A skeptic's encounters with 'Finding Bigfoot'

“The public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived." –PT Barnum

Before we go any further, you should know that I don’t believe in bigfoot. I’m a confirmed skeptic. Loch Ness only has fish. Chupacabra is just a goat. Extraterrestrials have better things to do than visit Earth. And there are as many vampires in the rain-soaked Northwest as there are sasquatches (sorry “Twilight” fans).

Nevertheless, in my capacity as manager of public relations at FLIR Systems, it fell upon me to coordinate FLIR’s involvement in an upcoming episode of “Finding Bigfoot,” which is broadcast on the Animal Planet network. I was ecstatic about the opportunity. Not to search for bigfoot, but to help promote FLIR and our thermal imaging cameras. But this didn’t turn out to be your everyday behind-the-scenes logistics gig.

Finding Bigfoot” follows a team of Bigfoot hunters as they follow up on sightings around the world. Featuring Matt Moneymaker, Cliff Barackman, Ranae Holland and James “Bobo” Fay, the show is highly entertaining. The fact that they use and promote FLIR thermal imagers makes me a fan.

On the show, the bigfoot team typically uses handheld FLIR cameras when they’re in the midst of an active sasquatch search. That makes sense because the handhelds are compact, easy to use and inexpensive. Image quality is good enough to spot a man-sized object up to two kilometers out with some of FLIR’s commercially available bi-ocular thermal imagers.

For this episode, FLIR made available the Renegade mobile unit to the “Finding Bigfoot” production. Renegade is a thermal imaging command center on wheels that travels around the country giving demonstrations of the various thermal imaging cameras FLIR manufactures. One of those cameras is HRC: a high-resolution cooled thermal security camera that’s mounted to an extendable arm. HRC is designed for long-range thermal detection and provides a television-quality video output. “Finding Bigfoot” wanted to use HRC to try some different tactics to flush out a bigfoot.

Bigfoot—also known as sasquatch, yeti, Genoskwa, giant ape man, ad infinitum—is a mythical creature who pops up in cultures all over the world. Thousands of stories exist about seeing this creature, a few casts of foot and hand prints have been collected, but no one has ever come forward with physical evidence.

We’ve captured giant squid, a coelacanth and Osama, but eight-foot tall apemen who can imitate tree stumps continue to evade capture.

When it came time to head up to Olympia, Washington, to meet the cast and crew of “Finding Bigfoot,” I took a camera operator, John, and my good friend and colleague, Jen.

On May 31, 2002, Jen’s father had chartered a helicopter for an aerial tour of Mt. Hood. Ironically, this was the same day that a Blackhawk helicopter crashed in a crevasse on Mt. Hood during an attempted rescue mission of some fallen climbers. Just after the helicopter Jen’s father was riding in was ordered to evacuate the airspace around Mt. Hood, he saw a giant, dark creature running impossibly fast through the forest. But since the helicopter was under orders to evacuate the airspace, he couldn’t double back to track the creature.

Jen also has a friend who saw what he thought was a sasquatch cross the road in front of him while on a fishing trip on the Umpqua River. So she’s a secondhand witness to two bigfoot sightings, and she believes they exist. Terrific.

John is a professional television crewman. He’s been doing it for years. He runs at a more frenetic pace than most folks and doesn’t have time to ponder belief or non-belief. As long as he didn’t have to hike too far with the equipment or knowingly put himself in any mortal danger, John didn’t care what it took to get some good footage.

The First Attempt

One late spring evening, the believer (Jen), the agnostic (John) and the skeptic (myself) met Fay and Moneymaker in Olympia and then headed into the Cascade Mountains. When we arrived, we interrupted the tail end of interviews being conducted by ABC’s “Nightline.” Bigfoot was getting a lot of exposure. It occurred to me that bigfoot would be well-served to hire an agent and grant his or her first interview to the highest bidder.

After a quick dinner with some of the cast and crew (pork chops and potatoes never tasted so good), we headed out to meet the rest of the production. “Renegade” was sent to specific coordinates at higher elevation. We would rendezvous with them after we picked up the rest of the cast and crew.

This is when the giant foot of fate stepped in and started causing problems.

We spent the next two hours getting so lost in the wilderness that eventually our caravan—which included our FLIR truck, three minivans packed with crew, a U-Haul loaded with production gear, and a flatbed truck towing a two-seat ATV—became trapped at the dead end of a logging road in the middle of an immense clearcut. Logging roads are known neither for their sparkling maintenance records nor their width. While watching the flatbed negotiate a 43-point turn so it could drive back out of the clearcut, I’m pretty sure I witnessed a couple of production assistants’ careers dissipate. 

Then, no sooner did we finally reconnect with the “Renegade” coach than we discovered a flat tire on the flatbed. Fortunately for the production crew, the only tools available for a flat repair of that magnitude were in my FLIR truck—at least we’d found the coach.

It was finally time to start searching for sasquatch. The show's cast was now in their element, and they were chomping at the bit to get out there.

Holland and Fay took their posts in the Renegade command center. Moneymaker and Barackman took off across the valley on the ATV. By now the sun was almost fully set. It was a clear night but moonless. It had been raining for days prior, so anything that wasn’t rock was mud, and the air temperature outside was around 40-degrees F—ideal conditions for thermal imaging.

Riding and walking almost blind, Moneymaker and Barackman came to a stop about four or five miles across the valley from the coach. Holland and Fay then guided them across the terrain from the command center. Apparently bigfoot doesn’t like light, especially when it’s manmade.

Soon, the word “squatch” started being used as a noun, adjective, and verb as the “Finding Bigfoot” cast did their thing. Moneymaker and Barackman took turns bellowing out ear-piercing sasquatch calls. In the Renegade, Fay and Holland pointed out the different groups of deer that we could see all over the place, outside Moneymaker Barackman never knew they were there.

By the time the first light of dawn streaked across the sky, the most fascinating event we had witnessed was a doe giving birth to two fawns about a half-mile away. It was amazing to see, especially through a thermal camera in the middle of the night. Maybe bigfoot wanted to give the doe her privacy because he didn’t make an appearance that night.

Nevertheless, I got to witness firsthand the passion and drive that the cast and crew puts into their searches. Believe in the creature or don’t, but know this: These folks work their tails off.

A second chance    

While my first bigfoot venture did nothing to quell my skepticism, it did pique my curiosity. When Barackman invited us to join him for a one-night search in the Mt. Hood National Forest, I didn’t hesitate to accept. One, we didn’t have to deal with all the logistics of a cast and crew. Two, the location was only about a two hour drive from my office in Wilsonville, Oregon. And three, sometimes a skeptic wants to be converted.

Jen and I took John the cameraman and Doug the director—another FLIR colleague—and met Barackman at an Estacada coffee shop. He led us up to a remote lake in the Mt. Hood National Forest that was accessible only by a poorly maintained gravel road that was rougher than a cob.

Mt. Hood cut the forested horizon beyond a small lake and meadow. Shadows were lengthening fast and we had our choice of gorgeous light, but we had to move fast. It’s one of those majestic spots you visit and wonder if anyone else knows about, even though a city populated by more than a million people is less than 70 miles away.           

We got all the video production formalities out of the way by nightfall. Then it was time to start baiting a bigfoot. Barackman hypothesized that the area would be popular with sasquatch-kind because of a rich huckleberry marsh. It was huckleberry season and apparently the squatches love huckleberries.

I was apprehensive about the bigfoot calls at first. I felt silly hooting and hollering and hearing my echo mock me. But after belting out a few, they started feeling sort of liberating. The knocking was fun—you just wind up with a Louisville Slugger and swing away against a Douglas Fir. Four years on varsity softball were really starting to pay off.

At about 11 p.m., we split into two groups. Guys went a quarter-mile down the road one direction and Jen and I went a quarter-mile the other direction. We were told to keep talking because Bigfoot likes the higher pitched voice of the human female. (I have no idea how he knows this.)

Soon Jen and I started to feel the absence of the three guys, and I began to get nervous. Not necessarily because I was afraid of bigfoot, but because we couldn’t use our lights. All I had was my thermal camera and I had it up to my eye the whole time. It was my only source of comfort helping us navigate the treacherous road and confirm animal noises weren’t mass murderers.

Barackman radioed for us to do a knock. Then he knocked. Then we listened. The other thing you do when baiting sasquatch is listen. A lot. In the middle of the woods, on a moonless night, the more I listened, the more my mind toyed with me. (Hello, acute anxiety.)

Suddenly it occurred to me that if there was a bigfoot out there, then I was trying to get it’s attention. What the hell was I going to do if I got it? If I didn’t get a Bigfoot’s attention, then maybe I was giving away my location to a rabid coyote.

Barackman radioed for a yell. Jen yelled. Then he. At midnight, these yells sound all too human and the screams sent a chill up my spine. We found an open spot where I could relax a little bit. Jen and I started talking again, and that’s when ...

SNAP!

Someone or something had taken a large stick and busted it across its knee. At least, that’s what it sounded like. I whipped the thermal imager up to my eye and looked in the direction of the noise. Nothing, but the thermal could only see so far into the thick forest, and I couldn’t be sure from how far away the noise originated. We waited for the telltale softer bustling that would signal an animal running away or climbing a tree.

Silence.

“Haley, you know they say bigfo…” Jen started to say.

“JEN, I KNOW.” I was too freaked out to talk about the noise.

After another minute or so, we both started getting scared and radioed Barackman to meet us back at camp. According to him, the sound we heard was a classic sasquatch response to the knocking and yelling we’d been doing. I felt like I should have been able to see the source of that noise. It was too loud and too close. It didn’t have to be a bigfoot, but it had to be something.

By this time, it was after midnight and we’d had enough. FLIR folks packed up, but Barackman wanted to stay overnight. I’m amazed at his dedication and mental focus, but while watching him unfold his camp chair, the word “obsession” crossed my mind for the first time. I asked him if he ever got scared and said sure, these are scary creatures. But he didn’t even acknowledge the possibility that when he sensed a presence it could something other than a mythical creature, like a bear or a coyote or a homicidal maniac.

The four of us talked about that “snap” for most of the trip back to the office. Jen, of course, was convinced a sasquatch intentionally made the noise. Doug and John were dubious, undoubtedly attributing our experience to some situational hysteria.

I just can’t be sure. That “snap” is as clear now as it was when I was standing on that road in the middle of the Mt. Hood National Forest at midnight. Something made that noise. But I have no evidence and I’m not willing to make the leap to say it was or wasn’t a sasquatch. I have to chalk it up to unexplainable phenomenon. True believers would say that’s exactly what bigfoot is, an unexplainable phenomenon.

(Author’s Note: Jen spoke with Barackman the following day to see if anything happened after we left and said that he did a yell about an hour after we’d departed. In response, he heard a guttural growl, that sounded a little bit like a car motor. There is only one road up there, his was the only car on it.)

 

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