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Media Article # 365

Sunday, January 26, 2003

Tracking Bigfoot

The Bryan - College Station Eagle

Eagle photo/ Stuart Villanueva
Texas A&M anthropology professor Dr. Vaughn Bryant, who was active in Bigfoot investigations throughout the 1970s, holds one of several plaster casts he has collected from other researchers.

When Washington State University professor Vaughn Bryant Jr. was offered the chance to head a new department of anthropology at Texas A&M in 1971, he had several obvious reasons to make the move.

For one thing, there was the weather. A native Texan who earned his bachelors, masters and PhD at the University of Texas, “I didn’t care for the nine months of drizzle,” he says.

Then there was the economy. Shortly after Bryant’s appointment at WSU in 1969, Congress cancelled its contract with Seattle-based plane-maker Boeing for a supersonic transport plane, and the local recession that followed had triggered budget cuts that stalled funding at public universities throughout the state.

But among the reasons to stay, there was a friendship, and a hobby attached to it. Fellow anthropology professor Grover Krantz had been hired a year before Bryant, and was also a newcomer to Washington. But Krantz had a very particular reason for being there.

“Fortunately, because he had tenure, they couldn’t fire him,” Bryant said from his office in A&M’s anthropology building in a recent interview. Behind him, in the top drawer of a metal file cabinet, are most of the remnants — clutter, now — of Bryant’s own participation in Krantz’s quest. There’s a 45-rpm record with a grizzled portrait promising “Bigfoot Sounds Off!” and still photographs taken from the famous 1967 “Patterson film,” which shows a mysterious creature — or a man in a monkey suit — striding through a clearing in the northern Californian woods. More photographs, a manilla sample envelope that once contained hair (sent off to a specialist, and never returned), drawings, mimeographs, letters. During Bryant’s brief tenure at WSU he often spent weekends with Krantz, examining and casting footprints, interviewed small-town residents who reported Bigfoot sightings, and tromping through the Cascades in search of the elusive Sasquatch.

“Quite honestly, when I first got involved in this, I thought it would be great because I could debunk this thing. This was something that had been catching a lot of news, they were making Hollywood movies on it and TV specials and I thought it was just a bunch of crap,” Bryant said. “But the more time I spent with Dr. Krantz, going out and talking with people and looking at the actual sites of the sightings, the more I became convinced that although some of them were definitely fake and some of the people we talked to certainly didn’t have very plausible stories, some of them did have stories it was difficult to explain away, and certainly some of the footprints that we saw were difficult to explain away. Krantz pointed out in several of the casts that you would have to be an orthopedic surgeon in order to fake them.”

Drawing on his specialty, Bryant offered to examine any unidentified fecal material or coprolites (the same, in fossil form) found around a site — if not to identify the animal, then at least to determine what the animal in question had been eating. When he moved to A&M, word got around, and before he knew it, he was driving around central Texas interviewing area residents who claimed to have seen “a Bigfoot.”

“After about 10 years, I withdrew from it a little bit because I didn’t want to get a reputation as a lunatic,” Bryant said. “At Washington State, Grover always felt that his promotion had been delayed, that pay raises had been delayed, mainly because they thought he was a crackpot. To his benefit, he also wrote some very scholarly books and did scholarly research on human skeletal material which was as good as anybody else’s. That is, he was a respected scientist who did scientific work. The fact that he was open-minded enough to try to search for Bigfoot is really to his credit, but it did have real consequences.”

At the peak of interest in Bigfoot hunting in the 1960s, there were likely never more than a few dozen people roaming the woods in search of Bigfoot. What has been lost since then — for which Grover Krantz and others who unreservedly declared their belief paid a steep, if incalculable price — is a good deal of public credulity, due in part to the compulsive hoaxes of the man who started it all, Ray Wallace.

Ray Wallace made his living, and a good one, in construction. Logging companies were chomping at the bit for access to the forests of northern California, and before the loggers came the roads. Ray Wallace built the roads, as well as part of Highway 1, the coastal thoroughfare that snakes from north of San Francisco south past Los Angeles to the end of Interstate 5. In 1958, a bulldozer operator on one of Wallace’s road crews in found some giant footprints at a site in Bluff Creek, California the previous day. He decided to make a plaster cast of one, and took it to The Humboldt Times in Eureka. Someone — various accounts compete for credit — dubbed the creature “Bigfoot,” and he and his giant footprint were picked up that night by the Associated Press.

Shortly after Wallace died last November at the age of 84, his son Michael admitted to The Seattle Times that the footprints had been a hoax.

“The reality is, Bigfoot just died,” Michael Wallace said. He showed reporters the carved wooden feet his father had used to make Bigfoot’s tracks, and said his mother “admitted she had been photographed in a Bigfoot suit.”

As reported in the Dec. 5 story, it seemed clear that the new revelations seriously discredited the search, if not completely debunking it. But ask any committed Bigfoot researcher about him, and they’ll tell you that Wallace had long ago discredited himself in the eyes of fellow seekers, even before it was known that he had falsified footprints. The lingering problem — and one they rarely have much to say about — is the inescapable fact that, whatever their evidence, experience and instincts suggest, the prank started it all.

After the first tracks were found at Bluff Creek, more tracks continued to appear in the area, and researchers began to arrive. Texas millionaire Tom Slick, who spent much of his time in search of undiscovered species, withdrew his yeti-hunters from Tibet, among them Peter Byrne, British founder of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and dispatched them to Humboldt County in 1960.

Byrne later wrote of his experiences dealing with Wallace when the contractor claimed to have captured a live young Bigfoot and demanded $1 million for it, sight unseen. After protracted negotiations between Wallace and Slick with Byrne as intermediary, Byrne notes dryly in The Search for Bigfoot...Monster, Myth or Man?, “as I rather expected, the thing got sick. It weakened. It was near death, and rather than let it die, they decided to let it go.”

As real scientists moved in and began finding other footprints and Bigfoot sightings began to proliferate, Wallace struggled to remain in the limelight, making increasingly comical claims that left the real science in the dust. While others were debating foot morphology and dermal impressions, Wallace casually reported in 1969 that he saw ‘Big Foot’ “almost every morning on the way to work. … I used to sit in my pickup and toss apples out of the window to him. He never did catch an apple but he sure tried. Then he ate the apples and I would have my movie camera clipping off more footage of him.”

Suffice to say that the Dec. 5 Seattle Times story was less of a shock to those who’d kept up with the “real” research — recording sightings, casting footprints, examining hair samples and coprolites — than to casual skeptics or to the many scientists who, in disbelief or professional self-defense, declined to examine footprints or other evidence.

But Wallace himself was building his hoax from a legend that had developed through scattered sightings stretching back into the 19th century. Bryant and others also posit a link between the creature reported in the Cascades (as well as around the country, though sightings far afield of the Pacific Northwest are often dismissed even by believers) and the yeti, which, the argument goes, could have migrated across the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age.

“The biggest and most telling thing that most skeptics point to is, ‘Well, if there is such a thing, then how come we haven’t got one? Why don’t we have a skeleton in a museum, or a pelt or something?’” Bryant said. “The believers would say the following: In the Pacific Northwest woods, calcium is in very low supply. Even though deer and elk and moose shed their antlers, you never see antlers in the forest. ... The reason is that the little animals that live in the forest — primarily mice and martens and stuff like that — chew on antlers and bones immediately, because that’s where they get their calcium supply. The second thing is in the Pacific Northwest you have a lot of moss. It’s a rain forest. And the moss covers everything, even downed trees get covered in moss very quickly.”

Additionally, Bryant pointed out, “finds” are often what you make of them. The first Neanderthal skull was found in Gibraltar, he said, by a British soldier who sent it to the British Museum, where it was declared a morphological freak and filed away somewhere. “It stayed there for 25 or 30 years until they finally found another one,” Bryant said. “Grover’s point was, there may be some bones or weird stuff that people have taken and given to museums, and they’ve got it in a box somewhere filed away in some cabinet with a note on it that says, ‘Who knows what this is.’”

Bryant has sent several hair samples to specialists over the years. On one occasion, the colleague concluded that “it was probably a primate hair, but not any primate he’d ever seen,” Bryant said. “But he wasn’t willing to call up The New York Times and say this.”

While Bryant is enthusiastic about the continuing search, he has plenty of other interests — the history of kissing, the study of prehistoric diets — to keep him from the fray.

“I got quoted a couple times [on Bigfoot] in The Eagle and The Battalion, there were a couple articles in The Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News, and I began to realize after a while, that if I made this a career, I could end up kind of like Grover, being thought of as a nut,” Bryant said. “And I’d rather be remembered as a scholar than as a nut.”

And there are plenty of nuts in the mix. One of Bryant’s favorite “sightings” stories involves a woman who lived in a trailer in the woods outside Vidor who complained that a Bigfoot kept showing up at her home. After driving out to Vidor and conducting a lengthy interview, the anecdote ends with the woman saying, “You know another thing, that animal wears the dirtiest pair of blue jeans I have ever seen!” He enjoys telling it, and retelling it, because it highlights the frustrations of attempting to do scholarly research on a potentially sensational subject.

But scholarly skepticism aside, the question remains: Does he believe there is such a creature?

“Let me put it this way: The fact that Wallace went public certainly did not dissuade me. But if you ask me if Bigfoot really exists, I’ll tell you what I tell everybody: I’m not convinced that Bigfoot exists, but I’m also not convinced that Bigfoot does not exist. My feeling is, where there’s that much smoke, there’s gotta be fire. And there’s a lot of smoke.”

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