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Media Article # 437

Saturday, January 1, 2005

The Sasquatch Files

By Sheri Radford
“Where” Magazine, Vancouver Edition

The truth is out there—and local cryptozoologists claim to know what it is

British Columbians are an environmentally conscious bunch—“tree-hugging hippies,” according to less-than-kind critics. We started Greenpeace, lobbied to save the marmot and have a reputation as sandal-wearing vegetarians: we’re protecting whales, rodents and farm animals. What’s next—save the sasquatch?

It’s not that far-fetched. Human settlement is spreading into the nether regions of the province and encroaching on the habitat of cougars, bears, and—some claim—sasquatch. We’re endangering the mythical beast, which is still spotted more than 400 times a year, often in areas recently cleared for development. Bigfoot sightings are most frequent in Harrison Hot Springs, 125 kilometres east of Vancouver, but the creatures and their huge footprints have also been reported as close as North Vancouver, West Vancouver, Coquitlam, Delta and Squamish, as well as all over Vancouver Island.

Much debate arises over what the sasquatch is. Some believe it’s a member of the great ape family, perhaps a Gigantopithecus, long presumed extinct. It might be a descendant of Tibetan yeti (“Abominable Snowmen”) that crossed the Bering Land Bridge to North America several millennia ago and decided to stay and soak up the West Coast sunshine. Sceptics dismiss the creature as a hoax, the product of gullible witnesses and pranksters in gorilla suits. Regardless, First Nations tribes from Alaska to California have legends dating back centuries that describe ape-like creatures and “wild men of the woods.” The name “sasquatch” is derived from a Native word meaning “hairy giants.” The Chehalis people even use a stylized sasquatch image as their symbol.

If the whole thing is a hoax, then the jokers are uniform in their methods. Startled campers and spooked lumberjacks give strikingly similar descriptions of hairy, human like creatures at least two metres (seven feet) tall, walking upright, stinking like rotten eggs and emitting haunting cries. The most famous evidence is a grainy film shot in the United States in 1967 by Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin. More than one person has subsequently claimed to be the costumed actor who portrayed the creature. In the murky quest for the sasquatch, hoaxes about hoaxes are as common as actual hoaxes.

When speaking to a believer, though, it’s easy to get caught up in the fervour. They’re a zealous group, these cryptozoologists (folks who try to prove the existence of legendary animals such as the Loch Ness Monster). They write books, build websites and host conferences, exposing themselves to ridicule from non-believers whose convictions are based on tabloid headlines (“I gave birth to Bigfoot’s baby!”) and Hollywood movies such as Harry and the Hendersons or Sasquatch. They spend days schlepping through mud and brush, looking for a footprint, a clump of hair, a nest. Some have studied the creature for years without ever glimpsing it.

One such enthusiast is local author Chris Murphy, who helped organize the Sasquatch! exhibit at the Vancouver Museum and wrote its accompanying book, Meet the Sasquatch. An energetic man in his early 60s, Murphy calls British Columbia “sasquatch country, where sasquatch tromp.” His goal is “to get recognition from a respected organization such as the Smithsonian or National Geographic,” so the government will fund a proper scientific investigation. Murphy is a relative newcomer to the field of sasquatch research, having been at it a mere dozen years. His friend John Green, a respected journalist now in his 80s, has been tracking the sasquatch for half a century. Many other researchers are also elderly and hope to see conclusive proof in their lifetimes.

Perhaps the greatest mystery is not whether the sasquatch exists, but why some people become obsessed with the search. When asked about bigfoot’s allure, Ray Crowe, director of the International Bigfoot Society, replies, “The mystery, the challenge, a crack at the unknown, and studying something that nobody else knows much about. After the initial mystery is solved, then we can go on to study the living creature as Goodall would study a chimpanzee.”

Most locals, though, tend to view the sasquatch with bemused interest. We’re happy to slap its image on postage stamps and beer cans, but we rate its existence alongside Santa Claus and the Boogey-Man. Maybe we should listen to the scientists. Respected authorities such as primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall and anthropologist Dr. Daris Swindler believe in at least the possibility that the creature exists. Unfortunately, for every reputable scientist with a string of PhDs who makes a statement about the sasquatch, there are at least a dozen wackos who claim to have seen bigfoot while teleporting to a spaceship with Elvis.

It’s doubtful a sasquatch will saunter past the window of your Vancouver hotel room, but if you’re heading beyond downtown, keep an eye out for a mysterious creature in the trees at the side of the road. Could be a joker in a gorilla suit—or could be a sasquatch. Either way, tread lightly in its habitat. If the sasquatch becomes extinct, how will anyone prove it existed? 

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