Bigfoot Hunter Endures Ridicule To Search For Legend
By David Foster

Big Foot?
(AP/File) October 1, 1997

WALLA WALLA, Wash. (AP) -- Even a Bigfoot believer like Paul Freeman concedes the supermarket tabloids get carried away:

``HUGE BIGFOOT MONSTER TERRORIZES THE ROCKIES 3/8 It stunk like a sewer, roared like a lion and clutched the leg of an animal in its hand.''

``BIGFOOT ATTACKED US 3/8 Blood-Crazed Creature Savages Camera Crew and Pounds 2-Ton Truck Into Junkyard Scrap.''

Freeman smiles at the outlandish stories, which he collects in a cardboard box. ``There are some crazy people out there,'' he says. Freeman himself has been called the craziest of all.

But he knows otherwise. He says he has seen Bigfoot. Four times. He swears it's true, and he is out to convince a doubting world that the legendary ape- monsters, perhaps a thousand strong, really do roam the dark woods of the Pacific Northwest.

``I know they are there, and I know what I see,'' Freeman says. ``Nothing has to be proven to me. But I'd like to prove it to the public, so they'll say Freeman's not really a kook.''

Bigfoot - or Sasquatch, as the Indians called the beast - is one of the Northwest's enduring legends. More than 750 sightings of the creatures or their oversize footprints have been reported over the past century, mostly in the evergreen forests stretching from Northern California to British Columbia.

Yet no Bigfoot has ever been killed or captured. No carcass or bones have ever been found.

A few purported Bigfoot photographs exist, including a picture taken in October by Freeman's son, but they always seem to be out of focus, too dark, or too far away. What looks like Sasquatch could be a misshapen tree stump or someone in a monkey suit.

Skeptics point to hoaxes, like the time a Washington man created a whole Bigfoot family by stomping around with three whopping pairs of feet he had carved of wood. But if you want to believe, talk to Paul Freeman.

Drive with him eastward from Walla Walla, where the flatlands of southeastern Washington rise into the Blue Mountains of the Umatilla National Forest. Listen to Freeman's tales of safaris into the forest's 177,000-acre wilderness area. Behold a lonely land of wind-bared ridges and dark, forested canyons.

Bigfoot country, Freeman says: ``You can go in there all summer and not see anybody.'' Not that nobody sees you. Freeman tells of suddenly skittish horses, of normally docile dogs growling fiercely at the darkness. ``Your skin gets kind of crawly and the hair stands up on your neck,'' he says. ``You know you're being watched, but you don't know from where.''

Freeman, 45, does not seem the type to spook easily. He is beefy, bearded and, at 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, approaches Sasquatch proportions himself. He's a meat-cutter by trade; an outdoorsman and hunter by nature.

He says he too was a skeptic - until June 10, 1982, when he was working as a watershed patroller for the U.S. Forest Service and met up with a shaggy, reddish-brown Bigfoot nearly 8 feet tall.

``He was 60 yards away,'' Freeman recalls. ``I watched him walk the length of two football fields. He'd take a few steps, look back at me, and take a few more steps. Then he went up over a hill and disappeared.''

When word got out, Freeman became an instant celebrity, but the fame was spiked with ridicule. Reporters hounded him. His supervisors doubted him. Anonymous callers said he was crazy and threatened to take his three children away.

Freeman quit his Forest Service job and moved away, drifting through a series of jobs. A gnawing need for vindication, he says, drew him back to Walla Walla in 1984.

He has been on the spoor of Bigfoot ever since. He says he is in the woods three days a week and figures he has sunk $50,000 into the search, funding it by driving trucks part time and tapping profits from the sales of a meat- cutting business and two houses.

What can he show for his effort? There is a trunk filled with plaster casts of Bigfoot tracks; and hair samples that, according to Freeman, experts cannot identify as man or beast. Near the kitchen door of his rented home, a map is webbed with lines marking where he and son Duane, 22, have tracked Sasquatches. In the freezer sits a chunk of suspected Bigfoot scat.

Last Oct. 5, Duane snapped three color photos that he and his father say show a creature they spotted 35 miles east of Walla Walla. The best one shows a black, ape-like shape in a clearing 150 yards away. Duane says it made a believer out of him, but the fuzzy pictures do less for one who wasn't there. ``I was shaking a lot,'' Duane explains.

Freeman says that Bigfoot was on the small side: about 7 feet tall, maybe 700 pounds. The biggest, he says, top 8 feet and leave 18-inch footprints. Uprooted trees attest to their strength, he says, but unlike the monsters that stalk tabloid headlines, they are gentle and shy. The secretive animals evade detection by sticking to dark canyons, foraging at night, and even altering their prints to resemble bear tracks, Freeman says.

``Sure, they're that smart,'' he says. ``If they didn't have a lot of intelligence, they'd be dead by now.''

They eat mushrooms and skunk cabbage, elk calves and salmon, Freeman says. Come winter, they may hole up in caves, which he says would explain their awful stench.

Freeman has received moral support from at least one researcher in the murky world of ``cryptozoology,'' the study of questionable creatures. Dr. Grover Krantz, a Washington State University anthropology professor and veteran Sasquatch seeker, has examined some of Freeman's plaster casts and found them rather convincing, complete with fingerpint-like dermal ridges. But another Bigfoot researcher, Canadian author Rene Dahinden, denounces Freeman as a publicity-seeking huckster. Forest Service officials don't know what to think.

``I've spent a lot of time in the woods, and I've never seen anything that would lead me to believe that Bigfoot exists,'' says Wayne Long, a fire management officer and the Umatilla's de facto Sasquatch spokesman. Then again, he adds, ``you can go out in the woods all your life and never see a cougar, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.''

Freeman says he'd just like to get a good photograph, or maybe some bones. He has heard there are caves deep in the Umatilla's wilderness and says that might be where Sasquatches hide their dead. ``If I could find some bones,'' he says, ``it would pay me back 100 times over what I've spent.'' So far, Freeman says, his Bigfoot work has paid him only $2,000, mostly from appearing in an ice cream commercial featuring people who do unbelievable things.