I have many childhood memories that involve being captivated by stories about sasquatches. One that hit particularly close to home for me (largely because it was said to have happened less than two hours from my house) was that told by a man who initially didn’t want to give his name, but was eventually identified as being one Glenn Thomas.
In his classic booklet On the Track of the Sasquatch, author John Green reprints a transcript of a tape recording in which Mr. Thomas talks about what happened to him in the fall of 1967.
One cold morning, Mr. Thomas was working with a cat skinner, who apparently did not need him at the moment, so he decided to follow a nearby trail, just to see where it went. As he rounded a bend, he came across a large ridge comprised of good-sized rocks. This was not nearly as remarkable as the three creatures he saw climbing on the boulders. He referred to them as “animals”, but described their appearance as “…human or just about”. Of the three, he identified one as being a large male, another as an adult female, and the third as a small child. He observed the male lifting rocks, turning them over and sniffing them, as if he were searching for something. At one point, the animal apparently found what it was looking for, and started rapidly stacking the rocks, and in so doing dug a large hole. Out of the hole, he produced a ball of grass, which was apparently a nest of hibernating rodents, which the creatures then ate, like a person would eat a banana.
Eventually, the creatures became aware of Thomas’ presence, and quickly disappeared into the woods, as sasquatches often do.
After giving his interview, Mr. Thomas took author John Green to the site, and a famous photograph was taken of Green’s son, who at the time was five feet, ten inches tall, standing in the hole the sasquatch dug. All that is visible of the youth is his head and the collar of his coat. Several stacks of rocks are also visible in the background. This photograph is a very clear and important part of my childhood pantheon of sasquatch images.
This all occurred just outside Estacada, Oregon, and is less than 70 miles by road from my home in Portland. During the summer of 2013, I decided it was time to look for the Glenn Thomas site.
It didn’t take long to determine almost exactly where this spot was. Thanks to Google Earth, I was able to discover that there was a very rough doubletrack road that didn’t even merit a number from the forest service that ended abruptly just a couple hundred yards from the first of three “Candidate sites” I was able to pin on the map.
After our previous adventures exploring the Bluff Creek area of Northern California, it seemed like a golden opportunity to visit one of the classic era sasquatch encounter sites, and get the whole trip done on a single Saturday. If everything went well, and the hole was still there, we could get pictures of ourselves in it, duplicating another famous image from the history of sasquatchery!
Well, it’s kind of complicated, but it actually took two Saturdays. On our first attempt, we actually got within a hundred yards or so of where we were trying to, but in the end, we didn’t get there. It’s okay, though, because that day was quite wet and rainy, as it often is in Oregon, and climbing around on a gigantic pile of wet rocks, in retrospect, was asking very politely for trouble.
It is becoming something of a tradition with us, that getting to a particular spot in the history of the sasquatch takes us two tries. The second time, we had better weather, a much better map, a better compass, and a much better idea of where we were going and what the environment was going to throw at us.
Our plan was to drive to a spot I had designated as “The Parking Spot” at the end of the little double-track road, then follow the ridge line to “Candidate site #1”, which was only about 100 yards further into the woods. After following some very faint trails, and avoiding a couple of opportunities to proceed too far down the hillside, we came across Candidate Site #1. We were clearly on the right track! Candidate Site#1 was relatively small, maybe 10-20 yards wide, and only went 20 or so yards up the side of the hill. The view of Mt. Jefferson to the south was beautiful, but it didn’t take long to determine that this was not the location of the hole we were looking for.
Another short hike, another couple hundred yards north, and a shade east, and we came across another rocky ridge.
This ridge had a whole lot going for it. The day was completely clear and bright, and off to the south, Mt Jefferson, in all its majesty, was easily visible. The ridge, which we were referring to as “Candidate Site #2”, was significantly larger in every dimension than candidate site #1. As soon as we walked out of the woods onto the rocks, I got excited. The overall look of the area seemed very familiar, and I started looking around for trees from the background of Green’s photo. I started clambering up the rocks, looking to get to the peak of the ridge and have a look around. Maile called out “Dad, wait!”. I had gotten pretty far up the side of the hill, so I decided to stop, take in the view, snap a few pictures, and wait for Maile.
Once she caught up, we climbed only a few more feet before I saw it: There was the hole!
It was right where Glenn Thomas had described it: Forty feet or so up the west side of the rock pile. I wasn’t sure what to expect as far as how a hole in a pile of rocks would have held up over forty-six years, but amazingly, it appeared that it had, in all that time, remained completely undisturbed.
The hole was about six feet across at the top, narrowing to a dirt floor just big enough for me to place both feet together flat. Standing on the bottom, the rim of the hole on the downhill side was about level with my collar. Maile could completely disappear into it if she’d wanted to.
We’d found what we had been looking for, so naturally we had to take some pictures. After all, we live in a time of “Pictures, or it didn’t happen”.
In his interview, Thomas estimated the size and weight of the rocks in the area as weighing “50, 60, or even possible 100 pounds”. I would estimate they are quite a bit heavier than that.
That’s when I was struck by the reality of what I was seeing. We’ve been to some pretty famous encounter sites, and some not-so famous ones, but each location was first and foremost completely natural and generally ordinary. Everywhere we’ve gone, it’s been easy to imagine how the encounter may have had a much more mundane explanation. For example, at the Patterson-Gimlin film site at Bluff Creek, there is nothing about the area that precludes the possibility that the film was hoaxed. The same is true of the area around the McKenzie river, and every other “squatchy” place we’ve ever been.
This site, though, this hole, was really quite different, and quite strange. There was definitely a hole here, and there were definitely large stacks of big heavy rocks. It is also quite clear to me that this hole was dug into the rock pile. I can’t imagine how or why any sort of heavy equipment could have gotten forty feet up the side of a rather steep rocky ridge in order to dig a hole six feet across and nearly as deep.
I truly can’t think of how this hole might have come to be, other than by one or more pairs of hands. Given the size and heft of the rocks, the hands would have had to belong to a very strong individual indeed. The idea that Glenn Thomas, and maybe some of his friends, decided to dig the hole as part of a hoax also seems a little strange. It sure seems like a lot of work in a very out-of-the-way location to back up a made-up yarn, when lots of other stories have been taken seriously and become famous with little or no physical evidence.
As I was pondering this, I realized that if we wanted to be off the mountain before dark, we’d better start to make our way home. We started our clamber back toward the truck. As I was approaching the bottom of the rocks, I heard something squeak. I turned around to see a small rodent disappear into a crack between two rocks. I laughed out loud and called out to Maile. I wondered how long this particular rodent’s family had lived in these rocks. Perhaps it was a relative of the rodents Thomas claims to have seen the sasquatches eat.
The walk back to the truck was short and uneventful.
As we drove down the mountain, I felt an exhilarating sense of accomplishment. Glenn Thomas’ story is certainly famous among sasquatch enthusiasts, but the site is not nearly as exciting as, say, the PG film site. There were no signs on the way warning of bigfoot mating activity, nor was there any evidence that any squatchers had made this pilgrimage. The fact that the hole and the rock stacks were still there also suggested that not too many people had been there over the last near half-century for any reason.
The fact that the site is so close to our home means that Maile and I will almost certainly be back next season. Once again, we’d had a fantastic adventure!
As with any scientific endeavor, there are essentially two main categories of error that an investigator may encounter: False positives, and false negatives.
Both are pretty simple concepts that are easy to understand, but they can both be sneaky.
Most investigators, or even casual enthusiasts would probably agree that there are plenty of false negatives in Sasquatchery. What I mean by this is that, assuming sasquatches are in fact real animals, they have almost certainly been seen, and written off as trees, bears, rocks, or what have you.
The same goes for tracks. There are many accounts of people who claim to have seen giant-sized human-like footprints in sand, snow, and dirt, and say they initially thought nothing of them until something else occurred that drew their attention to them (how someone can see such a track and not find it unusual is beyond me, but there you have it). Assuming these stories are not all fabricated, it would seem reasonable to assume that there have been occasions in which people have seen the tracks, thought little of them, and nothing else happened. They then just went about their lives, never giving them a second thought. Since these are essentially stories about nothing happening, we probably haven’t heard many such tales.
These are examples of false negatives.
False positives are also a big part of any investigation into the sasquatch. Logically, every incorrect report of a sasquatch encounter would be of this type. If sasquatches are not in fact real animals, then every single report, encounter, sighting and track would have to be a false positive. The fact that there have been hoaxes, mis-identifications, optical illusions, pareidolia, and just plain fabrications is beyond question. All of these things happen frequently, and they are all very important to keep in mind when out in the field.
Now, I freely admit that I have spent precious little time in the field, but what time I have logged has proven to be very educational.
My first actual, intentional bigfoot search occurred shortly after I graduated college. One of my housemates and I spent an afternoon and evening discussing the topic of sasquatches, and by the time evening was turning into night, we had gotten into his car, and were headed into the woods west of Portland, Oregon. We drove the paved roads way out of town until we reached a county line, where the road was no longer maintained. We then proceeded on dirt and gravel. Since the most common form of sasquatch encounter is a sighting along a road, we figured this was our best shot. It was, of course, a complete lark, and we had no real hope or expectation of seeing anything. An hour or so past the end of the pavement, and several hours into the darkness, the road curved around a hill to the left, and to the right the ground dropped away into a very picturesque little valley, which was nicely illuminated by a bright, nearly full moon. What I saw from the passenger seat of the car caused my stomach to drop. Standing there, not far from a couple of large Douglas Firs, was a large, shape, which appeared to be standing upright, with a rather pointy head. The head in particular reminded me of one of Ivan Marx’s photographs which had long ago been confirmed as a hoax. Feeling a surge of adrenaline, I pointed the figure out to my friend, and we both decided it would be a better idea to keep driving. Neither one of us could be sure just what it was we had seen, but we were both sufficiently startled and scared to just let it be, and not stop to investigate. We didn’t double back, and eventually found a road that connected back up with a state highway and headed home. I couldn’t get the experience out of my mind, and I wondered hard about whether or not I’d actually encountered a sasquatch.
Three or four weeks later, I hit upon an idea. I’d go back to the spot, again at night, and see if the figure was still there. If it was, then I’d be pretty well satisfied that I’d sighted a tree. On other other hand, if the figure was gone…
Of course, it was a tree.
I haven’t been back by that way in a few years, but I suspect it’s probably still there to this day. What I learned from that trip was just how easy it is, especially if you’re out in the woods, spring loaded to see any little morsel of evidence, to find something that isn’t actually there. That tree was a false positive. Since then, as I have ventured out into the woods in search of signs of sasquatches, I have discovered just how many opportunities there are for this type of error. Enough, in fact, that I can honestly say that on every single trip I have taken, I have found something that sure looks at first glance like evidence of a sasquatch, but I have yet to spot anything that has held up under closer scrutiny.
On my first trip to the Bluff Creek area, while driving along Bluff Creek road just off of highway 96 in Northern California, I saw this out the window of my pickup truck. At first, just like when I saw the tree in the valley nearly 20 years before, my heart skipped a beat, my breath caught, and my stomach dropped half an inch.
Here is the same image, with the area in question circled. Could this be the head and shoulders of an upright primate, peering from the bushes to get a better look at my pretty red truck?
Well, here’s the thing. You could drive up Bluff Creek road right now and take this same photograph. The shape in the image is in fact the root ball of a tree that fell away from the road. This is certainly a false positive, but since the subject is not moving, nor is it likely to move in the near future, someone claiming that this is a photograph of a sasquatch would probably have to be engaging in dishonesty. It’d hard to imagine this one being honestly, but mistakenly put forth as actual evidence.
Not long ago, I was on one of my favorite day hikes in the Columbia Gorge. As I rounded a switchback, I again was slightly startled to see what initially looked like an animal rooting around in a concrete box, maybe a garbage bin? As I got closer, I first realized that there was no way this could be a small black bear. It looked a lot like the rump and leg of something built a lot like a human. Once again, the fact that the thing was utterly motionless was a pretty good clue. As I got closer, I saw that what initially looked like the lower half of an animal was in fact the decorative foot of the bench.
There is another foot on the near side, but the lighting and angle of the image keep it very well hidden. This is another image that can be easily duplicated. Just start at the Wahkeena falls trailhead, and hike up toward Fairy Falls, which is the name of the waterfall in the background. It’s a nice bench, and a great place to sit and have a short rest. Who knows, maybe a real sasquatch will wander by. Again, because of the static nature of this image, if it were presented as evidence of a sasquatch, it would have to be due to an intention to deceive, rather than an honest mistake.
On the same hike where I encountered the previous image, I also came across this very interesting looking track. The only object I had handy for a good scale comparison was a restaurant rewards card that I had left in my coat pocket (I was not expecting to find any actual sasquatch evidence on this particular hike). As you can see, it is longer and wider than a normal human track, and somewhat oddly shaped. The front of the impression appears to show toes, although the one in the middle is the most prominent, which would be unusual, even for a sasquatch. Now, what is not clear in the image is that this track is in a snow surface that rises from left to right. it is also the only track of its kind in the immediate vicinity. There are tracks in front and behind this one which are much more human-sized, at least if you assume the humans are wearing hiking boots. I am pretty sure this track was made by a person who, for whatever reason, was stepping slightly up onto the bank on the right, possibly found a slippery spot, and rotated his or her foot back and forth to regain stability, and in the process created this impression. My strongest support for this idea is simply that this track was found in the middle of what was obviously a hiker’s trackway.
This one I can actually imagine being reported by a very enthusiastic, if not completely careful person. An honest mistake is possible here.
The point of all this is simply to demonstrate how easy it is for an enthusiastic, well-intentioned investigator to mistakenly (or intentionally) present evidence that isn’t.
The first time I was in the Six Rivers National Forest in Northern California, I was immediately struck by the way sunlight can play around in the trees, and give a sense of motion almost anywhere. If someone had sasquatches (or any other animal, for that matter) on the brain, there would be ample opportunity to see all kinds of things that aren’t actually there.
I am reminded of a conversation I once had in NorCal with a seasoned bigfoot investigator, who told me that he had lived in the area for more than a decade, and had never found any credible evidence of sasquatches. On the other hand, he regularly hears stories about people who, on their first night camping in the area, hear all kinds of strange vocalizations and rustling in the bushes just on the periphery of their campsites. When morning comes, they often find vague but suspicious impressions in the nearby ground. Does this mean that sasquatches somehow have the ability to identify who is looking for them and make themselves extra stealthy and elusive, and conversely, relax a little and mess around with campers that they somehow know are newbies? Or could it be the newcomers aren’t quite familiar with what barred owl vocalizations sound like, or how often raccoons, coyotes, or even black bears might root around in the brush around a campsite?
The deep dark woods at night can be a wonderful habitat for an active imagination. I am certainly not trying to make the case that all such reports are made up or mistakes, but I think it is crucial for responsible investigators to make every effort to try to identify such reports, and exclude them from our collective body of knowledge.
We have plenty of ghost stories, tall tales and legends, and these can give us some idea of what to look for, but they are no substitute for actual, genuine data.
After our first epic Squatchin’ adventure, Maile and I couldn’t wait to get back to Bigfoot Country. Late in August, as the dust was settling from her birthday revelries, we once again loaded up the truck and headed south. This time, however, we were much better prepared. Rather than camp near Orleans, we decided it would be a better idea to just head straight to Willow Creek, stay in the Bigfoot Motel for two nights, which put us right by all the food, gas and other supplies we would be needing. From there, we would launch our daily expeditions to the Patterson/Gimlin film site, and other areas of historical sasquatch importance along Bluff Creek.
We didn’t leave Portland as early as I’d hoped we would, but we still got out at a reasonable hour. We followed the same route we had on our previous adventure, and I was pleased to see that many of the examples of pareidolia and other optical illusions were still there. We made it to Willow Creek in time for pizza. I managed to exchange a couple of emails with our local contact, and nail down some details about exactly how to get from Highway
96 to the film site. Maile had lost a tooth during breakfast before we left Portland, and there was some discussion as to whether the Tooth Fairy would be able to find her on her Bigfoot expedition. (I will pause while the reality of considering the Tooth Fairy’s navigational abilities while on a Bigfoot expedition sinks in… Yeah, I know…) We actually ended up in the same room in the Bigfoot Motel that we stayed in on our first expedition. A good, comfy room, so no complaints. We walked across the main drag and had pizza for dinner, which was a nice treat. Exhausted from a day in the truck, we went back across the street, watched an episode of Finding Bigfoot, then turned in. It turns out the Tooth Fairy is quite resourceful, and managed to leave something under her pillow at the Bigfoot Motel. (I’ll wait again while you read over the whole Tooth Fairy thing one more time…)
Anyway, we slept in a little bit, and got rolling around 10:00. We drove back up highway 96 to Orleans, which was, by now, a very familiar stretch of scenic highway. Willow Creek to Orleans is around 40 miles, but the twisty nature of the Bigfoot Highway means it will take a good hour to make the journey. Just before Orleans is the turnoff to EyeSee road, which is also known as the G.O. Road, or the “Go Road” The Go Road was originally built to connect the booming metropolises of Gasquet and Orleans; two towns separated by very rough mountainous terrain. I stopped the truck at the turnoff, got my camera out, slung it over my neck, then took off the lens cap. There would be some great opportunities for photography, and I didn’t want to miss any of of them, especially if they involved rapidly moving wildlife. I was getting pretty excited at this point, knowing we were finally getting into the very heart of Bigfoot territory. The Go Road is a relatively well maintained mountain pass, but gets snowed over every year around mid-fall. I’m told October may be too late in the year to count on being able to get through, but this time, August was just fine. After a long and winding climb, we passed milepost 16, and started looking for the turnoff to Forest Service road 12n12.
The intersection isn’t exactly hidden, but it would also be pretty easy to blow by it without noticing. 12n12 was still paved, but this time it was only a single lane, with no shoulder. I’m not exactly sure how we might have negotiated a meetup with another vehicle coming the other direction. Luckily, in two days of driving around the woods, we saw exactly one other vehicle, a minivan driven by the NorCal version of a Soccer Mom bombing down the mountain at a speed that would only be dared by a local. Once on 12n12, we began to detect the unmistakable scent of wood smoke. Initially, I thought we might have driven by an unattended campfire, but as we continued, the scent grew quite a bit stronger. Eventually, we could see a haze of smoke as well. In a number of places, 12n12 affords majestic views of the forested slopes of the mountains below, and I could see that the source of the smoke was not immediately upwind or down-slope, so we pressed on.
The haze of smoke thickened quite a bit, and over the next six miles, we were treated to some truly spectacular views of sun-beams slicing through the forest canopy. Being a remote mountain road, 12n12 is not fast in any sense, but as we rolled along with the windows down, despite our excitement to get where we were going, we felt no need to be in a hurry. Even with the smoke, which thickened, and then eventually abated, the crisp aromatic air left no doubt that we were far, far off the beaten track.
We finally arrived at the “Green Gate”, which opens into Forest Service road 12n13, known locally as the “Bigfoot Road”. This unpaved double-track descends down the side of the hill , eventually crossing Bluff Creek twice, and passing by the entrance to Louse Camp before looping back. I thought this would be an ideal time to lock the hubs on the truck and select a 4-wheel drive mode. That actually turned out to be a pretty good idea later on. As we descended down the steep side of the hill, it became readily apparent just how far out in the woods we really were.
The forest canopy was quite dense, and the road got progressively rougher as we continued. At the bottom of the hill, we reached the famous Bluff Creek Bridge. The bridge’s roadbed was paved, naturally, and the concrete K-rail made it look somewhat out of place in its modernity.
It was a little reassuring, though, to know that we were still on an “official” road, and we had a good landmark. We decided this would be a good place to park the truck and take a look around. For the drive, we had just been wearing regular shoes, so we took a few minutes to lace up our boots. With the truck stopped, and both of us taking a well-needed stretch, the heavy quiet of the forest once again settled over us. We had been making no effort to stay silent, and our arrival by truck had certainly alerted any and all animals in the area to our presence, either by sound or the thick dusty contrail we’d been churning up behind us. That was fine with me, as the last thing I really wanted to do was sneak up on anything and give it a scare. Just in case, I made sure my lock blade knife was easily accessible. The bridge crosses Bluff Creek at a height of only about 10 feet or so, so it was a small little climb down to the creek itself. Since we still weren’t quite sure exactly where the film site would be from the bridge, we started upstream.
At this point, I was feeling like we were “close enough” to the actual film site that we had obtained the bragging rights, so I was pretty much just enjoying the feeling of being in such a “Squatchy” neighborhood. That said, I was still keeping my eyes peeled for any of the familiar PG film landmarks, including the famous Bat Boxes, the “Big Tree”, or any of the various fallen trees and stumps seen in the film. None of that was apparent, but since it had been nearly 45 years since the film was made, I would expect very little would look the same. It wasn’t long before it became apparent that walking upstream would be difficult. After only a hundred yards or so, the brush got very thick, and at this point, we hadn’t yet figured out that we would be getting wet, and walking right through the middle of the creek. So we decided to turn downstream. At this point, we realized that if we were to get anywhere at all on this Bluff Creek adventure, we would need to be getting our socks wet. What the hell, we both had real live hiking boots on, so we finally just gave up and tromped through the water.
This turned out to be just about the best decision we were to make on the entire trip. Bluff Creek is not all that deep, fast, or otherwise scary, so we didn’t even end up getting wet above the knees. As it was late August, and pleasantly warm, this really wasn’t a problem, although I would think about some more serious preparations if I were planning another trip later in the year (Hip waders would probably solve the problem entirely). So down the creek we hiked, just enjoying being in Bigfoot’s backyard. We kept our eyes peeled for anything that looked like it was Patterson and Gimlin’s film site, or, for that matter, anything that might one day become known as the Zenner/Zenner film site. Alas, we saw no evidence of any cryptids.
At times, the creek did get a little challenging. We climbed over some fallen logs, and more than once had to create a plan to get around small rapids, deep pools or short waterfalls. Most of the plans involved me either carrying Maile or assisting her in jumping over something. During all of this, I noticed something else that added to the mystique of Bluff Creek. Something that was quite interesting and just a little spooky: The rocky bottom of the creek creates dozens of little eddies and odd currents, which gives rise to an acoustic effect that is kind of like the familiar “babbling brook”. However, the effect as it occurs on this particular creek is much more pronounced (pun). It sounds remarkably similar to human vocalizations, as if you’re hearing a conversation, but can’t quite make out the words.
There were a number of times where I actually looked around, expecting to see some other hikers. Of course, I never did, and since I was keeping an eagle eye on Maile, I knew it wasn’t her. I can imagine how camping overnight at somewhere like nearby Louse Camp could be downright unnerving! We ended up hiking about a mile and a half, then decided it was time to turn back. We probably had some more in us, but we wanted to make it back to Willow Creek in time to visit Bigfoot Books before owner Steve Streufert closed for the evening. So we turned around and headed back to the truck.
The trip back was mostly uneventful. While walking along one of the many gravel bars in the creek, my footing gave way and I ended up falling rather gracelessly onto my elbow. I was mainly concerned about keeping grit out of my camera, but Maile seemed surprisingly shaken by the whole thing. I assured her I was okay, and we hiked the rest of the way out without further incident. By the time we got back to the bridge, we were feeling like we’d spent a good day hiking in the woods. We were just the right amount of tired and hungry. We had a snack of energy bars, water and pretzels, then started up the truck. We continued on in the same direction along 12n13, as I had the impression that the road would eventually loop back around. On the way, we came to a fork, and heading off to the left, we followed a road which was almost entirely overgrown, with the canopy above actually joining, forming a closed ceiling over the road. It was a little spooky, even during the bright of the afternoon. The road finally emptied into a campground equipped with a porta-john, a couple of fire rings, and a couple of picnic tables. I would find out later that this was the famous Louse Camp, where many of the original Bigfoot expeditions camped and planned their searches. Next time we come down, I want to spend some time here, and maybe, if we’re feeling brave enough, camp here for a night. We got back onto 12n13, where we crossed the “Old” Bluff Creek bridge, which can be identified by the legend “1958” pressed into the concrete of the bridge railing. We then headed back to Willow Creek. We made it to Bigfoot Books before closing, and ended up having another very interesting and entertaining conversation with Steve, and I ended up with another armful of books. I was also able to get some more specific directions that would end up taking us directly to the actual film site. Being a member of of a bookstore family, I feel it is very important to support small, independent stores whenever possible. Even if you can get the book for less money at Amazon or Barnes and Noble, there are plenty of reasons why independent booksellers are important parts of their communities. Okay, that’s it for the rant, except to say that if you should happen by Bigfoot Books in Willow Creek, please support Steve! After Bigfoot Books, we discovered that the Bigfoot Restaurant was open. On our previous adventure, we had managed to miss out on the place entirely. Since it was dinner time, and we had the opportunity, we stopped in. Maile liked her hamburger much better than her previous Willow Creek hamburger experiences, and the BF had some fascinating decor and atmosphere. We had found our new favorite restaurant in Willow Creek!
We returned to the motel for more movies and, exhausted after our day of high adventure, passed out early.
So ended day one of our second epic Squatching trip to Northern California. Day two was also a truly amazing adventure; Will we make it to the film site? Will we find any evidence of the creature? Stay tuned for those answers and more in part 2!
I’ve aways been fascinated with Bigfoot. I first learned of the creature when I was five years old, from a cousin who was eight. I hope you’ve all had a cousin like this one, who is just enough older than you that everything they do is cool, and there is no one in the world you’d rather be hanging out with. My cousin is another story, which I will eventually tell, but the point is, I first learned about Bigfoot when I was five. The idea that there could be a real, live monster in the woods, the nearby woods was at once terrifying, exhilarating, and altogether irresistible to my child’s mind. I absorbed every book I could find on the subject (and there were, and still are, quite a few). As I grew up, my feelings and opinions about Bigfoot certainly evolved and changed, but I have always found the lore and the stories and also the characters intriguing. I have always been interested in what Bigfoot and “Bigfooters” were up to.
Time went on, and I ended up with a daughter. To my surprise, she actually became fascinated with Bigfoot as well, and it became something that she and I could share. Unsurprisingly, it was something that was pretty much just for the two of us. Her Mom thought it was cool, but wasn’t particularly excited about it in her own right.
So it happened that in the summer of 2012, when Maile was getting ready to turn seven, and tall enough to sit in the front seat of our pickup truck, that we decided to take a camping trip to Northern California, for the express purpose of looking for Bigfoot, an activity which is sometimes known as “Squatchin’”. For me, the trip would be something I’ve dreamed of doing since I was a little kid. For most people, places like Happy Camp, Orleans, Hoopa Valley, Weitchpec, and Willow Creek are somewhere between insignificant little dots on a map, and utterly meaningless. For me, though, those places were as exotic as anything in Egypt, India, France or Zanzibar. Those were the places where the history of Bigfoot was made. Legendary Bigfoot investigators like John Green and Peter Byrne told stories of organizing their expeditions in the lobby of the Orleans Motel, and having eggs and coffee in the attached diner. When Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin made their famous film of the creature, they immediately ran to Al Hodgson’s store in Willow Creek, with the announcement, “I got a picture of the son-of-a-buck!” To me, this was history. Like a civil war buff exploring the battlefields of Virginia, this was visiting the birthplace of Sasquatchery. I was thrilled, and Maile was excited about going on our first “Just the two of us” camping adventure. The ultimate goal for our expedition was to visit the site of the most famous of all Sasquatch encounters, Bluff Creek. For those who may not be aware, Bluff Creek was where Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin made their famous 16mm film of a figure moving across a creek bank and into the woods. If the film in fact does show a living creature, it is by far the best film yet taken of a Sasquatch. If it in fact shows something else, well, that story has got to be almost as interesting.
In any case, we were both absolutely giddy at the idea of being where it happened, whatever it was. So it was late on a clear summer morning when we loaded up the truck and headed south on Interstate 5, with my smartphone’s GPS pointed at a campsite a mile outside of Orleans. I absolutely love navigating by way of Google maps. The route Google picked for us stayed on the interstate just as long as it needed to, then sent us out on a beautiful set of two, and sometimes one-lane roads, traveling through farm country, along the back side of mountains, and through the tiniest of communities. Through the whole journey, Maile alternately looked out the window at the world going by, turned toward me to share observations, and snacked. For her,it was clearly a great way to spend a few days of her summer vacation. We climbed into fog banks clawing their way up the slopes of the hills, which brought a welcome cooling to what had become a pretty hot day in Southern Oregon. The closeness of the fog, as well as the denseness of the woods around us gave us a the feeling that all kinds of animals could be living here, just out of sight. This was where Maile and I had our first conversation on the topic of pareidolia, which is the process by which one’s mind imposes recognizable shapes on things like clouds, or fallen logs, shadows, that kind of thing. We played with the idea for a while, finding things like dead horses in rotting logs at the side of the road, and fairy princesses in the tops of pine trees. We also agreed that this might be how a lot of people think they see Bigfoot.
Having crossed the border from Oregon to California numerous times, I was prepared to at least answer the “Do you have any fresh fruit?” question. The way we went, the border was represented by a slight difference in the texture of the asphalt, and demarcated by a line that had clearly been made by a can of spray paint, with “CAL” sprayed on one side and “OR” on the other. This was also where we had our first wildlife encounter. Two deer were playing together, and didn’t seem to mind at all having their picture taken. It was about this point that the clock started to get involved in our story.
We had crossed into California, and were pretty close to our destination, but it was starting to get late. That was fine, but I was hoping to be able to set up camp before it was completely dark. We weren’t able to make reservations for the campsite, so as far as I knew, the place could have been completely full, and then we’d be looking around after dark for someplace to sleep.
We came out of the mountains at Happy Camp, which is, by all appearances the northern border of Bigfoot Country. This is where we saw the first of many statues of Bigfoot that we would see over the next couple of days. From Happy Camp, we took Highway 96 – “Bigfoot Highway”, according to the signs, and a beautiful drive – South to our campsite at Pearch Creek, which is just about a mile outside of Orleans.
About this time, I noticed that every few seconds, Maile would turn around in her seat and look behind the truck. I asked her what she was doing, and she said she wanted to see if any Bigfoot were stepping out of the woods behind us. So far, there hadn’t been any. We made it to the campsite just as dusk was getting serious, and saw, to our great relief, that except for one other group, we had the place to ourselves. The creek was nearby, and we could clearly hear the water running. We made camp, freshened up a bit, and had a quick dinner from the supplies we had brought along.
At this point, I played the Dad card, and informed Maile that we were going to take a little drive up Bluff Creek Road. It was still early in the evening, and I had waited so many years to be here, and I wasn’t going to wait any longer. Over a very mild objection from Maile, we piled back into the truck, and headed south toward the Bluff Creek Bridge, and Bluff Creek Road. The “old” bluff creek road has been closed to vehicular traffic for nearly the last 40 years, after an enormous flood came through the area, washing out, among other things, Bluff Creek Road.
The road is still accessible by foot, and I am told it’s actually a nice hike. I’ll let you know in the not-too distant future. The new Bluff Creek road is a single-lane, paved road that meanders up the side of a hill. Occasionally, the trees on the right hand side give way to majestic views of the creek, and the canyon through which it flows. Of course, this is what you discover in the daylight. When we took this frist drive, it was definitely night time, and the sky closed in like it only can when you’re deep in the woods. I was nearly giddy with excitement, but Maile was getting progressively more nervous as we drove on. Her looks behind the truck were getting more frequent, and I could tell it would quickly be time to head back. The road is so narrow, and the shoulders of the road so steep, that we really needed to find some sort of intersection in which to turn the truck around. It was several more minutes before we finally came across a gravel double-track heading off to the left. We turned around here, and only then realized just how steeply the road had climbed. I rode the brake most of the way down, and as we descended, so did Maile’s nervousness. We headed back to camp and climbed into our sleeping bags inside of our tent. I know it won’t be forever, but I surely do enjoy that my daughter sometimes still likes to fall asleep in my arms. The sounds of the forest kept my sleep light. Far off in the distance, I could hear a group of animals that sounded distinctly canine. I figured they must have been a pack of coyotes. They were were yipping and barking, and carrying on for what seemed like hours, like they were having a real rager of a party. Eventually, though, something that sounded like a much, much bigger animal half growled and half roaredat them. Suddenly all was quiet except for the rush of the creek. I have way too little experience with the wildlife in the area to even begin to wonder what kind of animal can tell a bunch of coyotes to shut up and get results. Of course, we were in Bigfoot’s home town… We both woke at almost exactly five in the morning. There was no point in trying to sleep in, so we got an early start on our day. I figured we’d make another run up Bluff Creek Road, this time in the daylight, and then look for someplace to get breakfast.
I figured Willow Creek would be a good place to find a greasy spoon diner. With all the outdoorsy stuff around, I figured there had to a place where everyone stopped for eggs and coffee before the Big Fishing Trip.
Bluff Creek Road in the light and fog of early morning was a completely different experience than it had been the night before. The way the light angled through the trees was gorgeous, and when the forest parted along the edge of the road, the view of the creek and canyon were absolutely breathtaking. Six miles up the road, we came to an intersection, and Maile was getting hungry, so we headed back down the hill, and turned south toward Willow Creek. Once again, we were treated to some absolutely beautiful scenery as we wound our way past Weitchpec, Hoopa Valley, and finally, 38 miles and an hour later, into Willow Creek. It was still early, barely 8:00 am when we rolled in, but we didn’t find much that was open. There was a home center and a grocery store, but the diner I was hoping for was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, there was a cell tower nearby, so I was able to consult Google for nearby eateries. Several places advertised breakfast, but turned out to be closed when we went by. Even a very promising-sounding place called The Early Bird turned out to open at 11:00. Eventually, we were able to find a coffee bar that was open, where I had an uninspiring latte, and Maile had a powdered donut that she claimed she didn’t enjoy. I noted that the muffin selection in the case looked awfully familiar, and I deduced that there must be a Costco nearby. Since nothing else looked like it would be open for another three hours or so, we decided to go back up north. I was hoping that the diner I was looking for would turn out to be the Orleans Cafe, where so many hopeful Bigfooters had certainly gotten coffee before us. Sadly, the paint on the “For Lease” sign at the Orleans motel and cafe had clearly been peeling for a number of years by the time we rolled in. Disappointed, we stopped by a rather ominous-looking market, where we were informed that apparently there were no restaurants within a couple hundred miles. We left there in a bit of a hurry. We finally threw in the towel and headed back to the campsite, where we had another meal of the supplies we had brought with us, then headed back to the Bluff Creek bridge. Highway 96 crosses Bluff Creek where it drains into the Klamath river, and there is a small area at the side of the road where a handful of cars can park. From this spot, there is a trail descending 40 feet or so to the river bank, and in the other direction, across the road, the Bluff Creek Historic trail climbs the steep hill into the woods. We were the only visitors that day, and by noon, the sky was clear, and the temperature was now quite warm. Since our goal was to try to get to the Patterson/Gimlin film site, which we knew was upstream, we decided to take the Historic trail.
It wasn’t long before it started to look like the trail wasn’t going to be directly running alongside the creek. As we climbed higher above the highway, and the trail settled into the silence of the forest, I started to become acutely aware of the skittering noises I was hearing in the brush as we approached, and the denseness of the woods. I also started to notice how restricted the visibility along the trail was getting. I also started to think that we were walking alone through bear and mountain lion country, and that I was with a small child who was walking a few paces behind me. I am actually pretty confident that I could act appropriately if we were to encounter a large cat, and I don’t worry too much about the wildlife in Oregon and Washington, but somehow I felt like I didn’t have the appropriate level of “literacy” when it came to the local bear population. Between the heat, the isolation, the animal question, and fact that the trail didn’t look like it went where we wanted to go, I decided that maybe we’d be better off heading down to the river, and staying near the water. So we turned around. For a lot of reasons, that turned out to be a good call. We scrambled down the steep, short, and somewhat loose gravel trail that deposited us right at the confluence of Bluff Creek and the Klamath river. We spent a few more minutes just walking around the area, which is actually a really nice spot. It was quite a bit cooler by the water, and for both of us, it was the first time actually seeing the waters of Bluff Creek. For me, it was a very special moment. It was Bluff Creek! Sure, it wasn’t the actual film site, but it was still Bluff Creek! This was somewhere I’d wanted to see for most of my life, and now, here I was, with my daughter, who appeared to be almost as excited as I was. It seemed there was nothing else to do but dip our feet in the water, and record it for posterity:
We walked upstream for a couple hundred yards or so, along what was actually pretty rocky terrain. It seemed we were doing almost as much climbing as we were walking. Even though it was cooler by the water, it was still getting hot. I was feeling pretty sweaty and gross, and the lack of sleep was catching up with me. I was struck with an idea, which I ran by Maile: My thought was to go back to the campsite, pack up our stuff, then head in to Willow Creek. We’d see if there was any room at the Bigfoot Motel, hopefully check in, then get showers and otherwise refresh ourselves. By this time, we figured Willow Creek would be awake and alive, and we’d get our Bigfoot Burgers and stop by Bigfoot Books. This turned out to be just what the doctor ordered. A very nice lady was working the desk at the Bigfoot Motel, who appeared to be quite taken with Maile (Traveling with a very cute little girl has a lot of advantages!). We got settled into the room and got relaxed and refreshed, then headed out for burgers and books. The Early Bird is rather typical for a rural town: they have a “famous” signature item on the menu, in this case a “Bigfoot Burger” which is a gigantic bacon double cheeseburger that comes on a bun in the the shape of a giant foot. Pretty cool kitsch, no? Beyond the
Bigfoot Burger, the place is your basic locally-owned fast-food and take-and-bake pizza restaurant. Also not uncommon for such establishments, the back half of the building was a hunting and fishing supply business. While we were getting sodas out of the refrigerator case, the woman working the counter took a break from taking food orders and walked across to sell a box of ammunition to a guy who had been waiting patiently. Along one wall was a rather surrealistic, almost Dali-esque mural depicting a couple of Bigfoot cooking donuts over a campfire and happily cavorting about. It’s pretty adorable and heartwarming. Maile and I had a quick meeting of the minds, in which we discussed the fact that she likes her burgers plain and dry, with nothing but lettuce, and the Bigfoot Burger has stuff like bacon and cheese on it, so it would have been tough to split. So she got a regular kids burger and I had my biennial cheeseburger. With that done, we walked across the parking lot to Bigfoot Books, where we met proprietor Steve Streufert. Bigfoot Books reminds me a lot of Wallace Books, the bookstore owned by my lovely wife. Both stores are located in structures that were once someone’s home. Both are covered in sagging pine shelves with stacks and stacks of books which appear chaotic, but are actually very highly organized, just according to a non-obvious, highly complicated system. The stacks generate a wonderful sense of adventure with great promise of serendipity. The crisp scent of aging paper is the final element of the true new-and-used bookstore “cred”.
Steve and I talked for a couple of hours, where I apparently answered a lot of questions correctly and passed some tests. Steve is what I would consider a “Skeptical Believer”, which is, I suppose, how I would categorize myself. If there is a large, ape-like creature walking around in the woods, I am not willing to ascribe to them powers or abilities beyond those of normal animals, except perhaps an above-average ability and instinct to avoid contact with people. I am also dubious of claims coming from campers who have all kinds of seemingly extraordinary experiences on their first night or two of camping in the area. It’s awfully easy to hear a barred owl and think sasquatch. Steve seemed to be on the same page. It was a good conversation, and I walked out a couple hundred dollars lighter, but heavier by a big stack of books. Steve was also quite generous with his knowledge of the area, particularly the Patterson/Gimlin film site, a subject on which he has particular expertise. He also set my mind at ease regarding the local bear population. It seems they are under very little stress within their environment, and as such have no real interest in people or their belongings, and generally tend to avoid them, or walk casually away if they happen across someone. That made me feel a lot more comfortable about camping and tromping around in the woods.
What really left me impressed, though, was the depth of knowledge that Steve possessed on the topic of Bigfoot. In all the years I’ve been an avid reader and student of the subject, occasionally even chatting with some of the very big names in the field, I’ve never felt so much like I’d brought a knife to a gunfight as I did talking with Mr. Steven Streufert. This guy really knows his stuff!
By this time, it was getting to be late afternoon, and I think we actually kept Bigfoot Books open after normal closing time. Maile and I returned to the Bigfoot Motel and watched some of the Bigfoot movies we’d brought with us. We shared a bag of Trader Joe’s kettle corn, then turned in. The next morning we got a late start, then stopped by the Bigfoot Museum on the way out of town.
The museum is not solely dedicated to Bigfoot; it contains a number of exhibits related to the history of the area, including some pretty impressive heavy mining equipment, some interesting blacksmith’s tools, and other early mountain-living related items. The back room, though, is like no other room anywhere in the world. The back room is, of course, the Bigfoot room. Here you will find a collection of original tracks that has no equal anywhere. I had been seeing photographs of these casts all my life, and now I was looking at the genuine articles through a single sheet of glass.
To my mind, there are two general levels of items in the Bigfoot Collection. The first, higher level are the one-of-a-kind, actual pieces of history. The second tier consists of often pristine examples of “Sasquatchiana”, Bigfoot merchandise, and other pieces representing Bigfoot as a cultural and mass-market phenomenon.
The first category is absolutely amazing. There are original casts made by Roger Patterson of the tracks left by the creature he managed to film. There are casts of the tracks left on the Bluff Creek road construction site which had originated the name “Bigfoot”. There is case after case of tracks from all over the west. There is a set of “Cripple Foot” tracks.
There were original clippings from the Humboldt Times, written by Andrew Genzoli and Betty Allen. An original copy of the famous 1968 Argosy article about the Patterson/Gimlin film was on display. I got a slight chuckle out of a gigantic speaker with “BFRO” stenciled on the side of it. It reminded me a lot of the speaker Jake and Elwood mounted to the top of their former cop car in The Blues Brothers. In reality of course, it had been used for “Call Blasting”, a practice that involves broadcasting recordings of Bigfoot vocalizations through a gigantic, usually car-mounted speaker. The idea is to elicit a response from any Bigfoot that might be in the area.
The second tier was also unusual and amazing. There was a case full of examples of Bigfoot related toys and games (I’m now on the lookout for a LEGO “Yeti’s Hideout” set!). I took just a little pride when I saw the one-sheet poster advertising Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot. I’ve got the same poster hanging in my media room. There was a boardgame I had as a kid, called (what else?) Bigfoot.
For a Bigfoot enthusiast, this is like Cooperstown, or in my case, the front room of the Smithsonian Air and Space museum. We spent about an hour poring over the Bigfoot collection, then stopped by the gift shop for some souvenirs. I got a copy of a track originally cast by Al Hodgson, and Maile got a stuffed Bigfoot, which she promptly named “Patty”. That’s my kid! It was getting close to noon, and time for us to start heading home.
It was a great trip. Maile and I got to share a great adventure, and I realized a lifelong dream, but it wasn’t completely successful. I had really hoped to find the film site, or at least get close. I was hoping to spend some more time actually hiking in the woods, and I certainly hoped to spend less time driving over the same 50 miles of highway over and over again. What I did get, though, was a basic idea about the “lay of the land”. I learned where things were, where to stay, where to go for supplies, how to get around the area, what to be worried about and what not to sweat. I have begun looking at our NorCal Squatchin’ adventures as being something like the Apollo Space program of the 1960’s: the first few missions were about proof-of-concept, and figuring out if we could even accomplish what we had set out do. Next time – and there will certainly be a next time – we will make it to the film site, explore Bluff Creek much more thoroughly, hike much more and drive less than the previous trip, and who knows, maybe even find some evidence!
Stay tuned for Squatchin’ with the Daughter, Expedition 2!