Ridiculous is a meaningless word until you’ve seen Thomas Steenburg, Bigfoot field researcher, taking giant strides across Harrison Lake’s beach wearing replica creature tracks moulded to a pair of Chuck Taylors. He is conducting an experiment, see, to find out whether or not convincing Bigfoot tracks can be easily faked. They can’t. Even in the softest sand, Steenburg’s tracks—replicas of the 1958 Bluff Creek, California, prints that catapulted the term Bigfoot into public consciousness—mark only an eighth of an inch of the surface. The tracks he claims to have discovered at Ruby Creek the week before, in late September this year, were three times that deep, indicating a foot structure designed to carry a very heavy animal. He says.
Here’s the story: a man from Chilliwack went hunting in the forests around Ruby Creek, about 50 kilometres up the Fraser River from Agassiz. He was in very difficult terrain, a bog so moist and so deep that Steenburg later sank waist-deep while exploring the area. The hunter told Steenburg that something threw a rock at him. When he turned to look, he saw a manlike creature covered in hair walk into a thicket of trees. He believed it was a Bigfoot (also widely known in this part of the world as Sasquatch, which means “hairy man” in Halkomelem, a Salish language).
So the hunter was spooked, of course, and called Steenburg. After 30 years in the field, Steenburg has become B.C.’s go-to guy for this sort of thing. Fellow trackers Bill Miller and Christine Marie went with Steenburg to investigate and they found a few tracks in the forest where the hunter saw the creature wander. They cast one of the prints in plaster and unveiled it, placed upon a trash bin, at the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club/West Coast Sasquatch conference on the shore of Harrison Lake on October 4—the event at which Steenburg was taking giant strides across the sand. Harrison Hot Springs is a hotbed of Sasquatch activity, and the creature is ever present in the locals’ psyches: there are Sasquatch murals and statues and a restaurant and a provincial park named after the elusive (many say mythical) animal.
The cryptozoologists were crowding around the nine-inch cast. It was a mediocre print, at best, covered in bog gunk, and hardly proof that Sasquatch is alive and kicking. Then again, there’s more to it than just this print.
“There are two facts,” says veteran B.C. Sasquatch tracker John Green, sitting in the living room of his Harrison Hot Springs house. “There is something out there making those prints.
“Second, thousands of people, including university professors, have said they have seen a large, bipedal animal covered in hair. If we get a team together, we’ll discover that humans have been faking it throughout history—an interesting human activity—or there’s really something out there.”
Green is a pioneer in Sasquatch field research and was one of the first to investigate the location of the famous and controversial 1967 so-called Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film shot at Bluff Creek. There have been more than 3,000 sightings in B.C. since 1920, by his count. (In July this year, two people separately claimed they saw a Bigfoot on Mt. Archibald near Chilliwack within three hours of each other.)
Green has written three books during his half-century search. He says he has seen many footprints but has never seen the animal, something he chalks up to “bad luck” but something that cynics use as proof that he’s running a fool’s errand.
“People don’t believe because they have not actually delved into the subject themselves,” says John Kirk, chair and cofounder of the BCSCC and author of In the Domain of the Lake Monsters. “They have never done any research; they have never done any comprehensive analysis of the evidence there. They’ve never really looked into it.”
Kirk says that when he began investigating British Columbia’s unclassified species, or cryptids, in the 1980s, he faced “incredulity from the public at large”. He got used to it a long time ago. He finds value in his work, even if most think he’s nuts—new species are discovered all the time, after all. The Congolese mountain gorilla inhabited the same mythical realm for westerners as Bigfoot until it was officially discovered in 1902, Kirk says. Cryptozoologists have a long list of such creatures, and Earth is a big place. Just because we don’t know it’s out there doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
The scientific community has refused, Kirk says, and still refuses to tackle a “fringe” subject that could compromise careers. There are superstars in Bigfoot’s corner, however: such highly regarded wildlife experts as Jane Goodall and George Schaller have acknowledged publicly that Sasquatch may exist and that science should invest more resources in looking for it.
But they’re a very small minority. Most scientists find the hunt pointless: why not devote our research to helping animals that are known to exist instead of dedicating time and resources to an animal that, if it exists, hasn’t affected humanity in any way?
“Well, humans want to understand our environment and we want to understand nature as best as we can. It’s like any other animal that hasn’t been discovered yet,” Kirk says.
“I’m not out to prove that it exists,” says Gerry Matthews at his home in Chilliwack. Matthews is the founder of West Coast Sasquatch, an on-line forum where Bigfoot enthusiasts share information. “I wouldn’t be terribly heartbroken if it was proven not to exist.
“But the mystery is still out there. There’s enough going on to say, ”˜Ya know, there’s something happening here; there’s something on the go.’ It would be nice to get to the bottom of this, once and for all.”
The more one looks into it, the deeper the mystery gets. The Sasquatch conundrum defies logic. The creature’s potential existence is about as baffling as the lengths that presumed hoaxers will go to so they can fool what is, essentially, a very small cult following. One thing is clear, however: anyone who does a little research soon learns there’s a lot more going on than media reports of hoaxes.
“A lot of Sasquatch tracks are found where nobody goes; it’s simple as that,” Kirk says. “I always get very doubtful when they’re found close to human habitation, and I quadruple-check those to ensure that the footprint shows flexibility, otherwise I’m out of there in two minutes flat. It’s a waste of time. If every print is exactly the same, thanks but no thanks.”
There have been plenty of hoaxes over the years, the latest by three men from Georgia who claimed to have a Bigfoot carcass stored in an icebox. It turned out to be a gorilla suit stuffed with possum guts. But that doesn’t mean all sightings and tracks are fabricated.
The reason Bigfoot field research continues is that convincing tracks are found every year around the world—tracks that change with each step, indicating that something organic, not rigid, is making the impressions. The Willow Creek Museum in California has a $100,000 reward for anyone who can demonstrate how to replicate footprints in dense terrain that reflect the gait and girth of a heavy, bipedal animal. So far, no one has come forward to demonstrate how convincing, organic-looking prints can be fabricated.
“Whenever I hear that [footprints are impossible to fake], my bells go off,” says B.C. Society for Skeptical Enquiry chair Lee Moller. “Impossible to fake? People are very, very smart. If they want to see a toe that seems to splay, all it takes is a spring, a little bit of intelligence, and they can do it. Don’t underestimate people’s ability for fakery.”
Moller, a software designer by trade, wonders why, in an age when “just about everybody and their dog” has a digital camera or a camera phone, not a single convincing photograph has been taken.
“It’s virtually impossible to believe that an 800-pound primate”¦could have not [only] gone unnoticed, but could have left no evidence behind. We have fossils from our predecessors that are three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half million years old,” Moller said. “This leads me to believe that it’s a figment of our collective imagination.”
Stanley Coren, a UBC psychology professor, says, “If you believe there’s a Sasquatch, then you’re going to find more material out there that would suggest to you that you really did see the Sasquatch than if you don’t believe it.” Coren explains that in the 1950s, UFO sightings were a hot topic. Not surprisingly, reports of UFO sightings skyrocketed during that time but have since tapered off as public interest in the phenomenon wavers. “If you didn’t have the idea of a Sasquatch in your memory then you wouldn’t have the Sasquatch to interpret something you weren’t expecting.”
Science, of course, requires a dead body or, better, a live one. Even bones or hair will do. Moller says that anything would be better than “cheesy footprints” or a video of what he describes as a man in a furry suit that could easily have been faked. He says that the likelihood of finding any previously unknown bipedal land-going mammal weighing more than 100 pounds is “slim to none, and slim just left town”.
Vancouverites tend to have this skeptical attitude, but the farther one gets from the city, the more one finds people inclined to believe in Bigfoot. For them, the creature appeals to that childlike belief that fantastic possibilities do exist on our planet. Bigfoot is the cryptid mascot. And if it really does exist, Earth is a very different world than we know.
But as with any other puzzle, we’ll never know the answer unless society keeps an open mind about it.
“There’s no place in the universe for cynicism,” Kirk says. “Skepticism, yes. As we say in the Bigfoot world, when you’re out in the field, keep your ”˜skepticals’ on.”
Bill Miller swears he’s seen one. He took a picture of it, too, in broad daylight, back in 2003, about 4,200 feet up a mountain near Harrison Lake. The picture shows something hairy standing upright, half obstructed by the surrounding trees, about a half-mile away, across a valley. The figure’s arm is extended behind it, indicating it’s in mid-step. Miller points out the sunshine gleaming off the arm. The picture is blurry, of course—Bigfoot photos always are—but it’s sharp enough to show that it’s not a bear. He’s spent the past five years investigating what that furry blur was.
“I want to get close,” he says. “Not so close that I can feel its breath in my face—I don’t want to be that close. That’s a nervous thing to even think about.”
He’s steering his Polaris Ranger six-wheel-drive up Mt. Archibald—the site of the double sightings back in July—scanning the trail for tracks or anything out of the ordinary. There’s no special skill set for what he does: just be in as many places as possible as often as possible and hope for the best. The truck bed is loaded with rope, some tarp, his camera. There’s bear repellent in the cup holders.
He pulls over and stops where one man claimed he saw a Sasquatch cross the forest service road in front of his truck, coming from terrain so steep and so dense that any man roaming around in there wearing a monkey suit is about as plausible as a Sasquatch actually crossing the road.
Miller has been hunting Bigfoot for more than 10 years, but he says not to call him a hunter. That would imply that he has caught something. It’s tireless, thankless work, and the minute Miller catches a good picture or a video, he says, he’s retiring for good. He’ll let the scientists handle it from there.
“I have other things I would love to do,” he says. “I would love to get it over with tomorrow. When I get a film, I’m done. I am done.”