On the trail of the New York bigfoot, Part 1
When I was maybe six years old, I caught a rerun of the original Peter Graves’ TV special, The Mysterious Monsters:
That really put the hook in me, and ever since, through numerous other documentaries – and the campy movies – I’ve maintained an interest in the bigfoot/sasquatch phenomenon. We all have our armchair intrigues of one sort or another, no?
The problem was, every time I looked up a book about the subject, in the dark days before the glorious Internet, I found it lumped in with the Loch Ness Monster (no, I don’t believe in that) and UFO stuff (I’ve no idea what to tell you about that). This didn’t seem right, because the three phenomena were to my young mind mutually exclusive: one of them made sense to me from a zoological standpoint while the other two struck me as simply inexplicable, if also utterly unrelated.
In the late 1990s, I stumbled across the site belonging to a group called The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO). I’d never heard of them. But they were doing something that made a lot of sense to me: Collecting, reviewing, categorizing, and publishing on-line original bigfoot sighting reports written by eyewitnesses. While eyewitness identities were kept confidential, the reports were public.
Other sites that gained much support over the past decade do much the same thing, such as the Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society, Oregon Bigfoot, the North America Bigfoot Search (CA), and The Texas Bigfoot Research Conservatory (such organizations are sometimes united with others, and sometimes not, with no love lost). But the scope of the BFRO is nation-wide, and the amount of sorted data and ease-of-use of its site were quite good to my mind. I remained a regular reader for over ten years. I never went on the forum to post my reaction to anything, or get involved with the continuous discussion there. Maybe I should have, or not; I don’t know if I would have added anything relevant to the discussion. I did not ever become directly involved in the group. What interested me were the stories of the subject, and those true stories came directly from the people submitting reports.
That therein is the main reason why I think that what the BFRO has done, as other organizations have done similarly, is of keen interest: It has amassed one of the most intriguing written cultural histories in the United States of America. Thousands of Americans have recounted in their own words an experience with something for which there is no “official” scientific explanation, but for which there is plenty of cultural and historical data. This collection of reports is more than a slice of “Americana.” It is a narrative of an ingrained part of the American experience that the mostly incurious or critical mainstream mindset labels as “fringe.”
The BFRO databank sits waiting for some serious cultural/historical PhD work, and for all I know that is going on right now. The site is public domain, after all. You don’t need a password or subscription to see it.
The world of cryptozoology, however, is rife with internecine debates, arguments, hatreds, and accusations (and, yes, constant hoaxes, some highly sophisticated, some as pathetic as a gorilla suit frozen in a block of ice). The disinterested citizen who would lump sasquatch in with the Easter Bunny would be astonished at the energy expended in arguments and angst that go along with the human element of bigfoot matters. The debates mimic that of academia when some major point of investigation, organization, reputation, or theory is at stake. There are numerous “celebrities” and “personalities” within this subculture, some revered, some despised.
Former BFRO members and various bigfoot-related discussion groups have roundly criticized any number of aspects of the BFRO, mostly its evolving direction and image (this is all pretty much public – you can find it on numerous threads on Bigfootforums.com – and it’s old news). One major point of contention was that the BFRO charges a fee for members of the public to apply for a space on an “expedition.”
A reading of the BFRO site will make clear what an expedition is: A gathering of interested parties to perform mostly nocturnal observations in a location that has been a hotspot of sightings. A county-by-county review of a given state, which the BFRO site makes easy to do, can give any member of the public a sense of where to go, whether you’re signed up with the BFRO or go on your own.
After years of simply reading, I decided to put myself where my curiosities would go, and attended such an expedition.
Before I tell you about that experience, some background is needed:
1. The BFRO asks participants to sign a “Non-Disclosure Agreement” prior to any expedition, and this has been another item of contention with critics. As far as I can tell from the language of that Agreement, which I did sign, this has to do with making sure no one reveals the specific location of the expedition beforehand, or gives away any other “confidential information” supplied to participants by the expedition organizer.
I won’t reveal the specific local area of the expedition because I did sign the Agreement. I can, however, state the general regional location because that itself was stated on the BFRO site, and that is sufficient for any report I’m posting here at True/Slant. I won’t reveal the identities of any of the people in attendance, because that’s not fair. There was a level of privacy assumed by the bunch of folks I was with, and I’ve no intention of breaking that. As for “confidential information” about the BFRO itself, I don’t believe I was actually given any. Nothing I did, or that the group did, seemed any different from what I already expected we would do based upon my reading of other expedition reports on the organization’s website.
Expedition reports posted on the BFRO forum are written in great detail by the expedition organizers and participants, including details about various in-the-field methodologies, some those involving night-vision, thermal imaging, and digital trail cameras. What I write here will not surpass in detail the official report that will result from the expedition I attended, as I’m writing about my direct experiences, not about the venture as a whole.
2. There is no single individual “Bigfoot” that is running full-tilt across the land to put in appearances in nearly every state. The term “bigfoot” derived from a late-1950s northern-CA newspaper report about a series of incidents involving a single animal, and it somehow transformed erroneously into a singular name for a single “creature.” The sasquatch (the term is a bastardization of a Halkomelem word and comes from western Canadian news reports of the 1920s) is a hominid-type primate species across North America, if you are to believe the current biological explanation; “bigfoot” has become an accepted alternate term.
The first bigfoot book I ever owned as a child, Bigfoot: America’s Abominable Snowman, by Elwood Bauman (Dell; 1976), depicted a national map of sightings, with 122 sightings in California, eight sightings in Illinois, and one sighting in Pennsylvania, among other states where sightings occured. Those numbers have risen greatly in the past thirty years due to better collection of data. These animals were and still are a nation-wide and international phenomenon (Russia, Nepal, Australia, possibly Malaysia). There are roughly fifty-some known Native American names for them, although many Native Americans once viewed and continue to view the bigfoot as a quasi-spiritual entity, or both spirit and animal. Since the mid-1800s, Americans of European and African decent have had their own localized terms for them: “mountain devils” (NH), “woolly buggers” (MO), “Big Red Eyes” (NJ), “the Murphysboro Mud Monster,” (IL), “the Fouke Monster” (AR), “Indian devils” (ME).
These animals are not “giants,” given that the word giant makes me think of something out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. Most reports describe a figure around 7 feet tall with wide shoulders, a very short neck, and long arms. Many reports describe a highly mobile, graceful, and athletic beast. There are, however, reports of XXL individuals in the 8- and 9-foot-tall range.
3. As can be read about on various subject-related sites, sasquatch reportedly emit a wide variety of “vocalizations,” from grunts, to growls, to whoops, howls, and screams, at high volume. Research has found reportedly that imitating these, either with recordings or a live human voice, can elicit responses in populated areas. “Wood knocking” is also ascribed to sasquatch – the hammering of a thick piece of wood on a tree to create a sound that carries for miles, as another form of communication. Imitating this knocking can also bring a knock in response, or has, according to various researchers’ accounts.
The problem with recordings of vocalizations is that there is no baseline, so to speak. If you play a recording of what is purported to be the sound of a bigfoot, to what can you compare it when it is, essentially, a sound from an unknown source? Auditory studies of sounds reported to be those of sasquatch have, however, baffled audiologists, who on more than one occasion have estimated that the vocal tract of whatever made such sounds would be nearly twice the size of that of a human, and, therefore, larger than numerous other mammals as well (as seen about halfway through The Mysterious Monsters footage above).
The behaviors various researchers ascribe to sasquatch are based largely on conjecture using sound recordings, photos, videos, tracks and other sign, and eyewitnesses’ accounts. Thus, these behavioral concepts must be taken with a grain of salt. I once heard a noted researcher declare, in a recent and well-received documentary, that he theorized that the beasts literally “cover their tracks” as a way of hiding their movements. He totally lost me on that idea.
4. What has drawn me to this phenomenon has always been the stories around it, which I found compelling, fascinating, sincere, and sometimes startling. As a kid I glommed happily onto a narrative with no official origin or explanation. It appealed greatly to my childhood imagination in which monsters of all sorts played a large part.
But what at first seemed fanciful became increasingly reasonable to my mind. The notion of a “monster” gave way to the simple possibility of an animal. The more I read, the more I thought that the people telling these stories were telling a consistent truth, as best they saw it. There is no way that so many people who don’t know each other can lie so consistently (in an exclusively print-media age or digital age), or have reason to do so as a small nation. Mass hysteria does not break out continent wide, with such similarity, for nearly three centuries. Detractors can and will always say that photos, audio recordings, and casts of tracks are all hoaxed, but I don’t know how they might explain so many hundreds of reports given by people of so many different walks of life.
Through the 1980s and 1990s came serious, dedicated compilation and analysis of great amounts of data, of which the BFRO was part, as well as numerous academics that risked their careers. When I learned that various castings of sasquatch footprints recorded dermal ridges – the “fingerprint” of your toes – and visible muscle movement, I thought that that was a litmus test against the usual charge of hoaxed tracks, although such a level of detail occurs infrequently. True scientific forensic analysis has changed the situation vastly in the last twenty years, although science is no fan of the eyewitness account.
All this data points to something biological, but I do not know what that something is. I have to fall on the side of science, especially when science has more and more entered this particular cryptid arena: when a skeleton or carcass is found and fully examined, then we’ll know for sure.
But those people who have seen some strange animal and believe what they believe are right to believe it – and I believe that they saw something for which there is no current formal explanation. What their observations combined with a great deal other evidence suggest is this: A North American primate, upwards of 8-feet tall, hair-covered, and bipedal.
In my many hours outdoors, the only things I’ve witnessed that I couldn’t explain owed entirely to human behavior. During this expedition, however, on two different occasions while afield, I heard animal sounds that I could not identify. I found no classification for them except in comparison to audio data ascribed to this unknown species. Others on the expedition saw and heard things that they also could not explain, or which they perceived as actual visual or auditory contact of varying degree.
[To be continued. . .Part 2]