Sasquatch still looms large, and scientists are intrigued

KEYWORDS: bigfoot lore bigfoot legend Bigfoot Legend Pacific Northwest legend Ray Wallace Sasquatch bigfoot museum giant ape giant primate Bigfoot tales Bigfoot memorabilia Tom Slick Willow Creek-China Flat Museum Grover Krantz bigfoot researcher Skookum cast

AUTHOR:Eric Bailey, Times Staff Writer

A prankster’s posthumous confession appeared to doom the legend. But Sasquatch still looms large, and scientists are intrigued.

WILLOW CREEK, Calif. — Here on the doorstep of the Pacific Northwest, trees grow tall and mystery runs deep. For generations, the dark gorges have yielded lumber, and a legend.

Willow Creek is a vortex of Bigfoot lore. This is where the discovery of jumbo footprints attributed to the oversized and doggedly undiscovered man-ape first captivated America nearly a half century ago. Years later, a classic film snippet caught a purported Bigfoot nearby. The one-time logging town long ago adopted the beast as civic emblem and tourist draw.

With so much at stake, the claims of Ray Wallace’s clan landed like a gut punch.

Wallace, a road builder and inveterate prankster, died late last year, at 84. After the funeral, his survivors let loose a secret: Their father had used a set of carved alder-wood feet to stomp the footprints that his work crew found north of Willow Creek in 1958. The whole thing was a hoax, his kin declared. Ray Wallace was Bigfoot, and Bigfoot was dead.

Not so fast. Wallace’s passing coincided with a quiet ripple of curiosity in the scientific community, where Sasquatch had long been derided as a fuzzy-headed myth best suited to the supermarket tabloid rack.

Some well-regarded scientists now say the possibility that the giant primate exists deserves a serious look. A brave few lay odds that Bigfoot could be real, among them renowned chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, who is expected at a Sasquatch summit this September in Willow Creek.

George Schaller, a pioneer in gorilla research and director of international science for the Wildlife Conservation Society, is a Bigfoot skeptic but says the giant ape cannot be dismissed as fantasy or folklore without a thorough scientific inquiry. Finding the animal “would reshape our thinking of the status of humans on this earth,” he said. “People write it off as a hoax or myth. I don’t think that’s fair.”

“It would be one of the greatest discoveries ever made,” said Esteban Sarmiento, a primate researcher at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It also would be “one of the most bizarre.”

No more bizarre than the Bigfoot tales that have been the stuff of everyday conversation in Willow Creek for decades.

The town, barely five blocks long, is cradled in a valley carved by the Trinity River, 30 miles east of Eureka. Puffs of clouds hug woodsy hillsides. With industrial logging gone belly up, the hamlet (population 1,500) long ago hitched its fortunes to sightseeing, fishing, rafting – and Bigfoot.

It was 30 miles north, in the remote expanse of the Six Rivers National Forest, that Bigfoot tracks were spotted 45 years ago near Bluff Creek. Jerry Crew, a tractor operator for Wallace, returned to town with a plaster of Paris cast of a whopper footprint. Jaws dropped, the news media pounced and the hunt was on.

Tom Slick, a Texas oilman and adventurer, hired a team of hunters and outdoorsmen to find the creature in 1960, the same year Sir Edmund Hillary conducted his celebrated Himalayan search for Bigfoot’s putative cousin, the Yeti. Both came up empty.

The wild lands north of Willow Creek also produced the most hotly debated piece of Bigfoot memorabilia – the jerky one-minute film of a hulking figure striding up a dry riverbed, shot in 1967 by Roger Patterson, a rodeo cowboy and part-time Sasquatch sleuth. The 16-millimeter film, brushed off by doubters as a man in a monkey suit, has yet to be proved fake.

“Bigfoot has become a part of our culture,” said Jo Ann Hereford, president of the Willow Creek-China Flat Museum, a repository for Bigfoot artifacts and lore. Hereford considers herself a skeptic. But, she adds with a wink, “I firmly believe in the economic value of Bigfoot.”

Sasquatch’s capitalist imprint here is impossible to miss.

There is the Bigfoot Country Club and Bigfoot Lumber, Bigfoot Rafting and the Bigfoot Motel. A local cafe features the Bigfoot Burger and Chocolate Bigfoot doughnut (both are big and, of course, shaped like a foot). The weekly newspaper features the hairy hominoid on its masthead. Highway 299, the main drag through town, is the Bigfoot Scenic Byway.

Out front of the museum, a wood carving of the creature, nearly two stories tall, beckons the curious. Inside, the Bigfoot wing’s curator, Al Hodgson, says many who believe in the beast – or at least in its possibility – were rankled when Wallace’s clan tried to blow up the Bigfoot legend.

Museum docents struck back by offering a $100,000 reward to anyone who could demonstrate that the scores of footprints discovered in 1958 were fraudulent.

Bigfoot devotees say it can’t be done. Wood-carved feet can’t sink deep enough, they say, can’t produce the dermal ridges – the tiny lines on a footprint – and shifting toe positions, step by step, that make many of the plaster casts so tantalizing. “There’s $100,000 that says it’s impossible to hoax,” said John Green, a retired journalist, longtime Bigfoot researcher and author.

Reports of ape-like behemoths predate Wallace by generations. A race of huge hairy giants has long been part of Native American lore, and settlers in Northern California talked of it as far back as the 1880s. Teddy Roosevelt related a Bigfoot yarn in his 1890 book “The Wilderness Hunter,” telling of a Northwest trapper thought to have been slain by a huge man-beast.

These days, Bigfoot’s presumed haunts include the forests of British Columbia, the Cascades and the Bitterroot Range. Sightings have been reported in Ohio and the tangled thickets of Florida. China has its own hairy “wild man,” and in Russia true believers are desperately seeking the Snezhni Chelovyek (Snow Person).

Hodgson, who ran Willow Creek’s general store for decades, once counted himself among the doubters. But then two trusted friends – one from Bible study – confessed to having had frightening forest encounters with a huge bipedal ape. “It is a hard thing to swallow,” said Hodgson, 79. “But I absolutely believe these folks were telling me the truth.”

On the town’s sidewalks, not everyone shares his conviction.

Curt Benson, 67, spent a lifetime in the woods stringing power lines and figures Bigfoot is simply good-natured poppycock to pump up the tourist trade. “If I were a businessman like Al Hodgson, everything I saw would be a Bigfoot.”

But some believe it is more than mythology. Joyce Matthews, a former schoolteacher, recalled how her logger husband once rushed home to grab a camera; he shot a photo of his foot, looking tiny beside a presumptive Bigfoot print.

A bushy-bearded carpenter named Tim Bauer joked that most folks consider Bigfoot to be “one of my cousins.”

Bauer turned deadly earnest when he told of hearing a howl up by his place near Fish Lake. He figures it was Bigfoot. “It’s like a screaming child that’s been burned,” he said. “Sends chills up your spine.”

On any weekend, the backwoods of Humboldt and Del Norte counties are alive with amateur sleuths. Some are quite sophisticated, using infrared scopes and blasting taped howls – ostensibly those of a Bigfoot – over loudspeakers into the woods.

But academia has been slow to embrace Bigfoot as a subject worth serious scrutiny.

Robert Michael Pyle, a biologist and writer who turned a Guggenheim grant into the book “Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide,” says the simple act of studying Sasquatch takes guts. Academics who open their minds to the possibility of Bigfoot “run a real risk of being ostracized,” Pyle said. “It becomes a practical thing to avoid the topic.”

The late Grover Krantz, a Washington State University anthropologist, was for years academia’s highest-profile Bigfoot researcher. He spent nights driving lonely Pacific Northwest back roads, rifle by his side, in search of the creature. Krantz believed shooting a Bigfoot was the surest way to turn myth into reality. For years he struggled before finally winning tenure, promotions and respect, Pyle said. “He was almost a Shakespearean tragic figure.”

One of Krantz’s few protégés is Jeff Meldrum, an associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University.

Meldrum is a respected scientist, a serious fellow who specializes in the evolution of primate locomotion. He said he has put up with “thinly veiled expressions of incredulity” from colleagues since he began looking into Bigfoot in 1996. In the academic world, where you either publish or perish, a Bigfoot paper doesn’t stand much chance with the scientific journals, Meldrum said. “But to offhandedly brush this aside as a myth is not very scientific.”

He is increasingly convinced such an animal may exist, swayed in particular by eyewitness accounts and plaster-cast imprints that have emerged from the woods over the decades. Many of the footprints are fake, he said, but scores look to be genuine. Meldrum said a few provocative hair samples have failed to produce usable DNA, but can’t be matched to any known animal.

Patterson’s 1967 film also intrigues Meldrum. As the creature tromps off, its muscles bulge, long arms swing, legs move in a high-step gait that Meldrum suggests evolved to avoid the woody debris of the forest floor. It also appears to be female, prompting Meldrum to ask: “Who is going to add breasts to a monkey suit?”

If such a creature exists, he said, it is obviously shy and extraordinarily elusive. Based on witness accounts, a profile can be drawn: Bigfoot is likely 7 or 8 feet tall, largely nocturnal, a solitary omnivore with footprints sometimes in excess of 20 inches long and half a foot wide.

One theory, Meldrum said, supposes that hundreds or several thousand of the creatures skulk in North America’s deepest forests, the offspring of a towering ancient ape from Asia dubbed Gigantopithecus blacki. Bigfoot researchers hypothesize that Giganto, thought to have gone extinct more than 200,000 years ago, wandered to North America during the Ice Age.

(The scientists who discovered Giganto have a different theory: This huge animal, which walked the Earth with early man, so frightened our ancestors that it ingrained in us the myth of the giant ape).

Skeptics say most Bigfoot evidence can be explained away. Many of the whopper footprints are really tracks left by bears that overstepped their front paw mark. Some recorded Bigfoot howls are the screech of the barred owl, said Bruce Marcot, a Portland wildlife ecologist. Sightings prove nothing: As any criminal court judge knows, eyewitness testimony is often unreliable.

What’s needed, all agree, is a specimen, dead or alive. But no skeletal remains have been produced, let alone a body. Peter S. Rodman, a UC Davis primate expert, says he will remain dubious “until Bigfoot walks in the door.”

But a few doubters have been turned around. A breakthrough came in 2000, when Bigfoot researchers produced a 200-pound block of plaster dubbed the Skookum Cast. It is billed as the impression a Bigfoot made while lying at the muddy edge of a small pond near Mount Adams in Washington State. Meldrum and others marveled over what they consider indisputable anatomical features – a gigantic heel, leg and backside. If the cast is a forgery, Meldrum said, it is a masterpiece.

Daris Swindler, a University of Washington emeritus professor of anthropology and long among Bigfoot’s most fervent doubters, took one look at the slab of plaster and declared himself “impressed,” particularly by the imprint of an enormous Achilles’ tendon, which he said would be difficult to fake.

Swindler has done an about-face, joining Meldrum and a few other scientists to push for a more concerted scientific investigation of Bigfoot.

Goodall and a few other big names in the ape business have lent moral support.

The National Geographic Society’s explorer-in-residence and a Cornell University professor-at-large, Goodall gained fame for her chimp studies at Tanzania’s Gombe National Park. She has long been intrigued by the notion of undiscovered great apes, and last year told a National Public Radio interviewer that she’s sure Bigfoot exists.

Her promised appearance at the Willow Creek conference planned for September represents “a watershed moment” in legitimizing Bigfoot as a topic of science, author Pyle said.

More than 300 Bigfoot buffs – amateurs and academics, believers and skeptics, even three Sasquatch scientists from Russia – are expected at the two-day International Bigfoot Symposium, sponsored by the local museum. Anyone hanging on for a third day can join a field trip to the Patterson film site.

Goodall will mostly be preaching to the choir in Willow Creek, where many folks don’t doubt the legend. The absence of a corpse bothers them not. Those woods chew up bones, they say. Anything can get lost out there.

“I just grew up believing,” said Tina Still, a hair stylist. “There’s got to be something out there.”

As for Ray Wallace, he is shrugged off as yesterday’s news. Old-timers knew him as a joker, and Bigfoot researchers – while insisting that the 1958 footprints were real – say Wallace became a purveyor of tall tales, phony movies and laughable photographs. When he died, they say, the media blew the story, making Wallace the father of Bigfoot, even though the legend – and sightings – preceded him by at least a century.

In death, Ray Wallace “finally became a celebrity,” said Michael Brady of Willow Creek. Brady conceded that he has never seen the creature. But he doesn’t doubt Bigfoot for a second.

“There’s just too much proof,” Brady said, standing halfway between the Bigfoot Hotel and Bigfoot museum along the Bigfoot Scenic Byway. “Ask anyone around here.”

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