Guys Who Hunt Hairy Half-Men and the Half-Men who Avoid Them: The Annual Sasquatch Hunter's Conference (1999)

It has been lurking
blurred near the edges of jerky
films, of damaged photographs
for too long; its deep footprints dissolve
in the rain as soon as they are
seen. It slides away
from us into caves of air, into burrows
made by tree shadows, takes refuge
in the eye's confusions.

Margaret Atwood, Oratorio for Sasquatch, Man, and Two Androids


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He's "Sasquatch" to the Halkomelem, "Man of the woods" to the Gitksan and Kwakiutl, "Stick Indian" to the Upper Chehalis, and "Christ, What the Hell is THAT" to campers and hikers who cross his path. He's cousin to the Alma of the Russian steppes and the Yeti of the Himalayas, and he's been stomping around the mythic imagination at least since Sumerian times, when the hairy man-ape Enkidu raised a ruckus with Gilgamesh.

He's also real, according to amateur and academic sleuths of mystery animals -- "cryptozoologists" -- who gathered last weekend at UBC's Frederick Wood Theater for the International Sasquatch Symposium.

Unfortunately, proving the existence of Bigfoot is pretty low on the federal funding foodchain, somewhere between resurrecting the Avrocar and cloning Lucien Bouchard. Hence the sponsorship of the Sasquatch Symposium by Kokanee Brewing Company, which profited hugely from it's "sas" theme ads in the eighties.

Sasquatch hunting, a financially iffy pursuit at the best of times, has only one success story, if measured in dollars instead of droppings. In the twilight of its "sas" campaign, Kokanee hit on René Dahinden as a spokeshunter. Dahinden, who's been in the British Columbian Bigfoot biz for more than fifty years, sounds a bit like Elmer Fudd with an accent -- an affectation which fit well with the spirit of the Kokanee radio and TV spots. (Some of these spots bravely skirted the 'laughing with me/at me' line, like Dahinden's Yuletide jingle: "I wish for a sasquatch sighting/I wish for a sasquatch sighting/I wish for a sasquatch sighting/And another black bear.")

One person attending the conference who may not wish for a sighting is former Washington State law enforcement officer Fred Bradshaw. He's already had two, he says. The first, in the Olympic area, was one a camping trip with family members.

In an isolated beach area, the Bradshaws came across a heap of fresh clamshells and crayfish, crunched up as if underfoot. "During this time my son's dog was really raising Cain, nervous and whining -- just not normal activity for a Doberman to have." As the evening advanced, the group sat around the campfire, and "got on the "subject of the sasquatch and how we would react if one of them came into this area... we just kind of laughed a bit."

Bradshaw remembers what happened next with razor-sharp clarity. "Around eight o'clock, there was the sound of a nighthawk flying overhead...and all of the sudden here was a loud crash. Just behind our camp came this limb that was about twenty feet long and about six inches in diameter, and it hit the ground."

"Of course we jumped up, had no idea what was going on we heard this swishing sound...like something stepped through the brush." While Bradshaw made for his rifle and handgun, a relative picked up a flashlight and made three passes through the surrounding woods. "He stopped and he said, 'oh my God look at this'." A creature was standing "about fifty to sixty feet away", standing partially obscured behind a tree. Bradshaw "could see the outline of a body, of a thing I estimate to be about eight feet in height weighing anywhere from six hundred to eight hundred pounds...the hair would be anywhere from three to six inches in length."

The sighting lasted only about forty seconds, and with a further swishing sound, the creature disappeared into the bush. It was, Bradshaw says in a matter of fact way, "the most awesome thing I've ever seen."

Asked why he didn't fire upon the creature, replies "I had an M-16 with me, and I didn't want to to tick it off."

Wildlife biologist Dr. John Bindernagel has heard numerous stories like this. In fact, Bradshaw's report fits well with the B.C. scientist's conceptions of the animal's ecology and behaviour. "Western north America is more pounds of protein per square meter than any other habitat on the planet," he says, pointing to an overhead graph. The grizzled Bindernagel adds that shellfish and other marine life available in mud flats and tidal pools could conceivably make for year-round sustenance for a sasquatch-like creature.

When he initially began to study the sasquatch reports, Bindernagel says he "wasn't going to touch behaviour. since it's is all over the map, but I discovered it wasn't -- there were clear patterns."

What he heard from reports was behaviour reminiscent of mountain gorillas; of "benign shy avoidance, with a minority of reports where (the sasquatch) reacts when threatened or intruded upon." The shaking of branches and other antics suggested display behaviours seen in primates -- including man. Bindernagel cites reports by clamdidiggers and commercial fishermen of hefty objects being thrown at them: chunks of wood, small logs, etc. In numerous reports, Bindernagel claims, the creature itself has been seen as the source of projectiles.

So how does such an animal, which must at least exist in numbers large enough to constitute a breeding population, avoid detection and capture so effectively? To sasquatch hunter Scott Herriot, the crumpled topology of the Pacific Northwest makes for an immense habitat. He uses the analogy of a crunched up ball of paper for the valleys and mountains. Flattened out, the paper covers a much bigger area.

Herriot, whose day job is as a Los Angeles- based stand-up comic, is deadly serious about bagging Bigfoot on film. His plan involves affixing cameras with motion detectors to trees in remote areas. To date, he has some lovely colour pictures of a kid with a pellet gun, a forestry service truck, and a black bear.

So where's the smoking gun? According to some investigators, hair samples retrieved from branches (in the vicinity of purported sasquatch footprints) come up as unknowns. They can be identified only as not being from bears and other known animals. However, given the source is unknown, such specimens cannot be definitively pinned on Bigfoot.

Footprints are even more problematic. They can be faked, but then even that is open to debate in some cases. Physical anthropologist Grover Krantz once cited a Walla Walla case in which an employee of the US National Forest Service spotted a large figure decending an embankment. The creature fled, and when the witness returned with others to investigate further, they discovered twenty-one well-defined footprints in the hard earth. The men made plaster casts of some of the human-like tracks. Krantz examined the casts, and found signs of dermal ridges --swirls of lines similar to fingerprints -- and even sweat glands. According to Krantz, such minute detail could not be faked in a huge footprint.

The closest thing investigators will come in claiming a smoking gun is the famous Patterson film -- 1967 footage of a creature in a Northern California creekbed, striding away from the camera in three-quarter rear-profile. No question its an upright hominid, but the debate centers on whether its an being new to science or a guy in a monkey suit. The Patterson film, which has become the Shroud of Turin of sasquatch studies, got another going over by Grover at the conference.

As if things aren't bad enough with ambiguous evidence in the Bigfoot biz, there's also a theoretical division afoot -- if you'll excuse the expression. An apparent correlation of sasquatch sightings with paranormal events (principally UFO sightings) has led a small, but vocal group of investigators to conclude that the reported creature isn't a primate at all, but a dimensional being: a hypertrophied relation of the little people of Celtic mythology and the spindly occupants of silvery discs. This kind of interpretation gives most Bigfoot hunters fits. No mountain man with a hankering for hard evidence wants to hear he's spent twenty years in the woods chasing a big, hairy fairy.

But for all their talk of specimens and data, most investigators are highly ambivalent about science and scientists. "What has science ever done for me?" investigator and emcee Daniel Perez says flatly, citing the refusal of academia to seriously examine the evidence. In fact, the only truly academic conference on Bigfoot ever held was at UBC in 1978. The event -- "the Super Bowl of sasquatch studies," as Perez calls it -- was the brainchlld of UBC's Marjorie Halpin, curator of ethnology at the Museum of Anthropology. Would the university get federal funds for another such conference today? "Probably not," says Halpin. "The pressures to conform are much more rigorous now than they were twenty years ago. It would be a very brave young person who investigates this."

Halpin adds that what she finds most interesting about sasquatch witnesses is that "they don't care whether you believe them or not." Since the seventies' conference, she's had an opportunity to interview several more, including a professional forester -- "a man with scientific training who before the encounter said he would have laughed at anyone who said that it was real."

"They know what they saw," Halpin says, in defense of sasquatch witnesses.

But as far as hard evidence goes, nothing less than a body or a substantial part of one will do for establishment science, and the sasquatch hunters know it. Does this mean someone should bag a bigfoot? The final event at the symposium was a roundtable debate, with three speakers arguing for shooting one in the wild, and three against.

"I wouldn't hesitate a moment to pull the trigger," said Lloyd Pye, author of
Everything You Know is Wrong. Colleagues to his right concurred. No wonder the sasquatch keeps its hairy butt hidden -- with forensics like this, who needs enemies?

Geoff Olson