- James Swan
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When I moved to the West Coast from the Midwest 35 years ago, one part of the local culture that jumped out at me was the number of references to bigfoot or Sasquatch.
There were bars, restaurants, books, candy, dolls, wooden statues, "museums" and, perhaps best of all, the Sierra Nevada Brewing company's Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale.
Personally, I thought bigfoot was a joke, like the Side Hill Gouger and the Swampscott of northern Michigan, which made campfires fun and helped mothers scare their kids into not going out at night.
The movie "Harry and the Hendersons" was my idea of what bigfoot really was.
But I started meeting people who swore they had seen a bigfoot. If you don't know, my Ph.D. is environmental psychology, and over the years I've interviewed a lot of people about a lot of different subjects. So, I decided to interview people who said they had seen bigfoot.
One of those people was a graduate student whose doctoral committee I was on. He invited me to come on a "bigfoot hunt" in a rugged area of the North Cascades.
It was early May and there was a heavy snowmelt, which meant we had to ford a river that was almost waist-deep. We crossed the icy waters. It appeared we were the first people to make the crossing that spring, as there were no boot prints in the ground on the other side.
About 100 yards later, the trail crossed a creek bed that was dry, but still pretty muddy. There in the mud was a set of huge footprints with a very long stride. The tracks were 14½ inches long and 6½ inches wide with five discernible toes.
People with feet that big are professional football and basketball players; they likely don't go running around the woods barefoot in icy-cold mud.
The tracks were perhaps a week or two old.
Back at the Bigfoot Café in the closest town, they had a whole collection of plaster casts of huge footprints found in the same area.
Since then I've interviewed more than 60 people who swear they've seen large, apelike creatures walking erect in the woods of Canada, Washington, Oregon and California, including a busload of graduate students who all had the same story.
These folks include wilderness guides, librarians, engineers, loggers, psychologists and college teachers, none of whom claims to have been smoking or drinking anything at the time.
Typically they report initially sensing something a kind of hyperactive excitement; hearing a high-pitched whine; smelling something like a skunk; and seeing a barrel-chested animal that stands five to seven feet tall, walks erect and had long hair of black or brown or silvery hue. Then the he, or she, is gone.
A Freudian psychiatrist could describe these sightings as projections of the human id or libido the raw, primal, sexual energy in each of us, which reveals itself in wild places where all the distractions of modern society are absent.
This may explain some reports; but all of the Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest have stories and legends about bigfoot or Sasquatch. There are similar tales among Indians of the Great Lakes, Northeast and Southeast, as well as reported sightings. Myths are part of human nature, but they don't leave tracks.
If I hadn't found those tracks, I would have dismissed the whole thing as a big joke. Physical evidence, however, is a close encounter of the third kind.
When I was working with the "Sightings" TV series, I came across a story from my Lummi Indian friend, Cha-Das-Ka-Dum, about a tape that he made when he was a reservation police officer.
One evening in 1972, he was called out to a remote home where a burglary was reported in progress. He pulled into the driveway and saw a form by the garage. He got out of the car, drew his gun, leveled it at the form and announced he was a police officer.
Cha-Das-Ka-Dum said that it turned, and he saw an apelike creature with two "burning eyes." It let out a high-pitched scream and he smelled an awful skunklike odor. He got back in the car, and the creature approached.
Cha-Das-Ka-Dum then drove along the road and the bigfoot raced beside him, crying. At that point he rolled down the car window partially and stuck his police dispatcher intercom phone out the window. The cries of the animal were recorded at the police station by the dispatcher.
We did a segment on "Sightings" about this story, and took a copy of the tape to have an expert hear it. A zoologist from the Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles said it sounded like an animal, but it was a species he had never heard.
I started doing some research. It turns out that all around the globe, people in northern hemispheres have legends about ape-men who live in wild places. Greco-Roman literature abounds with stories about satyrs, fauns, sylvans and centaurs members of the callicantaryi. In Turkey and Russia, they are called alma. In Tibet, yeti are supposed to be the guardians of sacred places.
On his ascent of Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary photographed the tracks of the yeti, or abominable snowman.
If you're willing to consider that bigfoot or Sasquatch might exist in some fashion, you should have a look at the books of Washington State University anthropologist Grover Krantz, who sought evidence of the creature's existence for years.
Regardless what white folks think, Indians all along the Pacific Northwest coast speak with respect of Sasquatch. Among the Koyukon Indians of Alaska, they are called woodsmen.
Mary Alsup, a psychologist who works with the Trinidad Indian Reservation in northern California in bigfoot country, reports that the Karok tribe believe that if you are out in the woods and come upon a bigfoot, do not be afraid. Look the creature directly in the eye and like a spark of lightning a jolt of energy will jump between you and the beast; and you will acquire all the secrets of nature.
Both Linneaus and Pliny the Elder include apelike, humanoid wildmen in their taxonomic classifications of natural history. Regardless what bigfoot, alma, Sasquatch or yeti is, maybe we have a need to have them around.
James Swan who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.
Sasquatch seems like a big joke until you find some footprints.