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Yoo-hoo! Mr. Sasquatch!

Dispatches, July 1997

Yoo-hoo! Mr. Sasquatch!

Debonair woodsman Peter Byrne hones in on his elusive, malodorous prey
By Robert Sullivan

For The Record

OK, But Please Don't Start Sending Out Canvassers
Could it be that the National Wildlife Federation is growing tired of its frumpy image? Maybe so, if its actions last Earth Day are any indication. Responding to a recent report that named the Columbia River the most carcinogenic flow in the country, the traditionally staid organization swiped a page from Greepeace's playbook by convening the first-annual Columbia River Toxic Swim in Portland, Oregon, distributing gas masks and full-body protective suits to 65 protesters for a ten-minute dip in the dioxin-laden water. Why the change in tactics? "It's a matter of educating people," says federation spokesman Phil Kavits. "This kind of action is very much in keeping with what we're all about."

Schusser Beware
Results are in from Colorado's 1996-1997 ski season, and suffice it to say it was a rather tragic winter. The state saw an unprecedented 15 skier deaths — about 50 percent more than usual — the latest and most frightening of which came April 20 at Vail, when lift operator Nathan Hall allegedly slammed into and killed 33-year-old Alan Cobb. At press time, the Eagle County district attorney's office was considering whether to bring a count of felony manslaughter against Hall, 18, which would be just the second such charge in U.S. skiing history. Meanwhile, Hall's attorney, Brett Heckman, is criticizing Vail's decision to pack the slopes by slashing lift prices to $5 on the day of the accident (a facet of the case about which Vail Associates declined to comment). But as for whether clogged trails could in themselves be responsible for this or any of the other deaths, well, most skiing officials seem dubious. "There's never any rhyme or reason," says Stacy Gardner of the National Ski Areas Association. "These things just happen."

Granted, it might not require much in the way of athletic prowess, but one does not become the Cal Ripken of skydiving without sacrifice. After all, parachute instructor Christian Schoemig, who set a new world record last April by making at least one dive a day for an entire year, did essentially hold himself hostage near Sugarloaf airport in the Florida Keys for 365 straight days. He bailed out on an Aspen ski week with his buddies. He had to slog through a wicked sinus infection. He even had to cancel a visit with his grandmother in Germany. And the worst thing? Á la baseball's Ironman, it seems no one's content to let him rest on his laurels. "All my friends say I should keep going," Schoemig explains. "But for how long? I can't do this forever."

— Todd Balf and Paul Kvinta
When the news came last April, it sounded like a death knell in the search for America's signature mythic beast: The Bigfoot Research Project, purportedly the most scientific of the outfits engaged in the hunt for Sasquatch, had closed its headquarters near Oregon's Mount Hood. But Peter Byrne, the project's 71-year-old director, insists that this is not the end of his search for the elusive hominid; it's merely the conclusion of his most recent phase. By the end of summer, Byrne plans to have his next bigfoot project up and running. Or at least that's what the Irish native is now saying. He is seated in the living room of his bungalow in downtown Portland, nattily dressed in his trademark khaki shirt and maroon ascot. His manner is coolly colonial, reinforced by the British accent he acquired decades ago through a stint with the RAF. "We've confirmed to our satisfaction," he proclaims crisply, "that these things do exist."

The project, Byrne says, shut down because its sponsor, the Boston-based Academy of Applied Science, decided not to renew its $500,000 grant. "They were disappointed with the extent of our findings," he says matter-of-factly, "and they felt
that we had spent enough money." Certainly the expenditures were great. The project maintained four four-wheel-drive vehicles, a snowmobile, two helicopters on 24-hour standby, and a cargo-van-cum-high-tech-assault-vehicle known as the BMB (for Bigfoot Mobile Base). The greatest expense, however — the one Byrne was counting on to provide hard proof to the Academy — was a $250,000 surveillance system installed in 1995. The underground sensors that triggered its cameras were designed to detect the movement of large beings within a 100-foot radius; the cameras would then relay images back from the field. Unfortunately, Byrne says, the system was cursed — power lines interfered with signals, a camera was struck by lightning — and in the end he had nothing more to show his detractors than images of several not-so-elusive inhabitants of the Northwest's forests, such as black-tailed deer.

"What we did achieve was small," Byrne admits. "Our research merely confirmed things we already knew. For instance, we now know that these creatures do go out in the open." Byrne bases this conclusion on more than 1,000 interviews conducted with folks who claim to have encountered the beasts. Of those, he has classified 125 as category A, or extremely credible sightings, and another 350 as category B, or credible but less definite encounters. Most of the A sightings were reported by people with significant outdoor experience, such as the retired state Fish and Wildlife Service officer who spotted something big and hairy in central Oregon late one night and noted especially the stench that Byrne says is a definitive bigfoot calling card. "He said that he'd smelled dead animals of all kinds," Byrne recalls, "but never anything like this." Another A sighting came from a man hunting in the foothills beneath Mount St. Helens. "He said it walked up the road and looked back at him like this." Byrne hunches up his shoulders and slowly turns his head. "He picked up on what many people notice — this beautiful, athletic stride."

During his hiatus, Byrne plans to polish up three manuscripts he completed while holed up near Mount Hood, including an account of his 1950s yeti-hunting treks in the Himalayas. He also intends to finalize matters with his new sponsor, an unnamed individual who Byrne hopes will provide at least $1 million. "I'm more convinced than ever," Byrne says, the spark of the Great White Hunter gleaming in his eyes, "and I'm not about to give up now."

Illustration by Chip Wass

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