Sasquatch: Living Legend or Figment of the Imagination?
by Adrian Dorst, Tofino
for TofinoTime Magazine, October 2005
Sam, an ex-patriot American who had fled the draft in the late 60s, was camped on a small beach on an island in Nootka Sound. It was a summer evening in 1970 and he had turned his canoe upside down to use as a shelter. As he lay comfortably cocooned in his sleeping bag, enjoying the sound of ocean waves gently lapping at the shore, a rank odor drifted in on the breeze. Thinking that a dead animal must have washed ashore, he craned his neck from beneath the overturned boat to identify the source of the smell. Instead of spotting a dead seal on the beach, as he expected, he was astonished to see a large human-like figure, entirely covered in hair, squatting on a driftwood log. For a brief moment, the two stared at each other, then the mysterious figure leapt to its feet, and in a few graceful strides, disappeared into the woods.
After vanishing, Sam could hear strange sounds emanating from the forest. When I queried him about the nature of the sounds, he hesitated for a moment, then added that they approximated the sound you make when you blow into the end of a bottle. Hearing this description, what came to mind immediately was the native masks that depict Tsonaqua, or "Wild Woman of the Woods," which show a fierce face with deep-set eyes, and lips that are pursed, as if making an OOOOh sound.
Did he feel any fear? "No," he told me, "because it was obviously afraid of me." That may not have been the only reason. Sam spent two summers entirely on his own, exploring the west coast's hidden coves and islands, and on one occasion rounded Estevan Point in mountainous seas — in a canoe. Estevan, for you non-mariners, is notorious for its dangerous seas. This last feat earned him the title, Estevan Sam. Clearly, the man was fearless.
More typical is the response by Jason (not his real name), who, in the beam of his flashlight, one night in September of 2002, saw a large upright figure covered in hair, running across the highway between Tofino and Long Beach, directly in front of his bicycle. So shaken was he, that he dumped his bike in the ditch and ran. For days after the event, a family member told me, he had trouble sleeping.
Overwhelming fear is a common response to close encounters with these animals. The vocalizations they emit when they wish to frighten away an intruder, are reported to make even the toughest man quake in his boots. Said one local, hard living man who used to be a trapper in Canada's boreal forest, and who once had an animal scream at him from behind a screen of bushes, "So powerful was the noise, I felt like a mouse." His face told me he was dead serious. He had not even told this story to his family or closest friends, he confided.
Locally, there have been sightings and vocalizations from Meares Island, Vargas Island, Flores Island, Catface, Ursus River, Sidney River, Kennedy Lake, Grice Bay, Long Beach, Radar Hill, and Portland Point. There is even one reported sighting from the golf course. The year 2002 was a banner year with at least 8 sightings and a similar number of vocalizations reported from a variety of locations in our area. All occurred in late summer and fall, at a time when drought prevented salmon from swimming upstream.
So what are we to make of these reports? Most scientists confidently inform us that no such creature exists, if and when they even deign to comment on such a preposterous notion as a large, bipedal ape running loose in the woods of North America. The thinking seems to be that everything of significance has long ago been discovered, so don't bother me with any evidence. The problem is that if these animals don't exist, then how to explain the many hundreds of anecdotal reports. Are they all fantasies, outright lies and hallucinations? One would think that this phenomenon itself would be a subject worthy of study. And equally difficult to explain is the fact that the animal is recognized by more than 60 North American native languages.
The earliest written mention of this animal in British Columbia may actually originate from near the spot where Sam had his encounter. In 1799, the Spanish naturalist Jose Mozino, on his visit to Yuquot in Nootka Sound, recorded native stories about an animal he called the "Matlox." His book Noticias de Nutka, published in 1782 says,
"I do not know what to say about the Matlox, inhabitant of the mountainous districts, of whom all have unbelievable fear. They imagine his body as very monstrous, all covered with stiff black bristles; a head similar to a human one but much greater, sharper and stronger fangs than a bear; extremely long arms; and toes and fingers armed with long curved claws. His shouts alone (they say) force those who hear them to the ground, and any unfortunate body he slaps is broken into a thousand pieces."
Another written account from the west is found in the journal of the explorer David Thompson. When, on January 7th, 1811, he and his men came upon a line of tracks in the snow, in the Rocky Mountains, near present day Jasper, he wrote,
"I saw the track of a large Animal — has 4 large Toes abt 3 or 4 In long & a small nail at the end of each. The Bal of his foot sank abt 3 In deeper than his Toes — the hinder part of his foot did not mark well. The whole is about 14 In long by 8 In wide & very much resembles a large Bear's Track. It was in the Rivulet in about 6 In snow."
By comparison, the tracks of a very large, male grizzly bear reaches a maximum of 12 inches by 6 inches, plus they have long claws, not small nails. Thompson and his men would have been quite familiar with the tracks of grizzlies. In later years he elaborated on these strange prints, adding that when he had questioned his native guides as to whether the tracks could be those of a very large bear with the claws worn down, they would not hear of it and were afraid.
The first magazine articles about Sasquatch were published by MacLeans as early as 1927 and in Liberty in the 1940s. These were written by J.W. Burns, a teacher at the Chehalis Reserve, under such incongruent titles as, My Search for B.C.s Giant Indians, and were centered around Harrison Lake.
The modern era of Sasquatch investigation can be said to have begun in 1958, when a bulldozer operator discovered very large footprints clearly revealed in the soft earth beside a logging road at Bluff Creek, in northern California. In the resulting publicity, someone coined the term "Bigfoot," a word still in popular use in the usa today. The second event occurred not far away in 1967, when Roger Paterson emerged from the bush, with a short segment of film of a large, hairy creature on two legs. To this day, that film remains perhaps the most compelling evidence for the existence of this animal, though it falls short of being indisputable evidence.
What scientists want, of course, is hard evidence. So far, that which comes closest to fitting the required criteria is a plaster cast of a footprint. One of a small number of scientists giving this subject the attention it deserves, is Jeff Meldrum, an associate professor of anthropology at the Idaho State University. Meldrum has a collection of about a hundred casts, out of more than 700 that have been collected in North America. Foot size varies considerably, but most are in the 15, to 16 inch range, with the largest reaching 22 inches in length. Sasquatch feet are remarkably like human feet, except for the fact that they lack an arch, and are broader and longer.
But how does Meldrum know they aren't faked, for example, someone carving a pair of large wooden feet and then creating tracks by attaching them to their own? Enter Jimmy Chilcutt of the Conroy Police Department in Texas. Not only is he an expert on fingerprints, he has also studied the dermal ridges of numerous primates, and in this capacity is often consulted by the fbi. Chilcutt offered his expertise to Jeff Meldrum, expecting to expose a hoax. Out of the 100 casts he subsequently examined, he found only a handful of high enough quality to show dermal ridges. However, these were unique in that the ridges ran lengthwise along the foot, rather than across, as in humans, plus they were twice as thick, just as one would expect from a larger animal. The fact that these casts were consistent with one another, even though they were cast by different people, in places hundreds of miles apart, only added to their credibility. Chilcutt concluded that the tracks were indeed made by a living animal. A second expert on fingerprints, Doug Monsoon, of the Lakewood, Colorado, Police Department Crime Lab, came to the same conclusion on similar evidence.
Currently, scientists are trying to extract dna from purported Sasquatch hair and from scat. Two labs in the us recently succeeded in doing this and are currently analyzing it. No word yet on the results. Its beginning to look as though, if this animal really exists, its days of living unbeknownst to science are numbered. In the event that irrefutable proof is found, expect to see many red faces in the scientific community, where there has been a great deal more scoffing than inquiry.
So if it exists, what is it? The preponderance of opinion among investigators is that this animal is a bipedal forest ape descended from an ancestor known to have lived in South-east Asia about 400,000 years ago, called Gigantopithecus. It is known only from fossilized teeth and jaw bones found in caves, but scientists have recreated models of this animal, and it is believed to have stood up to 9 feet tall and was very robust and muscular.
Based on hundreds of reports and descriptions of Sasquatch, a remarkably consistent profile of this animal emerges. Height varies considerably, but the majority of reports describe an animal ranging between 6 to 8 feet tall. Large males may be even taller. They are described as powerfully built, with wide shoulders and a barrel chest. Males are sometimes described as massive. Two Tofino residents who saw one sprint across a highway in front of their car, were particularly impressed by the musculature in the legs, and compared it to that of Olympic runner, Ben Johnson. They also commented that it looked terrified at having been discovered.
The head sits directly atop the body with little or no neck, and is often described as dome-shaped, or oval, indicating the presence of a sagital crest. A sagital crest is associated with powerful jaw muscles. The arms are proportionally longer than those of a human and reach to the knees. Although most individuals are described as either black or reddish brown, some have been described as dark brown, tan, gray and even white. This is not surprising. Black bears, for example may be black, cinnamon brown, grey or white (as in "Spirit Bear.")
The animal's gait is often described as "fluid" or "graceful." This is because it does not lock its knees when it walks, as humans do, but instead walks with legs slightly bent at the knees. Length of stride is, of course, much longer than that of a human, and its speed can leave an observer in awe.
Ears are not prominent. The nose is broad and somewhat flat. Eyes are deep-set and dark, and lack white, as in humans. At night they usually reflect amber or red. This is an indication that these animals have night vision and are primarily nocturnal. This is supported by the fact that most sightings occur early and late in the day, or at night.
Vocalizations are variable, but are unlike those of any other animal. Their roaring screams, or screaming roars, are apparently terrifying when heard in close proximity, and the volume is said to be overwhelming. Or, to repeat the words of the Nuu-chah-nulth of Friendly Cove, as told to Jose Mozino, "His shouts alone force those who hear them to the ground." Such vocalizations are probably intended exactly for the result they produce — fear and the desire to vacate the area. Wood rapping is a means by which these animals communicate with one another.
Sasquatches may also engage in throwing rocks, pieces of wood, or other objects from a hidden position when they wish to intimidate. Years ago, near Quait Bay, two locals watched in amazement as a stove pipe was hurled over the water from behind a screen of vegetation. In another case, two men hunting near Kennedy Lake had sizable stones thrown in their direction from an unknown source. In a third case, an unseen animal responded to a stone thrown at a "bear" to scare it away, by hurling the stone back. "The damn bear threw the stone back at me," was the indignant response.
The fact that these animals go to great lengths to avoid being seen, indicates they are well aware of the danger presented by firearms. It should be stressed that Sasquatches are not dangerous to humans in normal circumstances. At no time, in any of the hundreds of accounts, was a person injured. Dogs, on the other hand, have not been so lucky, and there are stories of them being killed. It appears that intimidation towards humans is intended purely as a means to scare an intruder out of an area, or as a defense when threatened. Mock charges have been recorded on occasion. Mostly, though, these animals are exceedingly shy and avoid humans.
As with bears, Sasquatches are believed to be omnivorous. That is, they eat a wide variety of food, both vegetable and animal. On Vancouver Island, young leaves, roots, berries and salmon probably form a principle part of their diet, but in some regions of the continent they are also reported to take deer. This could explain the story, if true, of a party of Ahousaht hunters being chased by "Bookwis" in the Ursus Valley in the mid 90s. The hunters responded by abandoning part of their elk kill, which was likely the intended outcome. Several similar incidents are reported to have occurred elsewhere.
A question commonly asked is; if these animals exist, how have they managed to avoid detection? The answer, of course, is that they haven't. There are now many hundreds of documented reports of these animals in North America. What is lacking is proof of the absolute kind. If you still don't believe that a mammal can elude us for so long, consider for a moment the case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a conspicuous black and white bird the size of a Raven with a flaming red crest. After apparently being extinct for 60 years, it was rediscovered recently in Arkansas. If a flamboyant species that flies can elude all efforts to find it for more than half a century in the heart of America, then just maybe a nocturnal forest ape can do so as well. Or, perhaps, the skeptics are right, and the Sasquatch exists only in the imagination of those, who, like myself, who find it hugely gratifying to believe that we have a large and hairy relative living wild and free in our forests and mountains, beyond the reach of Revenue Canada and those who collect camping fees. But I wouldn't count on it.
Adrian Dorst is a Tofino nature photographer, carver, and birdwatching
guide. His photos can be found in our photo
gallery or on Adrian's website at www.adriandorst.com. and at www.bcwildimages.com