Posted by: Craig Woolheater on December 19th, 2006
Also mentioned are Jeff Meldrum and Henner Fahrenbach.
Shadowing Bigfoot: "When you see something like that, it’s not really a question of do they exist, but what are they?"
By Mark Baker
Published: Sunday, December 17, 2006
He not only exists, he is living among us. Right here in Lane County. Always has, according to Autumn Williams.
Autumn Williams has been a believer in Sasquatch since she saw a mysterious creature in the forest near Mount Rainier when she was a little girl.
He’s been in the Cottage Grove and McKenzie areas, and over in Oakridge, among other places. And, yes, there are female Sasquatches, too. Otherwise, how would Bigfoot exist in the first place?
"There’s not just one," a bemused Williams says. "It’s not the Easter Bunny."
Williams is most definitely a Bigfoot believer. Her Web site, www.oregonbigfoot.com, lists 870 alleged Sasquatch-related reports in North America since the late 19th century, more than half of them in Oregon and 58 in Lane County dating back to the 1930s.
"When you see something like that, it’s not really a question of do they exist, but what are they?" says the 33-year-old Eugene woman who has been researching and looking for Bigfoot since she says she saw one at age 3 in the foothills of Washington’s Mount Rainier.
Sure, go ahead and say it. Or think it. Or whatever. How could anyone, in their right mind, believe in such a thing? A 7- to 8-foot-tall, hairy man-beast roaming the wilderness?
Where’s the proof?
Where’s a corpse? Some bones? Anything?
Jeffrey Meldrum, an associate professor of anatomy at Idaho State University in Pocatello and one of the leading Bigfoot researchers in the nation, says there may be two reasons evidence is scarce.
First, there’s "the nature of the beast itself," he says, citing Bigfoot’s long life span and infrequent numbers, among other things. "When it dies, it’s going to be an extremely rare event."
And, says Meldrum, 48, author of the just-released "Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science," when a Bigfoot dies, insects, scavengers, porcupines, rodents, etc., are going to devour its remains quickly. After all, how many large elk bones do you find in the wilderness? asks Meldrum, the subject of a story in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times.
Bigfoot enthusiasts and researchers – many of whom believe the creature is a descendent of Gigantopithecus, an extinct Asian ape they say might have crossed the Bering Strait into North America – such as Williams and Meldrum are part of a resurgence of interest and fascination in a Pacific Northwest legend that dates back centuries and probably reached its peak in the 1970s.
Even Gov. Ted Kulongoski got in on the craze back then, successfully introducing a resolution to the Oregon Legislature prohibiting anyone from "harassing, annoying or intimidating" a Sasquatch.
Then a state representative from Junction City, Kulongoski told The Register-Guard in 1977 that he got the idea from his children, who were concerned that Bigfoot hunters "might actually catch him and put him in a zoo," even though "this shy creature … has never so much as stolen a picnic basket," read the original tongue-in-cheek resolution that was later modified with a more serious tone.
Three decades ago, there was no one in Lane County more serious about finding Bigfoot than Ron Olson, who co-wrote the 1977 TV docudrama, "Sasquatch, the Legend of Bigfoot," directed by Eugene’s Ed Ragozzino and starring local actors. In fact, Olson still has the Bigfoot suit an actor wore in the film that he dreams about restoring and re-releasing.
The man who now runs Eugene’s two Lube It USA stores ran the North American Wildlife Research organization out of Eugene in the 1970s and even built a trap to catch a Bigfoot in Southern Oregon. And, yes, he still believes.
"I’ve always believed there is a Bigfoot," Olson told the (Medford) Mail Tribune in September for a feature story on the U.S. Forest Service’s Passport in Time program restoring the trap that had been damaged. However, Olson’s days of looking are long gone, he says.
"I wouldn’t still be doing this if there wasn’t something to it," says Williams, who is expecting her first child in January and has been seriously researching Bigfoot since she was 16.
"I know I might look like a dumb blonde, but I’m not," she says with a laugh. "I want to educate people about it."
Williams this year produced "Oregon Bigfoot: Search for a Living Legend," the first of a three-part documentary series. She’s also an acquaintance of Meldrum.
"Jeff is a brilliant man," she says. "Why would he be wasting his time with it if there wasn’t something there?
"And here’s what blows my mind. We’re not talking about a great, big purple dinosaur in a pink tutu." After all, she says, American Indians spoke of a wild ape-man named Sasquatch (derived from the Coast Salish Indian word "sesquac," meaning "natural being that possesses a spirit better left alone") long before a 1950s newspaper reporter for the Humboldt (Calif.) Times coined the term "Bigfoot."
(Ray Wallace, a Toledo, Wash., man who died in 2002, made national news from his deathbed when he claimed he was the one who made the 1958 tracks that started the whole craze with a contraption he built. It also was reported that the female Sasquatch in the famous 1967 film by two Yakima men was his wife in a gorilla suit.)
Williams was born Oct. 20, 1973, six years to the day after that film footage was shot near Willow Creek, Calif., by Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin.
"Isn’t that weird," says Williams, who has a photograph of herself with a cowboy-hat-wearing Gimlin on her desk. Patterson died in 1972. Williams says Gimlin has joked "that maybe you’re him" reincarnated, she says.
Sitting in the living room of the west Eugene home she shares with her fiance, Skye Felton, Williams tells the story she has told many times: It was 1976, and she was living with her parents and two older sisters in a cabin in Orting, Wash., a small town of 3,700 southeast of Tacoma in the foothills of Mount Rainier. She and her mother were out collecting firewood on a path behind their home.
They came around the corner and, suddenly, there they were, maybe 20 or 25 feet away: an adult Bigfoot and its child. "I remember the big one’s eyes," Williams says. "That really
stuck with me."
Big and black, "human-sized and wide-set," she recalls, although she was just 3. "Almost like the pupils took up the whole eye. I wasn’t really afraid at the time, because my dad and all his friends were hippies and had all kinds of facial hair," she says, her bubbly laughter filling the air again.
The encounters went on for four years, Williams says. She shows a stack of 1970s-era photographs that include Sasquatch-like footprints. Williams has drawings – one by her, the other by her mother – in her upstairs office of what she says she and her mother saw that day in 1976. Both drawings show the gentle-looking adult Sasquatch holding hands with its child.
Williams’ mother, Sali Sheppard-Wolford, now lives in Elkton and has just published a book, "Valley of the Skookum," about the family’s alleged Bigfoot encounters.
Williams, who moved to Eugene from Elkton when she was 21, launched her Web site in 2001 to provide a place for witnesses to record their Bigfoot encounters – or at least what they think might have been. The reports are listed by state and are mixed with those that Williams has gleaned from other Web sites, books and those she has gathered from witness accounts.
"Hunters saw hairy ‘man’ eating deer flesh," says the oldest report, from 1885 in Linn County. Of the 870 reports listed on her site, 580 are from Oregon, the most (120) coming from Clackamas County.
Many of the reports, however, are not actual sightings but claims of hearing strange sounds or seeing rocks piled in some odd way. A late 1950s report by two sisters on Geer Avenue in Cottage Grove says they saw a "creature staring through the window at them, and a report from Walton in the summer of 2005 says two bear hunters heard "two creatures whooping at each other."
Williams interviews several eyewitnesses in her documentary, including Jack Waite of Culp Creek. Waite says he spent 19 years as a police officer, but that didn’t prepare him for what he saw while driving his truck on Dinner Ridge Road in the Umpqua National Forest in the spring of 1997. At first, he thought it was a bear, but it was running on two hind legs.
"The hairs on the back of my neck stood up," Waite says. "I’d just never seen anything like this before."
"P.S: It’s NOT a legend!"
Wolf Henner Fahrenbach’s e-mail comes through with the ferocity of his belief in response to an inquiry about a possible interview for a story "on the legend of Bigfoot."
Retired after 34 years at Oregon Health & Science University’s primate research center in Beaverton, the 74-year-old zoologist is still on the trail of Sasquatch when he’s not teaching histology at OHSU’s dental school. He has some 20 hair samples he says came from Sasquatches and has taken measurements of more than 700 footprints.
He blames media sensationalism for a lack of serious scientific inquiry into the Bigfoot phenomenon. After all the hubbub created in Northern California in the 1960s with the discovery of footprints and then the Patterson-Gimlin film, "The people who should have pursued it, physical anthropologists, dropped the ball and left it to the press," Fahrenbach says. And "yellow journalism" made a mockery of it, he says. Anything that appears regularly on supermarket tabloids, "They avoid it like the plague," he says of most scientists.
During his more than three decades at OHSU’s Oregon National Primate Research Center, he says he had to sign a statement anytime he did any Bigfoot research saying OHSU had nothing to do with it.
"They don’t want anything to do with something they perceive as frivolous," he says. "But they don’t know beans about it."
Fahrenbach wrote a paper in 1998, titled "Sasquatch: Size, Scaling and Statistics," that he says "provides a sort of proof that is impossible to fake."
Fahrenbach’s paper analyzes Bigfoot’s foot length, ball width, heel width, height, weight, gait, pace length, speed, chest dimensions, weight extrapolation, caloric consumption, brain size, strength, foot anatomy, growth and life cycles, nocturnality and hair color, among other things, concluding that the data is "indicative of a sizeable population of a species that has adapted in a variety of ways to the demands of surviving in the montane environment of the North American continent."
But perhaps Fahrenbach’s most telling conclusion is his response to what it will take for mainstream science to give Bigfoot any serious attention: "It’ll take a corpse, and a scientist to take it to a meeting and rub people’s noses in it."
The new book by Meldrum contains an endorsement from the famed Jane Goodall, the English primatologist who lived among chimpanzees in Africa in the 1950s and ’60s ("Meldrum’s book brings a much needed level of scientific analysis to the Bigfoot debate"). But Meldrum still has not garnered much respect from his Idaho State colleagues, who may be afraid that his pursuit of Bigfoot is making a laughingstock of the university.
"One could do deep-ocean research for SpongeBob SquarePants," physics professor Douglas Wells told the Los Angeles Times’ Sam Howe Verhovek. "That doesn’t make it science."
But Meldrum remains undeterred. The proof that Bigfoot, or some as yet "undocumented primate," exists is everywhere, he says.
"In example after example after example, you really have to start wondering what’s going on here," Meldrum says. And there is no better proof than footprints, he says. The first ones he collected were in the Blue Mountains outside of Walla Walla, Wash., in 1996. Paul Freeman, the Bigfoot hunter who died in 2003 and also allegedly captured a Sasquatch on film in 1994, discovered the tracks that Meldrum came out to analyze. There were about 40 of them.
"To this day," Meldrum says, "I am convinced that if they are a hoax, they weren’t created by (Freeman). Someone would have had to have known a lot about foot anatomy," he says of the tracks, which contained evidence of dermal ridges and midtarsal joints.
A year or so after discovering the Blue Mountain tracks, Freeman was on an expedition in the Siskiyou National Forest in Northern California when he and a travel companion were awakened in the middle of the night after using recorded vocalizations to try to lure a Sasquatch.
After hearing that "sort of high-pitched, wailing cry" witnesses often describe, Meldrum says some sort of creatures were on opposite sides of the camp making a "clacking sound," as if they were knocking their teeth together or banging rocks.
Suddenly, something ran by the tent on two legs and then lobbed softball-sized rocks from a trail. Another time, something came into camp, rifled through their backpacks and took only the two-gallon Ziplock bags of oatmeal that were on top, leaving the potato flakes, beef jerky and dried fruit. If it had been bears, they would have taken everything and left a mess, Meldrum says.
As for discovering so many footprints over the years, Meldrum says, "It takes you back. What else could make these? And what are they doing walking around barefoot in the forest?"
ON THE WEB
Williams has her own Bigfoot site: www.oregonbigfoot.com