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.
THE NEXT DAY my campmate Dave and I got up late. We’d set up our tents in a clearing about half a mile from the next camp, and we were ready for a full day and night of what, we had learned, was called ’squatching.
Dave, like me, wasn’t running around calling himself an “enthusiast,” even though here he was, spending four days in the woods, looking for Bigfoot. Talking to others, I soon found that many of us had more doubts than hopes that something so incredible could be true. On the way back to base camp, Dave and I discussed the imponderables that occupy the mind of the Sasquatch hunter: How much deer meat would it take to support an 800-pound primate? Do they store food in winter, or just keep hunting? If they can tell the difference between hunters and hikers, do they know we’re looking for them?
“I’m a little skeptical about that rock-throwing,” Dave said. He was referring to an incident that had happened the day before: Two guys had driven into camp with a big dent in the side of their car from a rock or log—which they claimed was hostile fire from an angry ’squatch. They were so scared—it looked like Bigfoot wasn’t the only beast who’d left some scat in the woods.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m not sure I believe it either.”
“But then you have ask, what would the motivation be?”
“Right. That’s what my wife says,” I agreed. “Then again, it’s hard to trust people who want to believe.” I meant, of course, people like myself.
“It’s a big seesaw between belief and nonbelief,” Dave said.
“Exactly. And I keep going up and down.”
BASE CAMP was set up under a big brown tarp. Several of the 42 men and women on the trip sat in camping chairs, while others sat on logs, waiting for the meeting to get started. Those gathered were garbage men and CEOs, woodsmen and city folk, curious and convinced, all gathered to answer a single question.
When everyone had trickled in, Andrew called the meeting to order and started to write down unusual things people had seen, in an attempt to gather as much information as possible.
As we listened to the stories of that first night, it quickly became clear that no one had found any large hairy bodies, no one had shot any telltale film footage, and most of the evidence we’d collected remained tantalizingly inconclusive. One group reported a figure paralleling their party in the woods. A woman had heard tree-knocking and then rustling outside her tent. There was a case of strange eye shine, which turned out to be the goggles on a thermal imager. Dave raised his hand, and did his best to reproduce the odd sounds he’d heard in the night, which were determined to be an owl.
“Do you want to tell them your story about the howl?” someone asked a beefy quasi-lumberjack whom I’ll call John.
“Well,” said John, “it was real short and sweet. We got up about five o’clock, made some coffee, and were listening to the owls. It was dead calm, quiet. There were owls in the distance, then straight south of us was a perfect Ohio Scream. Clear as can be.”
An Ohio Scream?
“What’s that?” someone asked.
John demurred at doing his interpretation of the scream, but we learned it was a kind of long, moaning howl first recorded in Ohio in 1994.
Andrew jotted this all down, and seemed pleased with the amount of activity. When everyone had finished their stories, we dispersed until later in the day, since the ’squatches were thought to rest during the afternoon, being nocturnal creatures.
As we were leaving, I approached a man I’ll call Roger. “Hi,” I said. “I heard you were on an expedition in Michigan…and something strange happened.”
“Yeah,” Roger said. “That was a good example of being ‘zapped.’ ”
“Well,” he said, “it was dark, and we had a lot of activity. We were going to try to set up ambushes, and we were walking down this road when we heard them up ahead. They went ‘thump!’ and one went left, and one went right. Then I felt this incredible pressure in my chest. My nerves were all on edge. Things weren’t working right, but it felt neurological, not psychological. It was very frightening.”
“Wow,” I said. “Do many people get zapped?”
“I wouldn’t say many. It’s probably the exception.”
“And you think that’s how they hunt deer?”
“I think so—with ultra-low frequencies that we can’t hear. I don’t think there’s any other explanation for it.”
THERE MAY OR MAY NOT BE other explanations. But what is certain is that this is the point where my wife starts giggling. (“Zapping? Seriously?”) From Bigfoot’s invisible energy beams, it’s not far to the edge of the cliff that many enthusiasts have happily thrown themselves over, leaping from simple zoological fact into a morass of New Age nonsense.
Once, I was up in the Cascade Mountains in Washington—serious ’squatch country—where a guy told me the reason they hadn’t found Bigfoot was because he was a shape-shifter. Others believe Bigfoot is a UFO pilot, or that he teleports from other dimensions, or he lives in the hollow earth, and displays all manner of psychic powers. Even if I did want to believe, these things make it very hard.
Some people posit that there is more than one Bigfoot—a whole species of Sasquatches, here and perhaps elsewhere. In fact, the notion that there are small populations of unknown primates around the world got an unexpected boost when Scientific American published a cover story in 2000, titled: “We Were Not Alone.” It began: “Our species had at least 15 cousins. Only we remain. Why?” The article said our last relative died out 25,000 years ago.
But a 16th cousin was added in 2003, when the existence of the “hobbit,” a human-like creature that scientists believe died out 12,000 years ago, was confirmed in Indonesia.
For years, locals in that country had told stories of Orang Pendek, a small hairy person that lived in the forest, yet such tales were dismissed as folklore. Now that science has begun to rewrite the evolutionary family tree, the question arises: Are we really alone?
Recently, scientists with more than a few credentials have started to take that question seriously, people like primatologist Jane Goodall (who, in 2002, told Talk of the Nation host Ira Flatow, “You’ll be amazed when I tell you I’m sure they exist”) and Jeff Meldrum, an anthropology professor at Idaho State University. In his book, Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science, Meldrum looks at the assembled evidence and finds that some Sasquatch footprints have a midfoot joint that’s common in nonhuman primates while others have toe prints running lengthwise instead of across the foot. And new examinations of the old Patterson-Gimlin footage suggest the figure’s torso and limbs don’t match typical human anatomy.
“What we know suggests this is all very reasonable,” Meldrum told me when I reached him by phone at his office in Idaho. “We find them where the habitat would support large omnivores. There’s a fossil record that suggests these animals have an ancestry and didn’t just drop out of the sky. And the behaviors we see are similar to what we see in great apes.”
But what about the zapping? Seriously? Zapping?
“Great apes have these extra-laryngeal air sacs [for producing low, continuous frequencies],” Meldrum noted, “and there’s some suggestions that Sasquatch might as well.”
So maybe, just maybe, Roger was onto something. After all, as Meldrum pointed out, it was recently discovered that tigers stun their prey with a blast of infrasound just before they pounce.
They zap them.
OUR EXPEDITION went on, and over the next few days, Dave and I dutifully joined the others on dark walks, coordinated our schemes to lure the ’squatches into our thermal sights, scoured the ground for prints, cupped our ears in the hopes of hearing howls or knocking, and peered into the trees for stick structures.
All the while, I rode the seesaw of belief and doubt. Our campsite had been a bust—exactly zero primate activity (apart from ourselves). But at Heart Camp, just down the path, they had faces peering in their thermals. They heard sticks breaking. They had Ohio Screams just outside their camp. One morning, they announced they’d had berries thrown at their tent all night. But when I went to look for them, there were none. So in the interest of peer review, I mentioned this to Andrew.
“Did you get there before or after they picked up all the berries?” he asked. “They picked them up?” “Yeah, I was out there and I asked them the same thing. They said they picked them up and counted them.”
Later, I also asked members of the group if they’d picked up the berries, but it wasn’t clear if they had or not. It was exactly the kind of maddening nebulousness that fueled the cynic in me—and reminded me of Ocham’s razor, which says the simplest answer is usually the right one.
Carl Sagan once observed that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof. Which is what we didn’t have after several days in the woods. Sure, there had been more knocking and our neighbors at Heart Camp claimed to have been pelted with discarded candy. There had been one dubious daylight sighting of a big ’squatch, but even the investigator noted that he “could find no trace of it, nor where it had gone. The scene looked mostly unspoiled except where [the witness] had walked.” The “women’s camp” (Sasquatches are supposedly more willing to approach females) had been a bust.
And so, as we entered the third day of ’squatching, things seemed to be winding down. All the camps had reported a similar drop off in activity.
“Every group of Sasquatches has its own way of dealing with people,” Andrew explained at the morning meeting. “Usually, either they start getting aggressive and try to drive us out of the area, or they shy away and give us a few days to see if we’ll leave. Does anyone else have anything to report?”
No one did.
“Okay,” he said. “You have your free rein to choose what you’d like to do. There’s one location that we’ve never been to before. North of Hazelnut Camp, there’s a road that veers off. It’s overgrown with poplars, because it hasn’t been maintained since it was logged years ago. But there’s a stand of hardwoods down there that no one has ever gotten to.” It was exactly the sort of area that Sasquatches like to “nest” in, he added.
THE ‘SQUATCH CLOCK was ticking. In less that 24 hours, I’d be on my way back to civilization, and I still hadn’t gotten any pictures, found any hair, heard a single tree knock, or seen any inkling of a stick structure. In other words, I had nothing to show my wife. There was only one thing left to do.
Up the road past Hazelnut Camp, I found the old path Andrew must have been referring to. The trees were thick, and the road was badly overgrown. As I walked down the trail, the voices in the camp grew faint until they finally disappeared.
It occurred to me that in addition to Bigfoot, there were other large mammals I might also stumble across, which I didn’t really want to find. But I put those fears aside and pushed ahead. Farther into the woods, I came to a place where the road had been blocked off with a sapling that was bent over, broken at the base in a suspicious way. I stepped over it, and went on. The path turned right, then headed into a bog and I followed it for a while. Then trees began pressing in on both sides, and the way got narrower and more defined.
I swallowed and kept going.
The odds of me stumbling into a nest of Bigfoot babies was, I knew, small. But the possibility remained. I could feel it. I could almost smell it. And yet, what would happen if we actually found Bigfoot? What if we returned with proof that such a creature lived in the bogs of Minnesota? Or what if Meldrum did? Or some other weekend warrior?
I felt a wave of sadness sweep over me at the thought. The reason I had always loved the idea of Bigfoot was that, if he was real, it meant the world still contained mysteries, things that were yet unknown and maybe even unknowable. It meant the woods were still big and dark enough to harbor something like Sasquatch. Bigfoot was like a hairy wood sprite loping through my dreams—the spirit of the wild! Find him and, well, he’d be just another monkey.
I pushed farther into the bog, and came to a place where a stand of small trees had been knocked down. Suddenly, I felt a sense of dread, a pressure in my chest. Was I being zapped? Was I being hunted? I looked around and saw nothing. Nothing to prove Sasquatches were here, but also nothing to prove they weren’t. Maybe, I thought, it was better not to know.
I turned around and headed back to camp. The path widened. I could hear people’s voices. Once I got there, I would file my report: I would tell the others that I had been to the edge of the unknown, and that while there, I had found nothing at all.