Why I Can’t Get Enough of the Sasquatch Mystery, What It Reveals about the Human Condition, and Why I Believe
* * *
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
–Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5
On September 24, 2011, about 30 minutes until dark, I wheeled into the Double Lake Recreation Area inside Sam Houston National Forest in East Texas. My 9-year-old son and I were about to head out and camp on the Lone Star Hiking Trail when the park host stopped us to explain that there was no camping out on the trail because of the extreme drought and a burn ban that was in effect. Then we heard it.
It sounded like a very loud, whooping howl, echoing across the dry lake bed from a half mile or so to the east. I looked at Andrew and smiled. I didn’t want to lead the park host, so I asked innocently but incredulously, “What’s that?!”
“Probably a coyote,” he responded.
I’ve heard plenty of coyotes, and whatever this was, it wasn’t a coyote, as their typical call is at least an octave higher. Neither was it a wolf, which, if it were, would be just about as notable as a cryptid. Neither do I think it was an owl; one can easily tell the difference between a soft sound made at close range and a very loud sound made at a very great distance, and this was the latter. I didn’t argue with him, but simply looked down at Andrew and raised my eyebrows. Andrew returned a smile, a mix of authentic wonder and amusement. We both knew what the other was thinking.
I can’t say that what we heard that afternoon in the failing light of an East Texas forest was a sasquatch, but I can and do say that it might have been.
Andrew and I were on the same wavelength because we’d spent a fair amount of time over the previous couple of months discussing the sasquatch mystery, prompted by the premier season of a cable series devoted to the subject and my discovery of surprisingly large online collections of alleged photos and videos of the creatures.
I knew from research that, however unlikely it was, this was a place where a sasquatch could be. Unlike our home four hours west in Central Texas, which has no woodlands contiguous with the rest of North America’s forests, we were now in country that was at least sasquatch-plausible. San Jacinto County alone has seven encounters on record since 1996, the latest occurring in this national forest in 2008. Add the sightings from the five surrounding counties (Montgomery, Liberty, Polk, Trinity, and Walker), and the number climbs to an even 50.
In the days afterward, I emailed the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy and the national Bigfoot Field Research Organization asking if they knew of anyone doing research in the area that night, perhaps using a technique known as “call blasting,” playing reputed bigfoot howls over an amplifier in hopes of getting a response. The last thing enthusiasts need is to be reporting each other’s calls like Keystone Cops. I never got an answer, so it remains an intriguing mystery.
I was born in 1967, the very year the sasquatch transitioned from persistent legend to pop-culture phenomenon with the capture on 16-millimeter film of an alleged specimen walking in full view along Bluff Creek in far northwestern California by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin. So, along with all other members of my generation, I grew up in tandem with the spread of the legend.
The awareness starts as a familiarity with a campy stock character in commercials, the Six Million Dollar Man’s boulder-heaving nemesis, or the subject of patently ridiculous tabloid headlines. Most dismiss it with a chuckle and a shake of the head, the doings of bored hillbillies or transparent self-promoters, and it ends there. But for me, my curiosity about the fringes of our world has always been stronger than my need to cut the fringes off and throw them away.
In my early 30s, for no particular reason I can remember, the subject bubbled up in my consciousness, and I realized that there were rich themes in this mystery that had never been mined in serious literature. Rushing to fill that void, I wrote a novella called simply Sasquatch. I never published the book, and neither did anyone else. But there was one lasting effect of my having written it, which was that the research I did during the writing made me a solid believer.
Once I began looking into the subject in a sustained way, it quickly became clear that something was going on here that was much more than just pop-culture shtick. What closed the deal for me was a book titled Big Footprints by Grover Krantz, an anthropologist at Washington State University who was virtually the only academic researcher at the time willing to investigate the mystery. I was deeply moved by the enormous courage Dr. Krantz showed, standing staunch against attacks and ridicule from throughout the academic world and insisting that this was a legitimate field of inquiry.
And I began to realize that the themes pervading the sasquatch mystery cut right to the heart of the human condition and, what’s more, in their own quirky way echoed all the great themes of humanity’s experience with spirituality: faith and nonbelief, evidence versus proof, the ridicule of cynics, hoaxes and frauds, lazy skepticism versus earnest investigation, taboos, and a circle of willful ignorance.
Just as Noah, in following his convictions, made himself an easy target for the laughter and scorn of his neighbors, Krantz — complete with flowing white beard — laid himself open to ridicule of scientific colleagues by asking questions — starting with “What made these footprints?” — and following the answers wherever they led. As I read his work and that of others, it occurred to me that future historians might well regard him as a Galileo of our day. His flinty indifference to fellow academics, caviling against him from the safety of their narrow, well-worn specialties and catered symposia, was inspiring.
For many years, I’ve thought about dusting off the manuscript of Sasquatch and making another run at it. I’m a better writer now, I know more about the subject, and I could spin a more compelling tale. But something has kept me from it, and I think ultimately it is this — that any fictional treatment of this subject at this point in history only serves to feed the perception that the subject itself is fictional.
And yet I’m drawn to write about it all the same, and so I offer these thoughts on the nature of the mystery, the state of the collective investigation, and what it all says about us.
I Know How Crazy It Sounds
Any serious discussion of the existence of the sasquatch has to begin with an acknowledgement of the difficulties, which are chiefly these: how is it possible that modern science has named 400,000 beetles and yet has not recognized and named a species that by all reports is larger than ourselves, sometimes much larger, and that is orders of magnitude closer to humans than anything else on the tree of life? How is it possible that we not only have not captured one, but have not found a body, or part of a body?
As a species, we have utterly dominated the planet, infiltrating every nook and cranny of wilderness, heaven knows to a fault. The odds against us not having obtained proof of such a spectacular creature seem simply too great. It seems too fantastic. Therefore, it must all simply be a matter of hoaxes, misidentifications, and hallucinations. It can’t be, therefore, it isn’t.
The short answer to why science hasn’t discovered and catalogued the sasquatch yet is that science isn’t looking. At the center of the sasquatch mystery, we find a circle of ignorance: Scientists refuse to investigate the phenomenon because it hasn’t been established by science. And it hasn’t been established by science because scientists refuse to investigate it. Imagine if all science proceeded on the premise that scientists only studied things that were already established by their peers.
This self-reinforcing circle of ignorance is quite astonishing when fully appreciated and shows up just how full of human frailty the scientific establishment is. Despite science’s claims of rationality and impartiality, this phenomenon demonstrates how laden it is with selective open-mindedness, cowardice and timidity, careerism and personal ambition, and even intimidation. Far from simply asking bold and earnest questions — What made these footprints? What’s on that piece of film? — with few exceptions, we find satisfaction with burnishing one’s career by tiny increments in impossibly narrow specializations. By refusing to study this subject in any sustained impartial way, indeed, in threatening to revoke the tenure of those who show an interest in it and shunning it as taboo, the scientific establishment has deeply betrayed its own principles and demonstrated all the backward dogma of the Medieval church: “It isn’t because it can’t be.”
Who is “We”?
To the question, “How is it possible that we have not found a body…” it also is necessary to define “we.” There are several accounts of bodies being found. In one case, a creature was reportedly hit on a highway. Local police, not knowing how to report something that is not supposed to exist, cordoned off the area and called a higher authority, the state, who, facing the same dilemma, in turn called the National Guard. The subject was hauled away in an unmarked van, never to be reported or officially acknowledged.
Another account tells of a live subject who, dazed and injured, wandered out of a Nevada forest fire and, finding himself surrounded by firefighters and EMS, simply “surrendered.” He sat before them and reportedly even allowed himself to be cared for before he was eventually taken away in vehicle without official report.
These accounts are, by definition, hearsay, but they have a ring of plausibility. It doesn’t require a widespread conspiracy theory to imagine that when government officials suddenly face an unprecedented and sure-to-be-sensational situation, they would opt simply to make it quietly go away, “unmarked van” style, rather than risk being swept up in a media circus with which they forever would be associated.
Some tell of bigfoot killings, in which the shooter remained anonymous out of fear of prosecution. Other accounts tell of 8-foot skeletons once discovered in a Kentucky cave, only to disappear into private hands.
Still others tell of lumberjacks being given a gag order by their higher-ups to not discuss what they see or find for fear that confirming the existence of bigfoots would create a nightmare of new forestry regulation for the timber industry (see “spotted owl”).
In defining the “we” in “Why haven’t we found one?” there is much anecdotal evidence that some of us have. And while many people are motivated to find and document them, others are just as motivated to keep their existence apocryphal for a range of reasons — fear of ridicule, fear of career damage, fear of regulation, fear of prosecution, fear of inciting hunting mobs or mob tourism, and the reflexive denial of government officials who assume common citizens couldn’t handle the truth.
The War for Occam’s Razor
Like all mysteries, the debate over the existence of the sasquatch is at its core a battle for Occam’s Razor. Named for Medieval English friar William of Ockham and also known as the law of parsimony, economy, or succinctness, Occam’s Razor is a principle that recommends selecting from among competing hypotheses the one that makes the fewest new assumptions. (The “razor” is what shaves away unnecessarily complicated parts of a theory or what separates one theory from another.)
Let’s list the competing sets of assumptions quickly …
Assumptions on the side of existence:
1. That humans have not classified/discovered every remarkable animal on earth. This is manifestly true. The point has been made many times that no less a zoological superstar than the mountain gorilla was only “discovered” in 1902. Indeed, more than 20 primates have been discovered since 1990. Even megafauna are discovered on a fairly regular basis.
2. That humans are not presently capable of dominating the vast wilderness areas of the northern hemisphere (they appear to exist in Eurasia as well) so completely as to rule out the existence of a smart, reclusive creature with vastly superior wilderness adaptations.
3. That an animal that was …
- mostly nocturnal
- supremely well adapted to forest living
- possessed highly effective forest camouflage as well as hiding and evasive instincts, and
- second in intelligence only to ourselves
… could not evade us except for a few dozen instances a year.
Assumptions necessary to deny existence:
1. That every single one of the thousands of sightings (some claim 3,000, others 30,000) on record is a case of a. mistaken identity, b. hoax, or c. hallucination.
2. That these hoaxes, hallucinations, and misidentifications have been taking place across the northern hemisphere for hundreds of years.
3. That First Nations people are in on the joke and have been for centuries, or else that they, who culturally are far more experienced in the American wilderness than late-coming white settlers, are not capable of telling the difference between a large primate that walks on two legs and other common animals of the forest.
4. That people in 49 states have concocted hoaxes that include photographs, casted footprints, and video that are sophisticated enough to agree on a large number of subtle physiological and behavioral traits and are sophisticated enough to fabricate DNA and hair samples that are non-human but primate.
Which scenario does Occam’s Razor favor?
For me and for other believers, it favors existence. In short, as hard as it may be to believe, it is easier to believe that there is a large but extremely reclusive primate living on this continent than to believe that, say, 15,000 people from all walks of life, including people like practicing psychologists and active-duty police officers with nothing to gain and everything to lose by reporting such a thing, are either wildly misidentifying bears or recruiting NBA players to travel into incredibly remote areas of North America and parade around in ape costumes through rough terrain.
Hoaxes have occurred, and many misidentifications too. But ultimately, nonbelief impugns too many credible, corroborating witnesses. While there still is no proof, the mass of circumstantial evidence has simply grown too great. Put another way, the simplistic nature of the dismissals is not a match for the sophistication and volume of the evidence.
Seekers, Believers, and Nonbelievers: A Typology
In my experience, believers, agnostics, and nonbelievers come in a variety of flavors, six to be precise: three kinds of believers, two kinds of nonbelievers, and one category I will call the Seeker.
1. The Seeker is at the beginning of her investigation. She is open-minded, which means that she asks sincere questions and, being sufficiently detached from preconceived notions and committed to the truth, is willing to follow the answers to those questions wherever they lead. As she is at the beginning of her journey she is, of course, not yet committed to belief or disbelief. She exercises “healthy skepticism” but is not only willing to be convinced but willing to put effort into her own independent investigation.
2. The Rational Believer has seen or learned enough to be convinced, believes in their existence but continues to honor Occam’s Razor by looking to explain various situations first by ordinary means before resorting to the extraordinary: It’s a bear track until there’s no way it’s a bear track. It’s a coyote until there’s no way it could be a coyote.
3. The Knower is a subset of the Believer category, but he often eschews the term “belief” as insufficient. He does not need belief because he has encountered the creature first-hand in an unambiguous way. Full-time investigator James Fay, who claims having encountered a sasquatch of approximately ten feet, introduces himself by saying, “I’m not a believer; I’m a knower.”
4. In contrast to the Rational Believer, the Runaway Believer becomes so zealous and intoxicated by belief that anything and everything not immediately explained by something else obvious is a bigfoot. The sasquatch is everywhere and responsible for every broken tree limb, every carcass, every ambiguous impression in the mud.
5. The Skeptic simply says “show me.” His chief vice is laziness. The Skeptic, in my typology, prides himself on maintaining a sort of cynical pose and so, unlike the Seeker, he will not raise a finger to investigate a matter sincerely for himself. Rather he leaves the matter of investigation entirely to others, and the Believer must overwhelm him with iron-clad proof before he will be moved. But at least he can be converted if that overwhelming proof is indeed provided.
6. Denialists generally refuse to examine evidence at all. They group it with all other outrageous claims or forms of mythology: “I don’t spend my time investigating the reality of unicorns, the Easter Bunny, or Elvis, either.” When compelling evidence is thrust in front of their faces, they eschew Occam’s Razor and, in order to explain away a phenomenon they cannot make peace with, reach for explanations that are more outrageous than an extraordinary reality. They are the “irrational skeptics.”
For Denialists, no amount of photographic, video, or audio evidence, and no supporting evidence such as footprints, scat, hair, or the like, even in the aggregate, is sufficient proof. They cannot distinguish between the extraordinary and the impossible.
And yet, the telling detail is how this same group accepts, without any critical examination, outlandish explanations designed to dismiss the phenomenon. A costume artist claimed to have been hired to dress up in a suit for the famous Patterson-Gimlin Bluff Creek film. And to the Skeptic, it’s case closed, without any critical look at whether his claim squares with the evidence on screen — whether even a state-of-the-art costume in 1967 could achieve the effect of biologically realistic muscle groups flexing and bulging under the surface of the skin, whether such a costume could achieve the odd limb-to-torso ratio seen in the film, with knees and elbows bending at points impossible for any normal man, and whether the man claiming the hoax in such a costume could achieve the height of the creature, which has been established by multiple methods at well more than seven feet.
Likewise, Ray Wallace claimed to have commissioned some wooden feet and faked prints over a period of a years, and for the Skeptic and Denialist, that’s good enough to explain away all footprints everywhere. “Case closed!” the news anchors proclaimed. Never mind the appearance of the creatures over the entire North American continent since well before European contact. And does it matter to skeptics that the wooden feet don’t match any of the footprints that have been cast or photographed, let alone all of them?
This willingness to accept lame theories that supposedly explain away a persistent phenomenon (all UFOs are ball lightning or swamp gas) without real examination can only be explained as the result of three forces that are strong in the human condition and reveal themselves when humanity is challenged by either supernatural or preternatural experience: ignorance, arrogance, and fear. The circle of ignorance has already been described. Arrogance is manifested in the general assumption that our knowledge of the world around us is surely complete, that we are so clever and in control of our world that we are no longer capable of being surprised or astonished.
The fear is a subconscious misgiving that that arrogance might be unfounded. It is the fear that we humans are not the only game in town. The fear that if such a thing as the sasquatch were real, it would force a profound reexamination of just who we are in the cosmos, and how we should treat a creature that is not quite us (human) but perhaps not quite them (animal).
Another hallmark of the Denialist is his shifting criteria of proof. The Denialist asks, “Why are there no clear photos of a sasquatch?” Show him a clear photo and he says, “This is obviously a hoax?” Ask him why it is a hoax and he says, “It’s too clear. Only a hoax would be this clear.” Show him something less clear and he says, “Well this could be anything!” Whether consciously or subconsciously, he concocts criteria that can never be satisfied.
Tall, Dark, and Not So Handsome (What Are They?)
It would be easier to dismiss the phenomenon if descriptions of the sasquatch were all over the board. But the consistency of the sighting record on subtle physiological points, and the convergence of evidence from film, video, photos, audio, and tracks supporting those reports paints an ever more consistent picture of what we’re dealing with. It is neither Harry of Hendersons fame, nor the pissed-off monster of the Jack Links beef jerky commercials.
Among sasquatches, as among humans, there appears to be both conformity and individuality, and, we might conclude from the consistent reports of subtypes, some differentiation of breed/ethnicity, if not a differentiation of more than one cryptic species.
For a creature yet to be described by science, we have come to a remarkably comprehensive description based on thousands of witnesses and hundreds of pieces of photo, video, and track evidence. This is the picture that is emerging:
The sasquatch is, of course, a primate, and therefore not surprisingly exhibits classic primate physical and social characteristics. With the exception of their size, they appear to exist midway between ourselves and the great apes on a spectrum, physiologically, mentally, and socially. And the more we learn about their behavior, the more likely it seems that in some regards they resemble a very primitive version of ourselves.
- A large hominid primate that walks upright but can go on all fours for greater speed. Adult females are 7-8 feet tall. Adult males are 8-10 feet.
- Their bodies are covered in hair — as opposed to fur — 3 to 4 inches long. This hair comes in all shades of human hair: black to brown (most common), auburn, blond (rare), gray (probable elderly), and white (probable albinism).
- They are characterized by huge bulk and muscle mass. Their shoulders are wider proportionately than humans’, their limbs are thicker, and their torsos appear as deep as wide. Breasts are apparent in females, external genitalia in males.
- Their faces are characterized by a heavy brow ridge with hair growing from the brow ridge or just above it all the way up the forehead. The head often appears slightly coned, probably from a combination of the shape of the skull exaggerated by the upward-and-backward growth pattern of the hair, though many report longer hair on the heads of some.
- The eyes are large, as would be expected of a primarily nocturnal creature, but are set so deeply beneath the brow ridge that they are difficult to see except from eye-shine at night. They appear without visible whites.
- Their nose is small and flat relative to ours, but like ours is hooded, not upturned like those of the apes. There is speculation that this adaptation allows them to swim, in contrast to other great apes. This feature, perhaps more than any other, probably adds to the perception of their faces as “human-like.”
- Their faces are are usually described as flat, indicating a nose that is vanishingly small in profile relative to ours, but often broad and with large nostrils.
- Their upper lip is longer than ours and has no cupid’s bow. The mouth is often described simply as a long, level slit, hard to distinguish unless open. Some report pronounced canine teeth.
- Their jaw is heavy and set slightly forward but not to the extent of the apes’ prognathism.
- Their skin is typically gray to black in color, which, for the black-haired ones, creates the effect of uniform color head-to-toe.
- At a distance the most prominent difference from humans, aside from this uniformity of color, is the length of the arms relative to the rest of the body. Whereas humans’ arms are approximately 40 percent of total height, the arms of the sasquatch are some 60 percent of height, likely both a forest and a quadrupedal adaptation. Arm length is the fastest way to separate a hoax from an authentic sighting. The relative proportions of the limbs and the torso are exceedingly hard to fake, especially on video, as the joints would have to be placed at points nearly impossible for a human in costume to make look convincing.
- When upright, the creature appears to slouch, holding its round-shouldered body at about a 15-degree angle.
- Its head often appears quite small in relation to its massive shoulders and torso, and its large trapezius muscles attaching at ear level give the appearance of no neck when viewed from the front or back.
- Like so many of its other traits, its hands appear to be transitioning from those of the great apes to our own, with a thumb that is only slightly opposable.
- The sasquatch’s feet, which first betrayed its existence to popular culture, are remarkably human in form, the big toe having migrated fully into alignment with the others as opposed to the opposable big toe of the apes. While the top of the foot is hairy, the sole is covered by a thick gray pad, the better for trampling sticks, gravel, and other rough terrain. These “Ostman’s pads” were first described by Albert Ostman, who reported having a multi-day encounter in 1924.
- However, the feet differ from humans not only in size but in their apparent internal structure. They do not have a ball and arch, but are flat and apparently have a “mid-tarsal break” that allows the back of the foot to move vertically independent of the front. This break, as well as flat-footedness, is present in other great apes. When walking in mud, this hinge results in a signature “pressure ridge,” a lateral hump across the width of the footprint created by the push-off of the forefoot after the lifting of the heel.
- Lastly, another oft-reported trait is a strong, overwhelming stench. Theories abound, but it is so universal and so strong that it seems it must be the result of a gland not unlike a skunk’s. Witnesses often smell them before they see them. Anthropologist Jeff Meldrum reports that great apes have glands in their arm pits that can likewise give off strong smells.
It is no wonder that a creature so perfectly poised between the rest of the animal kingdom and humans is unsettling to us. Many have described it as a chimera — half man, half ape, but this is only because we have apes as a reference point. The first explorer to encounter the great apes of Africa might well have described them as “half man, half monkey,” and so forth down the tree of life. It seems to simply fill a gap on that tree between apes and men, and, as such, offers fascinating insights into our own evolution, the transition from arborealism to earthbound bipedalism, communication techniques, and even the beginnings of structures.
Many tracks and sightings occur near crude structures of snapped limbs — ground nests not unlike the gorilla’s, but also lean-to’s that appear to serve as shelters. Other teepee-like stick structures appear to mark territorial boundaries or perhaps act as signposts leading the way home. They appear to use broken sticks and rocks to communicate with each other in clacks and knocks and to hurl at intruders. But they appear to have no real tools nor to use fire. This line between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom appears to remain bright. Developmentally, they appear to exist just before the dawn of culture.
Masters of Avoidance
If the sasquatch exists, then it has successfully evolved in parallel to homo sapiens, a species that has either out-competed or killed off all other competitor hominids. Therefore, by definition, its greatest evolutionary adaptation must be elusiveness itself.
The sasquatch seems to achieve this uncanny avoidance of humans in several ways.
- First and foremost, by living where humans typically don’t: in steep, mountainous terrain or in thick cover, and preferably both. They seem to understand what constitutes natural barriers to humans and put as many of those between us and them as possible while still eeking out a living. While there have been numerous sightings on the fringes of human development — rural and occasionally even suburban — the vast majority of sightings have been deep within wilderness, the classic case being along logging roads, which penetrate the deepest. I have noted that most sightings seem to be within or just outside of national forests, not surprising as they allow for that combination of maximum isolation and maximum cover. Life in the mountains and at northern latitudes would be aided partly by their hair but more so by their gigantism, which accords with established biological laws such as Bergmann’s Rule. This holds that animals, even within a type, are larger at northern latitudes than southern. Larger objects have lower surface-to-volume ratios than smaller objects even of identical shapes. The bigger the body, the better the retention of body heat, a law that surely drove similar gigantism during the Pleistocene. (Perhaps sasquatches are to humans as wooly mammoths are to elephants.)
- The second pillar of their elusiveness is achieved by hunting, foraging, and moving primarily at night; this distinction alone would be a highly effective segregator of humans and sasquatches. Many humans fancy themselves night owls, but watching late-night TV on a couch is quite different from hiking across rainy mountain passes and ambushing game at 3 a.m.
Simply living where we aren’t and being active when we’re not would account for most of the remarkable fact that our scientific institutions have never obtained a specimen. Aside from these two dominant factors, there are others that apparently veil them from us when we inevitably do cross paths:
- Camouflage. Researchers have noted how their hair coloring and texture, and even the difficulty of making out a face because of the uniformity of color, all aid in their ability to hide from us in plain sight.
- Statuism. One of the most effective hiding strategies appears to be their ability to stand, squat or sit motionless at the drop of a hat. It’s been suggested that they evolved symbiotically with trees, and much of their hiding strategy involves blending into trees and even mimicking trees, standing stock-still, their coned heads looking for all the world at fifty feet like the top of a snag. The term “tree peeking” has been coined for a sort of fluid peek-a-boo hiding behavior seen on video and in thermal night images, and several have been filmed waving fronds in front of their faces in an apparent attempt to draw the eye to the frond instead of what’s waving it.
- Arborealism. Juveniles apparently live in trees (see New York state baby video), above our normal field of vision, where their long strong arms, obvious forest adaptations, allow them the life of a gibbon. Naturally the great size for which they’re destined prevents them from staying up there past adolescence, so it’s easy to imagine a period of training whereby they’re taught the ways of effective hiding before the they reach a size that keeps them earthbound. However, adults have been reported coming down out of trees that are up for the task of supporting 600-900 pounds.
- Aquaticism. While great apes cannot swim, it’s been suggested that the sasquatch’s hooded nose, like ours, allows it to. This would open up a world of mobility not available to other great apes. They could not only traverse streams and rivers but could swim through swamps and across lakes, perhaps between islands. This ability would open up vast wild areas of Canada, for instance, where the chances for contact with humans would be vanishingly small.
Put together, all of these factors — isolation through terrain, cover, elevation, latitude, nocturnal activity, camouflage, statuism, arborealism, and aquaticism — begin to shed light on how it might be possible for a highly intelligent and very versatile creature, whose very evolution has been driven by the need to avoid detection by men, to have escaped scientific cataloguing for two centuries.
In struggling to understand how all this could be, it’s instructive to consider the biggest misconceptions about this subject.
1. That there is one creature. In 2012, a Fox News morning show hosted Cliff Barackman of the Animal Planet program Finding Bigfoot, and the jumping off point for the interview, was “Researchers believe there is more than one Bigfoot,” as if that were some startling new revelation.
It should go without saying that if a creature is real, then it is a member of a species with a breeding population — with males, females, and juveniles of all sizes. Belief in the sasquatch does not require belief in anything supernatural. New agers who have tried to co-opt the sasquatch by suggesting it’s related to UFO phenomena or inter-dimensional travel have done massive harm to the cause of what is a purely scientific, zoological subject, albeit a spectacular one. Its remarkable size and elusiveness notwithstanding, the sasquatch is a flesh-and-blood animal, which means that in the end it conforms strictly to biological laws. Moreover, it is by definition a primate, by which we can assume it conforms to numerous laws of primate behavior and physiology, such as that it lives in family groups, cares for and carries its young in certain ways, and so on. And, like us, it is by zoological definition a great ape, by which we can infer even more specific things about its probable diet, communication techniques, territoriality, and so on.
Ironically, bigfoot enthusiasts themselves are to blame for much of this misconception by their continual use of the singular form. “Bigfeet” doesn’t sound quite right as a plural, but “bigfoots” sounds even less correct. The terms bigfoot and sasquatch seem to have established themselves in our linguistic consciousness as singular entities, just as many people will refer to any and all policemen as “Johnny Law” or to any chauffeur as “James.” This is reinforced by capitalization, so that it becomes parallel to other singular legendary creatures, like Babe the Big Blue Ox, or Nessie (who, if real also stands for any member of a breeding population, whose various members have been sighted alone over centuries and therefore taken on a singular identity, “Nessie,” instead of “the nessies”).
On the back cover of Dr. Jeff Meldrum’s excellent book Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science, we find the headline: “Does sasquatch exist?” Note the singular formulation, even from one of the greatest minds on the subject (or at least from his publisher). We wouldn’t ask, “Does horse exist?” or “Does dog exist?” For this reason, I try to use either the plural “sasquatches,” in which case it would be “Do sasquatches exist?” or when discussing the species “the sasquatch,” while also lowercasing it. (You can always test usage by substituting “horse.”)
This widespread misconception that bigfoot is a single creature may be most to blame for people dismissing it out of hand.
2. That they are limited to the Pacific Northwest. While the Northwest has been the site of the most famous encounters, most people are surprised to learn that there have been sasquatch reports in 49 states and throughout Canada. (If they put a premium on solitude, then Canada almost certainly supports more of them.) Sighting maps show concentrated activity from the lower Rockies and Sierras up through the Cascades and all the way into Alaska, throughout Canada, from Minnesota and down through the forested Midwest, across the Great Lakes to Maine all the way down the Appalachians and into Florida, where it has been known for generations as “the skunk ape,” and west as far as East Texas, reports largely ceasing wherever annual rainfall drops below 40 inches. Forestation, not necessarily mountains, seems to be the common denominator of its habitat. Indeed, if the sighting record is to be believed, millions of Americans and Canadians are within a two-hour drive of a small family group at this moment.
Moreover, there is compelling video evidence of their existence in Poland and Russia, and of course, the numerous reports of the Asian yeti, which in the mid-20th century first stirred Americans’ popular interest in the subject of a living non-human biped.
3. That it is a solitary animal. Many assume that because most reports describe a single individual that they are essentially solitary animals. Experts believe, and primatology would predict, that they move in small family groups, and that for every animal that is seen, there are probably several others hiding nearby. The growing sighting and video record bears this out. Living in small groups as opposed to large ones would be one clear evolutionary adaptation allowing easier avoidance of humans. One intriguing area of research would be what the upper limit of groups would be. In 2008, researchers uncovered a colony of 125,000 lowland gorillas in a Congo swamp, immediately doubling the number of these gorillas thought to exist. There is not enough remote cover to support anything on this order for the sasquatch, but it is intriguing to consider a group of even a few dozen of them living in a virtually unreachable hanging valley or high basin in Alaska or northern Canada.
4. That it is a dangerous monster. Whether the sasquatch constitutes a monster is subjective. As to whether they are dangerous we have a significant amount of data to go on. When humans encounter sasquatches there are several common reactions by the creatures:
Retreating. Usually, they simply walk away nonplussed and within a few moments are too far into cover to be seen anymore.
Hiding. If they believe they have not been seen yet, they exhibit hiding behavior, usually standing behind trees and peeking periodically or squatting in brush or behind logs or boulders.
Intimidating. In accordance with great ape behavior, when they feel their territory or young are being threatened they will harass and intimidate intruders. This often includes throwing rocks from a hidden position, paralleling hikers to “escort” them out of an area, screaming, grunting, oofing, and tree snapping.
Spying. Despite their elusiveness, they seem to have the primate’s signature curiosity, and there is ample video evidence of them spying on human activities such as campfires, sledding, or shooting ranges from what they believe are hidden vantage points.
What is certain is that if they wanted to harm humans, they easily could do so. Their overwhelming size, strength, and speed would make short work of us small, spindly, smooth types. It must be assumed that part of their survival instinct includes avoiding not only contact with humans but conflict as well. I am not aware of any report of a sasquatch killing a human or even attacking one except at a distance with rocks, while there are several reports of sasquatches being shot accidentally by hunters or under the pretense of self defense, an unfortunate but understandable reaction during a moment of extreme shock and fear.
Though physically intimidating in the extreme, fortunately for us it is clear that they are far less dangerous than a common bear. This is far from saying they are not scary. Overwhelming fear is a nearly universal human reaction to an encounter, one so basic that it often commandeers the reaction of even the most curious and adventurous personalities. One witness, who had pulled over in the wee hours of the morning on a road near Lake Conroe north of Houston when he encountered one, reported shaking for two straight days. In this video shot in Colorado, you can hear genuine fear in the voice of a woman watching something she is trying to process. (We cannot know if the subject of this video is authentic, but the reaction certainly seems to be.) Even dogs, renowned for their aggression, run and cower uncharacteristically; this instinct appears to be richly justified in dogs as some have turned up dead in proximity to sasquatch sightings. With apologies to Orwell, the sasquatch rule of thumb appears to be “Two legs bad, four legs food.”
With the exception of its occasional curiosity, it seems the sasquatch’s highest aspiration is to be left alone.
5. That they’re a recent discovery. There is much evidence that humans have had a very long, uneasy relationship with these, our country cousins. Indeed, the cataloguing of the sasquatch may constitute the most protracted “discovery” in our history. No less venerable a document than the Book of Genesis mentions “giants in the earth” (the Nephilim). One of the main characters in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu, is a hirsute wild man. The oldest classic of the English language, Beowulf, places an outsized bipedal monster, “Grendel,” in Denmark. And on it goes, all the way through to the wookie of Star Wars.
Some are fond of ascribing these mythic literary recurrences to Jungian archetypes, ancient mental forms projected into literature from our collective subconscious. But who is to say the kernels of archetypes themselves are not real memories trickling down to us from eons-old run-ins with these creatures? Whatever the case, it seems likely that this is not our first rodeo with the bigfoot.
Why do I care?
I admit that the sasquatch is an unusual topic to occupy the thoughts and the time of a grown man and a city-dwelling white-collar professional. Any enthusiast of a preternatural topic admits it at some risk to his own reputation, and at the very least lays himself open to ribbing by some and eye-rolling or gossip by others. But the volume of literature and TV shows on paranormal topics betrays a huge, if closeted, audience interested in such things.
In a world brimming with pressing issues — starvation and disease, political chaos, international economic crises, climate change, and energy decline — what does this really matter?
For me, the sasquatch mystery is endlessly fascinating for three reasons: First is pure curiosity and wonder. I’m grateful we live in a world where there are still a few mysteries left, and frankly I don’t understand anyone who is not fascinated by this. I’ve wondered whether, in some divine scheme, mysteries like this aren’t meted out to act as intellectual catnip for humanity, teasing our intellect along one maddening question at a time in order to stimulate our own development.
We’re accustomed to going through our days with our thoughts occupied by the pettiness of political races, celebrity hookups and divorces, what the Dow did since noon, weight-loss plans.
Then, one discovers that ten-foot hairy monsters actually exist, and suddenly the rest of it just doesn’t seem that interesting anymore. I often chuckle at myself during the day, riding the bus to work, sitting alone at lunch, head bowed during a worship service, or listening to an erudite lecture, and there it comes, a bigfoot walking along in a Homer Simpson thought bubble. It is never far. Eventually, even obsessions have their ebb and flow, but once you’ve internalized this reality, once you really believe, what passes for “general interest” in the flow of daily life has an increasingly hard time competing.
A corollary to this pure fascination is a natural hunger for discovery. Ours is a world in which every dent and bulge of the globe has been mapped to a fare-thee-well. Every continent has been not only charted, but much of it sold and fenced off. True discovery seems as though it has been pushed either out to deep space or down to the esoteric realm of quantum physics — either way, to places inaccessible to the average Joe.
But here, suddenly, we find a spectacular mystery, nothing subtle about it, something crying out for exploration that certainly doesn’t require a graduate degree to appreciate. Geographic discoveries having been exhausted, adventure has migrated to the zoological frontier. And if part of it attracts the soul of the explorer, another part calls to the soul of the prospector. Any person in the right place at the right time can make a substantial contribution to our body of knowledge, if not land the mother lode — a body itself. Moreover, this frontier is a highly democratic one. No need for wealthy benefactors to fly you to the Himalayas or Africa. It is neither a rich man’s game nor one requiring substantial travel; most Americans regardless of means are right now within a few hours drive of a mind-blowing, society-shaking discovery. All of this swirls to strengthen the allure.
Second, I think the sooner we arrive at a shared understanding of what these creatures are and where they fit into the tree of life, the better chance that they will survive what is surely the greatest test of their existence, the encroachment of humans into their final refuges. With the widespread establishment of large national forests and a burgeoning ethos of conservationism, there’s reason to hope that they might have already weathered our worst.
The third reason I care is the most abstract but perhaps most important. This fascinates me because of the light it sheds on the process of belief and disbelief, extraordinary claims and extraordinary evidence. Whether the subject is preternatural, as with bigfoots and UFOs, or supernatural, as with belief in God and spirit, the process of seeking truth is much the same. Our response to a sudden challenge of our view of the world and our place in it is both fascinating and instructive.
In this and all matters that test our frame of reference, I believe …
- We should keep an open mind. This does not mean believing everything we hear, or blindly believing anything we hear. Rather this means asking questions in a methodical way and following the answers wherever they may lead.
- We should be slow to accuse people of lying, and, especially when they have lived their lives in a way that gives us no reason to suspect them, give them the benefit of the doubt. When these people number in the hundreds, or in the thousands, and hail from all walks of life, this too should be weighed. Likewise we should be slow to dismiss the historical memory of indigenous people. For American Indians, America was not discovered by Christopher Columbus; it was discovered by them when they traversed the Bering land bridge some 15-20,000 years earlier. Likewise, for First Nations people in general, the sasquatch is not in need of being “discovered.” Many are Knowers. They know it to exist and do not need the validation of the scientific arm of Western civilization to certify it into reality. Not that we should give scientific credence to any and all beliefs around the world, no matter how mythological. But the mounting evidence, including the eye-witness testimony of modern Native Americans that accords with their own ancestral traditions, should give us pause.
- We should be modest about our knowledge of the world and recognize the astounding discoveries being made every day.
- We should be modest about our dominion over that world. We’ve done our worst to pave every inch of it, but it’s still wilder and bigger than we think.
There’s every reason to believe that sightings will not only continue apace but will grow in number and frequency as our own numbers grow, and that the quality of evidence will improve with the march of technology.
And when at long last the debate suffocates under the weight of evidence, and we transition from the age of evidence to the age of proof, we should approach the subject with respect and with awe. As one retired Oklahoma forester Charles Branson put it, “We’ve studied them for a lot of years and know their habits pretty well. … If you see one, just admire it. They’re part of the good Lord’s creation.”
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Below are links to what I consider the most interesting examples of video and photographic evidence. One might wave these off at first glance as hoaxes. The sasquatch’s very proximity to the human form makes this a tempting claim. But closer examination and viewing these alongside known hoaxes helps distinguish them as likely specimens:
We start with the gold standard, the Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967, what is surely one of the most analyzed pieces of footage in natural history. Though several parties have made competing claims of having hoaxed this footage, it appears that the only hoaxes are the claims of hoaxes. The size of the creature has been confirmed independently multiple times, incorporating landmarks and reenactments using the trackway left by the subject, as over seven feet tall. A digital reconstruction and animation of the subject’s skeleton shows that the limb-to-torso ratios are non-human. Numerous painstaking analyses argue for the film’s authenticity, but the layman can easily see the muscle groups rippling under the hair, including a hernia apparent in the right thigh. The preponderance of evidence gleaned from numerous independent studies argues overwhelmingly in favor of this film’s authenticity. This is a real and uncatalogued animal, and as such, this film represents one of the most important natural history artifacts of all time:
This segment from a TV show features a 1994 video shot by Paul Freeman in the Blue Mountains of southeastern Washington:
This is high-quality video from 2008 of an unknown ape-like creature high in a tree in a Maine forest. If this is a sasquatch, it is a juvenile. Some dismiss it as a porcupine:
Maine Tree Creature
Game camera trap, Greenbrier, West Virginia. 2011
Jacobs camera trap subject. Likely juvenile. Pennsylvania, 2008.
A huge curated collection of photos and videos with analysis can be found at the Facebook group “Find Bigfoot.” (Not associated with the TV show Finding Bigfoot. https://www.facebook.com/FindBigfoot
Finally, just for fun, here is poster collage I made using the many plausible photographs of the creatures.