Frame 352 of the Patterson-Gimlin Film

In the News

The Bigfoot Primer

In which we step back from all the supermarket tabloid sensationalism and offer evidence that Bigfoot is roaming the backcountry. Maybe.

by J. Michael Wyatt -- Backpacker -- August 1990

SIT DOWN, HERE, close to the fire. The flames fill the circle of our camp with a ruddy light that begs cheer from the empty black of this moonless night. Feel its heat. Now close your eyes.

Do you hear that? Did it sound like something moved out there?

The breeze is whispering from its perch high in the treetops. Orange, gold, and red flames rise from the wood within the spent white ash and glowing embers. This dark and smokey night, the flickering light, the stars, all reminiscent of another time--that dim and ancient past when all around you was wild and the firelight was your only wall.

There! You heard it that time! Did it startle you?

It was just the snap of pitch. It flares in the fire and lifts the shadows high onto the trees. Every shape that dances on a branch is a tree's memory, stirred from deep in the heart of the burning wood. Let the fire pull the shadows from your past. Let's talk of dark shapes and dim memories that shine from just beyond the firelight.

By far the most compelling of the world's mysterious animals, one of particular interest if you spend time in North America's wilderness, is the anthropoid creature known as Bigfoot. Reports of this giant, bipedal, apelike beast have come from every state except Rhode Island and Hawaii and all of Canada's provinces except the Maritimes.

Also known as Sasquatch, Hairy Ghost, Woolybooger, Wild Swamp Ape, Wild Man, Oh-Mah, Seah-tik, Injun Devil, Skookums, Braxton Monster, Snallygaster, Dwayyo, best estimates have the male creatures standing at a height of about eight feet and the females at seven feet. Males weigh in at about 800 pounds; the females, 500 pounds. The hair is black or brown, two inches or more in length. It has facial features like a gorilla, but not quite as projecting in the lower face. It has exceptionally large shoulders and a very heavyset body and walks like a heavily muscled human--an extremely foul-smelling human.

Its tracks average 15 to 16 inches in length and are five to seven inches wide. It strides through the woods in four- to five-foot gaits. It's a nocturnal creature, usually active between midnight and dawn, and an opportunistic carnivore, sort of like a bear. It's solitary, and curious, but not aggressive. It prefers forested areas and is most likely to be seen in the fall.

One of the most recent and credible sightings occurred in the spring, though. It transpired in a campground in Waterton Lakes National Park in the southwest corner of Alberta, Canada on May 24, 1988. Two couples were involved: Sarah and Steve and Margaret and George. The report is considered highly reliable, not only because of the number of people involved and the fact that all four hold responsible positions (both men are engineers, both women are school teachers), but because they pursued the incident further by reporting it the next morning to park wardens. Later all related identical stories in separate interviews.

The four campers had been up talking and playing cards beside their tents until about 12:50 A.M., when Sarah and Steve set out to brush their teeth. They'd just started down the trail when Sarah thought she heard something. She was unfamiliar with the outdoors, "a born city, girl," and Steve didn't take any notice. They continued on, Steve pulling Sarah by the hand. Suddenly they both realized that there was something large standing on the trail about 10 feet ahead of them. It made a grunting noise. Sarah yelled, "It's a bear!" and ran back toward camp. George and Margaret heard Sarah yell, and all three scrambled for the cars.

Sarah ended up in one car with George, while Margaret jumped in the other car. Meanwhile, back on the trail, Steve was still backing slowly away toward the campsite. The creature had left the trail and was somewhere in the trees close by. When Steve arrived at the campsite, he got in the car with Margaret. Sarah was shaking with fright and close to panic. She wanted to honk the horn, but George stopped her and told her to calm down.

George turned on the headlights and flooded the treeline in front of them with light. Not seeing anything, he opened his window and yelled back to Steve to do the same. After a few seconds, they saw a hairy creature walking on two legs enter the area illuminated by the second car's lights. It walked from right to left across the field of light, covering the distance in about four or five strides at a fast pace. It was about eight feet tall and covered with black hair and had very, long arms.

John Green, a journalist and author of several books about the search for Bigfoot, has been following the creature for more than 30 years. In the course of his investigation, he has collected information on more than 2,000 reported sightings and a number of footprint casts, but has never seen the animal himself.

Green is fascinated by the cultural implications of the recurring stories of a man-ape. He approaches the study of the Bigfoot phenomenon as a no-lose proposition and is disturbed that the larger scientific community, hasn't joined the chase. He points out that every culture and every continent has a legend of the wild man, an archetype that can be traced literally as far as there is a record.

"You're dealing with two impossibilities, one of which has to be true," he says. "Either there is such an animal, or throughout most of the world's recorded history, people have been claiming to encounter this thing that isn't there and faking footprints to prove it. It's far more complex to explain it all away as human activity, than to assume there's an animal we haven't collected yet."

In North America, the stories were here long before the white man arrived. In the Klamath Mountains of northern California the Huppa tribe know it as Oh-mah-'ah or Oh-mah. To the north along the British Columbian coast, the Kwakiutl call it Tsonokwa. In Alaska it is Gilyuk. To the Cree in Manitoba it's Weeketow, and in Sakatchewan it's Mistapawe, "the Mountain Giant" In Florida, the Seminoles know it as the Sand Man.

The name Bigfoot arrived on the national scene in 1958 when a member of a road-construction crew in northern California named the animal that kept leaving a trail of footprints on their newly graded roadway. He tagged it with the most sensible name he could think of--the footprints were 16 inches long. The story, hit the AP wire and the name stuck; Bigfoot was a part of American folklore and would soon become a major question in cryptozoology.

The first written report of Bigfoot tracks is contained in Canadian geographer David Thompson's account of his travels from 1792 to 1812. While traveling across the Rockies in the vicinity, of what's now Jasper National Park in Alberta, he happened upon a set of tracks that measured 14 inches long by eight inches wide. Thompson was not unfamiliar with the outdoors; he'd traveled the entire length of the Columbia River and mapped large sections of western Canada and the northwestern United States. It's unlikely he would have been fooled by the tracks of a bear, and, as he was the first white man ever to venture into many of the areas he visited, it's also unlikely he was the subject of a hoax.

One of the most interesting Bigfoot reports comes from Theodore Roosevelt in his 1892 book Wilderness Hunter, where he relates the story of a pair of trappers who, 50 years earlier, had a disastrous encounter with a bear "walking on two legs." In this rare report of a Bigfoot injuring a human, one of the trappers had his neck broken by a beast his companion never saw. The survivor returned to camp to find his friend dead, with little evidence of the culprit beyond a bite mark on the victim's neck and a trail of huge tracks surrounding the body.

Tracks have long been the only physical evidence of the creatures existence. Among the most controversial and visible of today's scientific investigators of Bigfoot is Grover Krantz, an associate professor at Washington State University and an expert anatomist. Human evolution is his major field of study, and Krantz explains his attraction to the question of Bigfoot because, "It seemed like an interesting subject that might be pertinent to my field. Instead of ignoring it like most of my colleagues, I looked into it." Krantz began to seriously pursue Bigfoot in 1969. At the time, he recalls "...giving odds of about 10 to 1 that it wasn't real, but that wasn't enough to discourage me." Krantz saw his first Bigfoot tracks during the winter of 1970. By the following spring he'd decided the animals were real. "The bottom line is that the anatomical characteristics I could reconstruct were things that no faker could ever come up with."

Krantz also refers to a 16mm film taken in 1966 by Roger Patterson as compelling evidence for the existence of Bigfoot. The film clearly shows a Bigfoot walking across a sandbar. Krantz became convinced of the film's authenticity after determining the height of the animal in the film and the width of its shoulders. "You couldn't fit a man into a monkey suit with that size and shape. If you get a man tall enough--almost seven feet tall--his shoulders are much too narrow. If he sticks his elbows straight out to fill the shoulders, then they're much too wide. The only way you could fit a seven-foot-tall man into that suit is to break his arms. It's absolutely impossible for a human being to have that shape."

So if Bigfoot does exist, what is it and how many are there? On this matter, Krantz has been characteristically bold. In 1986 he published a paper naming Bigfoot as a relict population of Gigantopithecus blacki, a huge hominid known only by the fossil evidence of 1,000 teeth and four lower jaws collected in China and India. Logic might side with Krantz--if Bigfoot does exist, it didn't step out of an evolutionary vacuum--but his more conventional colleagues do not. They point but that Gigantopithecus has not roamed the forests of Asia for half a million years, and no fossil evidence has been found in North America. Recently Krantz has been more cautious and suggests that we won't know for sure until a specimen is collected.

As for a head count, Krantz speculates that the footprints of the 20 individuals he has identified probably represent no more than 1 percent of the Bigfoot population in the Pacific Northwest. He estimates a minimum population of 2,000. Nationwide, no estimates exist.

One day this fabled creature may become fact, which would be a disappointment. As children, we revel in campfire stories about monsters. As we grow older, titillation comes from the impenetrable mystery, of a dark night. At a time when technology, expands our touch to the stars and our vision to the infinitesimal stuff of the universe, there is satisfaction in speculating that there may still be unknowns on our home turf. Sure, new species are found every, year--small mammals, invertebrates, and plants--but the thought that a Gigantopithecus might share the very woods in which we camp is a far more volatile fuel for our romantic nature.

Wilderness, or more correctly wildness, is a mystery, a not knowing. We go to the mountains, forests, and deserts because they still harbor places where we can escape the dwindling newness of a planet overwhelmed by constant fiddling. It's a place where we call be refreshed with surprise. Let its mysteries remain, so we'll always have a wilderness to keep a mystery like Bigfoot, whether they be real or imagined, alive.