Myth Adventures on the Sasquatch Trail

Fraud? Fable? Camera-shy, tree-thumping man-beast? When it comes to bigfoot, we’re all over the map (literally). Thankfully, there’s a fecund subculture of earnest, quasi-scientific researchers right here in Ohio who are on the case.

A cool December drizzle dampened the fallen leaves on a trail through the woods in Thornton Park at the edge of Morrow, Ohio. It was early afternoon and we were heading to the bank of Todd’s Fork, to a spot on the tributary where several months before, according to a fisherman, a large, hairy, two-legged creature threw rocks in his direction, scrambled up a steep knife ridge, and vanished into the forest.

The tromp in the woods was my entrance into the world of bigfoot research—an increasingly crowded place, if Google searches and cable television can be trusted. I was rolling with Jay Buchwald, Bryan Schnicke, and Adrianne Arney, three of a four-member organization called TriState Bigfoot, the self-proclaimed “top-ranked bigfoot research team” in all Ohio. The Morrow site was not new to them; they had done some follow-up work on a similar incident in 2010, returning now to once again scour the area for any sign that a massive bipedal hominid—a creature maybe nine feet tall, weighing hundreds of pounds—might still be there.

“It’s reasonable to think that some bigfoots stay in one area as long as there’s a food and water source,” explained Schnicke. The bearded 22-year-old was braced for winter in a knit beanie and hooded workman’s jacket over a woodsy plaid shirt. “Some probably move on to other areas.”

It may seem odd to think that a Sasquatch—that’s “hairy man” in Halkomelem, a native Canadian language—could be terrorizing fishermen within an hour of Fountain Square. But Ohio is one of the nation’s most prolific locations for sightings. According to BFRO—the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, a national database that has been tracking such things since 1995—Ohio has the fifth most sightings in the U.S. with 230. Only Washington, California, Florida, and Oregon are more bigfoot-centric. We’ve even got our own name for bigfoot: the Ohio Grassman is what some folks call the legend.

It may also seem odd that your Buckeye friends and neighbors are suddenly convinced that this ape-like creature does indeed exist. But there’s nothing sudden about it. Ohioans’ fascination dates to the mid-19th century—specifically, January of 1869, near the southeast Ohio River town of Gallipolis, where a “wild man” attacked a father and daughter on a rural road. The hairy thing pulled the man to the ground; only when the girl hit it on the head with a rock did the attacker amble off into the woods.

This account comes from the blog of the Cincinnati Cryptozoological Society, which is devoted to the study of bigfoots (yes, that’s the plural of bigfoot), swamp monsters, Nessie, and other rumored-to-exist animals. A quick Internet search reveals that our region is rife with eager cryptozoologists. There’s Southwestern Ohio Bigfoot, which claims Squatches are in Ohio’s Shawnee State Park; Kentucky Bigfoot Research Organization, which boasts that the Bluegrass State is filled with sightings; the Ohio Center for Bigfoot Studies; Central Ohio Bigfoot Research; and Indiana Bigfoot Awareness.

If the members of these organizations are anything like my companions on the December outing, they’re pretty much your guy-next-door types—if your neighbors wear more Carhartt than L.L. Bean. Bryan Schnicke is the youngest of the group, a parts delivery driver from Cincinnati who is full of cryptozoological minutia. Jay Buchwald is 34, a Brown Countian who works for a local Internet sales company; he’s the leader of Tri-State Bigfoot and maintains its website. Adrianne Arney is the big sister of the group, looking very artsy in long hair, jeans, and hiking boots. And she is artsy: she makes delicate jewelry and crafts in her Butler County home and markets them online. When the other two joked with me about her POD—paranormal obsessive disorder, their nickname for her constant ghost/bigfoot/UFO talk—she laughed. It makes sense: If you spend days trolling the woods in search of an elusive “thing” that most folks don’t believe in, you’d better rock with friends who make you laugh.

When we got to the sandy river bank, the three hovered over indentations in the soft dirt. “This is deer,” said Buchwald, and the other two agreed, noting some smaller tracks next to them. But none, they said, belonged to bigfoot. I got the feeling they were politely schooling me on animal tracking. I resisted showing my smart phone pic of an Alaskan grizzly paw print the size of a garbage can lid I shot last summer. But as I watched them work the area I could see that scanning the forest floor for any scrap of evidence that might hold a key to the bigfoot mystery was central to their forensic process.

They came equipped with cameras, typical gear for bigfoot hunters. Sometimes they even attach these to trees, set to shoot automatically at intervals. There are researchers who use thermal imaging equipment at night and digital recorders to capture what might be vocal signals—distress sounds, warnings, and mating calls. But they had none of those on this follow-up trip to Morrow. Buchwald hadn’t even brought his standard piece of equipment: his brother’s old college baseball bat.

When he does have the bat with him, it’s not for defense. One theory among believers is that bigfoots communicate through tree knocks, a quick rapping of a trunk with a piece of wood. The bat is what Buchwald uses to replicate what he supposes would be the sound of a gargantuan arm swinging a colossal fallen timber into a tree. “A piece of wood that I can pick up off the ground might break in two on the first swing,” he said.

Whether or not you actually think a gigantic hairy bi-ped is living in your local park, it is undeniable that a bigfoot obsession—nurtured by reality TV and social media—has exploded in popular culture. Why it’s happening could be the true mystery.

Before you invest in night vision goggles or mount trailcameras in your backyard, you should know that the Ohio hotbed of Sasquatch sightings is actually several hours northeast, at Salt Fork State Park. This is where Marc DeWerth, an industrial chemical salesman from Columbia Station, organizes an annual bigfoot conference. It’s held in the park’s huge rustic lodge, where as many as 700 have attended. “The overflow was so big one year we had to run cables to another room hooked to a 55-inch LED screen for some people to watch the sessions,” he told me recently. This year’s confab is right around the corner—April 13—and will feature speakers from around the country.

Salt Fork State Park officials neither confirm nor refute the veracity of naked primates running through their 20,000 acres. But Ohio’s east central park district manager, Hal Harper, said bigfoot claimers definitely have come to him. “I’ve talked to several people who have said they’ve seen Sasquatch here,” he said, reporting that these witnesses are “all over the spectrum” in terms of their believability.  When I asked if this attention helps boost the park’s visitor count, he simply said, “We welcome people to come here to look around.”

I did just that on a sunny Sunday afternoon when snow still covered Salt Fork’s Morgan’s Loop Trail. I trekked with John Hickenbottom, the park naturalist, who leads visitors on the popular Bigfoot Walk, traversing undulating countryside, through stands of pines, down creek draws that feed the lake, and past huge rock formations for nearly a mile. As we went, he told me about claimed sightings, including one by Jeffrey Patterson, a local resident, who posted a YouTube video showing what appears to be a large Sasquatch shaking a tree in the forest until it snaps. He said a park employee reported seeing an ape-like face staring through an office window once; another spotted a hairy creature running across a road. Last summer, he said, a family from Cleveland showed him a plaster cast they made in the campground of a bare pad and toes of a foot many times the size of a human’s. He pointed out what would be prime habitat—the lake and its creeks for drinking water; roots, foliage, and critters for food; even rock overhangs for shelter—and described the intense public interest. “My first bigfoot hike was last July,” he said. “Over 100 people showed up.”

Last year, the Animal Planet television network came to Salt Fork to record an episode of their popular reality show Finding Bigfoot, which is produced in conjunction with BFRO. The episode included a town meeting of locals telling of their sightings to the show’s host and BFRO founder, Matt Moneymaker. Moneymaker is—perhaps not surprisingly—a former Ohioan.

Common to all the bigfoot researchers I talked with was their belief that they had seen, heard, or recorded one—a powerful experience that sparked a lifetime hobby, if not a fanatical passion. Brad Bacon, a researcher for BFRO from northern Ohio and former manager of a Harley-Davidson dealership there, told me he wished he could make his living researching Sasquatch. He says he once saw one with the help of a thermal camera and heard another on an expedition in the woods. It happened when a fellow hunter—a woman—made a vocal call that attempts to mimic a bigfoot. “She gave her call and then it came back,” he said. He described the noise as a WWII hand crank air raid siren that started low and built to a high-pitched wail.

“It was like the perfect golf shot,” he mused. “It felt like every coyote in the country was around us.”

My Tri-State Bigfoot comrades have each had their own experiences. Buchwald—the baseball bat carrier—described what he called a “tree knocking conversation” he’s convinced he had with a bigfoot. “I did two knocks and got one knock in return,” he said.

Arney’s experience dates to when she was a teenager. “I was 14 and at my sister’s house on my dad’s farm [in Butler County],” she recalls. “It was dark at night and we were near the barn. We saw something insanely tall and black; it had hold of my friend’s arm, and I pulled her away by the other arm.” She related the story calmly; it must be an explanation she’s given many times before.

Schnicke was a teenager, too—a 17-year-old out hunting with his dad. He was walking alone to his deer stand. “It was four or five in the morning,” he says. “I heard it walking and it sounded like it had weight. I saw hair, a rusty brown color. I put my Maglite on it and it ran and tore through a briar patch and through a creek. It all took 30 seconds.”

His voice was even, almost clinical as he spoke. He was shocked and fearful, he admits. But he remembers thinking, “I’m seeing something I’m not supposed to be seeing.”

Joedy Cook, of Sayler Park, has studied the subject for 20 years and has written or coauthored five books, all in the wake of his 1993 encounter on a road at Camp Grayling, Michigan, where he was in the military. “It was a summer evening. I was with three guys [and we] backed up the vehicle we were in and he was in front of us,” he remembers. “Rose-colored hair, muscular, no neck, flat nose—definitely a male—and blackish red eyes.”

Cook, now retired military, said he kept his experience in Michigan mostly to himself for about 15 years until he decided to do media conferences and write books about what he researched and saw. His collection of local sightings includes one by a colleague in an Addyston cemetery. He e-mailed me the photos she took—a large, blurry, reddish-brown figure moving behind the tombstones.

I zoomed in with my computer and saw what appeared to be an ape-like figure about the size and color of a juvenile grizzly. Was it the power of suggestion making me think, Hey, that could be a Squatch! as I stared at the digital photos? Or was I merely seeing what someone told me to see? Or maybe what I wanted to see?

A 2012 Angus Reid Public Opinion poll showed that 29 percent of Americans believe that bigfoot is “definitely” or “probably” real. Close to a third of us. But let’s be real. No one has ever found a dead bigfoot. Shouldn’t there be more evidence than grainy videos and blurry photos? To get some animal gravitas, I called the Cincinnati Zoo’s director, Thane Maynard.

Maynard sidestepped the “Is it real?” question. He did point out that his friend, renowned primate expert Jane Goodall, has publicly admitted the possibility of bigfoot in media interviews. But he took off instead on Sasquatch’s importance as an anthropological element. “Stories and myths are vital to human beings’ being human,” he said. In his view, the pursuit of Sasquatch is more about hope and search—something our species requires—than the possibility of proving they exist.

Ernest DuBrul, a St. Xavier High School graduate and now professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Toledo, is a firm nonbeliever. “I’ve seen no scientific evidence that they exist,” he insisted when we talked. As a teacher of a brain biology course, he supported Maynard’s view, but with a physiological twist. “There’s actually a function in the brain’s left hemisphere called the interpreter. Your brain tells you stories so you get along,” he said. “You can’t get through life with things not making sense.”

And when you’re out in nature, things don’t always make sense. Consider that hundreds of years ago, a sex-starved, dehydrated sailor may have mistaken a manatee for a half-fish, half-woman creature…and the myth of mermaids was born. Then generations of sailors, hearing about mermaids and seeing the mermaid in art, continued to “see” them.

DuBrul explained that a person who has a tendency to believe in bigfoot—perhaps because of the power of suggestion, or because of his personal belief about the paranormal—will see a Sasquatch because his brain wants to match up what he sees with what he believes. His left hemisphere “interpreter” will lead him to where he’ll be most comfortable.

But facts and science—or maybe their dearth—have never stopped some entrepreneurs from their work. A market niche has begotten not only the show Finding Bigfoot but another one in production at Spike TV, where the first person or team to present on camera to a panel of scientific experts hard proof of a bigfoot—a body, DNA evidence, a living Sasquatch—will be awarded $10 million. Lloyds of London, with pockets deeper than the Grand Canyon, is a coproducer.

And they may get some takers. Consider that in the fall of 2012, a team of scientists from DNA Diagnostics, a forensic company in Nacogdoches, Texas, reported possessing 100 samples of hair, saliva, urine, and blood that purport to show through a genome study that a bigfoot exists. Their claim: They have proof there’s a creature that is a 15,000-year-old hybrid of Homo sapiens and some mysterious primate. They say their findings are currently under review by a scientific journal, though Robin Lynne, a spokeswoman for the company, wouldn’t name which one.

“This is good hard science, a five year study,” Lynne said when we spoke. And she adamantly denied their research was part of Spike TV’s upcoming show—or any other television production. (As this story went to press, the research was, indeed, published: it’s the sole piece of research in Vol. 1, Issue 1 of the DeNovo Scientific Journal—an online publication that does not list staff members or an editorial board.)

As the UFO crowd says: Keep watching the skies.

So are these self-appointed primate researchers who live right in our own neighborhoods simply trying to bring order to a confusing world? Chasing money? Trying to convince others of what they know from their own experience? Or just plain nutjobs?

The ones I talked to seemed admirably normal, with lives, diverse jobs, often college degrees, families, and bank accounts. And they do have plenty of photos, sound recordings, and moving pictures to back their obsession up. YouTube has pages of videos and photos of bigfoots, including multiple posts of the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film with more than a million hits collectively.

No doubt you’ve seen it. It’s the Zapruder film of bigfoot footage. The 16mm film clip—shot by Roger Patterson and witnessed by Robert Gimlin as they were horseback riding along the Klamath River outside Orleans, California, in 1967—shows a hirsute ape-like figure, arms swinging, traversing a creek bed over logs and rocks, and looking back at Patterson and Gimlin before disappearing into the woods. In 2010, Bill Munns, a digital editor and Hollywood creature costume designer, analyzed it for a National Geographic documentary using the original Kodak film. Munns claims thigh-to-hip and foot-to-calf measurements indicate the beast cannot be a human in a costume.

It is entirely possible that clever scammers were—and are—involved. Put aside the Patterson-Gimlin film analysis: Could, say, a person in a Halloween costume have fooled the photographer in Addyston or visitors at Salt Fork? Could locals simply be passing around a bigfoot costume the way my uncles take turns wearing the family Santa suit to entertain the kids at our annual Christmas parties? I e-mailed Jeffrey Patterson (no relation to the deceased Roger Patterson), confronting him with the possibility that someone might have hoaxed him that way at Salt Fork State Park.

“It looked exactly like a large nude man with heavy body hair and canine-like teeth,” he responded. “It’s also very strange that anyone would be dressed like that (or undressed) in mid-January.”

As a lifelong backpacker who’s camped about a thousand nights in the backcountry and hiked thousands of miles throughout America, including in Alaska, I couldn’t ignore my own observations for this story. Before now I’d never gone into any woods thinking one second about bigfoot. Yes, I’ve heard weird sounds late at night and I’ve seen some pretty big and scary animals, but none that aren’t in Thane Maynard’s zoo.

Just to be sure, I took two weekend backpack trips last fall and winter to Batavia’s East Fork State Park. This is the location of BFRO’s Report #26149, where two fishermen described horrible animal-like screams and heavy rocks thumping into the lake near them in June 2009.

I looked specifically for prints, tree limb shelters, and the animals themselves. I listened carefully for any sounds of a Squatch; I banged on trees in the dark of night and howled like a trapped animal. My only conclusion was that several of my backpacking buddies snore louder than grizzly bears fighting over food. But like any Christian who accepts the existence of God without objective proof, who am I to say for sure bigfoot doesn’t live?

But you don’t need to take my word for it. You can explore for the hairy beast yourself. BFRO is offering 20 guided bigfoot expeditions this year to places all over America, including one in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest that is booked full. The weekend will cost participants anywhere from $300 to $500, not counting food and lodging.

And if you think that’s too much to pay for being part of science, just go for style. For $18 they’ll sell you a trucker-style ball cap that says, “Gone Squatchin.” I’m gonna get me one.

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