that time, loggers in the Klamath River area of Northern California found dozens of tracks and went public with large plaster casts of the "big feet." The announcement attracted national media attention and a small group of men who would end up pursuing the mystery for the next 40 years.

BYRNE HAS NOT BEEN ALONE on his quest, although probably no other person has more successfully made a living out of the search for Bigfoot. The Slick expedition, which ended with Slick's death in a plane crash in 1962, included three other men - John Green, Rene Dahinden and Bob Titmus - who continued to hunt individually.

Green and Dahinden are active to this day, although Green no longer does field work.

Bigfoot hunting was from the beginning an acrimonious field of endeavor; few of its participants speak to each other, yet most of them speak very badly of one another. Byrne, in particular, has drawn the ire of his colleagues.

"The Bigfoot Research Project is a con operation," said John Green, a retired newspaper editor who lives in Harrison Hot Springs, B.C. "It has nothing to do with Bigfoot. The whole game is money and notoriety for Peter Byrne. The sasquatch part is a joke."

Green has many quarrels with Byrne: He has attacked his claims to be a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (Byrne IS a fellow) and accused Byrne of misrepresentation on many occasions (in various Bigfoot newsletters). Their biggest difference, however, is that the two have a vastly different conceptions of what Bigfoot is, or would be if found, and how to go about the hunt. Byrne opposes shooting a Bigfoot, and Green believes it is necessary.

Krantz of Washington State University takes issue with Byrne on this, as well. "I can't figure out what Byrne is doing," said Krantz. "If he wants to show that Bigfoot is a real animal, the only conclusive, tangible proof that will suffice is a body. Nothing else will do. I don't know what kind of game he is playing. A photo isn't enough - it can be tampered with. The time-honored way, throughout the centuries, has been to produce a body. That is what zoology is based on."

Krantz believes that Bigfoot belongs to a relict species, a remnant population, perhaps of Homo gigantapithicus. Green thinks the animal is more ape than human, whereas Byrne notes that many eyewitness accounts have described the Bigfoot as "possessing a strangely human face."

Rene Dahinden disagrees with the methods used by other hunters, arguing that they spend too much time conducting the hunt on computers instead of the way they all originally did it, out in the woods, looking. He still hunts this way, disappearing into the mountains for months at a time.

"The search for Bigfoot is a bit like the search for the Holy Grail," Dahinden concludes, "except it is being conducted by very unholy people."

Byrne's take on the situation is that the acrimony stems from competition. "My feeling is that for the most part it is generated by the prize, the prize at the end, the winning line at the end of the race for Bigfoot, the find. And Bigfoot is a prize, make no mistake about that. As far as I am concerned, it is a fair race, and may the best man win."

REGARDLESS OF WHETHER Bigfoot exists, Byrne has raised more money to try to find one than anyone else, ever. He is reluctant to discuss funding, other than to say his sources are "basically a group of rich men." Some close to the project estimate it has at least a half-million dollars to work with over its five-year span.

The project has three full-time employees, 15 volunteer "investigators" and 60 on-call "associates" who wait for the day the big hunt begins. The project initially focused on building a Bigfoot database; field work began only early this year.

Byrne and his staff spend most of their time fielding phone calls - between 3,000 and 4,000 a month. "A lot of kids," said Byrne, "a lot of crank calls - barking, screaming, that sort of thing. And a lot of calls just for information. Then, occasionally, someone will call, and there will be a bit of a hesitation, and they will say, `You know, I haven't told anyone this, but I saw one. I saw a Bigfoot."

With enough credible sightings, Byrne hopes to determine the "geo-time patterns" of bigfeet - where and when one would most likely be if there are seasonal migrations - and then place an electronic snare.

The project's field director, Todd Deery, whose last job was as a civil engineer in Andover, Mass., said the field equipment - day-night cameras and motion-sensing equipment for military use - was finally deployed in January. "This is Desert Storm-quality equipment," he said, describing seismic detectors that will be tripped by anything weighing more than 400 pounds, configured to cover an area of 9,000 square feet. Deery declined to say where the equipment was placed. So far, nothing has set off the detectors.

When it happens, it will happen something like this, according to Byrne: He will wake one night to the sound of a beeping monitor, and clamber to his desk to find that the field cameras are showing a Bigfoot right there, on his screen. In less than two hours he, his staff and a posse of associates will zoom to the area in helicopters, equipped with infra-red sensors and accompanied by famed tracker Joel Hardin. Their objective will be to extensively film the animal and obtain a piece of its flesh with a tissue-collecting dart.

"We are conscious of the fact that we are dealing with something that should not be harmed," said Byrne, "and certainly not be shot. And due to the unknown physiology of the animal, we don't feel it would be safe to shoot it with a tranquilizer."

Byrne's other hope regarding a Bigfoot encounter reveals much about his benign approach: He wants, if possible, to communicate with the mysterious beast. In other words, he has very high hopes about the intelligence of the creature, and believes a Bigfoot has not been found because bigfeet simply do not want to be found.

CONSIDER THE ALTERNATIVES. Perhaps all the footprints, all the sightings, all things Bigfoot, are just a collection of fabrication, hallucination and wishful myth-making. Say that there is no Bigfoot, no upright ape other than ourselves now living.

And then what are you left with? An almost greater mystery, for what need compels us to tell the tale of this wild cousin of humanity if indeed it is not so?

Or perhaps we live in a land yet big enough to hide 7-foot ape-creatures. Perhaps the persistence of mystery is greater than we have imagined. Picture it as a creature almost of the trees, " . . . being, whose flesh dissolves at our glance," as poet Wendell Berry wrote. It could be a band of 10, or a population of a hundred, a thousand, a relict species, as some speculate.

Be it phantom, foolery or beast, there is mystery afoot in the great Northwest.

Mark McDermott is a writer who works in Petersburg, Alaska.
Harley Soltes is a Seattle Times photographer.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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