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Thursday, October 31, 2002

Bigfoot's indelible imprint

By Marco R. della Cava
USA Tday

10/31/2002 - Updated 08:06 PM ET

Bigfoot's indelible imprint

By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY

IN THE SISKIYOU MOUNTAINS, Ore. — There are times in life when we must summon every shred of courage to stand tall and unflinching in the face of fear. This is not one of them. It is 2 a.m., and outside a flimsy tent lit by a full moon something stirs in this primeval forest.

A 1977 still photo allegedly shows Big Foot in the hills of northern California.

Crack! goes the twig. "Deer, right?" asks a visitor, who is about to tick away the nerve-wracking night one snap, crackle and pop at a time until dawn breaks with a harrowing howl.

"Nah," replies local Matthew Johnson, sliding a hand onto his .44 Magnum. "That wasn't a twig; it was a thick branch. Whatever's out there is bigger. Much bigger."

Bigger as in Yeti and Sasquatch.

Bigger as in Bigfoot.

That's right, the hairy, smelly lunk is still with us. Pick any name you want — Asian, Native American or tabloid — he hasn't changed from the 10-foot-tall, half-ton, mannish ape whose star turn in a 1967 home movie launched thousands of sightings.

Make no mistake. Bigfoot and his kin remain part of a freaky family of Charlie's Angels-era fads (think poltergeists and UFOs), and the scientific community at large remains amused. But the faithful hope Bigfoot may yet make a monkey out of non-believers. For decades now, a small but loyal legion of Bigfoot hunters has spent countless weekends prowling forests in nearly every state, piling up evidence such as alleged footprints and hair samples that now has a handful of animal experts willing to at least entertain the possibility of his existence.

"I've gone from being a raving skeptic to being curiously receptive," says Robert Benson, director of the Center for Bioacoustics at Texas A&M. He appears in a new documentary, Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science, critiquing taped Bigfoot calls. While many of those recordings "could be human" (i.e. hoaxes), others left him puzzled.

In Sasquatch, which airs in January on Discovery, a small cadre of scientists pore over audio, video and the Holy Grail of molds called the Skookum Cast, a plaster impression taken in 2000 from a muddy Mount St. Helens meadow that purports to capture a Bigfoot sitting on his oversized derriιre.

Sasquatch producer Doug Hajicek is mum on the film's "important revelations" but is confident viewers will tune in. "I'll tell you why this fascinates people," he says "We're the only bipeds (animals who walk on two feet) here. Imagine the primordial fear a competing biped species produces."

Spare me, says Russ Tuttle, professor of evolutionary morphology at the University of Chicago.

"I could be interested, but first get me a skeleton or maybe a Bigfoot trapped in my basement," Tuttle says, echoing the prime criticism of Bigfoot skeptics — habeas corpus, produce the body. "It's interesting that something allegedly that large has never been found."

The same issue concerns the Wildlife Conservation Society's Alan Rabinowitz, an Indiana Jones figure in the world of animal anthropology. "It is very rare, once you've been told about an animal and its habits, to then never find anything tangible," he says.

But the mere possibility of an elusive ape-like creature has an almost primal allure, as evidenced in the hundreds of reports filed each year with the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. That he's been spotted in almost every corner of the USA makes Bigfoot rival Elvis in terms of sightings, but that doesn't bother the committed.

"He's out there," says Johnson, a clinical psychologist in Grants Pass, a town about an hour northeast of his Bigfoot stomping grounds.

Johnson had no interest in finding the beast until the beast found him. He spied his personal Moby Dick while on a family hike two summers ago and was reduced to tears by its size — impressive considering that Johnson is 6-foot-9, weighs 250 pounds and wears size 16 shoes. Now he's leader of the Southern Oregon Bigfoot Society, a ragtag but dedicated assemblage of sleuths who typify the breed.

"Once you hear him scream at you, you're hooked," he says. "Some people play sports or fish. Others, well, we go Bigfootin'."

Just call him 'sesqec'

Bigfoot's legend dates back to the earliest campfire gatherings.

Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest had stories about encounters with sesqec, from which the term Sasquatch emerged, and the pioneers had their own run-ins with the woolly misfit.

But what really launched Bigfoot into a Loch Ness Monster orbit was the amateur film shot in northern California by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin. The upright beast with gorilla looks and human gait loped past their lens; for maximum spook, the creature — dubbed Patty — glared at the camera. The hunt was on.

As age has crept up on the folks who made Bigfoot the stuff of pop legend more than 30 years ago, their passion has been passed on to next-generation faithful like Jeff Meldrum, associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University.

Once a skeptic, Meldrum was in Washington state in 1996 when he saw dozens of footprints and "felt the hair stand up on my neck." Today, he oversees an extensive collection of footprint casts amassed by the late Grover Krantz, anthropology professor at Washington State University and author of Big Footprints: A Scientific Inquiry into the Reality of Sasquatch. Meldrum's analysis of the trove: The feet are variations on a human theme.

"I hope we're at a turning point," says Meldrum, who notes that his university presentations on Bigfoot no longer receive sideshow status. "Now I see a different reaction. Maybe it's tougher to say all these sightings are hoaxes than to consider that something is out there."

Or, as believers argue, could so many be so loony?

"Think about it: If illusion alone could generate such devotion, you'd have a Unicorn Society and a Leprechaun Society. But you don't," says Matthew Moneymaker, founder in 1995 of the Orange County, Calif.-based Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, which boasts 100 "researchers" and whose Webby Award-winning site gets 300,000 hits a week.

"Bring in top scientists and we'll solve it," Moneymaker insists. "It's tough. Go try and find it. The creatures are rare, the forests are thick, and the night is dark."

Town hints at mystery

Grants Pass is a bucolic town ringed by wooded hills. It's perfect, in a Stephen King way.

There are hints that something otherworldly may dwell in the hills: The town is near the valley of a river called the Rogue, and a club-wielding brute, the Caveman, is the high school's mascot.

Matt Johnson, 40, loves it here. A longtime resident of Alaska — where he was a standout basketball player — he and wife Rochelle, 43, and their kids Levi, 11, Hannah, 9, and Micah, 7, moved to get away from endless winters.

During one of their first hikes, out near the Oregon Caves, the family noticed a smell that made a skunk's offering seem tame.

When Johnson stepped away to relieve himself, he caught sight of a gigantic hairy creature across a clearing. It was staring at his family.

"I froze, but finally my instincts kicked in. I raced over to my wife and kids, and without looking back, we got out of there," he says.

Only Johnson saw the creature. He debated reporting the incident, then opened up to park officials. His family now passes on day hikes.

"I used to feel safe, because, you know, Dad was normally the biggest thing in the forest," says Levi. "Now, I'm not sure."

Johnson is determined to find out what lurks in these forests. He's already dedicated dozens of weekends and "thousands of dollars in bait and other equipment," and laughs when people suggest he's in this for the publicity.

"Oh, sure," he sighs. "Come see the therapist who saw Bigfoot. That's great for business."

At nightfall at least once each month, he hops in his Bigfoot hunting vehicle — a 1995 baby blue Cadillac Sedan DeVille — and escorts the dedicated and the curious into the Siskiyou Mountains.

This night, as with every trip, he brings bags of bananas, watermelon and pastries as lures, a tent and sleeping bag, and his .44 — to protect against bear or cougar, not Bigfoot. ("We don't want it harmed," he says emphatically.)

At the campsite, he checks on a deer camera nailed to a tree on a previous outing, which is set to shoot if anything passes by. So far, the camera's shutter hasn't fired.

As the moon rises, he knocks on rocks (no response), blasts classical music (no fans) and checks the bait piles (no takers).

Johnson is an unfailingly polite and openly religious man. And yet he decides to spin tales just before turning in about another Bigfoot hunter who let his dog race off to the woods, only to find him dismembered in the morning. As bedtime stories go, it's a downer.

The twig-snapping night is interminable; sunrise is a gift.

And just as the coffee is brewing, it happens. From up a winding fire road come sounds: the high-pitched chatter of a chimp, suddenly intercut by the low groan of a scream in slow motion.

Ears prick up. Breathing becomes optional. For 15 seconds, this unearthly racket floods the camp. Then it vanishes. Other than humans, most animals known to man are incapable of such broad sound ranges. Bigfoot or not, something odd has spoken.

"Hmm, not a bear, not a cougar," says Johnson. "You ever hear anything like that before?"

Johnson's visitor, suddenly busy taking down the tent, offers to discuss his myriad theories in town.

The tall man in search of an even taller thing smiles and pops open the Caddy's trunk.

"You have to admit," he says. "This sure beats golfing."

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