Journeys: Calls of the Wild
Place a hand close to your face, and you might glimpse the glow of your palm as it reflects the faint starlight; extend it to arm’s length, and it disappears in the inky void. The tightly clustered trees and undergrowth in the rain-soaked forests of Northern California swallow light like an acoustic chamber absorbs sound. Only a glance overhead—revealing a smattering of stars through a break in the tree line—reassures that you are still standing on the earth’s surface.
It is well past midnight, and the lone sound comes from a light rain falling throughout the surrounding blackness. Still, we strain to hear something—anything—to verify that they are here. But after a half hour of standing and waiting for a response to the series of yowls performed by a Yakima Indian tracker named Melvin Skahan, we have neither seen nor heard any sign of Sasquatch.
Our group consists of volunteers from the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization and those of us who have signed on for the association’s most recent excursion. Divided into three teams stationed at quarter-mile intervals along a nearly invisible trail, our purpose is to elicit and record a reaction from one or more of the primates that are believed to inhabit this area of the forest. Skahan, a BFRO volunteer, bellows another powerful call into the blackness, while fellow tracker Kevin Jones and the three guests at our position, myself included, fiddle quietly with our equipment and tape recorders. Under whispered advice from our guides, we refrain from activating the infrared function of our night-vision goggles. “We’re not certain, but we believe they may somehow have the capability to see that spectrum of light,” says Jones. “They have exceptional night-vision capability, even better than owls, so we just have to let them come to us.”
Huddling in a forest in search of Sasquatch may seem like the adult equivalent of a summer camp snipe hunt, but for the BFRO’s researchers, few tasks are of greater importance. The group’s volunteers gather periodically at points throughout the country, at their own expense, to investigate reports of Bigfoot contacts. The verification of Sasquatch’s existence is their passion, and once exposed to their enthusiasm—and masses of accumulated data and firsthand accounts—you are tempted to follow them into the night.
Matthew Moneymaker, a 39-year-old Sasquatch devotee from Capistrano, Calif., founded the BFRO in 1995. Today, he and some 35 other volunteers catalog data from their fact-finding missions and from the field trips they host for inquisitive adventurers. According to Moneymaker, reports of sightings and aural encounters come from nearly every state in the union, and Sasquatch’s existence is taken for granted in and around the rural villages where such occurrences are common. Although no indisputable physical evidence, such as skeletal remains, has ever been recorded, the BFRO faithful remain unfazed. “Much of what we’ve collected over the years could certainly be termed circumstantial evidence,” concedes Moneymaker, “but there’s so much of it now that it’s presently unimportant whether or not we have the hard evidence of a Sasquatch’s remains. We know they are there. What’s most important now is to acquire more audio and solid photographic evidence.”
Gathering additional proof is a primary goal of the BFRO’s guided forays into the depths of the American wilderness. The group leads excursions to locations where recent, credible encounters have occurred—the great forests of the Northwest, the rugged mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, the fetid swamps of Louisiana and Florida. Participants stay in hotels that cater to hunters, fishermen, and other outdoorsmen, but they spend the better part of their evenings in search of Sasquatch. Moneymaker claims that most contacts are made at night, and so his groups venture out after dinner. They drive as close as they can to the targeted areas and then hike the rest of the way, carrying whatever gear is required for the evening’s activities.
This evening we are donning night-vision equipment and carrying tape recorders, hoping to capture the sound of a Sasquatch answering Skahan, whose yowls closely resemble recordings, made just a few miles away on an earlier trip, of what are believed to be Bigfoot calls. Although situated in a deep canyon, we hear no echoes; the forest consumes the haunting screams.
“Each of us has a considerable body of personal information that we’ve gathered on our field trips over the years,” states Jones, a full-time security guard at southeastern Washington’s now-deactivated Hanford nuclear site, over dinner earlier that night. “It’s available to any other serious researchers once we’ve verified their intent.”
Jones first saw a Sasquatch while on a hunting trip as a teenager in 1967. “I watched him for almost 40 minutes through a nine-power rifle scope, so I knew it wasn’t a bear or any other known creature,” he recalls. “A herd of elk passed by this animal, which had squatted down in the grass to be unobserved, and the elk never sensed his presence. Then a couple of hunters came on the scene, and they, too, walked within feet of him. After they passed, he moved away so quickly and stealthily that it was hard to believe what I’d seen.” Fearing ridicule, Jones told no one about his encounter, not even his father, but the image has remained vivid in his memory. When he discovered the BFRO web site, he decided to share his experience—and to dedicate much of his spare time to the pursuit of Bigfoot. “I went down to New Mexico last year to verify some information from a Jicarilla Apache who had reported a close encounter that he’d had almost two years earlier,” says Jones. “We’d gone out to the location to reenact the circumstances he described, and as we were walking back to our car, one of our party spotted a huge creature just yards from her in the brush. I went right in, chasing it up the side of the mountain almost 350 yards. When I finally stopped on a saddle where I could see, he was about 75 feet away, peeking around a tree, staring at me. We looked at each other, eye to eye, for almost a minute, and then he snapped a branch, turned, and disappeared. Since it was getting dark, and I couldn’t get anyone to go back in there with me, I waited until the next day and went down with another guide to check for prints. There was nothing good enough to cast, but we could see where he’d scrambled up a 60-foot cliff, tearing away the moss as he climbed.”
Skahan heard many Sasquatch tales as a child on the Yakima reservation in Washington, but he discounted them as Indian ghost stories intended to keep him in at night. “It wasn’t until many years later, after I’d left the reservation and gone to work for the Carson County Park Service, that I went back on the nation and began to document the reports that came in from all over,” says the tracker. “I’ve investigated over 130 sightings and have had a couple of Class A encounters on my own, the closest being about 175 feet.” Skahan claims that in 1994 he came across three sets of tracks in the snow that forever converted him into a believer. “I’d estimate they were about three days old. The largest print was 22 inches in length, and the stride of this animal was twice mine. There were also a set of 17-inch prints and a set about 8 inches, which must have been the child. I tracked them for about three miles, and it was evident from the pattern that the larger one was always watching out for the other two, climbing higher alongside their path and circling the trees as if he were scanning for danger.”
“Their intelligence is what makes them so difficult to track,” says Robert Leiterman, a park ranger and BFRO volunteer from Fortuna, Calif. “But like many other wild creatures, they are very territorial, so we can use that trait to help study them.”
When a Bigfoot’s space has been intruded upon, says Moneymaker, the creature will resort to intimidation. “They’ll break off large branches in the darkness and smash them against the surrounding trees to let you know their power,” he claims. “Sometimes they’ll actually throw those branches in your direction or even bluff charge to try and frighten you.”
Bobo Fay, a regular on BFRO expeditions, says he learned firsthand about the Sasquatch’s territorial behavior. On a late-night field trip in Northern California, he had set out on his own to “call-blast”—the BFRO term for playing back audio recordings of Bigfoot vocalizations on portable speakers—at a location 14 miles from the nearest town. “I was sitting in a field a few yards from the tree line when I began getting some response from a distance and realized, as I sent out more calls, that the replies were getting closer,” Fay recalls. “It took almost 45 minutes until he was on the edge of the tree line, and I could see him pretty clearly moving in the shadows. His screams were incredibly powerful, and my usually fearless pit bull was terrified, hiding in the back of the camper. This ’squatch had broken off a huge branch and was smashing it against the trees. You’d have thought it was Barry Bonds in there swinging that branch from the sounds it made. He was also shaking these 70-foot trees and making them swing like they were in a gale. This went on for what seemed like an hour, with my dog cowering in fear and me with tears streaming out of my eyes. When I finally got in the truck and tried to drive out of there, it was alongside. I was doing 30, and it kept up easy. Even now it still makes the hair on my neck tingle when I think about it, but that’s why I’m here. I can’t resist the possibility of another encounter; only now, I’m far better mentally prepared.”
Fay and the other BFRO volunteers maintain albums with the data they have acquired over the years, including their best images and audio and video recordings. Because most of their images were shot at great distances in poor lighting, none is sharp enough to confirm Sasquatch’s existence. “It’s exceedingly difficult to acquire any sort of clear image because these creatures are primarily nocturnal and extremely intelligent,” says Moneymaker. “The last, best footage is still the Patterson film, which was shot way back in 1967. Many people have tried to debunk that film, or even claimed that it was a man in a monkey suit, but none have succeeded.”
The film to which Moneymaker refers is the 16 mm sequence shot by an early Bigfoot researcher named Roger Patterson. It depicts a 7-foot, 4-inch primate striding through the forest near Bluff Creek, Calif., just a few miles from our present location. Moneymaker says the film’s veracity has been endorsed by several noted primatologists, including Daris Swindler, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Washington. “There are other short bits of video shot by our members, but none as clear as Patterson’s. That’s still the best film evidence available.”
According to Moneymaker, the dearth of data also can be attributed to Bigfoot researchers’ keeping secret the locations of encounters to prevent others from scaring these creatures farther into the wilderness. “Our most important goal, after positive verification,” he says, “is to prevent any harm to these creatures.”
Following our evening in the forest, we hike the next night to an old ranch on a grassy ridge overlooking thousands of acres of timber. After a few uneventful hours, we radio the two other groups and convey our intent to return to base camp at the motel. We switch on the infrared capability of our night-vision goggles and start back along the faint path, guided by the shimmering pointillist pattern of iridescent green. With their radios on, all three groups have begun their outward trek when someone in the last team cuts in: “Hold it. There’s something strange going on here.” We stop in our tracks, then: “We’re getting some strange vocalizations, and we’ve just heard a tree snap. We’re standing by…” And, finally: “That’s it. I guess that whatever it was is gone; it’s completely quiet again. We’re heading out.”
When all the teams arrive at the parked cars, we question the final group’s members. “It’s like nothing we’ve heard before,” says one. “It was certainly a language, but almost impossible to describe . . . a deep chattering.” Because the team was moving at the time, no one was taping. Still, all who heard it say they never have experienced a comparable sound.
“There aren’t too many unknowns left in our universe,” says Moneymaker. “But just imagine the thrill of ‘discovering’ a new primate species, something as huge as Gigantopithicus, which has long been thought extinct, living here among us for hundreds of years, going largely unseen. That’s something really worth devoting your life to.” Or, for those in search of a unique adventure, it might be worth a couple of nights in the woods.
Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization