Sasquatch, hairy hominid, maybe mythical, or maybe not, could roam Northwest woods
June 28, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
The forests and mountains up and down the Cascades, cloaked in mist and mystery, could harbor Sasquatch, a reclusive creature noted for coarse fur, malodorous scent and, oh yeah, oversized feet.
Sasquatch, or Bigfoot, depending on geography and preference, just might roam Evergreen State forests, believers claim. Or, as detractors suggest, the creature is not 8 feet tall and covered in fur, but is rather a figment of imagination.
Evidence is concentrated in California, Oregon and Washington — especially the untamed backwoods near Mount St. Helens — and across the border in British Columbia and Alberta. Websites dedicated to Sasquatch encounters describe pulse-pounding contact between man and beast in the forests near Issaquah, including Squak Mountain and Rattlesnake Lake.
Sasquatch, maybe mythical, maybe not, is a fixture revered in American Indian lore and monumentalized in pop culture. Look no further than the Sasquatch statue outside a roadside attraction in Southwest Washington.
The statue along a rural Cowlitz County road stands 28 feet tall and bears a beneficent grin. The piece is perhaps the largest Sasquatch statue in North America, or anywhere.
“Bigfoot country begins here” reads a sign along state Route 504 just before motorists reach the statue and the Buried A-Frame, a half-submerged house mired in lahar from the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption.
In a scientific PEMCO Insurance Northwest Poll released last year, 38 percent of respondents said Sasquatch exists and 13 percent claimed to have seen the hairy hominid or known someone who had.
The creature is enshrined in lore — and law. In 1969, Skamania County passed a law to criminalize the killing of Sasquatch.
Believers said the study of Sasquatch is not cryptozoology — or search for mythical creatures — but a decades-long, even centuries-long, effort to explain the inexplicable.
The foremost Sasquatch expert in the United States, Jeffrey Meldrum, said the ample evidence is difficult to refute.
The anatomy professor at Idaho State University in Pocatello is focused on the evolution of hominid locomotion — in other words, how humans and other primates move.
Meldrum recalled the time a skeptical colleague dismissed the study of Sasquatch as a collection of stories.
“Stories that shed hair, that leave footprints, that are interwoven into the oral traditions and sometimes material, cultural traditions of the Native Americans that are indigenous to this region, that are seen by contemporary witness that are often credible and observant,” he said. “I said it’s much more than just stories.”
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In 1982, a father and son out for a hike on Squak Mountain ran into a giant, muscular creature and then fled, a user recounted to the Bigfoot Encounters website.
A sighting at Rattlesnake Lake occurred in August 2000, a supposed eyewitness recounted to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. The creature stood more than 7 feet tall, moved in a manner similar to a human and sported dark fur.
Meldrum said Sasquatch is a curious creature, at least as intelligent as other great apes, although probably not a threat to humans.
“I don’t think there’s cause to be fearful,” he said. “If it were a very real threat to humanity, then it would have suffered the fate that the grizzly bear in the lower 48 suffered. It has survived and remained unrecognized formally because of its reclusiveness, because of its retreating, retiring behavior.”
Sasquatch is not, however, as cuddly as the title character in “Harry and the Hendersons” — a 1987 film about a Seattle family and a hominid-turned-housemate.
Andrea Lankford, a former park ranger and author based in Sonora, Calif., heard some strange stories from colleagues as a ranger at the Cape Hatteras, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Zion national parks.
“Rangers tell their own stories around a campfire or a campsite or a ranger station, and there was just a lot of stories that had never been documented that I was privy to,” she said. “I decided somebody needed to write a book about that to document these things.”
Lankford included a Sasquatch account in “Haunted Hikes” — a 2006 guide to spine-tingling treks. The detailed information from a supposed eyewitness in Oregon offered a compelling case, she said.
“Bigfoot is pretty iconic, and even in the East, there’s a critter called the skunk ape in Big Cypress in Florida, so this sort of iconic, big, bipedal creature was in national parks across the United States,” she said. “Bigfoot was going to have to be in there no matter what.”
The iconic Patterson-Gimlin film is authentic — not a man in a gorilla suit as detractors claimed, Meldrum said. The footprints recorded at the Northern California site offer firmer evidence.
“It’s not a pair of floppy Kmart slippers like one of the would-be men in the costume claimed,” he said. “It’s not a set of carved wooden feet strapped to work boots like the other argued. It’s a living, animated foot that reacts and responds and leaves a variable imprint depending on the nature of the step.”
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The short film purports to show a hairy hominid traversing the area along the Klamath River in Northern California.
Meldrum saw the Patterson-Gimlin film as a boy, as Patterson traveled to Spokane to exhibit the documentary.
“Even at that age, I was already interested in all things prehistoric — dinosaurs, cavemen — mysteries and the unexplained,” he said.
The interest turned into a lifelong passion and, eventually, a career pursuit. Footprints led Meldrum to the study of Sasquatch in the mid-1990s.
“When I then, in ’96, came face to face with a very fresh set of footprints — 35, 45 individual prints in a track — I was in a pretty good position, I felt, to evaluate them,” he said.
The initial set of footprints traced across the Blue Mountain foothills near Walla Walla. The distinctive shape hinted at a creature similar to chimpanzees and gorillas, only larger.
“These tracks were just mind-boggling,” Meldrum said. “I kind of literally sort of pinched myself and said, ‘Is this really happening? Could this be a hoax? Could this fellow that took us out and showed us these tracks possibly have perpetrated this?’”
The evidence appeared too strong to discredit and, as Meldrum documented more footprints, patterns started to emerge. The impressions from throughout the West hinted at the underlying construction beneath the giant footpads.
“These weren’t simply enlarged facsimiles of human footprints,” Meldrum said. “They had distinctions which were, however, quite reasonable if one were to design a foot for a 900- to 1,000-pound, upright, walking primate and one that particularly made its living in very, very broken, steep, mountainous, forested terrain.”
Since the initial set of footprints in 1996, Meldrum has collected more than 200 footprint casts. The difference between hoaxes and footprints left by a creature is simple to spot.
“People ask me, ‘What’s the most compelling evidence?’ Well, for me, given my position and my expertise, the footprint evidence is,” he said. “For people to say these are a bunch of fakes made by crude, carved wooden feet strapped to hiking books, work boots, it just reveals a naïveté of the mechanics and the complexities of human foot form and function that are present in these footprints.”
Sasquatch in pop culture
Sasquatch, or Bigfoot, is a pop culture icon. The maybe-mythical hominid pops up in advertisements, films, as a mascot — everywhere, seemingly, except in the wild.
Footprints documented in remote places — along a lake far from civilization in Ontario, for instance — also call the possibility of hoaxes into question.
“There’s no question that there are hoaxes, although I think they’re rather few and far between,” he said. “Much more common are misidentifications. People see another flat-footed imprint with five toes left by, say, a bear and mistake it for a Sasquatch track.”
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The forest floor is a superhighway of sorts for creatures of all shapes and sizes, so tracks left by other forest animals often get reported to Meldrum and Sasquatch enthusiasts as possible evidence.
Decades of constant study taught Meldrum to sort the hoaxes and misidentification from the more tantalizing prospects.
“People, they see what they want to see,” he said. “Sometimes, a pothole that bears a faint resemblance to an oblong footprint takes on undue significance. You have to sift through those, but, boy, the ones that remain. There’s something out there making tracks that defy explanation by any other means.”
The information collected from supposed eyewitnesses hinges on credibility and sincerity, not to mention a keen ability to observe and record the scene.
Meldrum said many supposed sightings contain insufficient data to determine authenticity. Footprint evidence is often more useful than reported sightings.
Oftentimes, people unable to explain creatures spotted in the forest feel reluctant to report the incident due to concerns about credibility — or unwanted attention.
“Some people are after their five minutes of fame and some people want to spite someone else by showing that they’re gullible in accepting something which they think is silly and outrageous,” Meldrum said.
The closest Meldrum came to a face-to-face encounter occurred in Northern California, not far from the Patterson-Gimlin film site, and at a cabin on a remote lake in Ontario.
In the Siskiyou Mountains near the California coast, not far from Sasquatch hotspot Blue Creek, a large creature brushed along the team’s tents amid pea-soup fog.
Unable to catch a glimpse due to the fog, Meldrum and the others noticed 16-inch footprints around the tents.
In Ontario, as Meldrum and a documentary film crew searched for evidence of Sasquatch, someone or something tossed rocks and cordwood on the cabin’s aluminum roof just after the team snuffed the lights for the night.
“Critics will say we never saw what we were interacting with, but yet, we’re hundreds of miles from civilization, we’re at a location that’s only reasonably arrived at by floatplane and all six of us are accounted for inside the cabin, and something heaves a quartered chunk of cordwood onto the roof,” he said. “Unless bears have sprouted opposable thumbs, it’s kind of hard to imagine.”