Tracks to nowhere
By Robin Brunet, Contributing writer to the Vancouver Courier
When you spend most of your life hunting Sasquatch, you encounter more than your fair share of kooks and opportunists. By the time I met renowned Bigfoot hunter René Dahinden in 1987, the Swiss immigrant—who died April 18, 2001 —was fed up enough to make a startling admission.
"It’s getting to the point where if I saw a Bigfoot in the flesh, I think I’d leave it alone and not tell anybody," he told me, near the end of our day-long meeting. "I don’t know if I could take watching all the crooks, crackpots and scientists trying to get a slice of glory out of it."
I’d been both excited and wary about the interview, part of my research for an article on Sasquatch for a local magazine. Excited because as a kid yearning for adventure I had followed his highly publicized efforts to hunt Bigfoot, wary because his bad temper was almost as legendary as the creature he sought.
Dahinden, a small but powerfully built man with close-cropped hair, lived a spartan existence in two small trailers behind the Vancouver Gun Club in Richmond. He didn’t say much at first, preferring to let me prattle on while puffing on his pipe and scrutinizing me with narrowed eyes. Then he offered a few pithy observations about the fraudsters who made money selling phony Sasquatch footprints and film footage to gullible believers.
The crooks who had plagued Dahinden since he embarked on his search in the late 1950s served to render the Bigfoot phenomenon fit only for addled minds to contemplate—at least as far as the scientific community was concerned. Honest investigators with thin skins did not last long in the field. Dahinden had endured only by developing a considerable distrust for people and paying no heed to what they said.
His thick skin came at a terrible cost. By the time I met him, his determination to learn the truth about Sasquatch had cost him everything, including his family and any material comforts he may have craved. And his tendency to see the worst in people led him to butt heads with John Green, Grover Krantz and Peter Byrne, the three other veteran Bigfoot researchers who, with Dahinden, were known as "The Four Horsemen of the Sasquatchery" and whose unifying characteristic was their inability to stomach each other.
Dahinden’s 47-year search resulted in two books, hundreds of eyewitness interviews and tantalizing footprint casts—but no indisputable evidence of Sasquatch’s existence. When he died of prostate cancer, he left behind volumes of meticulously documented reports and photographs, all of which have been packed into boxes and removed from his trailer. Former colleagues wonder what will become of his legacy, and how it will affect the hunt for Bigfoot. "That’s one of the problems with the curious business we’re in," says Green. "Scientists have never taken us seriously, and it would be difficult to donate reports or footprints to museums because they’re just not interested. A person’s life work could easily be tossed in the garbage, even though it might eventually prove to be important."
Dahinden was born out of wedlock in Lucerne, Switzerland on August 23, 1930, and deposited at a Catholic orphanage a month later. After living with a foster family for several years, he was placed in a boys’ institution in Lucerne, where he attended school and worked on a farm. Later, he was reclaimed by his mother but the reunion didn’t work out and he was fostered out to a farm family. "I was five steps lower than a dog," he recalled in his 1973 book Sasquatch. "I was up before six every morning to clean out the barn and do odd jobs before going to school, and five minutes after I got home I was out in the fields working. That went on for three years solid, no holidays." But when Dahinden struck out on his own at age 15, he wrote a letter to his landlords thanking them for the experience: "Compared with life there, everything I met with [in the outside world] was a joke."
Dahinden emigrated to Canada in 1953 and worked on a farm near Calgary. One evening, he listened to a CBC radio report about an expedition being mounted to hunt the legendary Yeti of the Himalayas: "I said to my boss, ‘Wouldn’t that be something, to be on the hunt for that thing?’ And he replied, ‘Hell, you don’t have to go that far; they got them things in British Columbia." Dahinden described this life-changing comment as: "A switch suddenly turning on in my head. It seemed like a great adventure."
The following spring, Dahinden moved to Williams Lake and found employment at a sawmill. Between earning a paycheck and struggling to master English, he journeyed to Vancouver and dug up whatever he could about Sasquatch in libraries and museums. "René had a scientist’s discipline of recording observations accurately and without embellishment," says friend Janey Murray. By 1956, the now-married Dahinden had gathered enough newspaper accounts and eyewitness testimonies to challenge the prevailing assumption that Sasquatch was an "Indian myth." He contacted Green, who published the weekly Aggisiz-Harrison Advance. "I still thought they were Indian stories and told René to go back to his job," says Green from his home in Harrison Hot Springs.
A year later, Harrison village council announced a Sasquatch hunt to commemorate the province’s 100th birthday. The hunt never transpired, but it kindled widespread interest in the beast and prompted people who believed they’d seen it years prior—and remained silent to avoid being ridiculed—to offer testimony. In 1958, Green traveled to Bluff Creek in Northern California to examine 16-inch footprints scattered along newly built logging roads. To his amazement, they had sunk two inches into the ground where a human foot made an impression only half an inch deep. Green was hooked.
News of the prints led to the formation, in November of 1959, of the first major search for Sasquatch: the Pacific Northwest Expedition, funded by American millionaire Tom Slick, who had funded searches for the Yeti with his friend, big game hunter Peter Byrne. Slick made Byrne the leader of the expedition—much to the consternation of participants Dahinden and Green, who resented the boisterous Irishman giving orders to locals.
Dahinden later described the expedition as "a total screwup" in which enthusiasts hunted in vain for evidence, undermined each other’s efforts (at one point Dahinden removed the film from a network of Brownie cameras rigged to photograph the beast if it broke a tripwire, figuring he could put it to better use in his own camera), and generally got on each other’s nerves. "René had a nasty habit of pacing in front of the campfire and spitting into it," recalls Green. "And while René tended to sleep in, another fellow was prone to rising early and firing his rifle. René would lose his temper, go stamping off into the bush and make so much noise that no creature would come within a mile of them." The expedition ended abruptly in 1962, when a private plane carrying Slick blew up in mid-flight.
Disillusioned by his colleagues, Dahinden moved to Harrison village to operate a boat rental business. But he continued to investigate Sasquatch incidents as they surfaced, cross-examining witnesses and traveling alone into the bush—all of which put a strain on his marriage. "It would have been nice if I hadn’t had this obsession," he later admitted to me. Even though the scientific community rejected the existence of an unknown primate measuring upwards of eight feet and weighing over 800 pounds, Dahinden doggedly sifted through evidence, discounting some stories and footprints and recording those he could not explain.
In October of 1967, the Bigfoot phenomenon made front-page news around the world when former rodeo cowboy Roger Patterson shot 24 feet of 16mm color film depicting a large hairy creature striding along a clearing. The event occurred at Bluff Creek, several months after Dahinden, Green and B.C. Provincial Museum anthropologist Don Abbott had taken casts of giant footprints in the vicinity. By his own admission, Dahinden—by now separated from his wife and two sons—was "shattered" that someone else had produced the most tangible evidence yet of Sasquatch’s existence. The feeling did not abate over the years as Hollywood makeup men, Russian anthropologists and even NASA studied the footage and could not discount it as a hoax.
Green puts it more succinctly, although not without residual rancor."Before the Patterson film, René enjoyed the spotlight. Patterson came along and eclipsed him. Whereas I was in it to share information, René wanted to keep everything for himself."
Still, the scientific community refused to take the film seriously, leading Green to conclude that the only way to convince people of Sasquatch’s existence was to shoot one and haul it out of the bush. This disgusted Dahinden, who believed the creature was more human than ape-like.
In December of 1969, Dahinden found himself in the small Washington town of Bossburg investigating a series of prints that led across a river and a highway, along a hill and over four-
foot-high fences before disappearing in rock. What especially interested Dahinden was that the right foot was severely deformed, creating a walking pattern that made considerably more compression in the right footprint.
But any hope of conducting a pristine investigation was dashed when hunters arrived on the scene to snare the crippled creature. Then, a local prospector named Joe Metlow claimed he knew the home base of a Sasquatch in nearby Frisco Standard, prompting rival groups to scour the area on foot, by snowmobile and airplane. One particularly bloody-minded hunter who resented the presence of a search helicopter containing Roger Patterson vowed to blast it from the sky if it emerged from the bush carrying a hairy giant. "I can see the end of it," remarked a U.S. border patrol guard at the scene. "A shootout on Frisco Standard: one dead Sasquatch and a dozen dead hunters."
Casts Dahinden made of the crippled footprint galvanized Grover Krantz, a physical anthropology professor at Washington State University. After analyzing the cast and developing a theoretical bone and muscle mechanism that could make the footprints, Krantz concluded an unknown primate was indeed stalking Bossburg. He began lecturing about Sasquatch from an anthropological perspective, earning media attention and derision from his peers. "I’ve had a lot of problems getting promotions and pay raises because of it," he told the Courier from his home in Port Angeles.
Krantz also suffered persistent heckling from Dahinden, who despised his view that a corpse of Sasquatch was needed to satisfy the scientific community. He also felt Krantz’s endorsement of the 1967 Patterson film was worthless: "He never went and examined the filming site," he told me. "In fact, he never researches the stories people tell him, he never compares notes with other trackers and never spends any time in the bush."
For his part, Green suspects the crippled prints are bogus. "Grover is a good friend of mine, but he was born gullible," he laughs. "The fact that Ivan Marx was present at Bossburg is enough to throw everything into doubt." Marx was a Californian hoaxter who regularly filmed "authentic" Sasquatches—with buckling fur and feet flapping like a circus clown’s—and sold the footage. Marx made his first movie in Bossburg while Dahinden was tracking the crippled prints, and had been seen in a Spokane store buying considerable quantities of fur. Says Green: "I was always fascinating that René would tear into Grover about every last thing—except the crippled prints."
Dahinden hunted his elusive prey for 30 more years, financing his research by collecting spent shot from the Vancouver Gun Club, cleaning and re-selling it. Occasionally he was a victim of his own fame: in 1977, three Coquitlam pranksters dressed a partner in a gorilla suit and had him run across a road in full sight of a tourist bus. The resulting footprints looked extremely authentic, momentarily fooling even Dahinden himself. When the youths fessed up and were asked how they faked the prints, they said they got the idea from reading Dahinden’s book. Later, the Bigfoot hunter was immortalized in a 1997 television ad for Kokanee beer in which he cheerfully debunks the Sasquatch myth while a large furry creature runs away with a case of the brew in the background.
Last year, filmmaker Peter Von Puttkamer shot the documentary The Sasquatch Odyssey and immortalized Dahinden, Green, Krantz and Oregon-based Byrne as The Four Horsemen of the Sasquatchery. In one scene, Krantz is in an auditorium using a frame from the Patterson film to determine the creature’s height. "You are so full of screwball ideas," Dahinden shouts from the depths of the audience. "Anyone who would take this frame of film to make height measurements is totally out of his skull."
By the time these squabbles were being documented, Dahinden was gravely ill. "He had been passing blood for several years before going to a doctor and being diagnosed with prostate cancer," says Jim Murray, who along with his wife Janey, is caretaker of the Vancouver Gun Club. After a two-year struggle to beat the disease, Dahinden spent the last 48 hours of his life refusing to close his eyes. "He was petrified of dying," says Jim. "But at least he was surrounded by his ex-wife and two sons."
Janey remembers Dahinden not as an irritable monster hunter, but as an intensely private, scholarly man. "He was a voracious reader who loved studying subjects like Russian history. And he adored opera. He would sit in his trailer in complete darkness, feet up on the table, sipping whiskey and puffing on a cigar while listening to Pavarotti."
Tears come to Janey’s eyes when she recalls Dahinden looking at her imploringly from his sick bed. "He couldn’t understand why Jim and I spent so much time watching over him. He told me, ‘Nobody cared for me or looked after me before.’ I thought that was so sad. He lived life on his own terms, and it was a tough one."
The Murrays organized a memorial for Dahinden and were astounded when more than 100 admirers attended. "People came from California, Illinois, Idaho—you name it," Jim says. "They all paid tribute to René being a man’s man, someone who was honest and incredibly dedicated."
Krantz and Green are low-key about Dahinden’s passing. "His persistent heckling and badgering may have forced the odd prankster to confess, but more often than not, it was just a waste of time," says Krantz, now 69 and ironically, fighting pancreatic cancer. Green, 74, remarks: "I’m no fan of René’s. However, he was 100 per cent genuine in his search for Sasquatch."
Krantz and Green are confident a new generation of Sasquatch hunters will take their place. The latest evidence of Sasquatch to make headlines is a 200-pound cast taken in southern Washington last year that shows the prints of an alleged primate’s buttock, forearm, thigh and heel: hairs taken from the cast and analyzed by scientists cannot be attributed to any known animal.
Meanwhile, Dahinden’s oldest son, Erik, 45, is demonstrating some of the moxy that made his father famous. "I have his reports and documents in storage, and I’m not giving them away," the Falkland resident says. "If people are genuinely interested in the research, they will have to make the trip up here. Otherwise, they can stay home."
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