Strange goings on in Mololla, Oregon
by Lauren Dodge

22 August, 1998 -- MOLALLA, Oregon (AP) _ A seasoned Bigfoot enthusiast, Charles Baker knew the signs: the matted grass, the twisted branches, the stench that set the dog off and the shrill scream that made it silent.

It was late one February night, and Baker was wandering through the woods along the lower Molalla River. He didn't see the beast. But the 28-year-old security officer and outdoorsman believes he had a close encounter with the creature also known as Yeti, Yayoo, Skunk Ape or Sasquatch.

``It's out there, and it's a lot more intelligent than people realize,'' Baker said.

After all of these years, reports of the elusive giant continue to trickle in from the forests of the Northwest, the foothills of Ohio and  the swamplands of Florida. And despite the persistent lack of hard evidence, investigators continue to dog the beast, risking savings and reputations on their belief that Bigfoot exists and that they will find the evidence to prove it.

``I have every confidence it will happen,'' says Ray Crowe, founder of  the Western Bigfoot Society, a Portland-based nonprofit that is  considered the largest of its kind. ``I'm just concerned someone else  will beat us to it.''

Crowe estimates that between 50 to 100 researchers are actively pursuing the creature around the world, using sophisticated search tools ranging from infrared cameras to DNA-retrieving dart guns and seismic sensors.

Still, the most conclusive evidence on record is the primitive 1967 footage known as the Patterson film, which shows a blurred and jerky image of what appears to be a large, hairy beast running through the woods.

``No one can knock that picture,'' Crowe said.

These days, with the technology to alter film and video easily and realistically, bigfooters know it will take more than footage to prove  the beast exists. They need a body - dead or alive.

``That's the only way,'' Crowe says.

Crowe, 60, has been looking for Bigfoot since 1991, when he began transforming the basement of his used bookstore into a Bigfoot museum and meeting place. The society was born, quickly growing to 250 members, and Crowe began to publish the Track Record newsletter every month.

It was Crowe who took the call about some strange goings-on near Molalla. Baker, who has hunted in the area since he was a child,  believed he had come across the spot where a Bigfoot creature had made its bed at the base of clear-cut ridge.

Several months old by now, the giant footprint Baker saw pressed into the ground was long gone. After ducking through a thicket for a closer look, Crowe concluded that the matted grass was more than likely made by a camper's sleeping bag. The broken branches were clearly cut by machete.

Still, there was no explaining the eerie scream that echoed through the canyon. Or the stench, which is often reported along with a sighting:

``That sucker was ripe,'' Baker said. And it wasn't the first such report in the area. In 1992, Sharon and LeRoy Jones were camping nearby when they say they heard something banging on the cage of their pet rabbits. Then they saw a Bigfoot dart back into the bushes.

There are dozens of accounts on the Internet:

- In Portland last year, a student reported seeing a Bigfoot while videotaping a class project near the Washington Park Zoo, although his  father believed the sighting was an excuse for losing his new video camera.

- Near Colton southeast of Portland in 1995, a bow hunter sensed he was being followed, turned and saw a Sasquatch staring at him about 25 feet away.

- At a logging camp near Detroit, a small town southeast of Salem, in 1970, a 16-year-old girl reported seeing a Bigfoot with breasts stealing meat from the family's cooler.

Sightings haven't been limited to the Northwest. There is an active Bigfoot society in Ohio, where one man recently claimed to have  videotaped a white Sasquatch. In Florida, recent reports of the ``skunk ape'' can be found on the Internet.

Crowe writes up nearly all the sightings in his newsletter, although he warns readers to keep on their ``skepticals'' and is leery of reports that link Bigfoot with UFOs, psychic connections and different dimensions.

``You don't throw out data,'' said Crowe. ``You never know if it will be the thing that gives you something new.''

Their greatest obstacle is not weeding through the sightings, but getting information about them in the first place. Often, people  hesitate to come forward because they're too embarrassed or don't know whom to call, he said.

Publicity helped boost the Western Bigfoot Society's exposure in recent years, and reports had begun to roll in with more frequency. But they've slowed in the last year, after the fire marshal banned meetings larger than 10 people and Crowe decided to shut the store down.

He hopes to replace it with a stand-alone Bigfoot museum, which he plans  to build along Interstate 5 as soon as the funding is found.

Members of the group still meet weekly at a north Portland restaurant, where on a recent Tuesday they got into a lively debate about the sounds Bigfoot makes, or whether he makes them at all.

They're a diverse bunch: an archer who once heard unidentifiable screams on Dixie Mountain in the 1970s; an industrial pump salesman who has taken to baiting Bigfoot with Spam in steep canyons throughout Northwest forests.

And there's Peter Byrne, who with his khaki clothing, field vest and silk ascot, would look more at home on safari than in suburbia.

For five years beginning in 1992, Byrne led the Bigfoot Research Project, the most technologically advanced search for Bigfoot in  history. Funded by a $1 million grant from a benefactor who wished to remain anonymous, Byrne and two assistants were equipped with a Jeep,  police gear, military search equipment and a toll-free phone number (1-800-BIG-FOOT.)

Dozens of volunteers were on call in the event of a fresh sighting. Two helicopters were on standby, one equipped with infrared equipment.

Biopsy guns were at the ready, capable of extracting pellet-size samples of tissue from an animal that Byrne hoped would provide the DNA proof they needed.

But they never got a timely sighting. The closest they came was a 31-day-old report from a policeman who believed he saw a Bigfoot walking along the Oregon coast. Any evidence was gone by the time investigators got there.

The project ended last year, and Byrne is still working to drum up more funding to continue the work. In the meantime, he and the others continue the search on their own time with their own money.

Their motives vary. A few are all too aware of the fortune to be made if the creature is ever proved to be real. Some just want an excuse to spend time in the woods.But most say they're motivated by the mystery.

Todd Neiss, 37, has no doubt he saw three Bigfoot creatures during a 1993 demolition exercise with the National Guard _ a sighting  corroborated by three others.

``If people don't believe me, that's their problem,'' said Neiss, now a vice president of a transportation company. ``My point to find these  animals is not to say 'Na-na-na-na-na-naaa, told you so.' It's because I'm so fascinated and intrigued, I have to see them again.''

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