Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Cryptozoological Hoaxes

            In any examination of cryptozoology, it’s important to report on the negative outcomes of investigations as well as the positive ones.  Cryptids which turned out to have mundane explanations provide important cautions for cryptozoologists, some of whom can be too eager to accept new animals on the basis of insufficient evidence.  These situations can also illustrate how the search for new animals should and should not be conducted.

            Sometimes cryptozoologists have been taken in by hoaxes.  The case of “Old Three-toes” was one example.  In 1948, a clever jokester named Tony Signorini fashioned three-clawed iron feet and left tracks on the Florida beaches which fooled even veteran zoologist Ivan Sanderson. Signorini set out to make imitation dinosaur feet, but what he created were very close in appearance to penguin tracks, and Sanderson thought he was on the trail of the granddaddy of all seabirds.  Signorini’s friends helped out by instigating some fake sighting reports of the supposed monster, with rather ambiguous descriptions. The mystery was not definitively cleared up until the hoaxer confessed in 1988. It had, in fact, been revealed by author Thomas Helm in his 1963 book Monsters of the Sea (albeit without the hoaxer’s name). but this seems to have gone overlooked for decades.

I wonder if Sanderson’s acceptance of the Florida monster was partly due to his lack of familiarity with the area.  I grew up in Florida, which has many types of beach sand.  I remember one grayish kind which changed in consistency from quicksand-like to concrete-hard depending on the tide and the amount of sea water seeping through it. Signorini left his footprints at night, and Sanderson saw them during the day.  If the tide had turned and the sand was much harder, this might have led to Sanderson’s stated belief that the prints were too deep to be left by hoaxers. 

            Rivaling Three-toes for the “most famous hoax” title must be Francois de Loys’ South American ape.  As mentioned earlier, the 1917 photograph produced in support of de Loys’ claim shows an animal that, while it has no visible tail, is far too much like a spider monkey (Ateles belzebuth) to be acceptable as a new species to most zoologists.  The animal’s widely separated nostrils, the tiny, curved thumb, and the triangular white patch on the forehead are only some of the telltale characteristics.

Loren Coleman and Michel Raynal, two cryptozoologists who have investigated this case, believe George Montandon, the French anthropologist who publicized de Loys’ find, did so to support his own racist belief in a New World line of apes which led to the evolution of “lesser” peoples, like Native Americans.  According to Raynal, there is even some evidence de Loys was in on the hoax and the animal was not even photographed on the expedition of 1917.

The case of the Silver Lake Serpent is unique – an apparent double hoax.  A serpentine monster was reported several times in Silver Lake in New York state in 1855.  In 1857, a fake monster was reportedly discovered in the attic of the lakeside Walker Hotel.  The contraption of wire and canvas was floated by compressed air and pulled by underwater ropes.

In 1999, Joe Nickell, a skeptical investigator of anomalies of all types, discovered there was no proof the hoax monster had any more basis in fact than the “real” one.   Nickell was unable to dig up the alleged confessions of hoaxers or any historical accounts of the finding of the “monster” remains.   This convoluted (one is tempted to say serpentine) tale of misperception and misdirection is a caution to everyone about the acceptance of monster reports and of unverified explanations.

Wherever there is a mystery, there will be jokers.  Loch Ness has attracted more than its share.  Tracks have been made with a stuffed hippopotamus foot.  Many photographs of the “monster” have been fakes.  The most famous of Nessie’s portraits, the 1934 Surgeon’s Photograph, is now widely considered a hoax as well, although the hoaxer’s claim has been criticized.  This does not mean the creature itself is a hoax, but it does make proper investigation very difficult.

The ri from Papua New Guinea is another kind of case.  Here a reported unknown animal was eventually unmasked as a known animal (the Indopacific dugong, Dugong dugon) displaying previously unknown behavior.  The dugongs in this area flexed their backs more than other dugongs when diving and stayed submerged for longer periods than previously recorded.

When a sea creature called part human and part fish was described to anthropologist Roy Wagner by the Barok people in the early 1980s, experts put forth candidates including the dugong and assorted cetaceans.  Marine biologist Kevin Britton suggested a beluga, an animal only known to live in the Arctic. Britton’s theory was based on the existence of a single beluga skull which was allegedly collected off Australia. (Darren Naish has investigated this case and believes a museum mislabeled the specimen.) 

What actually happened in the ri affair was that the most proper type of investigation was pursued.  The case began with local reports of an animal which interested scientists could not immediately identify.  Some cryptozoologists, on expeditions led by Wagner and later by Thomas Williams, went out and looked at the animal for themselves. They also studied the local folklore and languages, trying to identify the origin of the terms ri and ilkai (the name given the same animal by another tribe, the Susurunga). It is worth noting this was a case in which the knowledge of the Native peoples was incorrect.  According to both of the tribes involved, the ri and the dugong were different animals.  The result: while no new species was found, some knowledge was added to science.

A chronicle of Sasquatch hoxes would fill its own book, so suffice to say at least half the evidence offered has been challenged as fake. This includes the Bossburg “cripplefoot” tracks, seemingly one of the most intriguing bits of Bigfoot lore, and of course the Patterson-Gimlin film. The wrangling will likely go on forever.

The internet opened up a whole new world for pranksters. The Ozark Howler, some kind of horned bear-cat-wolf predator, existed as bits of folklore, but the modern version was created by a student in Arkansas. Now it’s taken “seriously,” with TV host/scientist Forrest Galante looking for it and the awful series Mountain Monsters showing us people tramping through the brush and, well, howling at every noise.

The ningen is the same thing, except far more absurd: there’s no fact or even folklore behind the idea of a gigantic white semi-humanoid creature living in the Southern Ocean, but you can find fabricated photos and articles with the click of a mouse.

The moral of this stories is that proper scientific investigation is rarely a waste of time, whether it results in a spectacular new animal or not.  Speculation on the basis of insufficient or unexamined evidence, on the other hand, usually is fruitless.  A science as controversial as cryptozoology requires a careful balance between open-mindedness and skepticism, with the most promising cases being subject to a cautious and thorough examination.  

Ashley-Montague, Francis M., 1929. “The Discovery of a New Anthropoid Ape in South America?” The Scientific Monthly, p.275.
Coleman, Loren.  2000.  Personal communication, September 6.
Cousins, Don.  “Ape Mystery,” BBC Wildlife, April 1982, p.148.
Douglas, Harry S.  1956.  “The Legend of the Serpent,” New York Folklore Quarterly (12), p.37.
Greenwell, J. Richard, 1988.  “Florida ‘Giant Penguin’ Hoax Revealed,” ISC Newsletter (7:4), p.1.
Greenwell, 1983.  “New Guinea Expedition Observes Ri,” ISC Newsletter (2:2), p.1.
Nickell, Joe.  1999.  “The Silver Lake Serpent – Inflated Monster or Inflated Tale?” Skeptical Inquirer, March/April.
“Ozark Howler,”
Wagner, Roy,  Tom Williams, J. Richard Greenwell, and Gunter Sehm  (various dates: correspondence) in Cryptozoology  2, 5, and 6.
Williams, Thomas R.  1985.  "Identification of the Ri Through Further Fieldwork in
New Ireland, Papua New Guinea."  Cryptozoology (4), p.61.
Smith, Gordon, 1985.  “The Case of the Reclusive Ri,” Science 85, January/February, p.85.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Bigfoot Days, Part 2

 Part Two of Bigfoot Days

I wrote in the first entry about my visit to Bigfoot Days in Estes Park, Colorado, earlier this month. The events included a Friday night barbecue with socializing before that, and then a public festival lasting most of Saturday. Overall, this was a terrifically enjoyable event, without a great deal of science but with a lot of enjoyable discussions and souvenirs and all the other things one expects in a festival. 

As I said, there was not a great deal of scientific discussion here. This was about the legend more than the creature. However, I had several exchanges with Cliff Barackman, a well-known Bigfoot hunter and the only serious one in attendance. So here I’ve written my reactions to his thoughts as provided in discussions and his “Bigfoot 101” presentation.

These are my recollections based on memory and some notes I made at the time. I have not, since then, looked up any of the topics mentioned, looked at the slides Cliff presented, or followed up with questions. I wanted to present my impressions as I had them at the time. That means there are some gaps and maybe even some errors in the text that follows. 

This all started out at the banquet on the evening of March 31st. There was a little reception beforehand, and I only got there in time for the tail end of that. I did introduce myself to Cliff, as we knew each other only from correspondence. I didn’t see a reason to talk to the other headliners, the guys from Mountain Monsters: they’re good performers and probably great fun to have a beer with, but there’s no attempt at science on their show.

Cliff accepted a signed a copy of my book Of Books and Beasts A Cryptozoologist’s Library and we took photographs. He later posted a picture on his social media and recommended the book. So, I appreciated that, but I think I stayed objective. He knew I was a skeptic, and we talked a bit about why. A nice fellow came up and showed him cell phone pictures of a small tree broken off at the base and an indistinct depression he thought was a Bigfoot print. Both of these were from Colorado. Neither one, however, struck Cliff as useful evidence.   

Then it was banquet time. I joked about the “Bigfoot BBQ” and whether there was some law against barbecuing Bigfoot, but the organizers put together several types of BBQ, and I had no complaints except that the dinner wasn’t worth $95. Good thing I have an LLC now for my writing and can at least put it down as a business expense.

I've mentioned that one of the interesting things about the banquet was the diversity of people attending.  There were hunters in flannels, sure, but there were also at least five advanced degrees between the people at my table, including one belonging to a geneticist trying to cure sickle cell. Cliff came by all the tables and spent about half an hour at ours. I asked him about one of my biggest problems, the lack of a fossil record. Thinking back, we actually didn't get to that because we wandered off into the subject of what might be Bigfoot's ancestry. Cliff thought it was definitely not Gigantopithecus, but something in the hominid line. I agree on that. I’m quite sure Nature did not start with a giant quadrupedal bamboo-loving ape in China and end up with a bipedal primate walking around the forests of North America. However, if you assume Bigfoot is real, then obviously it had to come from somewhere. Cliff’s best guess is somewhere close to my own: that it must be some sort of descendant of one of the early branches off the human line, likely Paranthropus, that worked its way northward and across the bridges that came and went as ice and lands changed. After all, we know one large primate made the journey. If I had to write a novel about Bigfoot and make it as realistic as I could, that is the origin I would use. 

Cliff thinks the ancestral species would have gotten larger in accordance with Bergmann’s rule: that mammals increase in size as they get further north.  This is a useful rule but not a universal one. There are two ways for a mammal exposed to cold to develop a lower ratio of surface area to mass.  One is to get bigger, as brown bears have. Humans, though, went the other way. Artic peoples didn’t get taller, or larger overall: they got more compact.

Cliff showed some photographs on his cell phone that that he thought were among the best evidence. Cliff is certain the Patterson-Gimlin film is real. If you believe that, then photographs that look like it are more likely to be genuine. He had a few of these. They did not convince me, but I’ll admit they at least weren’t obvious suits. 

(The situation with the P-G film reminded me just a bit of that involving Bernard Heuvelmans. Heuvelmans got a lot of flak, deservedly, for mangling the history of Neanderthals. It was logical to him, though, because he was sure he’d examined a real one, the Minnesota Iceman, and everything else had to fit.)

Next day was the festival. I went over about 10:30 in the morning to be greeted by a huge inflatable Bigfoot, a couple of rather poorly costumed Bigfoots, and the Bigfoot monster truck.  There was a good live band, and a couple of dozen booths sold T shirts and casts and art of Bigfoot and so forth and then I bought quite a bit. My friend Lija Fisher put out some flyers from my own book, so of course I appreciate that. 

I bought a couple of things at Cliff’s table, notably the most unusual Bigfoot cast I have encountered. It was made when Bigfoot allegedly (while out of sight of any human) stuck its fingers into a bait jar of Nutella and left an impression as it pulled them out. The researcher who collected it still has the Nutella but has not yet tested it because of the expense. The cast is fairly interesting. The fingers in the cast are larger than mine, and I am 6-4 with big hands.  The fingers aren’t big enough to put them out of the human range, though. 

I went to see Cliff’s presentation in the historic village theater, a wonderful place. This was his Bigfoot 101, his basic introduction to the topic for all for all audiences.

Cliff stated his certainty that Bigfoot existed and went through his various lines of evidence. My comments on some of these: 

Footprints. It bears repeating that all the items Cliff discussed reflected his belief the P-G creature is real, so genuine footprints must be reasonably consistent with the ones cast at that site. He believes the much-disputed “mid-tarsal break” is one feature of all valid prints. There are thousands of tracks without that feature, and he believes that they are created by hoaxers or interpreted by enthusiastic witnesses looking at bear tracks or human tracks or whatever. On a related topic, he also thinks the placement of the ankle just ahead of where it is on the human foot is a consistent feature of genuine photographs that show that area. also based on the P-G film. 

Comment: It’s reasonable to think a primate the size of Bigfoot would have some adaptations to its foot, although I lack the expertise to offer a useful analysis. It did strike me that, if the Patterson-Gimlin film was a hoax, something like this would appear, because the impersonator was putting his feet into some sort of oversized shoe or flipper.

Native American lore.  Cliff stated that Native American stories and beliefs show a consistent concept of something resembling Bigfoot. He even said "all" Native cultures have something like this. 

Comment: Here, he certainly overreached. Some Native American cultures do have legends or stories of creatures that could match a modern description of Bigfoot. But others clearly refer to supernatural beings, shapeshifters, or giants that can walk across rivers and mountains, and there are many variations. Kathy Strain’s book on Native American beliefs, even though it's biased in favor of these being connected to Bigfoot, still shows how many of the stories she thought worth including do not support a flesh and blood animal of this type. It is fair to note that flesh-and-blood animals are sometimes given supernatural aspects in the beliefs and storytelling of cultures in many places around the world.  

Sightings and Photographs (I’m lumping them together here). Cliff thought most sightings could be dismissed. He had one sighting himself that he thought was genuine (“98 percent certain”), and that some sightings matching the Patterson-Gimlin type Bigfoot were valid. He showed what he thought were the best available pictures of the creature. (I think all of these have been discussed online before and dismissed by skeptics, although Bigfoot has not been a special interest of mine, so I can’t be sure.)  Cliff thinks that, based on the P-G film, Bigfoot has a conical head shaped by a sloping forehead. He takes this as indicating the creature does not have a human-sized brain, and thus not human-level intelligence. He dismisses the accounts of Sasquatch is talking to each other and talking to humans in a real language.

I asked him to tell us more about his sighting. He described it as an event that occurred while filming the first regular-season episode of Finding Bigfoot. It was not caught on film at the time because the producers and the Bigfoot hunters were physically as well as philosophically apart at that point in the late evening. Cliff reports seeing a figure scrambling over a North Carolina hillside in a way that looked very fluid, as if the creature was at home there and must have good night vision: a human wouldn’t needed a flashlight and would have carefully picked their way across that terrain. He advised that what we see on the Finding Bigfoot show is quite different from reality and that shots of a figure running up the hill were of Matt Moneymaker desperately trying to catch the creature on foot. So, there was no footage and Cliff didn’t see the figure again, but he remains certain that he saw Bigfoot.

Discussion: You've probably grasped by now that Cliff’s arguments did not change me from a skeptic to believer. Some of the individual pieces of evidence have been disproven, and the rest are not definitive to me. The lack of fossil or subfossil remains, and the quality of proof offered for the living animal, keeps me in the skeptical camp, even though I’ve talked to people who are certain they got a good look. I don’t know what they saw.

However, Cliff is a very good presenter, and I understand better now why so many people think he’s on to something. He answers all questions and comes across as a sincere believer who is certain that, sooner or later, he is going to get the proof he wants. We haven’t gotten that evidence, he thinks, merely as a matter of chance, as we’re hunting a few thousand creatures at most in a huge area that still contains a lot of wilderness. It’s true, as Cliff pointed out, that finding a naturally dead bear is a very rare event, and there must be many times more bears than Bigfoots. I understand the argument, although to me it gets less persuasive with every passing decade that fails to yield a Bigfoot. So, we parted in polite disagreement.

Well, that was the end of the Bigfoot events on this particular trip. Bigfoot did not show up, although there are plenty of sightings around the area to spark interest. That’s why the big guy is a local celebrity you can find in all the bookstores and the T-shirt shops, and why this gorgeous location is a perfect place to celebrate. I'll go back next year, and we'll see what's new.  

Saturday, April 09, 2022

Will we ever run out of Beaked Whales?

 The beaked whales are fascinating enough to make cetologists drool. Not only are they distinctive in themselves, and sometimes weird, like the strap-toothed whales, they seem to be innumerable. In October 2021, scientists announced the finding of the 23d species (depending how you count: there are some questions here) of this enigmatic group. This Southern Hemisphere cetacean, one of many species identified from stranded specimens, was christened Ramari's beaked whale, Mesoplodon eueu,

A 19th-century vision of a beaked whale

The newest discovery complements a long list of 21st century surprises and appearances.  

Until 2002, the Indopacific beaked whale (Mesoplodon  pacificus or Indopacetus pacificus) was known only from two skulls washed ashore thousands of miles and 73  years apart. Dr. Lyall Watson, in his Sea Guide to Whales of the World, suggested a large pod of beaked whales photographed near Christmas Island might belong to this species, which is also called Longman’s beaked whale. He made the same suggestion concerning brown whales reported in the Gulf of Aden by Captain Willem F.  J. Morzer-Bruyuns, although that witness was certain he was seeing an unknown type of killer whale. Numerous other possible sightings of Longman’s beaked whale, such as a report of two unidentified grayish whales seen near the Seychelles in 1980, were recorded, but no one was certain which ones –if any – referred to this enigma of the seas.

All that changed in 2002.  An odd beaked whale beached on July 26 in Japan, but no one thought much of it initially.  The carcass was photographed, then buried.  When a cetologist saw the pictures, he scrambled to get the thing disinterred as quickly as possible.  It was the first example of Longman’s beaked whale ever recovered intact.  In an odd coincidence, a second specimen identified as I. pacificus drifted ashore in South Africa the following month, although Japanese experts questioned this identification.   (Two old South African specimens, which had been identified as other species, were then re-examined and were reported to be Longman’s whale as well. By now you should be getting an inkling of how complex distinguishing beaked whales in.)  Until this point, cetologists knew nothing of the animal’s appearance (it’s predominantly grayish brown, with the head often appearing darker and sporting some small white side markings) and were unsure of the size (about twenty feet).

            The smallest beaked whale is the Peruvian, or Lesser, beaked whale.  Scientists had no inkling of its existence until 1976, when Dr. James Mead found its decaying skull on a beach in Peru.   By the time Mead formally published his description of Mesoplodon peruvianus in 1991, Peruvian scientists and fishermen had helped him assemble a total of eleven specimens.  All were found either washed up on shore or trapped in fishing nets. 

            The adult Peruvian beaked whale is normally about eleven feet long.  It is mainly dark gray, with a paler gray underside.  It has a small dorsal fin set well back on the body.  While all known mesoplodonts have such dorsal fins, there are differences in shape which help distinguish the different species.  In some beaked whales, like the Peruvian, the fin is a near-perfect equilateral triangle with a straight trailing edge.  In others, such as True’s beaked whale (M. mirus), the trailing edge is concave, so the fin is more falcate or sickle-shaped. 

            It turned out this whale has a wider distribution than originally thought.  Other specimens have since been found stranded in Mexico near Baja California and on the island of Espiritu Santo in the eastern tropical Pacific. There are still few recorded observations of the living animal, although pods of two or three have been seen.

            In 1995, four cetologists published the results of their study of a single calvarium (the portion of the skull housing the brain) found on the beach of Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile in 1986.  Julio Reyes and his colleagues proclaimed they had identified another new species of beaked whale.  Bahamonde’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon bahamondi) was distinguished principally by an unusually short and broad rostrum (snout).  

            The discoverers suggested Bahamonde’s whale could represent the mysterious Mesoplodon “Species A,” an unidentified beaked whale reported and photographed in the Eastern Tropical Pacific region.  The overall length of M. bahamondi is estimated at sixteen to eighteen  feet, which is an approximate match to these sightings.  British paleobiologist Darren Naish, who makes a specialty of studying unusual cetaceans,  cautioned that, “Glimpses of the head of Species A do not reveal the very abrupt rostrum that seems to be diagnostic for M. bahamondi, so they are probably not the same.” 

            As things turned out, Naish was right.  Bahamonde’s beaked whale was not Species A – but it was identical to another mystery species.  In a paper published in 2002, a group of cetologists demonstrated that M. bahamondi, while a valid species, was a resurrection of a species described in 1874 but generally forgotten.  Mesoplodon traversii was restored to its rightful place in the genus after 128 years, while M. bahamondi was reduced, in taxonomic parlance, to the status of a junior synonym.  This does not diminish the importance of the work by Reyes and company.  It’s significant any time a genuine new whale goes into the books – whether it’s brand new or just a case of science saying hello to a long-forgotten discovery.

            The beaked whales still had some surprises in store for science.  One of the peculiarities of this group of cetaceans is that, while experts like Dr. Merel Dalebout of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia estimate they have been reproductively separated for perhaps three million years, their morphology hasn’t changed nearly as much as their genetics.  It’s common for genetic change to lead morphological change, resulting in species that are distinct but still look similar, but the beaked whales have taken this principle to an extreme.  Not only do many of the twenty-one  known species look similar in life, requiring an expert to distinguish them, but even when an animal is beached it can be mistaken for another species.

That was the case with Perrin’s beaked whale, Mesoplodon perrini.  There have been many sightings of beaked whales which puzzled observers.  For example, Dr. Karin Forney of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center spotted one off the coast of Oregon in 1996.  The animal was brownish-gray and bore some resemblance to Hector’s beaked whale (M. hectori.)  However, some important details failed to match up.  Most adult male beaked whales have two or more teeth in the lower jaw, which in many species are erupted (that is, are visible even when the jaw is closed.)  The shape and placement of these teeth is a major criterion for classifying these enigmatic cetaceans.  In Forney’s whale, the visible teeth were not close to the beak tip as is normal in M. hectori. 

As it turned out, the similarity to M. hectori was significant. Between 1975 and 1997, four beaked whales stranded on the coast of California were initially identified as Hector's beaked whales.   Dr. Dalebout and her associates, in surveying DNA samples from numerous mesoplodonts, found these four didn’t fit well with M. hectori.  Neither did a fifth California specimen, which had been identified as Cuvier’s beaked whale.  In 2002, Dalebout, along with four of her colleagues, published the discovery of Mesoplodon perrini.  When Karin Forney saw the description, she knew what she had observed in 1996.  It was indeed, at the time she’d seen it, an undescribed whale.

In 2016, A new species of whale was discovered based on a body, 7.3m long, that floated ashore on the Pribilof Islands.  This is just marvelous. I follow news of new and unidentified whales all the time, and I never heard a word about this, although it's apparently known to Japanese fishers, so it has a  range that spreads far west. Indeed, Japanese scientists were already investigating the reports. This isn't a case where someone had it in hand and decided that its features or DNA warranted a split of a known species, as was the case with Balaenoptera omurai in 2003. This species was confirmed by DNA work, which resulted in reordering of its genus, but it began with a brand-new discovery from the field, when a biology teacher called in a seal researcher he knew who said, "This is weird," and then she called in a cetologist. Other previously collected (misidentified) skeletons have been located. 

Here's the published abstract from Marine Mammal Science:

Philip A. Morin, et. al.

There are two recognized species in the genus Berardius, Baird's and Arnoux's beaked whales. In Japan, whalers have traditionally recognized two forms of Baird's beaked whales, the common “slate-gray” form and a smaller, rare “black” form. Previous comparison of mtDNA control region sequences from three black specimens to gray specimens around Japan indicated that the two forms comprise different stocks and potentially different species. We have expanded sampling to include control region haplotypes of 178 Baird's beaked whales from across their range in the North Pacific. We identified five additional specimens of the black form from the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, for a total of eight “black” specimens. The divergence between mtDNA haplotypes of the black and gray forms of Baird's beaked whale was greater than their divergence from the congeneric Arnoux's beaked whale found in the Southern Ocean, and similar to that observed among other congeneric beaked whale species. Taken together, genetic evidence from specimens in Japan and across the North Pacific, combined with evidence of smaller adult body size, indicate presence of an unnamed species of Berardius in the North Pacific. It was named in this paper

Readers of this blog know of Dr. Robert Pitman, who's done so much work with orcas and beaked whales. Of this find, he said, "It boggles my mind to think that a large, very different-looking whale has gone unnoticed by the scientific community for so long. It sends a clear message about how little we know about what is in the ocean around us."

It does indeed. 

What is still out there? Well, there are these odd vocalizations from the Antarctic. There's this apparent species, still being investigated. Who knows what else? 

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

A Visit to Bigfoot Days

I've never been to any Bigfoot-themed event. I think of the Big Guy as a myth, although I want to be wrong. (I have, in fact, put up a $1000 reward to the person who finds the specimen leading to a description in a top peer-reviewed journal.)  But this event was pretty close to me, and I was curious, and I have book to push, I headed north from Colorado Springs to the Bigfoot Days event in Estes Park.  It was, to say the least, interesting, and I mean that in a good way despite my skepticism about our furry friend.  It was about a two-hour drive through fields, mountains, and evergreens - quintessential Colorado. I went through Boulder and a few small towns. (A pretty one called Lyons struck me as the only town I'd seen with more pot shops than Starbucks: a resident told me I wasn't wrong.) 

This was basically a fun event, not a gathering focused on evidence. Cliff Barackman  was the only serious person of note there: the other headliners were from Mountain Monsters, a show that, based on the one episode I saw, did not seem likely to discover a cryptid if it was confined to a broom closet. (My thanks to Cliff for answering a lot of questions in the course of three conversations.) 

Nothing changed my mind about Bigfoot, but I learned more about the people who are interested in it.  The people serious enough to seriously overpay for a Bigfoot BBQ Dinner the night of the 1st (I would have thought there was some Endangered Species Act rule about BBQing Bigfoot, but whatever), were a very friendly bunch with a family vibe.  They were also a reminder that Bigfoot aficionados can't be lumped together and characterized as being a few digits short of a password.  My table had, among other people, a geneticist trying to cure sickle cell, a biotechnology expert, a software engineer, and so on, and we talked about developments in gene therapy and data science and so on. Also, the non-Bigfoot BBQ was superb.  

The Bigfoot Days open-air festival on Saturday drew more aficionados and a lot of tourists (the season is well underway in this gorgeously-sited town). It was a gorgeous Colorado day in Bond Park, with an almost cloudless sky and a temperature in the 50s.  At 7,500 feet, that also makes it a good day for sun exposure, and I got a touch too much despite a hat and sunscreen.

Some 15 or 20 vendors sold everything from T-shirts and footprint casts to popcorn and (for some reason) cutlery. I should have gotten a table: I was really surprised by the absence of authors, with only my friend Lija Fisher there to sell her delightful middle-grade cryptid adventure novels. (Think Jonny Quest with a grumpy mentor and a basketful of cryptids.) There were numerous families with little kids and dogs: Estes Park makes a point of being a very dog-friendly town. 

I bought a cast from Barackman's table that was so unusual I loved it for the sheer oddity: the fingers, purportedly, of a sasquatch that probed into a bait jar of Nutella. The cast (below) showed fingers a bit larger than mine: I have very big hands, but this still wasn't out of the human range. There was also a Bigfoot calling contest. I assume someone invited Bigfoot to judge it, but he apparently declined.

The Park Theater hosted a couple of presentations. The theater is very interesting by itself, being 109 years old, so we writers are required by law to describe it as "the historic Park Theater." 

One was Cliff's "Bigfoot 101" lecture. I'll go over the points we discussed in the next entry. Not only do I get an extra blog post out of it that way, but I think anyone interested in Bigfoot will want to read it. I'd never met Cliff, have seen his show Finding Bigfoot only once, and haven't read anything by him.  So I'll be posting my immediate, spontaneous reactions and thoughts.

The other was the premiere of a documentary about aliens and Bigfoot in the Rocky Mountains, which I didn't attend for  obvious reasons. I think cryptozoology is for zoologists, however speculative, and aliens, apparitions, and so forth are for the parapsychologists.

I also hit a delightful 94-year-old bookstore whose proprietor described it as "haunted, in a good way." I gave them a signed copy of Books and Beasts to sell on my general principle of always supporting independent bookstores. I'd done the same with an equally cute place called The Book Worm on  my way up from Colorado Springs.  

So this wasn't a scientific conference, but it didn't pretend to be. It was focused on talking 'bout Bigfoot and family fun, and I relaxed and enjoyed it.  A final pleasure was that the live band, Shovelin Stone, was really good. (There was supposed to another band, called That Damn Sasquatch, but they unfortunately had to cancel due to illness.)  I didn't get to visit the Stanley Hotel this trip, but maybe next year!

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Matt Bille


Of Books and Beasts (Hangar 1, 2021)

Rumors of Existence (Hancock, 1995)

Shadows of Existence (Hancock, 2006)