SCREAMS IN THE NIGHT
The search for Bigfoot is as old as the hills, but in the remote forests of far northern California, trackers of the elusive -- or mythical -- creature are up to some new tricks....
Michael Taylor, Chronicle Staff Writer - Sunday, January 24, 1999
We're parked on a patch of gravel high up in the Six Rivers National Forest, on top of Jawbone Ridge, surrounded by dense, green forest covering hillsides that plunge steeply into canyons. It is so utterly quiet up here that if you listen carefully you're sure the wailing, mournful cry of Bigfoot will come tearing up the mountainside.
From the cab of his pickup truck, John Freitas takes out a camera, a tape recorder and a pair of binoculars and sets them within easy reach in the pickup's bed. Near the tailgate is a huge outdoor speaker, much like the ones you see suspended from the tiers of baseball stadiums.
Freitas fiddles with the tape deck in the truck's dashboard, and then suddenly the speaker booms forth with an eerie wail. `Aaarrrrrgggghhhh,'' the voice screams for several seconds, arcing from low to high then low, a bit like an air raid siren, and then again, in a higher pitch, ``Aaaaaaiiiiiieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.'' Freitas shuts down the tape and listens carefully, waiting for a response. Silence. More silence. We look around, video camera at the ready. Come out, come out, wherever you are.
``The theory,'' he says, nodding at the speaker, ``is that if there's another 'Squatch in this area, this will attract him.'' This is the hunt for Bigfoot -- the legendary Sasquatch, as he was known in the old Salish tribal language of British Columbia, where locals say he has been seen frequently. John Freitas may well be typical of the new breed of Bigfoot hunter that seems to be emerging in the never-ending search for the phantom ape of North America. Undaunted by the occasional snicker or rolling of eyes from his friends or co-workers, Freitas, like any good police investigator, is methodical and practical and willing to go looking for something about which precious little evidence even exists.
Over the past few years, the hunt for Bigfoot has exploded in a frenzy of high technology. New high-tech detection equipment abounds, dangling from trees all over the United States -- Starlight nightscopes, motion detectors hooked up to infrared still and video cameras, FM wireless transmitters dangling from fir trees and transmitting to tape decks up to two miles away.
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In his bedroom at a cabin Freitas rents deep in the forest are a video cassette recorder, a three-foot-long telephoto lens, nightvision Starlight binoculars and a recycled siren switchbox from a patrol car, used to amplify the screams on his tapes. And that's just the stuff in the field. At home and in offices across the country, the Internet has spawned a myriad of Web sites that have brought a sense of order and organization to a subject that for years has been disparate, fractured and, given the heated arguments over whether Bigfoot even exists, fractious in the extreme.
And there is still a smattering of oldstyle Bigfoot information: At the Bigfoot museum in Willow Creek, where Al Hodgson is the curator, nearly two dozen plaster casts of footprints seen in the Northern California wilderness are on display in glass cases. The best part of Hodgson's display is the collection of footprint casts donated by the estate of Bob Titmus, one of the most experienced Bigfoot trackers. On the Six Rivers mountaintop with Freitas, though, all that counts is whether the elusive man-ape will answer these calls. The tapes were recorded in 1994 in a mountainous rural area of eastern Ohio by Matthew Moneymaker, a 33-year-old software engineer from Southern California who is also a longtime Bigfoot tracker. Moneymaker said there have been numerous sightings of Bigfoot-like creatures in that Appalachian area of Ohio, near Pennsylvania. Moneymaker played the tapes for three scientists, including a zoologist who specializes in wildlife, and ``they all said it was something really unusual'' and could not identify the sounds. In the world of Bigfoot, that means it bore no resemblance to any identifiable mammal, and it was just what Freitas needed in the form of aural bait. Freitas is a 43-year-old former police officer who now works as a welfare fraud investigator for Del Norte County. He latched onto Bigfoot as a teenager 30 years ago when he first saw the famous film -- made in 1967 by Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin -- of a supposed Bigfoot slogging across a sandbar on Bluff Creek, about 40 miles south of where we are waiting for Bigfoot to come out and see us. `I've heard the screams from here,'' he says, pointing to a clump of trees, where there is a distinct dark shadow --could it be? -- ``and from over there'' -- by another stand of fir. ``Once, the screams lasted for five days, and it didn't sound like anger or pain. It was more like, `I'm here. Where are you?' I just want to prove it exists or doesn't exist.''
By legend or by fact, what they are seeing in the forest is a North American perennial, a phenomenon that has created a steady and devoted set of aficionados who insist that Bigfoot is real -- elusive and rarely seen, but real. The same kind of animal/man has been spotted in Asia, where he is known as the Yeti, but in the United States he is known by the more colloquial name ``Bigfoot.''
For years, the study of Bigfoot has been pretty informal -- based on sightings or footprints, stories have crept into newspapers, and family letters have passed Bigfoot down through the generations. Few academic professionals -- anthropologists, zoologists, wildlife biologists -- have the time or inclination to make Bigfoot their life's work, and so the chore of cataloging the various Bigfoot incidents has fallen to lay people who are doing it out of curiosity and passion, squeezing it into their otherwise normal lives.
Over the past 40 years, there have been reports of as many as 5,000 sightings. Footprints allegedly made by the big mammal range from 10 or 12 inches long to more than 20 inches long -- hence the sobriquet, Bigfoot, said to have been coined by logging road crews and popularized by a writer for the old Humboldt Times in 1958. This is what Bigfoot appears to be, by the various accounts: a big, hairy apelike mammal that walks on two feet. Bigfoot creatures (cognoscenti rarely use the plural ``Bigfeet'') are thought to range from 6 feet to 10 feet tall and weigh anywhere from 500 to 800 pounds. One study estimated Bigfoot weighs nearly one ton, but that, anthropologists say, is wild exaggeration.
Now, however, there is some consistency developing in the search for Bigfoot, particularly on the Internet. For example, Moneymaker has created the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) and its inevitable Web site (www.moneymaker.org/BFRO/), that purports to have one of the largest geographic databases of sightings in the world.
`We get most of the reports that are coming out,'' Moneymaker said the other day. The organization has already cataloged and put on its Web site an incident last fall, when two men on a hunting trip (hunting animals, not Bigfoot) say they saw Bigfoot near Hayfork in Trinity County. They said he left tracks six inches wide and 20 inches long.
The BFRO database has sightings or other Bigfoot experiences from every state in the country save Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii and Rhode Island. What the sightings have in common is an enormous and powerful rush of emotion from the people reporting sudden encounters. Consider this one, from an unnamed young woman who says she saw Bigfoot off a road between Oroville and Marysville: At the time, Kim and I were riding Appaloosas. My horse was a big horse.... I'm a big kid. When I turned around in my saddle, I was eye to eye with it. It was about 25 to 30 yards away, in an English walnut orchard. It was covered in black hair. Thick, powerful legs and torso. Strong shoulders. Not really long arms. What I was drawn to, though, was the eyes. Like shining caramel brown. The eyes just held me there. The horse was going nuts, turning around and trying to buck. So I was busy keeping the horse in line. I knew, though, that if this thing wanted to kill me, it could have ... Its head had a slight cone shape to it. It was an animal of raw power.
`I will never forget the eyes and what it did. It finally turned around, gave me one more look and started to stride off ... it took big strides.'' The woman's encounter was similar to the one experienced by Trinie Inong, a 15-year-old sophomore at Hoopa Valley High School, in the town of Hoopa, deep in the Six Rivers National Forest east of Eureka. In 1996, she said in an interview earlier this month, she and her cousin Elizabeth were near where Pecwan Creek runs into the Klamath River. It was at the time of her Yurok tribe's ceremonial jump dance, and as she and Elizabeth walked along the river, ``We spotted Bigfoot, straight across from us, about 80 or a hundred feet away. He was tall, almost 9 feet, maybe, and his shoulders were hunched over.'' `He walked like a big, hefty guy, and we were looking at him, and then, Oh my God! he stopped and looked at us. Elizabeth took off running. She was freaked out. I stood there and got another look to make sure we were seeing this correctly. My uncle said he was probably coming by to pay his respects.'' Native American tribes have known about Bigfoot for centuries -- Sasquatch is simply another and welcome part of their culture. `Everybody who grew up around here knows about Bigfoot,'' said hris Peters, director of the Seventh Generation Fund, an Arcata nonprofit group that gives money to Native American activities. ``The legend goes way back and has always been there. He is the one that hollers on the ridge and has lived in the back country since time immemorial.
`You talk to the people up in Del Norte and Humboldt and Siskiyou, and you'll find that five out of 10 are convinced it's out there,'' Peters said. ``But the rational Euro-American mind, which is a kind way of saying white person, doesn't understand things that are metaphysical, things with the ability to come into a physical being and then fade back into a metaphysical world.'' In the rational world of science, however, there is rarely room for the metaphysical, and so the few scientists who think Bigfoot is worthy of serious study -- anthropologist Grover Krantz, anatomist Jeff Meldrum, for example -- are kind of a lonely bunch, plodding patiently through decades of sightings and footprints while most of the world scoffs at the phenomenon.
`We're way past the fact that it exists, but the general public is stuck at the level of whether it exists,'' says John Bindernagel, a Canadian wildlife biologist who has studied Bigfoot since 1963 and has just published a book, `North America's Great Ape: Sasquatch.'' ``We are really conditioned to see this animal as a hoax or a joke or merely mythical. It has not been a safe thing to do to treat it as a serious topic.'' Privately, some scientists even worry that their outspoken views on Bigfoot can harm their chances for tenure. `I accept it as a real animal,'' says Krantz, who is now 67 and has written about Bigfoot for more than 20 years from his post as professor of anthropology at Washington State University in Pullman. ``As to where we are now, we get more sightings, more footprints and more arguments between skeptics and true believers. The logjam will be broken by bringing in a specimen.''
Asked if Bigfoot exists, Meldrum, who teaches anatomy and evolutionary morphology at Idaho State University, says, ``I don't like to respond to a question about that. I'd rather say that on careful consideration, there is a reasonable probability that this creature does, in fact, exist. It's naive of some of my colleagues to dismiss this out of hand.''
The real conundrum, Bigfoot people say, is that scientists, who are extremely qualified to examine the mystery more thoroughly, tend to ignore it. The slack is taken up by hundreds of people who are less qualified but far more enthusiastic. The end result, some say, is a lot of wheel-spinning by amateurs. `The scientific community is not aware of the extent of evidence that has been gathered, and they think it's all nonsense,'' says ecologist J. Richard Greenwell, secretary of the International Society of Cryptozoology, a Tucson clearinghouse for evidence about purported animals whose existence has never been officially verified. ``The scientists don't want to invest the time in it, so they don't inform themselves of the evidence as it comes in. So unfortunately a whole slew of amateurs have taken it on themselves to do this. It's very unscholarly and unscientific, and there's a lot of backstabbing.''
`We don't claim it exists,'' Greenwell says of the creature, ``but we are claiming there is sufficient good evidence to warrant scientists investing time and effort.'' The problem, however, is convincing scientists that they should be doing this. In 1981, the scholarly journal Current Anthropology surveyed 300 North American physical anthropologists and found that only 12 percent of them believed that Bigfoot was a ``living animal, still unknown to science.'' The rest thought Bigfoot reports came from either sightings of ``ordinary animals (that had been) misidentified'' or ``imagination, hoaxes, myths.'' `I don't see any reason to believe that those figures have changed (over the years),'' says Matt Cartmill, a Duke University anthropologist who is president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. ``You really need to have a specimen to believe in the organism. Absence doesn't prove it doesn't exist, but in the absence of living or dead specimens or bones, or something distinctive and not capable of being faked or mistaken, I think most people's attitude in the profession is that there is no need to believe the organism exists.''
Nonetheless, there may be some minds opening up in the professional world of science. At Yale, anthropologist David Daegling says: ``It's an interesting field, and there are strong personalities on both sides.'' Daegling has been making a detailed study of the controversial Patterson-Gimlin film taken on Oct. 20, 1967. The film shows a big hairy mammal walking upright across a sandbar. Experts say this few seconds of 16mm film is to the Bigfoot legend what the Abraham Zapruder film of President John F. Kennedy's murder is to assassinations. And some say it is a hoax, although nobody has ever come up with evidence to prove it. `When you look at the film, the first impression is that something weird is going on,'' Daegling said of the Patterson-Gimlin film the other day. ``It's hard to put your finger on. There's a different kind of flow (of body motion) that struck people as significant. And people were unable to find the kind of seams that would be on a suit. This was not some guy in a dime-store gorilla costume.''
On the other hand, Daegling said, ``it's not possible to declare that, based on the film, this is a real Bigfoot. What is a real Bigfoot? I don't know. There are two possibilities: an animal unknown to science, something 7 feet tall that we're managing to miss. Or it's a pretty clever hoax pulled off in 1967.''
`If there's a population of these things running around, doesn't it make sense that just once, somebody would have run into one with a car or shot one? There are stories of people shooting them, but the body is always missing.''
`There's a difference between a rare occurrence and something that never happened,'' Daegling said. ``It's very unlikely to stumble on the carcass of a bear or a bone from a bear, which is different from saying you never expect to run into carcasses or bones.''
`I was in Montana doing research and just by dumb luck, in 20 days of wandering the landscape, I came across the skull of a black bear, just sitting there, right on the forest floor. ``The argument of the advocates that is most strained, and the thing they need to come to grips with is not that we rarely find Sasquatch bones, it's that we never find them. Not once have we come across a bone.''
So, as John Green, the dean of Bigfoot writers, says, ``It doesn't go anywhere until someone brings in a body or a piece of a body.'' Green, a retired 71-year-old newspaperman who lives in Vancouver, is the man every other Bigfoot expert says you should talk to if you want to learn about this subject. In 1978, he published, ``Sasquatch, the Apes Among Us.'' He knows from Bigfoot.
`In the end, you have two facts that can't be challenged,'' he says. ``First, something is making enormous humanlike footprints, and it's been going on for a long time over a big area. Footprints are real. Something real is there to make them. Second, you have thousands of people in North America who describe seeing a giant apelike creature that walks upright. And those people do exist. So either you have an animal or you don't.'' ``If you have an animal, it explains both phenomena. If you don't have an animal, these footprints must be of human manufacture and there must be a reason why. Either people all over the world have been faking big footprints and telling stories about hairy giants, or you have an unknown animal closely related to humans. Either way, it's significant.'' He pauses for a moment, then reminisces about searching for Bigfoot near Bluff Creek decades ago, a time when I saw well over 1,000 prints. When you're looking at them, you don't have any other theory than that something walked there. This is what hooked me on it.'' And what now, after more than 30 years of chasing Bigfoot? Green reflects for a moment. `I will almost certainly die without it being solved, as has happened to so many of my friends, '' he says. `But I don't regret the time I spent on it.''
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle
Scanned to text by Bobbie Short