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Chuska Mountains Expedition

by Curt Nelson and Reid Nelson

Introduction

From October 9 to October 13, 2002, BFRO members Reid Nelson and Curt Nelson searched for evidence of sasquatches in the Chuska Mountains of New Mexico. Reid, an archeologist for the Navajo Nation and New Mexico resident, is a BFRO Curator. Curt is a microbiologist at the University of Minnesota and a BFRO Investigator. The two are brothers.

The Chuska mountain range lies within the Navajo Reservation north of Gallup, New Mexico, to the west of highway 666. The range extends into northeast Arizona where the mountains become continuous with the Carrizo range. The tallest peak in the Chuskas is 9,400 feet and the elevation of most of the surrounding woodlands is between 8,000 and 9,000 feet. Geologically, the Chuska Mountains are a remnant plateau, which towers above the surrounding eroded landscape of the San Juan Basin. They were formed by ancient volcanic eruptions that covered the surrounding ubiquitous sandstone foundation with harder volcanic basalts. These basalts have resisted erosion while surrounding sandstone layers have not, leaving the tall sentinels of the Chuskas to stand above the surrounding desert. At their northernmost point, the Chuska and Carrizo ranges nearly connect with the San Juan range of the Rocky Mountains in southwest Colorado. At their southern end, they connect with the vast highlands of east central Arizona known as the Mogollon Rim. As such, they provide a relatively high, moist, wooded corridor between the Rocky Mountains and the broad wooded country of the Mogollon Rim. The Chuska range may serve as a migrational corridor connecting these two larger habitats.

The mountains are heavily forested, with ponderosa pine, aspen, gamble oak, spruce and fir at the highest elevations. Pinion pine and juniper grow on the surrounding foothills between 5,500 and 7,000 feet. A desert sagebrush community covers the desert below, which has an average elevation of 5,000 feet. There are numerous small seasonal lakes in the Chuskas. These become quite low in summer, and in the drought of 2002 most dried completely. Mule deer, elk, black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes thrive there. Navajo ranchers keep summer camps high in the mountains to tend to their sheep and cattle, which are allowed to free-range graze. They do this until early October or so, when they and their stock head down to winter quarters.

Published reports of sasquatch sightings from this area are rare since few locals are inclined to talk to outsiders about so controversial a subject. There are, however, numerous unpublished reports available to those who would collect them, and Reid, who works as an archeologist for the Navajo Nation, is in an especially good position to hear of them. The Chuska Mountains have emerged as the area from which most of the reports in this region originate. The activity there seems to be concentrated within a zone that contains several consistent sources of fresh water; an area with springs and constantly flowing streams. This is where we chose to focus our attention. Local authorities were notified of our intent to camp in and investigate the area.

Reid has collected numerous local reports, including sightings made by police officers, game wardens, ranchers, and residents (see Reid's Narbona Pass report). These include several alleged incidents in which sasquatches have been observed taking sheep and goats from local herds, one where a sasquatch was seen killing and taking a foal, and another in which a sasquatch repeatedly harassed occupants inside a summer herding cabin.

The Strategy

Our approach to finding sasquatch sign was to camp in a place we considered to be in the heart of the past activity. We chose a high, timbered spot above the just mentioned cabin, which offered a spectacular view. With only four full days to spend there, we were limited in what we could accomplish, and like everyone else who looks for this creature, we were surrounded by thousands of square miles of forested mountains, valleys, canyons ... and it could be anywhere. We chose to rely mainly upon finding tracks as a way of detecting the presence of sasquatches. That was possible because of a characteristic of the Chuska Mountains that is surprisingly rare; instead of being hard and rocky, the ground is covered by rich, soft topsoil that takes tracks extraordinarily well.?

Aside from the obvious advantage of being able to look for tracks generally, we were able to use the good ground as a way to detect animals that approached our camp or the attractants we set out. We were not solely reliant on tracks as a detection device, though. We also had a remote camera to use; a Game-Vu digital camera with an infrared motion detector trip and infrared flash for night shots. It has the advantages of being noiseless and it produces no visible light, not even a small red light on the camera itself.

The attractants we used were scents of two types: sex pheromone impregnated chips and extracted food scent oils. The pheromone chips were developed and supplied by BFRO Curator Gregory Bambenek, MD.? He produces the Dr. Juice line of deer and fish scents and is known worldwide for his research into pheromones and scents.? His "sasquatch pheromone" is a formulation, which combines human and great ape sex?pheromones -- a logical approach given that primate pheremones are known to have effects across species. Dr. Bambenek's pheromone chips have produced promising results, both during the expedition that yielded the Skookum Cast and during the 2001 Ouachita Project in Oklahoma.

The food-extracted scent oils were of several varieties: acorn, apple, nutmeg, and sweet corn. We reasoned that using concentrated scents such as these would have several advantages over other attractants:

  • Interesting aromas, especially of foods, and even unfamiliar ones, might pique an intelligent animal's curiosity and cause it to investigate.
  • Unlike the foods from which they're derived, concentrated food essences have a great reach, so can draw animals in from some distance away. (Actual food, such as apples, practically has to be stumbled into to be discovered by an animal.)
  • Scent is invisible and diffuse so it is less likely to elicit a place-specific sense of danger, as an unnatural pile of food is.
  • The benign nature of an aroma in the air coupled with a non-devise-based detection system -- placing scent wicks within an area that is naturally good for track leaving -- minimizes "red flags" and avoidance behavior.
  • Scent "traps" are easy and inexpensive to set.
  • In mountainous terrain scent traps can be positioned to take advantage of daily air currents. Scent placed near the top of a drainage will flow down into it at night, drawing animals up, while scent placed lower down will move up slopes during the day and pull animals down.
  • Aroma baits are far less prone to tampering by other animals than food baits are.
  • Scent baits last a long time, can be monitored for weeks, and are easily refreshed. (Sound blasting lasts for moments, food baits maybe for days).

First Pheromone Trap using the Trail Camera

Movement throughout the Chuska Mountains is possible by four-wheel-drive vehicle using old logging roads. We were able to travel fairly easily over these, and we widely spaced our pheromone and scent traps within the approximately four by two mile area encompassing the fresh water sources. Two sets approximately three miles apart were made with pheromone chips. The first was placed about a fourth of the way down a drainage that cut through the lip of an ancient caldera and spilled onto the great, open basin that had been the center of the once fiery cone.

The sunken grassy plain that blankets the caldera basin is about a mile and a half in diameter, and the surrounding lip, which rises several hundred feet, is covered with ponderosa pine and aspen. Cold, clear water now springs from the floor of this once hot ground and collects to form two streams. Over time, these have cut through the caldera lip and formed deep canyons in working their way down slope. The drainage where we put the first pheromone set, along with the flowing canyons that also cut into the cone on the opposite side of the mountain, form gaps, interruptions in the continuity of the caldera's wooded rim. Since the basin of the caldera is wide open, we reasoned that a secretive animal moving through the area would circumnavigate the caldera by traveling up along its wooded rim. And when it encountered this drainage it would have to drop into it in order to continue on around.

And it seemed likely that in doing that the animal would negotiate the drainage by moving along its easier grades rather than cutting right across it by skidding down and climbing up its steepest sides. The pheromone scent would drift up and down through this small, bisecting valley so that any animal cutting through would likely smell it. We placed two chips up toward the head of the drainage where it began to tighten in. One was wired seven feet up onto the branch of a small tree growing in the bottom of the drainage. Up one side from there was a small meadow and above that was an aspen grove. On the back side of the aspens where the slope began to sweep steeply up was an old, blocked off logging road, a trail, really, which ran down the drainage. The second pheromone chip was placed about 100 yards up the wooded slope above the trail.

We reasoned that a sasquatch might be interested but confused or worried about the pheromone scent -- after all, it wasn't real sasquatch pheromone. And even if it was perceived as being real, a sasquatch smelling it might be afraid of an animal it didn't know. Of course it was also an artificial situation, and any indications of that would add to a sasquatch's concern. So instead of training the camera on one of the chips -- the focal point not only of interest, but also of concern -- we positioned it to take advantage of the evasive behavior that would likely dictate a sasquatch's approach.

The old logging trail ran between the two, somewhat distant chips -- each was about 100 yards away.? It offered concealment, easy movement, and a view through the aspens and down across the meadow, below which the bottom chip was located. The second chip, high up the wooded slope in the opposite direction, might also be worried over from the trail below. And, with the aroma wafting back and forth, the two chips were likely to create a scented zone there in the upper drainage; the abandoned road would be a logical place for a cautious animal to move as it checked out the situation. It was a good place for our camera trap. We mounted it on the trunk of a young spruce tree so it "looked" across the trail and upon the slope behind.

The Second Pheromone Trap

About four miles southwest of there and down the mountain some, Reid dropped me off on the high divide separating the two canyons mentioned earlier. I scrambled all the way down to the creek to hunt for tracks as I followed it back up to its origin in the caldera basin. Reid went on to make another pheromone set. As he came around the tip of this high divide, the unique spot that overlooks the junction of the two canyons, he found an open place with beautiful tracking soil. There, nighttime air currents would carry the pheromone scent down into the confluence of the two drainages. Daytime currents would bring the aroma up the high slope above. As with the first pheromone set, he placed two separated chips. One was wired into an oak tree just over the edge of the overlook, and the other some fifty yards up the slope on the opposite side of the tracking bed. Like the first, it was wired six feet up into an oak tree.

Hiking Up and Exploring the First Canyon

The small, clear stream could be crossed in two steps in most places. Small mud flats were found intermittently along the watercourse. These contained only deer and small animal tracks. Old black bear droppings were seen once along a game trail which followed the stream, but no bear tracks. Beavers had been in there, but not recently. Upon a flat bench along the creek was found a very old sweat lodge, its roof fallen in. Tracking conditions were generally good; it was a wild, beautiful place, but no sasquatch sign was seen.

Setting the Food Scent Traps

That first evening we put food essence oils out in four locations. As with the pheromone, we put scent in two or more places at each location in order to make the source of the aromas unclear.? Locations well apart from one another, with good ground for tracking and where the scents would drift into promising looking areas, were chosen. Sweet corn, apple, acorn, and nutmeg were used -- a different scent for each of the locations.

Exploring

We spent a lot of time exploring the mountains by driving around on the logging roads and hiking. Since the ground was so good for tracking it was as good a way as any of learning what animals were in the area, and possibly to determine if sasquatches were among them. That country is beautiful; we saw dozens of mule deer, hoards of prairie dogs -- they rule the vast open caldera basin and, seemingly unperturbed by our truck moving through, they parted ahead of us, but were all driven underground when a golden eagle came simply to sit on a fence post. We allowed a tarantula to go on its way after it was properly inspected. Nothing resembling a sasquatch track was found.

On the third day we drove down the mountain then back up into the second of the two canyons there. And, again, I clambered down to the bottom to follow the stream's course up to its source on the mountain. Reid drove back up to check the apple scent trap and the pheromone set he made above the canyons. On his way he ran into a game warden. The two talked and eventually Reid told him we were there looking for bigfoot. The game warden, also an employee of the Navajo Nation, told Reid several sasquatch stories. He, like all the other wardens with whom Reid has spoken, takes it for granted that sasquatches live there.

Some three hours after climbing into the canyon, and unable to contact Reid by two-way radio the entire time due to his unexpected meeting with the game warden on the other side of the mountain, I emerged on top near the head of the stream. Reid came around just then, and we arranged by radio to rendezvous. He told me about his meeting with the game warden and the two sets he'd checked. Neither the apple scent set nor the pheromone set showed any sasquatch tracks. The apple seemed to be attracting deer, though.? I told him about the canyon, how it was so deep and narrow that boulders and trees were piled up in the bottom, how beaver had it dammed up, about a waterfall, and a sweat lodge up near the head. I also told him I didn't find any sasquatch sign.

The Food Scent Traps

One evening we sat in a drainage not far below our camping site to watch over an area where we'd placed nutmeg scent. We stayed until it was too dark to see. Nothing came sniffing up the valley, but sitting there under the gamble oaks watching the dark come was beautiful and relaxing and fun. And we learned how true it is that you should always carry a compass, particularly when you're out in the dark, even when you think you could find your way back in the dark. Yes, we did remember a flashlight.

Final inspection of the apple, acorn, and sweet corn scented track beds showed a good recruitment of deer in all cases but no sign of sasquatches. We never returned to the nutmeg baited area. The second check on the pheromone set high above the canyon lands also came up negative. And negative for deer.

Checking the Pheromone-baited Camera Trap

The GameVu camera that watched the trail in the drainage near the other pheromone chips was checked twice using a small, portable television to look at any pictures taken. Since the aspens were dropping their leaves there, we worried that the camera's sixty frame capacity would be used up photographing falling leaves. To make sure it was working, we walked by the camera before checking it for pictures. The first check was on day two, 24 hours after putting it out. There were no pictures of leaves. Only one picture had been taken; it was a nice shot of Reid and me strolling by.

On day four, our last day in the mountains, we checked the camera again on our way off the mountain. Just after driving off the caldera basin, up into the mouth of the drainage in which the trap was located, Reid spotted a bobcat -- the first I've ever seen in the wild. The great big pussycat sat and looked at us but apparently it didn't want to play; it trotted off up the side of the drainage when we walked toward it making kitty talk. Up into the little valley a ways, just ahead of us we spotted some very interesting looking tracks in the loose soil of one of the tire tracks. Reid stopped the truck and we jumped out. Bear! Suddenly a truck appeared rumbling down the valley from above. It was the game warden Reid had spoken to while I'd been in the canyon. We talked with him an hour or so. He told us all kinds of stories about growing up around those mountains; how they got rabbits without using a gun, and turkeys using throwing sticks, and about baking prairie dogs in their own skin underground. And he told us another sasquatch story.

We walked by the camera again to make sure it was working. Yes, another nice shot of the pair of us. And a second picture was there, too. But it seemed to show just the empty scene. Nuts. We left the chips hanging but took the camera and bugged out.

Follow-up Check on Pheromone Chips

Reid went back and checked the two pheromone sets for signs of activity on November 29, forty-seven days after we left the mountains. He was not able to check the food scent sets. There had been a recent snowfall of about ten inches, which had largely melted (six to eight inches of snow remained in shaded areas). Tracks we made forty-seven days earlier could no longer be seen. Reid commented that the area seemed to have been "erased," that there were few tracks around generally. The recent large snowfall was undoubtedly one of the eroding weather events that caused this erasure. But Reid knew there had been some rain in the time after we were there, too.

Both pheromone chips at the site above the canyon country were found on the ground -- one below where it had been wired, and the other about ten feet away from where it had been placed. No bite marks were apparent on either chip and the tracks of whatever did it could not be seen.? Reid concluded that their removal had occurred long before his return visit. At the camera set, the chip up the slope could be smelled but not found, (probably because I placed it without Reid knowing its exact location). The chip hung in the bottom of the drainage had been wired seven feet up a ponderosa pine tree about three inches in diameter. That tree, and a four-inch-diameter tree inches beside it, were torn down, broken off at ground level. The chip was still securely fastened to its branch. Each tree had been alive and healthy. While it is tempting to assume that great force was necessary to break down a four-inch-diameter tree, it is important to understand that small pines growing in dense stands are brittle and susceptible to breaking, especially in cold weather. No tracks could be found, either around the broken down trees, or along the trail where the camera had been. The mountains filled with snow shortly after Reid's return visit.

Conclusions and Discussion

During our four days in the mountains there was nothing we saw or heard that we thought might have been caused by a sasquatch. The activity Reid discovered upon returning to the pheromone sets 47 days after we left is interesting. The three chips he found had all been brought to ground level, certainly by an animal. One of the chips had been moved just ten feet from the tree in which it had been wired. Whatever animal took the other two chips down seems to have been satisfied just by getting them to ground level. It's almost as if it wanted to possess the object which emitted the pheromone scent in order to see just what it was, smell it as closely as possible, and satisfy itself that another animal wasn't somehow there, unseen.

The three pheromone chips had not been wired particularly high in the trees. The two canyon chips had been six feet up and the chip where the camera had been was at seven feet. If a sasquatch found the chips and wanted to see and smell them close up, it needed only to step up to them; they should have been at about eye/nose level. But that seems not to have been the case. Instead the animal that found them seems to have been frustrated because they were too high to see and smell directly. So they had to be brought down. The two six foot chips were apparently reached and torn down, while the chip at seven feet seems to have frustrated its "suitor" -- the whole tree had to be taken down to get at it. That animal certainly had more than an idle interest in the pheromone.

So what animal was it? In the fall of 2001 Reid and I were members of the BFRO expedition team in the Ouachita Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma. As already mentioned, pheromone chips were used there with some interesting results, but in one case a chip definitely attracted the attention of a bear. The chip had been hung off the tip of a branch that extended out over a creek bed paved with slab rock. It was about eight feet high. Two days after the chip was hung a bear "pie" was found on the rock directly below the chip. Clearly it was not a coincidental placement. The chip was impossible for a bear to get at and defecating on the spot seemed to have been a gesture of frustration, or a calling card of sorts.

It is likely that black bears were responsible for taking the chips down in the Chuskas. It doesn't make sense that an upright and tall animal would have had to knock a tree over in order to bring down a chip that was just seven feet up. Even if seven feet was above eye/nose level for a sasquatch, presumably it could have reached up that high to get at it. The fact that the six-foot chips were taken down also suggests a shorter animal, such as a bear. But who knows?

The "sasquatch pheromone" Greg Bambenek makes is, of course, experimental. No one can exactly duplicate the scent of an animal about which so little is known. Even if none of the animals attracted by the pheromone preparation were sasquatches but were bears (or some other animal), it is encouraging. While food scents are logically broadly appealing to animal species from humans to mice, a sex-based scent formulated from human and great ape secretions might well have been repellent to other animals, including sasquatches. After all, human scent is a danger signal to many animals, and ape scent might also be frightening because of a similarity to human scent, or because it is unknown.

It may be that sex pheromones are treated in another way by animals; instead of being repellent for their differences, the similarities of pheromones between species may tend to make them generally attractive. It would be assumed that pheromone similarities between species become greater as the relatedness of species becomes closer.

The attraction of a bear to the pheromone chip during the Ouachita Project along with the animal activity at the three pheromone chips in the Chuskas, indicate that human/ape pheromone is at least attractive to bears. It is a promising sign, then, that the almost certainly more closely related sasquatch would be attracted to the pheromone.

According to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, there are approximately 6,000 black bears in New Mexico. The Chuska Mountains account for about 5% of New Mexico's bear habitat, so, by extrapolation, there are roughly 300 bears there. The number of sasquatches in North America is estimated to be anywhere from several hundred to several thousand animals. (See: Bigfoot / Sasquatch Evidence by Grover Krantz for a discussion on sasquatch population size).

Michael R. Vaughan (National Biological Service) and Michael R. Pelton (University of Tennessee) estimated the population of black bears in North America in 1995 to be 685,000. Even using a generous estimate of 10,000 sasquatches in North America, it would mean that for each sasquatch there are at least 68 bears. So, at best, in the Chuskas with 300 bears, there could have been 4.4 sasquatches, and for us to have any real expectation of seeing one of those sasquatches during our four days in the Chuskas we would have had to see at least 68 bears. We didn't see any bears, (we saw one fresh track and one bear dropping). And if the North American sasquatch population is around 1000, we would have needed to see about 685 bears before having a statistical chance of seeing a sasquatch. The same reasoning applies to finding the tracks of the two animals.

With one bear track find we fell well short of the effort required to find a sasquatch track. Because we failed to find a black bear it does not mean that bears were not there. Well, no, in fact there were about 300 of them around us somewhere. That is true no matter how we feel about having been there snooping all around for four days without seeing one. And it may also be true that there were sasquatches there when we were. There could have been 300 of them, for all we know.

The assumption of this statistical argument is that sasquatches in North America are distributed evenly throughout black bear range. In fact they may be distributed over a smaller (or larger) area than what bears occupy. In addition, sasquatches are probably not evenly distributed across their range -- they almost certainly are not. Sighting records have long indicated greater densities of sasquatches in the Pacific Northwest, Ohio, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida, to name a few. The statistics in these areas should be less discouraging (and more discouraging in other places). However, sasquatches may be more careful than bears about letting themselves be seen. And indications are that sasquatches move about primarily at night (Krantz, Bigfoot / Sasquatch Evidence). So the number of bear sightings actually required to have a statistical chance at seeing a sasquatch may be significantly higher.

With such daunting odds, what can we do to succeed in finding evidence of sasquatches? The likelihood of finding any sasquatch sign just by happening onto it, as the statistics indicate and as borne out by the experiences of many, is dismally low. Although being out in wild country is in itself rewarding, it seems to be a poor way to spend our "sasquatch search resources." While the use of baits, even novel ones such as pheromone, may greatly improve the odds of success, it may not be enough since the odds are so poor to begin with. Finding promising attractants has not so much been the problem -- there are a lot of good ideas for those. The "trap" component of a baited set is the difficulty.

We relied mainly upon the good tracking ground the Chuskas offered as our trap, and finding a track would have been tremendously rewarding for us, but, beyond that, it would have had little value. Trail cameras seem good, but they are expensive. And what kind of picture would one have to take in order for it to be convincing as proof of sasquatches' existence? Probably no still picture could do that (I can think of a movie that could not). A body would be nice (that's not news) but short of that, the only evidence that cannot be faked is DNA. A trap that captures a bit of the animal (DNA) drawn in by an attractant is needed. It has to be cheap and easy enough to make that dozens -- hundreds can be set out. Possibly, if trail cameras become cheaper and better they could be used in combination with "DNA traps."? A photograph of an "alleged" sasquatch along with a unique DNA finding would be powerful evidence.

Closing words

Always bring your compass when you go out in the dark and a flashlight so you can see it. Consider the possibility that sasquatches like nutmeg. Never store pheromone chips near your tent. The opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors and are not necessarily held by others in the BFRO.


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