Bigfoot Encounters

Searching for Bigfoot
Elusive Sasquatch still scares up believers

By Steve Schmidt
San Diego Union-Tribune Staff Writer

October 30, 1999

MUD SPRINGS -- It's 3 o'clock in the morning and I'm deep in the woods, looking for Bigfoot.

You know, Sasquatch. The Ape Beast. Omah, as some Indians call him. Qah-lin-me. Matlox. The Hairy Humanoid. The Earth Chewbacca. Pie grande. He-Who-Looks-Like-Some-Guy-in-a-Gorilla-Suit. 'big foot.'

On this same patch of dirt a year ago, on this same mountain ridge near the Oregon border, an auto mechanic from Redding swore he spotted the creature. The sighting was reported to the state Department of Fish and Game.

"I would say to those people who don't believe me to go to Mud Springs and spend the night there," Tim Ford told a reporter with The Redding Record Searchlight. "They would be traumatized."

So here we are, me and a photographer, inside a dome tent, on our own Blair Bigfoot Project. I've got my notebook. The photographer's Nikon is locked and loaded. Go ahead, you Halloween spook. Traumatize us. I can smell the Pulitzer Prize from here. Three o'clock in the morning and the moon hangs in the southeastern sky. Come on out, big guy. There aren't a lot of hard facts, but this much is known:

* Hundreds of people in the West -- mechanics, teachers, lumberjacks, shopkeepers -- have reported seeing Bigfoot, or some sort of elusive man-ape, over the last century. The sightings tend to increase in the fall.

* American Indians in the Pacific Northwest have told Sasquatch stories for generations.

* Scores of alleged Bigfoot tracks -- bigger than any bear's -- have been found in forests and along riverbeds. Some are clearly fake; other prints go on for miles and are inexplicable curiosities.

* The hunt for Bigfoot has gone high-tech. The Internet crackles with the latest sightings and searches.

* Al Hodgson has a question. Hodgson used to run a general store in the tiny town of Willow Creek. At 76, he's no wild-eyed believer. He's more a reluctant convert to the idea of a Sasquatch. "I have to believe it's true," says the mild-mannered Navy vet. "If it isn't, you've got hundreds of people who are carrying out a hoax who don't even know each other.

"Doesn't sound very likely, does it?" I was looking to do research on the beast. Willow Creek seemed like a good place to start. The former logging town, set in the hills about an hour's drive east of Eureka, is the home of the Willow Creek-China Flat Museum, a magnet for Bigfootologists.

Outside the museum is a 15-foot-tall redwood statue of the creature, carved with a chain saw.

Inside is one of the sweetest treasure troves you'll find on the subject: Nearly two dozen plaster casts of footprints, written records of Bigfoot sightings, a new research center for trackers eager to chew over the latest twists in their hunt.

For the moment, the center sits empty. Hodgson, one of the museum's curators, wants it to become a base for serious scholarship. Few academics, however, take Sasquatch seriously. Slaves to scienceand reason, they insist on hard, irrefutable proof. A Bigfoot corpse.A leg bone. Something.

But starting in the 1960s, Hodgson saw what he saw -- and don't try totell him otherwise.

He says he saw giant footprints in the dirt and snow that would makeMichael Jordan's look shrimpy.

He talked to those who said they had spotted Bigfoot, and saw fear on their faces.

In 1967, Hodgson ran into an acquaintance, Roger Patterson. Patterson and a friend claimed they had just filmed a giant ape-beast striding along a creek bed.

To believers, the grainy footage -- known as the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film -- shows what looks like a giant, hairy biped with pendulous breasts and an awkward step.

To skeptics, it looks like a guy in a gorilla suit.

Hodgson is a believer. Patterson, to the day he died, was apparently a believer.

But I needed something more. I needed an eyewitness I could look in the eye.

I needed Granny's Snack Shack.

Hodgson and I drove to the heart of Willow Creek and he introduced me to a woman in a yellow apron and a bonnet: Darlene Mesunas, proprietor of Granny's Snack Shack.

The sandwich shop is inside a Unocal 76 station, not far from the Bigfoot Rafting Co., Bigfoot Chevron and the Bigfoot Golf and Country Club.

Mesunas, who is in her 60s, isn't eager to talk, especially to some reporter. When she tells the story of what happened to her as a little girl, people look at her funny.

She reluctantly does anyway.

The scene is a lonely backcountry road near Willow Creek. It's a sunny afternoon in the late 1940s. Mesunas is 11 years old.

"I was coming back down a road when I heard the horse in our corral kicking and making all kinds of noise. It kind of scared me. Then I saw this big thing going across the road. This great big thing just walked across the road and into the bushes ... I had never seen anything like it. I ran home and told my mother. I said, 'Mom, it's a great big gorilla or ape or something.' ... It smelled like rotten eggs." It wasn't a bear, she knows that much.

But knowing how people react to her story, she's not quite willing to declare it Bigfoot either.

Many believe there's not one Bigfoot, but Bigfeet, an elusive species of ape-beasts squirreled away in the vast forests from British Columbia to California.

The idea seems less outlandish when you consider that new species are discovered all the time. Scientists didn't know about the Okapi or giant panda a century ago.

Even so, you'd think somebody would have found a skeleton or at least a Bigfoot skull by now.

Not necessarily, says John Freitas, noting that bones and other organic material quickly decompose in the dank forests of the Pacific Northwest.

If anyone can sniff out a hoax, it should be 44-year-old Freitas. The former police officer is a welfare fraud investigator for Del Norte County.

At night, he uses his detective skills deep in the Klamath Mountains, hoping to pick up the trail of the beast.

The day after our stop in Willow Creek, the photographer and I join him. I sit shotgun in Freitas' pickup as he wheels up a dirt road near the town of Gasquet.

He brakes on the lip of a secluded valley and switches on a 400-watt audio system, playing an eerie wail that echoes for miles.


Then again. And again.

Freitas sets out the aural bait a couple of times a week, hoping to flush out Bigfoot. He says it's the sound of a Sasquatch-type creature recorded in 1994 in rural Ohio.

It hasn't worked. Not yet anyway.

But he and other trackers believe they're inching closer. "I'm 99.9 percent sure that the creature exists," he says. Freitas also checks out Northern California sightings reported to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, a group run by fellow tracker Matt Moneymaker.

Freitas believes that some of the Sasquatch sightings are legitimate. But some reports stretch reason, he says. Sometimes alleged eyewitnesses will claim they saw Bigfoot drop to earth in a spaceship. Yeah, right, Freitas tells himself.

But he believes the truth is out there, if you look hard enough. Many trackers find hair in the woods that they say defies analysis. Others find swaths of trees with broken high branches, suggesting that a Bigfoot loped through the area.

Freitas dreams of the day when he comes face to face with one.

And when that happens, he already knows what he'll do: run, as fast as possible, toward the beast, with a camcorder running, to finally prove that the great spook story of the West is true. "Every day," he says, "we're getting closer."

I'm at Mud Springs and it's 4:47 a.m. and I'm writing in my notebook that this whole Blair Bigfoot Project thing has been a bust.

I was promised Bigfoot. All I've got is a sore back from lying in a tent and a nasty case of halitosis.

Like I ever really expected to see 'Foot in the first place. I'm turning over and getting some sleep. I'm ... turning ... over ... and ... getting ... some ... sleep ..

There's this annoying noise outside. A constant rustling sound. It's probably the wind hitting a flap of the tent. I wish it would stop, whatever it is.
A beastly profile Sasquatch at a glance, based on decades of alleged sightings and centuries of American Indian stories.

Height: 6 to 12 ft.
Weight: Up to 2,000 lbs.
Footprint: Commonly 15-22in. long and 7-10 in. wide
Diet: Omnivore
Habitat: Primariy the Pacific Northwest, including the forests of
Northern California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia
Population: Possibly up to 2,000
Behavior: Considered shy, elusive, migratory and gentle, but they can
be provoked to voilence. There are a few tales of them kidnapping,
attacking and killing humans.

Sources: "The Field Guide to North American Monsters," by W. Haden Blackman and "Sasquatch/Bigfoot" by Don Hunter with René Dahinden; Union-Tribune research

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