Stories have always been told about things that happened along old Mill Creek Road, the trail of bumps and switchbacks that winds up from the farms of southeastern Washington to the hushed and empty ranges of the Blue Mountains.
The large, human-like footprints found along the creek. The sounds heard late at night outside the lonely cabins on the upper end of the road. The man who was riding his motorcycle and saw something in the brush, 10 or 12 feet tall, making a weird, high-pitched scream.
As far back as the 1920s, there were reports of a family of huge “man-creatures” skulking up near homesteads along the nearby Coppei River. Six dairy cows were said to have been herded away by the beasts. One by one, the homesteaders left and moved back to town. But the stories persisted. As long as anyone remembers, it has been an item of belief for many here that Bigfoot walks the Blue Mountains.
“Up north here, we growed up with this thing. People would say, ‘Look out for the wild man.’ Man, how can you doubt it when you still got diapers on and they got a picture of you pointing at a Bigfoot track?” said Wes Sumerlin, a Walla Walla mountain man whose alleged sighting of two ape-like creatures about seven miles off Mill Creek Road last summer has led to hopes of the first scientific evidence of the legend.
Sumerlin and two colleagues came back with clumps of hair that Ohio State University researchers are testing for DNA comparisons. The tests, said Oregon primate zoologist H. Henner Fahrenbach, “could legitimize, to my mind at least, the sightings, the footprints, everything. It would put one item of concrete evidence behind all the circumstantial evidence.”
From Northern California to the dense forests of British Columbia, the legends of Sasquatch have been handed down over hundreds of years, a Northwest version of the fearsome fable--from the Grendel of “Beowulf” to the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas--that is as old as the forest and the night.
Now, years after much of the forest has given way to suburbs, the Sasquatch is in resurgence all over the Northwest, a cultural phenomenon that is at least as remarkable as any scientific evidence uncovered in the DNA labs.
Two books were published last year, one documenting Sasquatch legends, the other an attempt to trail Bigfoot across the Dark Divide, an area of the Cascades in southern Washington and northern Oregon.
Bigfoot now commands two sites on the World Wide Web; a well-funded research project has been launched near Oregon’s Mt. Hood to exhaustively document and prepare a computer analysis of all plausible Bigfoot reports; a pair of hotlines are in place to collect Bigfoot sightings; the Western Bigfoot Society, the largest of a host of interest groups all over the world, meets monthly in the basement of a used bookstore in northern Portland, Ore.; a Bigfoot symposium is scheduled this summer outside of Vancouver, Canada.
“Something is definitely afoot in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Either an officially undescribed species of hominoid primate dwells there, or an act of self- and group deception of astonishing proportions is taking place. In any case, the phenomenon of Bigfoot exists,” Washington naturalist Robert Michael Pyle wrote in “Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide.”
Mainstream scientists have scoffed at reports of a man-ape lurking in the forests of the Northwest, something akin to the great apes that dwelt in East Asia approximately half a million years ago. Not only is it unlikely that one wouldn’t have been seen and clearly photographed by now, but it would be difficult for so large an animal to find adequate food in the wild lands that remain, they say.
On the other side are a handful of anthropologists, zoologists and others who say that it is possible that the great apes could have crossed the Bering Sea along the ancient ice passage into North America--and survived by cunning, brawn and shyness in the huge tracts of forests in the Northwest.
“We have an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence. We have footprints by the tens of thousands. . . . I have a giant footprint that is 22 inches. And they go bigger than that. The second thing we have is sightings, and they number in the thousands. They’re from people in all walks of life, from game wardens to loggers, plain old grandmas, police officers with 20,000-candlepower searchlights,” said Fahrenbach, who teaches a course on Bigfoot science at Portland Community College.
To Kill a Bigfoot
Gordon Krantz, anthropology professor at Washington State University, estimates that there have been about a quarter of a million Bigfoot “events” over the past 40 years. He said he has tracked nearly identical reports from the Northwest into western China and the former Soviet Central Asia, supporting his theory that the ancient gigantopithecus--the greatest ape that ever lived, about 8 or 9 feet tall--did not die off in Asia 400,000 years ago but crossed over into North America and survived in small numbers.
Krantz has touched off something of a controversy in Bigfoot circles by openly advocating the view that a specimen should be hunted down and killed.
“Someday down the line, 50 years from now, somebody by the rare chance might just stumble across the skeleton of a Sasquatch, and then the government sends out masses of [chimpanzee researcher] Jane Goodall’s granddaughters, and establishes definitely, they were there, but they’re extinct,” Krantz theorized. “Everybody will be standing around wringing their hands saying: ‘If only we knew they were real, we could have saved them.’ Well, they could have been saved if only we would blow one away now. The first one who bags one should get a big, big prize. The second one should be hanged.”
One opponent of Krantz’s view is Peter Byrne, director of the Bigfoot Research Project at Mt. Hood.
Byrne is a big-game hunter in the classic tradition--Irish, with a good head of white hair and a penchant for khakis and wool sweaters. He spent a good part of his hunting-and-tracking career in Nepal before developing an interest in the Sasquatch and undertaking the first major organized Bigfoot expedition in Oregon in 1960.
It failed to produce a Sasquatch, but Byrne hasn’t quit looking. He now spends much of his time tracking down witnesses, carefully probing their stories for holes, sending investigators to look for corroborating evidence, then entering the results in a computer database. So far, 103 sightings going back 50 years--none of them outside the Northwest--have been deemed credible by the four-member team working at Mt. Hood. The project is sponsored by the Academy of Applied Science in Boston.
All told, Byrne figures that he has spent 16 of the last 35 years looking for Bigfoot. He still has never seen one, although like many other Bigfoot researchers, he has heard that shrieking cry in the forest, in the dead of night, that doesn’t sound like any other known animal. He only heard it once.
“It was a kind of screaming roar. Very, very powerful. It lasted about five seconds, there was an interruption of four or five seconds, then it happened again. I’ve heard elephants. I’ve heard tigers. I’ve never heard anything like this.”
Whatever is finally found in the woods, Byrne said, shouldn’t be shot.
“There are those people who say: ‘Shoot one, cut off the head and send it to me, it’s all over.’ We realize that could be the answer. But these things have never harmed anyone, and they’ve never demonstrated any kind of aggression, and we feel that any attempt to shoot one would be criminal,” Byrne said.
The Bigfoot story last August in Walla Walla started with some youths who said they had heard screaming sounds up in the mountains. A local rancher said all his cattle had come down off Biscuit Ridge, where the good feed was, and gone over to Black Snake Ridge, where there wasn’t any feed.
Smell of Sasquatch?
The rancher talked to Sumerlin. “I said, ‘What about the deer, the elk?’ He said, ‘I haven’t seen any of ‘em for about a week.’ He said, ‘Hell, there aren’t even any birds up there.’ There ain’t nothing sticks around when those critters are there,” Sumerlin said.
Sumerlin talked to Paul Freeman, who has spent much of the last several years looking for Bigfoot, and Bill Laughery, an ex-game warden. The three decided to drive up and have a look the next day.
Freeman started out taking the two other men back to where he had seen some tracks earlier. They hiked in off the main road and started climbing into the highlands. Then, Sumerlin said, he got “a whiff of something.”
“Smelled like somebody skinning muskrats. And then I thought, ‘Hell, there ain’t nobody skinning muskrats up here.’ ” Freeman had gone on ahead, but Sumerlin called Laughery back.
“I stood there just a second or two, and all of a sudden I smelled it: a real pungent, heavy odor like an animal that’s in rut. Like you can smell a bull elk or a buck deer,” Laughery said. The two men were interviewed separately but gave identical accounts.
Clumps of Hair
Sumerlin and Laughery said they moved together into a clearing, where they found a number of small trees twisted and broken, so fresh they were still dripping sap. There were large clumps of long hair, some black, some dark brown, caught on the trees where they were broken.
Laughery started to walk on when Sumerlin said he saw something moving in the trees. “It’s like you can’t see it, but you can see the daylight breaking behind it,” he said. “Bill was there--he packs those sneaky little spyglasses around--and he said, ‘Wes, I see something, but I can’t put a head on it.’ . . . I got down by him and he was talking about it while I was walking toward it, and then he said, ‘Hell, it’s gone.’ I was looking at the back of the critter, I was just seeing part of it. But he was looking on the other side, and he was getting a good look at it. But basically we saw the same thing. It was a big, hairy critter, about 7 foot tall, I’d say, covered with hair.”
“It was 7 to 8 foot tall, buckskin brown, I could see it well enough to see fringe about 1 inch high, a little, on the top of the head,” Laughery said. “We were 87 feet away and we stood and watched that for four or five minutes, and it didn’t move at all. I looked it up and down. I couldn’t see its face. . . . I got a quarter-view. And then the minute I turned to Wes to say something, it took off.”
Laughery and Sumerlin said they believe that there were actually two creatures, one that moved off down the canyon, another that headed down a small trail. They both saw the big one jump the trail, 15 feet in one leap, and they got a better look at it. They followed it down 60 to 70 yards through ferns and low bushes.
At about that time, they said, Freeman came running up and kept moving toward the car. “Paul said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here,’ ” Sumerlin said. But the three of them sat down, quietly.
Ties to Fakery
“We sat down three or four minutes and started hearing that brush snapping,” Sumerlin said. “We heard a snip, and then we heard another snip, and every time we heard a snip, we’d point. We didn’t say nothing. And pretty soon we got up and went over there and we could hear it breathing. Just a real heavy breathing. I looked over and the hair was standing right up on Bill’s arm.”
From far down in the canyon, they said, there was a whistle. And then from where the breathing was, a grunt, and a crash of bushes, and whatever it was was gone.
The three men went back to collect the hair samples, and the twisted tree branches.
Their story has been discounted by some Bigfoot investigators because it involves Freeman, who is believed to have faked some Bigfoot evidence in the past. But Sumerlin and Laughery said they know all the stories about Freeman and he could not have faked what they saw.
Sumerlin has a good reputation in the Blue Mountains, even among skeptics. “Wes Sumerlin’s one of the better mountain men around here,” said Del Klicker, who was born on a farm on Mill Creek Road. “It’s always been kind of the thing around Walla Walla, that we’ve got Bigfoot up here, but I’ve been around here and taken care of cattle, and I’ve never seen a track.”
The hairs will finally tell the tale, Sumerlin and others believe.
Paul Fuerst, associate professor of molecular genetics at Ohio State University, said technical problems have delayed completion of the tests until at least the end of this month. Fuerst said the tests, if they can be completed, “will either show that it was something we know, a bear or a squirrel, or they will show whether it is in fact an unknown species.”
In the fluorescent-lit basement museum of the Western Bigfoot Society, news of the testing has been the biggest topic at recent meetings--although society director Ray Crowe is as skeptical as anyone. He has lots of tufts of reported Bigfoot hair. None of it ever proved the essential point.
Crowe says he heard a Portland psychologist recently say that people seeing Bigfoot were simply seeing their inner hostilities projected out in front of them. He acknowledges that almost every culture has fashioned a beast out of its fears, starting with boogeymen under the bed.
“I think that’s true,” he said. “But I also think there’s a Bigfoot.”
A patron, Louie Alvis, says it’s not hard to believe stories of a lost beast in the woods. “I tell people, ‘Drive 70 miles outside of town and get out of the car and tell me you couldn’t lose something in there,’ ” he said. “We never found D.B. Cooper, did we?”