I’m walking through the dark woods with three strangers. They’re all carrying knives. A sliver of white moon hangs between the black, bare tree limbs. My dim headlamp barely illuminates the mossy trail. The man in front of me walks without a light, finding the path with his feet. The only noise is the sound of our feet shuffling through the dead leaves.
Behind us, the woman in our party stops. We pause and look back at her.
“Wait a sec,” she says. “I’m gonna call."
She catches her breath for a moment. Then she leans back, cups her hand around her mouth, and releases a high-pitched wail that makes my toes curl inside my hiking boots. It echoes through the empty forest, over the lake and through the valley. The woods are silent for a moment. We listen.
“Not much activity tonight,” she sighs. “Let’s keep going.”
Tonight I’m on a hike with three members of the Southeastern Ohio Bigfoot Investigation Society (that’s SOSBI for short). With a whopping 228 sightings listed on an Internet database, Ohio has the third most Bigfoot sightings in the nation. According to some, the Ohio Bigfoot has been living in the area for centuries. He just doesn’t want to be found.
In 2008, a small-but-eager group of “Bigfooters” founded SOSBI. For the past four years, the club has hosted monthly meetings at a public library in the small town of Cambridge. According to its Facebook page, SOSBI is an open forum created “to give everyone and anyone the chance to talk about Bigfoot without the fear of being made fun of or taunted.”
When Animal Planet featured the group in a reality show called Hunting Bigfoot, the club saw a spike in popularity. Now the meetings draw up to 80 people from across the Midwest. This summer SOSBI started hosting group campouts in Salt Fork State Park. The 17,000 acres of dense forest in Salt Fork are perfect for concealing dreadlocked gorilla-men.
Seriously, though? Bigfoot? These meetings must just be an excuse for some weirdo redneck-types to venture out of their parents’ basements for the night, was what I figured. So, in late September, I decided to find out.
WHEN I ARRIVED AT the campground that night, I found a dozen or so men and women lounging in lawn chairs around a campfire. I’d expected a few skinny, acne-speckled teenage boys and maybe some shotgun-wielding folks in tinfoil hats. But these people looked ... normal—a group of middle-aged men and women in blue jeans and lumpy sweatshirts. The men sported camouflage hunting hats, and the women had short frizzy hair. They looked more like volunteer firefighters than paranormal enthusiasts.
I sat down next to a man from Pittsburgh who offered me a cookie.
“I don’t believe in Bigfoot; I just believe in Shawna’s cookies,” he chuckled, gesturing toward one of the women. “I just happened to be lost in the woods one day and come upon these people. And next thing you know, they start talking about hairy guys with big feet who live in the woods.
Then the self-proclaimed non-believer pulled out his phone and opened a photo album called “Evidence.” He scrolled through 380 photos of log piles and bent trees, patiently explaining to me that Bigfoot likes vandalizing the forest shrubbery.
Tall tales and vague pseudo-science swirled around the campfire. I learned that the Sasquatch looks like a large, hairy man with a pronounced brow ridge. They can be three to 15 feet tall and come in any color. And yes, we can talk about Bigfoot in the plural. The Ohio Bigfoot population, someone told me, ranges from 30 to 300 individuals. But since they’re migratory, there’s no good season or area to spot one. They can be anywhere, at any time.
Just like bears, they spend their days foraging for berries, small animals, and sometimes even garbage. Just like deer, they peel the bark off trees in the winter. Like hippies, they stack rocks next to trailheads. Their eyes have the reflective membrane tapetum lucidum, the same thing that makes cats’ eyes glow in the dark. They communicate with long, moaning howls that sound like ambulance sirens. They exude the fetid stench of sewage, urine, and dead animals. Oh, and they’ve never been found. They’re too darn smart.
HERE’S WHAT WE REALLY know: Bigfoot is rooted in folklore. Legends of humanoid creatures in the wilderness come from all over the world. There’s the Yeti of the Himalayas, the Yowie in Australia, the Yeren of Mongolia, and a plethora of wild-man myths from native tribes in North America. Even Daniel Boone claimed to have shot and killed a 10-foot hairy man he called a Yahoo.
Historically, most of Bigfoot sightings are concentrated in the Pacific Northwest. In the 1920s, a Canadian journalist coined the term “Sasquatch” from the Halkomelem Indian word sásq’ets, the name for the tribe’s version of Bigfoot. In 1924, five miners in Washington claimed to have been attacked by several “apemen” throwing rocks at their cabin. Later, one of the men wrote a book about the experience, in which he claimed that the creatures were mystical beings from another dimension. In 1958, a bulldozer operator found tracks at a worksite in Bluff Creek, California, and presented a plaster-casted replica of the footprints to a local newspaper. After his death, his children came forward with a pair of 16-inch wooden feet that he’d used to fake the tracks. In 1967—also in Bluff Creek—Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin captured the iconic film of Sasquatch tramping through the undergrowth. The most recent sighting was 2007—a Pennsylvanian hunter thought he’d caught an image of a creature with an automatically-triggered camera. Turns out it was probably a juvenile bear with mange, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
But there’s been never been one conclusive piece of evidence. No real documented sightings. No captured individuals. No carcasses. Not even a stool sample.
In the book Anatomy of a Beast: Obsession and Myth on the Trail of Bigfoot, Micheal McLeod writes that the Bigfoot craze is “a silly slice of history ... the first widely popularized example of pseudoscience in American culture.” The fad reached its peak in the 1970s when self-identified “experts” started spouting theories to magazines and television networks. Real scientists, not wanting to get mixed up with the crazies, fled from the Bigfoot scene. Then, nobody was around to challenge what McLeod calls “junk science,” and it was effectively legitimized in the minds of those who wanted it to be. Enthusiasts took heart; the beast couldn’t be disproved! It had to exist.
Since then, groups of self-made Bigfoot “researchers” have sprung up all over the country. The oldest and largest is the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (or BFRO), which has maintained an online Bigfoot database since 1995. The website has a black background and glaring white font proclaiming the legitimacy of their research. The BFRO claims to be a non-profit organization, but they’ve taken some flack for their steep membership fees and their affiliation with the star of Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot, the aptly-named Matt Moneymaker. The members of the Ohio group were glad that they only had to pay $10 to camp at Salt Fork, contrasted with the $500 Moneymaker required to join one of his nighttime stakeouts.
AROUND THE CAMPFIRE, EVERYONE was eager to pull out their favorite monster story. One person had an elderly neighbor with a Bigfoot-infested barn. Another guy’s friend saw it cavorting in his garden. He had the footprints casted in plaster as proof. Someone else had been followed by the animal while on a hunting trip. The listeners nodded, then butted in to tack on extra details to the end of each yarn.
“There’s a lot of bullshittin’ around here,” boomed a pot-bellied man, slapping his knee. “But there’s a lot of fact-finding too. When most people say something, it’s true.”
What does that even mean? I wanted to shout. Do you people really think there’s a giant gorilla man sneaking around rural Ohio? Seriously?
But they kept offering me cookies, calling me “honey,” and showing me pixilated photos of dark shrubbery. They told me about the teasing they’d endured from their coworkers and families and how grateful they all were to have made friends in SOSBI. Everybody was so sweet and earnest. I didn’t want to ruin their campout, slapping them in the face with questions. Instead, I stayed pinned to my camp chair and gazed into the crackling fire.
The next morning, I met Nancy and Bernie, a middle-aged couple from West Virginia. Nancy was bubbly and enthusiastic. She looked like a woman who could belong to my mother’s book club. Bernie was a stocky man with a silver crew cut and square glasses. He shied away from my handheld recorder. They asked me not to use their last name in order to save Bernie from workplace ridicule.
The couple first saw Bigfoot in 2009, Nancy said. They were driving through Salt Fork in the daytime when they passed a huge, hairy figure standing against a tree on the side of the road. By the time they managed to turn the car around, it was gone. But they were sure of what they’d seen—it was a Sasquatch. After that, they were hooked, and they wanted to see it again.
Nancy invited me to go on a nighttime hike. They promised to take me to the best Bigfoot hotspots in the park. And that’s how I find myself wandering through Salt Fork late on a Saturday night.
BACK AT THE TRAILHEAD, we’d met up with another Bigfooter named Todd, a tall, bespectacled Hummer-driver in camo pants. He’d rigged up his other car, a GMC Jimmy, with ultra-bright spotting lights on the roof in case he startles a Bigfoot out on the road.
Nancy puffed on her inhaler, Bernie shoved his “Bigfoot kit” (plaster for footprint casting, a stick of beef jerky, and an audio recorder) into his backpack, and Todd handed out flashlights to everyone. Then we set off down the trail.
For the past two hours, Bernie has led us down miles of dark trails. We’ve walked to the historic stone house by the lake, to the spot where Bernie and Nancy had their sighting, to the entrance of the caves that have the most nightly Bigfoot activity. We’ve taken so many turns; I have no idea where I am.
Every once in a while, we stop so Nancy or Todd can shriek and shout gibberish into the forest. That’s how they communicate with any creatures that might be nearby. They encourage me to try it; Bigfoot is attracted to female voices. I let out a weak yelp. Nancy smiles proudly. I blush and laugh nervously, feeling totally ridiculous. Are they trying to prove something to me here? It’s really not working.
We continue tramping through the undergrowth. Todd has been talking about paranormal activity for the past half-hour. His girlfriends, he says, have never really been into Bigfoot or ghosts. He’s single at the moment. He pauses. “You know,” he says to Bernie, “you guys are lucky to have each other to do this with. It’s good to have anyone to go on these hikes with—especially someone like a mate."
Half-an-hour later, the trees finally thin out and we emerge onto a moonlit road. Nancy shakes her head. “I really wanted you to have some activity,” she says to me. “Did we convince you?” I shrug. I don’t have the heart to tell her no.
The road curves into a long hill. Nancy and Todd fall back; Bernie and I power ahead.
Bernie is more talkative tonight than he was at the campout. I learn that he’s an ex-army guy who used to be stationed in Germany. He and Nancy moved back to Ohio to start a family. As we tramp alone up the hill, he opens up about his and Nancy’s experience with the Bigfoot community.
In 2009, Nancy hated her job, even though she was making good money. She was working at a bar. Bernie had been laid off, so he spent most of his time drinking at that bar. He was exhausted and unhappy. Then they had their sighting, and things finally started looking up. Bernie finally found a new job. Now he and Nancy drive to Salt Fork and hike on his days off. They come two or three days a week, even in the winter. They’re out of the house so much that they’ve canceled their Internet and cable plans.
“We’re probably never going to see it again,” he says, resigned. “But it’s been good. We’ve met so many people that we never would’ve met any other way. I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now if it weren’t for Bigfoot.”
Everything Bernie says is true—because it happened. Bernie and the rest of the Bigfooters seem like genuinely nice people. More than that—they’re genuinely people, just people who happen to spend their free time chasing after a mythological forest-beast. Are they delusional? Sure. The statistics—zero documented sightings, ever—might suggest so. But they also care deeply about what they do. When I asked questions about their research, they bubbled over with enthusiasm, offering me documents and photographs and DVDs of their findings. They invited me to their meetings and let me borrow flashlights and camp chairs. And they seriously wanted for me to have an “experience” of my own to report to the world. Whether or not they’ve actually seen anything or had their own “experiences,” doesn’t really seem to matter.
WE PAUSE AT THE top of the hill to wait for Nancy and Todd.
When we reach the parking lot back at the trailhead, Nancy opens a bottle of wine and Bernie throws a few logs into the fire pit. Todd pulls a cooler out of the Hummer and offers me a bottle of cold water.
Nancy’s beaming with happiness that I tagged along on the hike. She wishes me luck and invites me back any time. Todd offers to carpool with me. I grin but decline.
“Call us when you’re back safe!” Nancy calls as I drive away. “If you hit a Sasquatch, make sure you bring it back so we can show Bernie’s mother-in-law it’s real!”
I smile and wave. Back at home, I pull out my phone and text Bernie: Back safe. No Squatch. Thanks! Maybe it’s not the trail of Bigfoot, but these people are on to something.
Colleen O'Neil is a senior English major and cross country runner at the College of Wooster. She writes about running, traveling, and eating ice cream on her blog.