Bigfoot: Man, myth or monster?
By Robert Bartholomew and Michael Pluta, Special to the Rutland Herald in Vermont
Paul Bartholomew shows Rutland casts -
Could Bigfoot be another example?
A hulking hair-covered figure, initially thought to have been a prankster in a gorilla suit, is spotted by scores of people near Bennington. If you think we are referring to the now famous case of the Bennington "Monster" in the fall of 2003, you would be mistaken. It's actually a series of sightings from 1861. That's right, 142 years earlier, during August, a gorilla-man scare swept through southern Vermont as hunting parties were formed to track it down. Several residents reportedly shot at the creature, but it managed to elude its pursuers in the dense forest. No zoo animals were reported missing and no body was ever found. Rumors circulated that the beast was a college student in a suit. If it was, he was taking an enormous risk by continuing the escapade even after being shot at.
A similar series of sightings occurred near Glastenbury Mountain in the autumn of 2003, when Ray Dufresne reported seeing a huge hairy creature lumbering into the woods while he was driving on Route 7. His first thought was that it was someone in a gorilla costume. He estimated the weight at 270 pounds. Other witnesses soon came forward with descriptions of a similar creature in the area. Again, if it was a man in a suit, he was taking a big risk. The parallels between these two cases, separated by nearly a century and a half, are eerily similar.
Indian lore, early pioneers
Readers may be surprised to learn Vermonters have a long history of sighting large, hairy human-like monsters. In his book "The First Vermonters," former University of Vermont anthropologist William Haviland observes that the Abenaki recounted stories of "The Forest Wanderer," a giant humanoid creature that occasionally left footprints behind. These accounts parallel Algonquin tales of the windigo or "giant cannibalistic man." The windigo legend of hulking, hairy man-beasts can be found throughout New England in all Algonquian-speaking people. According to one modern-day Native American description of the windigo, it is "a giant thing, swift … and covered with hair, and has eyes like two pools of wild fury. And there's this smell, like rotting meat." This description is similar to Bigfoot reports today.
During the latter 18th and early 19th centuries, European settlers in what is now northern Vermont heard tales of "Slippry Skin," an extraordinarily large bear that always walked on two legs. Tales of this Bigfoot-like creature figured prominently in many oral and written traditions of the region, especially Essex and Orleans Counties. As early as the 1750s, a scout for Roger's Rangers wrote that Native Americans of the region were known to have described this legendary creature as "Wet Skin." Also referred to as "slippryskin" and "Old Slippry Skin," his nickname was apparently given on account of its remarkable ability to elude hunters. In her book, "History of Lemington," Vermont historian Marion Daley writes that the creature moved about in a swift, ghost-like fashion that bordered on the supernatural. "Before a hunter could lay his gunsights on him, the old bear would vanish into the woods silent and swift as a drift of smoke."
The creature was described as an extraordinarily large bear that always walked on two legs. Slippryskin was more mischievous than malevolent and routinely teased the inhabitants of the Essex county towns of Lemington, Victory and Maidstone, and was credited with ripping up gardens, pulling down fences, stampeding cattle and trampling cornfields. Its calling card: a trail of huge prints in the snow and mud. "Wet Skin" was said to have been especially adept at throwing hunters off its trail. Historian Paul Rayno recounts the story of a party of hunters who left the town of Morgan in Orleans County, with the intention of killing the creature. As they were walking along a logging road leading to the top of Elon Mountain, a loud thumping noise could be heard from above. The men quickly hid in some nearby bushes in expectation of ambushing Slippryskin. The creature backtracked on his prints, then rolled a large tree down the mountainside, narrowly missing the hunters as they were lying in wait. Shaken, the hunters promptly abandoned the chase — or so the story goes.
Similar accounts of Bigfoot-like creatures abound in Vermont today. For instance, in 1983, a middle-aged Vermont couple reported an extraordinary encounter while on a leisurely drive in rural Tinmouth. The husband noticed a giant human-like figure walking swiftly along a rocky ridge. He said, "The man was very nimble. I couldn't believe how quickly he was moving among the rocks toward the high point on the ridge …
In October 1986, three Castleton State College students were traveling on Route 4A on their way to West Rutland when their vehicle nearly struck a huge creature on the roadside. Everyone saw the figure which stood 6-1/2 to 7 feet tall. After the driver, Kerry Bilda, swerved to avoid hitting it, the trio looked back to see the creature still walking west. By the time they had turned around and went back, it was gone. A passenger, John Bradt said if his window had been down, it was close enough to reach out and touch. He said the body was covered in collie-length hair, but the face itself was nearly hairless. It had deep-set eyes, high cheekbones and a white skin tone. The trio also made a curious observation that is common in Bigfoot reports: The creature seemed oblivious to them and didn't flinch or attempt to get out of the way of their car. The encounter happened just 100 yards from an incident that was reported the previous year, almost to the day.
A more recent sighting occurred on the evening of Oct. 8, 2005, when a father was "moose spotting" with his two daughters near Ludlow. Suddenly, a huge creature crossed the road 50 feet in front of their vehicle. He said it was about 8 feet tall, covered with hair, and crossed the road in only two strides. It had a heavy build and was "covered in short dark hair." The arms had a pronounced swing as it moved, and the hand that was visible was massive.
When it comes to assessing whether Bigfoot exists, one is faced with the lack of physical evidence: a body, fossils and bones. Somehow, it always manages to elude capture. On the other hand, perhaps an even more important questions is: Are there precedents in nature? There are many remarkable examples of adaptations enabling creatures to survive. Chameleons change color to blend with their surroundings and become seemingly invisible. The peregrine falcon can spot small animals up to 5 miles away. Most incredible of all is the sooty tern. This small bird can stay aloft for more than three years without landing and sleeps while flying. Is it too far-fetched to think Bigfoot could have evolved unique mechanisms that allow it to elude humans?
In recent years, over two dozen Bigfoot organizations have even been formed across the country in hopes of proving the creature's existence. New England groups include: The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization and The Northeast Sasquatch Researchers Association. Bill Brann, the president of the Northern Sasquatch Research Society based in Hudson Falls, N.Y., has conducted frequent investigations in Vermont, writes on his Web site that his goal is to determine "what its purposes are, how to contact and communicate with it and to ultimately obtain an indisputable photographic or video record of its existence."
Whether real or imaginary, Bigfoot is a legitimate part of Vermont history: a kind of living folklore that continues to frustrate and fascinate.
As new sightings are recorded, the question remains: what should they be recorded under — folklore or zoology?
Time will tell.
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