Bigfoot Encounters

The Search Goes on for Bigfoot

© The Smithsonian January 1974 Vol 4, No. 10
" The search goes on for Bigfoot"

A huge, shy primate unknown to science or a 160 Year-old fraud--whatever it is, it has left tracks all over the Pacific Northwest

They saw one last summer in Illinois: It rose up in the darkness, smelling of the slime of a sluggish river, and scared some carnival ponies and several citizens of the town of Murphysboro before it disappeared.

This was one of the hundreds of sightings of hulking, hairy, manlike creatures that have been reported over the last 160 years or so, but it was a most unusual one. Most of the sightings have been in the Pacific Northwest, where the creature is known as Sasquatch. That is also where most of the footprints have been found, and where the creature was photographed on 16-millimeter motion-picture film. At least maybe it was photographed.

Most human societies harbor a deep-seated myth about such a creature--what child hasn't at one time or another worried about the bogeyman? But some people think a bogeyman of sorts exists: The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas-also known as Yeti -is perhaps the best known candidate: The Indian tribes of America's West Coast had a variety of names for the American Sasquatch (a Salish name).

Yet another name for it is Bigfoot and it is apt: The deeply imprinted footprints attributed to Sasquatch are some 4 to 7 inches wide and from 12 to 17 inches long -- clearly the spoor of an enormous animal, or of an extraordinarily industrious footprint hoaxer.

Can it be that in the Space Age there is a huge living primate about which Science knows nothing? And one that lives in our own country to boot? I recall discussing it with a widely known nature editor in New York who laughingly informed me that the entire idea was preposterous, that a Sasquatch couldn't possibly remain hidden in this day and age when the Woods are crawling with hunters, campers and snowmobilers. Shortly thereafter I was flying down· through the river valleys of northern California and the thought crossed my mind that you could hide a herd of elephants in any square mile of that Country with no trouble at all.

In California alone the northern wilderness is about the size of the state of Maine. There is plenty of room for Sasquatch, and plenty of food and water.

But do Sasquatches exist? Opinions are plentiful, evidence is in limited supply and there is currently no

proof one way or the other. Most scientifically trained people who think about it at all believe it is all non- sense, but a few scientists believe in Sasquatch. And so does Peter Byrne, an animal-tracker of legendary skill, who is currently camped out in The Dalles, Oregon, determined, once and for all, to prove Sasquatch's existence or lack of it.

Byrne is a 47-year-old, Irish-born former big-game hunter who at one time specialized in taking U.& sportsmen on tiger hunts in Nepal on the edge Of the Himalayas. Recognizing that the tiger was in serious trouble, he established a 50,000-acre tiger sanctuary and helped found the International Wildlife Conservation Society in Washington, D.C., which administers it. While in Nepal, Byrne had undertaken several major Yeti-hunting expeditions and then became interested in the American Sasquatch. Using his own resources and aided by a few small contributions, Byrne has been tracking Sasquatch for 35 months, collecting all the available sighting reports, following every lead, every footprint.

Sasquatch first appears in white man's records in 1811 when an exploring party led by David Thompson found 14-inch by 8-inch footprints in Canada that seemed too large to be those of a bear. The Indian guides, though armed with guns, would not hear of pursuing these tracks. Over the years, as the wild areas of the Northwest were settled, there were many other reports of tracks and of meetings between Sasquatches and humans.

In 1884, a construction crew was building the railroad near Yale, British Columbia, when the train engineer came upon a "gorilla-type' creature lying asleep or unconscious near the roadbed. Awakened, apparently, by the sound of the train stopping, it began to climb the bluff with the train crew in hot pursuit. It was eventually cornered, felled by a rock dropped on its head from above, and held captive for several days in Yale. From the description-more than four feet tall and covered with hair and of "extraordinary strength" -it could have been an ape or a small or young Sasquatch. But captive apes were rare in the United States and Canada. The fate of Jacko, as the creature was named, is unknown because the local newspaper was being relocated at the time and subsequent issues carried no further mention of the creature.

There are literally hundreds of reports in newspaper files in which one or more people have seen one or more of these creatures. Their descriptions, unlike those of UFOs, are almost always about the same. The creatures stand about eight feet tail, have no neck and are covered with short hair-reddish brown, and sometimes black below the knee. They have been likened to a long-legged gorilla and walk upright in a flatfooted gait..(Bears drop on all fours when moving.)

In March 1973, four fishermen saw a Sasquatch emerge from the forest, walk along a beach and reenter the woods. Most contacts have been similar, though the number of eyewitnesses range from one to a dozen people. The Sasquatch may be seen for just a few seconds as it crosses a road or it may stay in sight for several minutes.

A 500-pound footprint machine?

Now it would be fairly easy to dismiss all of this as mass hallucination except for several things. First, the reports, though separated by hundreds of miles and scores of years, do tend to match. Furthermore, eyewitnesses do not necessarily tend to come forward readily; instead, most are reluctant to talk about their sightings and many have insisted on anonymity hardly the actions of publicity-seekers. No one, it seems, likes to be laughed at, so eyewitnesses keep quiet and must be sought out. So far Peter Byrne has interviewed more than 70 in his quest for Bigfoot. And he has followed Bigfoot's tracks.

Mass hysteria cannot explain the footprints. Thousands have been examined, hundreds cast in plaster. Can they be brushed aside as fakes? Peter Byrne once followed such tracks for 7 miles along a snowy mountain ridge, some 11 miles in the woods. "This alone would make a believer out of anyone," says Byrne.

Indeed, did someone really transport a 500-pound footprint-making machine back in there--one that could walk on two "legs" without supporting legs that would have left their own tracks in the snow? And all this where a hoaxer could not expect Byrne or anyone else to see them before they melted?

Dr. Grover Krantz of Washington State University at Pullman is one of the few scientists who believes that Sasquatch may exist. He has examined dozens of casts of the footprints and sees significant differences between them and human feet. He has drawn the probable bone structure on the casts themselves (see page~ 68) and finds certain formations that would be essential for a 500- to 800-pound animal. If these prints were faked, he claims, "they must have been faked by an expert in anatomy."

The footprints are hard to explain away, yet they do not comprise what scientists would call hard evidence. Patches of hair and droppings found in the woods have been examined at the Smithsonian Institution: The material was found to be bear-like but some was unidentifiable. One would think a photograph would be all that is needed to conclude that Sasquatch is real but that, too, is not enough.

Some years ago, a California rancher named Roger Patterson became interested in Sasquatch and began searching in earnest. Four years later, in 1967, he exposed about 25 seconds of extraordinary and very controversial movie film. What money he made from this was spent on an additional four-year search, at the end of which he died a natural death. The Patterson film has been shown to a number of scientific groups, and has been most carefully examined in every detail. It is unfortunately of very poor quality, taken with a cheap 16-millimeter camera at a distance of more than 100 feet. Worse, Patterson was not sure whether the camera was set at 16 frames per second (fps) or at 24.

A man in a fur suit?

The film shows an upright creature--small for a Sasquatch, about seven feet tall-which walks across the field of view, turns to look toward the camera, and continues on out of sight (see p. 72). It left fairly small footprints, about 14½ inches long, which would be roughly commensurate with its height, though there is disagreement about this among anatomists.

Not just scientists have examined the film, however. What is probably the world's best and most famous animation studio examined it carefully, and declared they thought it was a living animal, not a man in a fur suit. In fact, they said that the only firm in the world capable of faking such a creature successfully was their own studio-and they hadn't done it.

In London, Dr. Donald W. Grieve, an anatomist specializing in the human gait at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, analyzed the film frame by frame and made detailed studies of factors such as angular leg movements, stride length and time of leg swing. He concluded that if the framing speed were 16 or 18 fps, fakery is unlikely but at 24 fps, it could be "a very clever fake." Dr. Grieve has written that his impressions "oscillated between total acceptance of the Sasquatch to irrational rejection based on an emotional response to the possibility that the Sasquatch actually exists."

More recently, Dr. Dmitri D. Donsky, Chief of Biomechanics at the USSR Central Institute of Physical Culture in Moscow, has studied the film. Like Dr. Grieve, he has made exhaustive measurements of all parts of the gait, and also the torso-swing when the creature turns toward the camera. He says that the walk as demonstrated by the creature in the film "is absolutely nontypical of man," and that he does not believe the film was faked.

The evidence of the film is less impressive to a distinguished British physical anthropologist, Dr. John Napier, formerly of the Smithsonian Institution. In a recently released book, Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality, he concludes that the Yeti or Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas is surely a myth. As for Sasquatch, the Patterson film, he says, is inconclusive. Even given the capacity, which most humans have of deluding themselves, Napier finds the many eyewitness reports persuasive and the footprints conclusive. "Either some of the footprints are real, or all are fakes," he writes, and the latter seems to him to be impossible. "I am convinced that the Sasquatch exists," he goes on, "but whether it is all that it is cracked up to be is another matter altogether."

If Sasquatch exists, then what is it? Napier suggests that the best candidate for the ancestors of Sasquatch is Paranthropus, an evolutionary offshoot in the course of human evolution, an apelike vegetarian that lived some two million years ago according to fossils found in Africa. As Napier points out, if Sasquatch does turn out to exist, the zoologists and anthropologists will have a great deal to explain.

For now, the best hope of settling the question of Sasquatch's existence is Peter Byrne. No scientific group has ever undertaken a serious search of any magnitude, nor does it seem likely that any will soon. There is a considerable number of "weekend warriors" who go forth heavily armed to seek the Sasquatch in the name of sport. Of the handful of serious searchers, many also believe in killing the first one they see. Canadian John Green, for example, has said, "Gun it down, cut off a piece you can carry and get out of there."

Peter Byrne considers this approach inhumane as well as unnecessary-especially because the Sasquatch, if it exists at all, is a rare species that furthermore might prove to be subhuman. Byrne carries a tranquilizer gun with him as he stalks the wilderness and plans to immobilize his prey long enough for a group of scientists to arrive and examine and photograph it. (Since its existence has not been shown in an approved manner, the Sasquatch does not enjoy the protection of other rare and endangered species-except in Skamania County in Washington where an ordinance was passed in 1969 prohibiting the wanton slaying of "a nocturnal primate-described as an apelike creature, or a subspecies of Homo sapiens.")

For now Byrne operates out of his headquarters at The Dalles, Oregon, following up every lead that comes along. He has built an observatory overlooking an area where Sasquatches have reportedly been seen regularly--in seven out of nine successive years. He is often asked why, if Sasquatches exist and are so large, they are so seldom seen. One could draw a parallel to the cougar, which certainly does exist in the Pacific Northwest but is shy, wary, alert and avoids humans quite successfully. Many people have lived 40 years in remote areas without ever seeing one.

Says Byrne, "There are perhaps only one or two hundred Sasquatches, spread over an area of thousands of square miles; you can see that the population density is very low at best. Then consider that you must also have a human at the same time and place to do the sighting and you begin to see the problem. And the Sasquatch is basically very shy and has far sharper senses than Man's; he can easily avoid human contact. As if this weren't enough, whenever a Sasquatch does show his face, likely as not someone tries to kill him with a gun. Can you blame them for avoiding humans?"

© The Smithsonian January 1974 Vol 4, No. 10
Article courtesy Tom Cousino, Walnut Crk, California

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