Posted by: Craig Woolheater on April 24th, 2012
How to Hunt Bigfoot
By AMANDA PETRUSICH
Published: April 20, 2012
A BIGFOOT’S howl is multidimensional: a deep and undulating whoop that starts low and ends in a high, feral squeal or resolves completely, like a siren. The first time I unleashed one, while crouching on a bluff overlooking the eastern bank of the Apalachicola River, Matt Moneymaker — who, moments earlier, had loosed a robust, commanding shriek that echoed cleanly through the valley — responded with a hearty guffaw.
“I have a cold,” I mumbled by way of an excuse. It was nearly 2 a.m., and we were huddled in the dark in Torreya State Park near Bristol, on the Florida Panhandle. My craggy, toadlike holler did not yield a response.
Mr. Moneymaker is the founder and president of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (bfro.net), a group of Bigfoot investigators dedicated to acquiring “conclusive documentation of the species’ existence.” Bigfoots, also known as sasquatches or yetis, are famously elusive creatures — if, in fact, they exist at all — and since 2000, the organization has hosted research expeditions, some of which are open to nonmembers, to suspected Bigfoot habitats across North America. The goal is to rouse and record a Bigfoot. The trips, which typically last four days and cost between $300 and $500 (not including airfare, camping equipment or food), are led by a B.F.R.O. investigator native to the region and center on nightly jaunts through the woods.
In December, on an outing in the same park, Matt Craig, 26, spotted what he believed was a Bigfoot on a thermal imaging device. He and five others watched while it hugged a tree and popped in and out of hiding, as if it were playing peek-a-boo. “At that point, my mind was trying to rationalize what it was,” Mr. Craig said. “I was shaking so bad I couldn’t even look through the thermal after that.”
Now, 11 of us — three women and eight men, including Mr. Craig — had assembled with hopes of repeating his encounter. I was dubious but also willing to accept that I didn’t know exactly what kinds of oddball creatures might be loping around the forest late at night.
The Bigfoot organization’s online database contains over 30,000 user-submitted Bigfoot reports, and it’s a surprisingly consistent body of data: by most accounts, adult sasquatches weigh around 650 pounds and are 7 to 10 feet tall, nocturnal, fond of women and packaged sweets, hairy, bipedal, omnivorous, flat-footed, and distinctly malodorous.
On B.F.R.O. expeditions, faith in the existence of Bigfoots is presumed, and the hunts proceed with a kind of grim earnestness. Members are accustomed to incredulity: detractors (including most reputable scientists) insist that all observed phenomena could easily be attributed to a bear, or a rogue primate, or some dude in a gorilla suit. Bring us a body, they say, or anything that can be objectively authenticated (to date, no definitive Bigfoot remains have been excavated).
Cliff Barackman, for one, isn’t troubled by dissenters. “I don’t care what people think,” he said. “I think skepticism is healthy and good.”
Mr. Moneymaker and Mr. Barackman are co-stars on the Animal Planet series “Finding Bigfoot,” in which they amble through dark thickets, howling at one another and banging blocks of wood together (sasquatches purportedly communicate via “knocking” — the belligerent pounding of trees or their own bodies).
For believers, rustling up a squatch, as they are often called by the team, is serious business, and “Finding Bigfoot” is deliberately low on high jinks. Mr. Moneymaker and his crew host town hall meetings, recreate sightings and employ a cornucopia of enticement techniques, like arranging glazed doughnuts on a log.
Membership in the B.F.R.O. is by invitation only, and requires (paradoxically, perhaps) at least the appearance of good sense. Kevin Smykal, 58, leads the organization’s Florida chapter, and conducts telephone screenings of potential participants before they can sign up for an expedition. “We’re very careful,” he said. “We don’t want somebody who’s going to be an irritant to other people. You’re not going to want to spend your nights out in the woods with an undesirable.”
I didn’t want to be an irritant, but I also wasn’t sure I wanted to spend that much time in dark woods. The organization’s investigators wear headlamps and carry flashlights, but they’re intended only for use in emergencies. “The darker it is, the closer they come,” Mr. Moneymaker noted, and I sensed that neurotically flicking on your headlamp midexpedition was considered an unforgivable gaffe. Mr. Moneymaker cited weather, big cats and stray branches as a sasquatch hunter’s primary foes; a park ranger further cautioned us against snakes and alligators.
Not far from camp, Mr. Barackman pointed out a series of unusual animal tracks. There was speculation that they were made by a bear or maybe even a young sasquatch. None of the presented possibilities were particularly comforting. The next morning, castings were made of the footprints; they turned out to be the work of an exceptionally large northern river otter.
AT 10:30 p.m., after we’d roasted hot dogs and exchanged a couple of squatching yarns, Mr. Moneymaker ran through a few rules. “Don’t freak out” was the prevailing theme. He said he’d seen otherwise stoic men — soldiers, even — turn into “sniveling messes” when led into a dark forest. Before attendees can be registered for an expedition, they are required to read a chapter from the B.F.R.O. handbook that helps people “deal with the terror of a first experience.”
Mr. Moneymaker distributed night vision monoculars called Ghost Hunters, which render everything in shades of green. We split into two groups, putting enough distance between us that we could convincingly initiate and return calls. We hoped to hear a few knock backs right away. “It’s not going to be a human out there making knock backs, it’s going to be a squatch,” Mr. Moneymaker said. “If we hear knock backs then we’re in business.”
When hiking through the woods with no other light source than a new moon, it’s remarkably easy to lose sight of everyone around you, and even that false sense of isolation can be deeply terrifying. Our group of five crept toward the river in a single line. We paused near the site of Mr. Craig’s encounter and, after radioing Mr. Barackman’s team, tried a few howls.
Much of Bigfooting is listening, and like any kind of hunting, it requires extraordinary patience. While we waited for a reply, I pulled a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup out of my back pocket and laid it on the ground. (I’d been told that Bigfoots have a particular affinity for Zagnut bars, but they weren’t stocked by the local Wal-Mart.) A foraging armadillo let out a few inquisitive grunts, but sasquatches, it seemed, were uninterested in initiating contact just yet.
Eventually, we trekked back to camp and reorganized. Around 3 a.m., I followed Mr. Barackman and four others east toward the park’s sandy access roads. We howled, knocked and scanned for glowing eyes, but our solicitations were not reciprocated. By 4:30 a.m., I was asleep in my tent with my hiking boots still on.
The next morning, I sat by the fire snacking on a slice of bacon and a powdered doughnut. The other team had heard and recorded a response howl — a brief, high-pitched hoot. We speculated about whether it was human. Mr. Barackman described the results of the expedition as fairly typical. “We recorded something that we don’t know the origin of,” he said. “The mystery continues.”
A few minutes later, something screeched in the distance, and Mr. Moneymaker, barefoot, abandoned his breakfast and bounded into the woods at full speed. Although the sound turned out to be nothing, I was impressed by Mr. Moneymaker’s enthusiastic gait. It was that of a believer.
A version of this article appeared in print on April 22, 2012, on page TR11 of the New York edition with the headline: Howling at Nothing: A Hunt for Bigfoot.