A Report by D.J. Sylvis, Age 36
Originally published in my now-defunct zine, ‘Monkeyman’.
When I was a kid, my mother used to take my sisters and me to the public library once a week – or as often as she could, when she was working. I certainly remember being there a lot. It was the closest thing, for me, to being in heaven. Everyone had to be quiet, no roughhousing, and there were wall to wall books.
(I made it my mission to read every last one of them. In fact, I still remember the day when I had read every one in the children’s section and was allowed to browse the much taller shelves in the real library upstairs.)
There was nothing in that building I wouldn’t read – novels of all types, non-fiction on any subject, any magazine I could get my hands on. But my favourite section, from the first day I ran excitedly (and yes, I was shushed) through the stacks, was the one labeled ‘paranormal’. Ghosts, UFOs, legendary monsters from a dozen countries …
… and Bigfoot. Most of all, Bigfoot. Bigfoot loomed in my elementary-school imagination larger than – well, he already was larger than life, wasn’t he? But to a small boy who was ready to believe any outrageous tale, he was even bigger than that.
That’s the thing; I didn’t really believe in ghosts or werewolves, and if UFOs existed they were from too far away to even contemplate. But I knew people who had seen Bigfoot. At least they said so around campfires, on Scouting trips. Bigfoot was a creature of the forest, the forest that wasn’t light years away, but right outside my door, almost every place I lived as a child. When I played monster while my father took us hiking on fall weekends, I was playing Bigfoot. I stretched my legs as wide as I could with each step, slamming my sneakers down and twisting them in the mud, trying to widen each footprint.
Those footprints grew a good deal by the time I went to college. Unsure of what I wanted to do with my life, I switched majors several times, finally choosing English with a concentration in writing. One of the classes I chose under that concentration was Research Methodology, a course that was completely structured around one semester-long writing (and of course, research) project on a subject of the student’s choice. My choice was to write about cryptozoology, the study of unknown animals, focusing in particular on my old friend.
Little did I suspect (or care) as a child, but the scientific inquiry into the reality of Bigfoot had a history spanning well over the past century, and includes among the ranks of the believers well-known anthropologists including Grover Krantz, Loren Coleman, and possibly the best known of all, Jane Goodall. And they have reason to believe, or at least be hopeful. There is evidence to support the existence of large primates in North America, far beyond mere campfire stories.
I won’t attempt to represent the full range of that evidence here – though at the end I’ll try to point you toward a few fairly complete source books. But it mainly focuses on two areas: the eyewitness reports, and the (admittedly sparse) physical evidence left in their wake.
The eyewitness evidence, of course, could be explained away as mere hearsay, tall tales by people who want to believe a little too much. And it is fair to say that the sort of story that makes the Weekly World News – I WAS KIDNAPPED BY BIGFOOT – should be taken with a pretty full shaker of salt. But the number of sober, respectable people who have reported sightings all over the continent (and indeed, the world) that agree in a multitude of details seems a little hard to ignore. I’ve personally heard a few stories, one from a close friend, of sightings or half-sightings that may have been a hoax on the witness, but I certainly don’t believe were fabricated by them.
But that’s the inherent weakness of such evidence. There’s no real way to prove if you’re being lied to or not, no way to be sure just what someone else has seen. And the matching details could have to do with the proliferation of media references to Bigfoot over the years. (Though given the range of sightings in time and place, that’s quite a simplification.) Thus, the researchers turn to the available physical evidence, looking for some answers they can see and touch.
The physical evidence may be slight, but it does exist. There are recordings said to be of his (or her) voice. There are hair samples that don’t quite match with anything else that should be out in the woods where they are found. There are a few photographs (mostly blurry), and there are the footprints that gave rise to the creature’s name to begin with.
Some of the most famous of these last two, visual and footprint evidence, come from the area of Bluff Creek, California. These include what are probably the most widely recognized images of the creature herself (they seem to show their particular subject as a female), the Patterson film. If you’ve ever seen a photo in a book or on TV of Bigfoot, it was likely a frame from this film. (I remember first seeing it to the dry voice-overs of Leonard Nimoy on the show In Search Of.) It shows a long-limbed, powerfully-built figure striding steadily away into the woods, once turning her head back but then continuing away.
The film, taken that day by Roger Patterson, a rodeo rider and freelance Bigfoot seeker – and he wasn’t there by accident. Since a decade before, when a road was first built into the Bluff Creek area, there had been sightings and reports from the area, as well as a wide range of footprints from the obviously faked (we’ll get back to those later) to some harder to explain. Roger set out with Bob Gimlin to explore the area, as well as to lay the grounds for a documentary he hoped to make about the creature. Thus, he rented a Kodak hand-held movie camera and took it along to keep a record of what they found – never imagining just what that would be.
The filmed sighting, when released, sparked a controversy that has yet to die down. Scientists quickly chose sides in the argument. “So fake you can see the zipper,” some scoffed, while others – including experts in anatomy and bio-mechanics – analyzed frame after frame and concluded that there was no way a man in a suit could move that way. A rumor circulated through Hollywood that makeup man John Chambers, best known for designing the costumes for the original Planet of the Apes, had confessed to friends that he created the costume and gave instructions on how to make it appear most lifelike.
The footage remains one of the most powerful and controversial pieces of evidence in the field. Roger Patterson, who continued the search the rest of his life, swore to his dying day that the film – and Bigfoot – was absolutely real. Bob Gimlin isn’t quite so certain, but says he wasn’t in on any deliberate fraud.
However, since that time several people have stepped in to say that they were, and that all of the incidents at Bluff Creek were faked from the beginning. There have been several well-publicized stories, particularly of late, that have left the media proclaiming that “Bigfoot is dead,” once and for all.
The first centers around Ray Wallace, the contractor who was originally responsible for the road work that opened up Bluff Creek, and who entered the news again with his death in 2002. Wallace was already well known to be a prankster and practical joker with his crews, and there were also rumours that he was having financial problems and could use an excuse for skipping out on the job. It did seem very convenient when the footprints and sightings began, and spooked workers started dropping from his crew in droves. Then prints showed up a few miles away at another site – but it was another crew Wallace was responsible for. Eventually, it all snowballed to the point where it inspired Patterson’s visit and subsequent events.
At the time, Wallace claimed that he knew nothing about it – “Who knows anybody foolish enough to ruin their own business?” – but he quickly latched on to the Bigfoot phenomenon and rode it for decades. He seemed to be more than a believer, he seemed to be one of those slightly wacky folks who see the object of their obsession everywhere. Later in life, he claimed to have seen Bigfoot hundreds of times, to have captured one of the creatures himself, to have exclusive films and photographs that were never produced…
… and after his death, his son produced photographs of wooden feet that he claimed were used to produce the tracks that started the whole Bluff Creek phenomena, saying, “The reality is, Bigfoot just died.” It was picked up by the media as the practical joke of a lifetime, and they lost no time in ascribing Bigfoot’s creation – and now the beast’s final resting place – to Wallace. They even implied in a few stories that his wife wore the costume in the Patterson film!
But then, early in 2004, a book was published where the ‘true’ man inside the suit came out. Bob Heironimus, an acquaintance of Patterson and Gimlin at the time the film was taken. “I’ve been burdened with this for 36 years,” he stated, adding more practically, “Somebody’s making lots of money off this, except for me.” The book also claims to have tracked down the costumer who sold the suit – for real this time. (This despite also publishing Heironimus’ claim that Patterson made the suit himself.) Again, the media picked up the story and ran with it, and ran, and ran.
Both these stories were refuted time and again by the pro-Bigfoot camp. John Green, one of the foremost researchers, published an article stating flatly, “The creature can not be a man in a suit,” backing it up with figures from the various analyzes of the footage. Loren Coleman showed that the very first prints found at Bluff Creek did not match the wooden feet displayed by the Wallace family. Of course, when they published these refutations, other experts refuted their claims.
In the end, every opinion is hearsay, on both sides, is it not? Even if all the Bluff Creek evidence was faked, the plethora of other sightings and prints would make it difficult to seriously believe that Bigfoot was dead. On the other hand, in a world that seems increasingly smaller and to be bound by increasingly tighter surveillance, it seems impossible, surely, that the creatures could exist and there still be no absolute proof.
Perhaps. But there are still a few unexplored corners of the world, a few enigmas we can’t unravel. It may be that Bigfoot is meant to be a mystery.
And to be honest, if I ever have my own child to introduce to the ways of libraries and mud-stomping … I think I’d like to introduce them to a world with that element of uncertainty left intact. A world of possibility.
Maybe we’ll search for Bigfoot together. No camera crew required.
For further reading:
Coleman, Loren. Bigfoot! : The True Story of Apes in America. New York: Paraview Pocket Books, 2003.
Krantz, Grover S. Big Footprints: A Scientific Inquiry Into the Reality of Sasquatch. Boulder: Johnson Books, 1992.
Patterson, Roger. Do Abominable Snowmen of America Really Exist? New Westminster: Pyramid Publications, 1996.