Not quite, but spending a night with the Finding Bigfoot crew hunting the legendary creature was any geek’s dream getaway.
“As we walk along, you should make sure to look down the trail behind us every once in a while, because, sometimes, after we pass by, they will cross it,” whispers Ranae Holland, the supposedly “skeptical” researcher featured on the curiously engaging reality series Finding Bigfoot. It’s about 1:30 a.m. and she’s standing inches from me on a rugged logging road that our group of six had been walking along for the last hour. Our path is lined on both sides by dense, old-growth forest.
Holland’s directions on watching for “them” are delivered as she hands me a night-vision monocular that transforms the dimly moonlit woods around us into a bright, green-hued alien landscape familiar to anyone who has watched the Animal Planet show, which is now in its fourth season. The device is heavy in my hands, meaning it’s probably expensive. Without it, all I can see is a silhouette of Holland against the late summer, starry night sky. “I’m going to go up ahead and do some knocking, so just keep up with the group,” she says, grabbing a baseball-bat-like hunk of dead wood from the ground and darting off into the darkness, her years of outdoors experience allowing her to successfully traverse an unlit trail littered with potentially ankle-snapping rocks and fallen tree branches.
As she disappears, I scan the road behind us with the monocular. Nothing. Up ahead, I see the ghostly images of Holland and the rest of our expedition, including her Finding Bigfoot co-stars James “Bobo” Fay and Cliff Barackman.
Suddenly, I’m freaked out. But what else could I expect when hiking a dirt trail in the dead of night, cutting through a dense Pacific Northwest forest at the base of a dormant volcano in what is said to be prime sasquatch habitat? And I’m at the end of the line, on notice to watch for any shadowy hominid cryptids that might be quietly tracking us as we clumsily try to track them.
I walk a little faster, just to keep pace and not be that guy I’ve seen in every horror movie ever made.
I was introduced to Holland, Fay and Barackman just a few hours earlier at the famed Timberline Lodge located on the slopes of Mt. Hood, an hour outside of Portland, Oregon. Though friendly, the trio eyed me a little warily, perhaps wondering what biases and assumptions I, as a representative of the lame-stream media, was about to drag into the field during our nocturnal stroll.
Due to the success of Finding Bigfoot, the show’s cast — which includes Matt Moneymaker, the founder and president of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO), who, unfortunately, could not join us — has gone from being private citizens to public celebrities. They’ve also gone from being amateur weekend enthusiasts to full-time professional investigators with the support and resources to travel the globe in a thus far fruitless quest to deliver concrete, conclusive proof that something so important to them even exists. And that’s obviously a key criticism of the show: That after this many episodes, with all those countless hours in the field, night-vision glasses, FLIR thermal cameras and other high-tech gear — they basically have bupkis to show for it? Well, in a way, yes, if you’re talking about the kind of hard evidence any scientist would demand to conclusively determine the existence of a large North American primate. But what the show does consistently demonstrate is that its cast — like so many of the people they meet in every episode — has an unshakable, burning passion to keep looking for that evidence.
It’s just that “squatching,” as they described at our dinner that night, is more or less a crap shoot with terrible odds for success. “But you never know what’s going to happen,” Fay says, “especially if you keep your mind open and allow yourself to experience what’s happening.” He makes it sound a bit like dropping acid.
A big guy with a personality to match, Fay is a gifted storyteller who worked as a commercial fisherman, among numerous other jobs, to support his passion for Bigfoot research. Talk to him long enough and you’ll hear tales of unusual lights in the sky and strange creatures he’s encountered at sea. Apparently a magnet for the paranormal, Fay doesn’t just believe that Bigfoot exists, he claims to have seen one with his own eyes.
A longtime grade school teacher who now dedicates himself fully to his Bigfoot interest, Barackman is a more refined evangelist who reveals his passion not only for researching sasquatch phenomena but understanding how it’s perceived by the media and popular culture. “It’s not a question of whether they exist,” he said, “but how they have existed and will exist alongside us — how we impact them and what the outcome is going to be once their existence is accepted. That’s going to result in huge societal and cultural change.”
Holland, ostensibly the doubt-filled Dana Scully of the core Finding Bigfoot team, is equally passionate, yet far more measured in a way that fans of the show know often puts her at argumentative odds with her peers. Her expertise as a trained field biologist filters out the largely mythological and anecdotal evidence suggesting that there is a large unknown primate living just outside the fringes of modern society. She frequently uses the terms “alleged,” “supposed” and “if” when responding to the more insistent, absolute claims made by Fay and Barackman. “I’ve been interested in Bigfoot for most of my life, but I wouldn’t confuse interest with belief,” she suggests.
From the dinner conversation at the Timberline — which ranged from the pressures of making the show to the opportunities it has offered the cast to how patterns can be found in Bigfoot sightings that suggest they follow the annual migrations of deer and elk, thought to be a key food source — it was clear that the trio wanted to get a reading on my own belief level. Was the guy from Geek magazine a wild-eyed true believer or dismissive doubter? I’m sure either would be a bummer to hang out with during a long night of traipsing through the woods, but the trio seemed satisfied by my admission of enthusiastic agnosticism, while equally amused that Geek magazine is a real thing.
Like many people, I welcome the idea of Bigfoot, but have little riding on my success of convincing anyone else on the planet that they exist. Barackman and Fay are unapologetic believers — though they have differing views on Bigfoot’s status as an intelligent animal versus a human-like sentient being — while Holland is the self-restrained one longing for confirmation. I fit nicely into that spectrum.
And, after the Finding Bigfoot stars signed a few autographs for fans who had spotted them as we exited Timberline Lodge, we headed out at sundown to try our luck squatching in a densely forested area just a few miles away from Mt. Hood.
Calls of the Wild
Hours later, we had stopped dead on the logging road. I realized this as I almost plowed into Fay, who, for a big guy, has an unexpected stealthy quality.
“There’s something large moving in the woods to our right,” Barackman calls out in a calm, low voice. The hairs on the back of my neck rise as my body freezes, ready to come face-to-face with the towering, ape-like creature of ancient Native American lore and contemporary pop culture iconography. It’s a fame that’s resulted from the endlessly revisited, grainy 1967 Patterson-Gimlin footage of what appears to be a hairy biped strolling down a riverbed to the 1980s comedy Harry and the Hendersons to the “Messin’ with Sasquatch” ad campaign for Jack Link’s beef jerky — or the latest episode of Finding Bigfoot, natch. In short, my physical reaction to Barackman’s softly spoken yet insistent announcement about “something moving” was some 40 years in the making.
To illustrate my then-disposition, as compared to Barackman’s, I was doing my best human statue routine while he immediately left the road to venture into the dense forest toward whatever he thought was there. After just a few steps, he was swallowed by the dark. Meanwhile, other group members were scanning the area with the night-vision scope and FLIR — a forward-looking, infrared, thermal-imaging device — hoping to glimpse our nocturnal mystery guest. And though we’re not shooting an episode of Finding Bigfoot tonight, this is a scene I’ve watched play out many times before on the show.
“I think it was a deer,” Barackman reports as he reappears from the forest, much to my relief. “But let’s try some knocking.”
With that, Holland stepped up to a fallen tree while holding the length of wood she picked up earlier, planted her feet and hammered out a half dozen hard blows against its trunk, the distinct wood-on-wood tones reverberating through the valley. This “knocking” is one way in which they speculate Bigfoot communicates with compatriots, as “long-distance audible communication is a must for any sparsely populated social animal living in such dense forests,” Holland explains. “They’d have to be able to find each other, and knocking is just one possible way to accomplish that.” After a few minutes, she bashes out a second string of thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack. A reply never comes.
“Let’s do some calls,” Fay says 10 minutes and 100 yards later, adding, “this is a good spot because of the shape of the valley. You’d be able to hear a good call for miles because of the way it’ll channel the sound.” To that end, he took a deep breath and released it as a chillingly inhuman cry into the night. Again, we listened for any reply and, for a second, I thought I heard something — a dim call with almost a question mark at the end…
“That’s just an owl,” Barackman says confidently, probably after noticing the body language of a noob overreacting to the nocturnal sounds he’s heard a zillion times before during any one of a thousand of these exploratory hikes.
Fay calls out again and then Barackman — who has a similarly eerie yet distinctive vocalization — and, finally, Holland. And while the echoing calls of both men would make anyone take notice, hers is a terrifying cross between a scream and some monstrous child’s temper tantrum. “Damn, Ranae!” Fay chuckles, breaking the silence. Everyone laughs, reminding us that this is supposed to be fun.
Even though Fay had told me several times tonight that he was hoping we would have some kind of “experience” — whether a meaningful Bigfoot encounter or some sign of one — for me, that would really just be icing on the cake. In this case, for someone whose earliest childhood memories of Bigfoot are narrated by Leonard Nimoy — derived from watching reruns of the seminal 1970s science series In Search Of…, one of the first to take the sasquatch seriously — the journey had actually been almost as interesting, important and enlightening as arriving at the dream destination might have been. And that’s a key part of what being a geek is about.
At that point, it was pushing 4 a.m. After six hours of hiking, we call it a night and head back to our vehicles, exhausted. With that, the pressure of having an “experience” lifts, leading us to cover ground quickly, now unafraid of making noise or even using our flashlights, which we had not done once during our long moonlit night.
Ready for the drive back to the Timberline and a date with my pillow, I jumped into Barackman’s truck. “Once we leave an area, they’ll often move in to investigate,” he says. “They’re as curious about us as we are about them. So, sometimes, we’ll pack up and drive off but leave someone behind just to observe. Then, after 20 or 30 minutes, we’ll come back and pick them up. Do you want to do that? You never know what might happen.”
I make the call to join them on the road. I know I’ll regret it later, but this trip had already been everything it needed to be. For me, finding Bigfoot was never the goal.
A REALLY BIG FOOT: This copy of a plaster cast of a large biped track found in northern California was gifted to Geek by Finding Bigfoot cast member and researcher Cliff Barackman. The original was made in 1963 by Roger Patterson, who, with Robert Gimlin, shot the famed 1967 16mm film footage of an unknown creature that helped establish Bigfoot in modern popular culture and has inspired budding cryptozoologists worldwide. The original 1963 cast is stored safely in a secure location.
Width (Ball): 7.5″
Width (Heel): 5″
Step Length: 40″
Photo by Karen Williams