The Search for Sasquatch
Looking for Bigfoot in the north woods of Minnesota
(page 1 of 3)
Deep in the dark heart of Minnesota’s north woods, I was walking down a dirt road with a group of men. The sun had set hours ago, and I was starting to wonder if I’d gone a little insane. This could have been the case: On the one hand, here we were in the middle of the night, trying to outsmart a 9-foot-tall monkey that a local farmer and his family claimed to have seen in this place several times over the past few years. On the other hand, it was possible we were looking for a figment of our collective imagination.
A call came over the radio: “Did you whistle?”
“Negative,” replied a member of our group.
I felt a mild rush of panic and excitement. There was a whistle! Something had to be making it!
My companions and I had paid $300 apiece to participate in the first-ever, public Sasquatch hunt in Minnesota held by the Bigfoot Field Research Organization. The group was founded in California in 1995 with a mission to “resolve the mystery surrounding the bigfoot phenomenon” by gathering potentially relevant data. To that end, 42 of us had signed up to help collect evidence in the north woods. We’d been split into 15 camps, and we were carrying an armament of investigative equipment: night-vision scopes, walkie-talkies, GPS, infrared cameras, thermal-recording devices, video and audio recorders, and more. Someone handed me a thermal imager, which would show bright heat signatures of the living things in the forest. I scanned the area around us but saw nothing except a few warm rocks and something that may have been a raccoon.
“We’ve got some activity here,” came another report across the radio. “They’re walking around our site.” Whenever the group laughed, apparently, there was a rustling in the woods. When they laughed really hard, there was even more rustling.
Those lucky bastards! Just that morning I had seen the ghost of a footprint in the soft sphagnum near the other group’s tent. It looked not quite human, but not quite ape. It had toes, but it was hard to tell what kind of biped might have made it. Two of the people in that camp, a young couple who had once recorded sounds thought to be a Sasquatch running through their hometown near Cass Lake, had heard many strange noises and seen odd shapes just beyond the light of their campfire the previous night.
“We can hear it walking past our tent,” they now called over the radio. “It sounds like it’s wearing corduroys.”
“So,” someone in our group replied dryly, “Sasquatch isn’t very stylish.”
AS WITH SO MANY THINGS that lie just beyond the realm of proof, most people have strong convictions about Bigfoot. There are believers, there are agnostics, and naturally, there are more than a few skeptics. Not long before I left on the trip, for example, my wife inquired about the group’s approach.
“Now,” she said, “tell me about this smoking gun you’ll be looking for.”
“Stick structures,” I said. “They make stick structures.”
“Twig structures?” she said.
“Stick,” I clarified. “And there’s the tree knocking.”
“Tree-knocking? Are you serious?”
“Yeah, you knock on a tree, and they knock back.”
She rolled her eyes. “Give me a break. How do you know they don’t have some guy out in the woods, knocking on trees?”
“Why would they do that?”
“To make money!” she said, like I was some kind of simpleton.
“That,” I said, “would be ridiculous.”
But she had a point. Over the years, many people have tried to profit off the belief in Bigfoot, from perennial hoaxster Tom Biscardi (of recent gorilla-suit fame) to the long line of people claiming to be the man-ape in the famous “Patterson-Gimlin” footage, the 1967 film clip of a large, hairy beast lumbering across a creek bed in the California mountains. For people like my wife, the bar for proof is set high. When I showed her a photo of an alleged Sasquatch printed in the Star Tribune, taken last fall by a motion-activated camera near the town of Remer, she was unimpressed.
“Looks like a guy in a suit,” she said.
Admittedly, it does seem unlikely that an unknown primate might be hiding right under our Midwestern noses. But the Lakota believed in such a creature, called “Chiya Tanka” or the “elder brother,” and there have been sightings everywhere from the hills of southeastern Minnesota to the lakes of the north.
“We have a long history of sightings from very credible witnesses, as well as very good track casts and track finds,” our expedition leader, Andrew, told me. “In Minnesota, Sasquatches tend to be found in bog areas. We know they follow the deer herds, which are their prey, but we’ve also found scat up to three inches in diameter that had large amounts of acorn shells, hazelnut shells, and chokecherry pits—so they’re omnivorous. We think they live in family groups of three to eight individuals, and I believe most large bog areas probably have a pack in them. We figure there’s one Sasquatch for every 100 bears. But that could be wildly off. The scientist in me cringes to give a number. We have no clue how many there are really.”
Andrew is a technical writer, with degrees in English and biology, and I don’t doubt the scientist in him cringes at a lot of things. But for a better estimate, I called the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which issued the following reply: “In regards to your inquiries about Bigfoot, the Minnesota DNR, as a science-based agency, will not answer speculative questions about an unconfirmed species.”
It was like I was married to the DNR.
Still, not long after I started telling people I was going on this expedition, I began to hear stories, anecdotes, and rumors. One note I got from an old friend, who lives near Fargo and asked to remain anonymous, went like this:
I did see something in ___________ County near __________ Lake. My brother ________ and I went out hiking one spring in the early 1990s. We heard a noise in the brush and saw this thing. It had been watching us, and then when we noticed the creature, it busted through the woods fast. When I saw it, I knew it was not a moose, bear, deer, or cat. I had a pretty good visual. It seemed to be upright and lanky but able to cruise. We found some tracks and it stepped over a barbed-wire fence without breaking stride. We kept this a secret for a while. Then we started hearing about other people having similar experiences.
I know, these kinds of stories don’t prove anything. You can find plenty of eyewitness testimonies for everything from fairies to chupacabras to alien anal probes, none which would convince the empirical-evidence-minded scientist, the jaded TV news anchor, or most importantly, the skeptical wife.
No, to settle the Bigfoot question once and for all, there needs to be some hard proof: not a ghost of a footprint or some bent twigs, not some distant knocking.
That, in the remote woods, is exactly what we were hoping to find.