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In the shadow of the sasquatch

The abominable truth behind B.C.'s notorious cryptid and the people who hunt it

A common thing you hear in cryptozoology — taken from the Greek, literally meaning "the study of hidden animals" — is that the monster finds you first, not the other way around.

The same is true for Bill Miller, one of B.C.'s foremost sasquatch investigators, who claims to have first encountered the massive, hairy, ape-like creature over 30 years ago on a brisk, foggy night in northern Minnesota.

Crammed into a motorboat with his fishing buddy, Miller was starting to doze off when he began to hear a rhythmic, thudding sound "like a pile driver in the distance." At first, the noise was so faint, so imperceptible, that he barely registered it. But the steady thumping — ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom — soon grew louder, and with it a series of soft, slow breathing noises he thought must belong to a Kodiak bear or maybe a moose. He quickly roused his friend, partly for safety in numbers, partly for confirmation that he wasn't suffering some sort of auditory hallucination.

"I remember feeling the hair on the back of my head tingling," he says in a lilting Midwestern drawl.

"If I hear this thing hit the water, I'm starting this boat and I'm gonna burn this motor up and get outta here," he remembers exclaiming to his frightened pal, to himself. "I ain't gonna wait around to see what it is."

The towering figure would emerge from the shadows for a few brief, fleeting moments, giving Miller his first glimpse of the evasive creature.

"I couldn't really explain what it was," he recalls. "It was just one big son of a gun."

While he had little knowledge of the history or mythology surrounding Bigfoot at the time, the incident would plant the seed for his eventual life passion, uprooting him from Peoria, Ill. to Harrison Hot Springs, B.C. in the process.

The B.C. resort town was also where I found myself on an unseasonably warm day this October, wandering around the esplanade in search of a local guru, or piece of kitsch, that could confirm what I'd heard about Harrison being the mecca of all things sasquatch. The latter was easy enough to track down; venture into one of the many beachfront retail stores and you're likely to find some adorable tchotchke or T-shirt adorned with Bigfoot's face or footprint. I even came away with a vial of what was advertised as honest-to-goodness sasquatch sweat. It was liquid soap.

It seems everyone in town has something to say about the elusive biped, although whether they believe in it or not is another story. For better or worse, the creature has become embedded in the community's collective psyche, splashed on store facades and guidebooks, and is perched at the town's entrance welcoming visitors in the form of a life-sized wooden carving.

"For at least 50 or 60 years the sasquatch has been a part of the branding of Harrison," explains Robert Reyerse, executive director of Tourism Harrison.

In recent years, the powers that be have fully embraced the marketing potential of the Bigfoot, and are pushing forward with plans to erect a museum packed with curious artifacts. But it wasn't always that way. When local officials were looking to reimagine Harrison as an upscale, luxury resort in the mid-2000s, there was the sense that "the sasquatch just wasn't classy enough for the resort," Reyerse says.

"But he has certainly made a big comeback."

Whether or not the sasquatch is officially part of the Harrison tourism mix, the role it has played in local lore for generations is undeniable. Since 1920, over 3,000 sasquatch sightings have been reported in B.C., and a significant chunk of those were concentrated in Harrison and the surrounding area. It's a vital part of the Sts'ailes First Nation's culture and history, with traditional paintings and masks featuring the mythical being dating back hundreds of years. Laying eyes on a sasquatch is, the Sts'ailes say, a once-in-a-lifetime stroke of luck that will bring great gifts to the fortunate witness.

The resort is also home to some of the world's leading cryptozoologists, including 88-year-old former mayor John Green. A pioneer in the field of sasquatch research, Green was one of the first to investigate the controversial Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film shot in 1967 near Bluff Creek, Calif., which, outside of the 486 frames taken in Dealey Plaza on the day of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, is probably the most scrutinized piece of film in history.

One of the area's more notable sightings — and one that sasquatch researchers still point to today — dates back to 1884, when Victoria newspaper The Daily British Colonist reported "a strange creature" was captured near a train tunnel along the Fraser River in Yale. "Jacko," as he was dubbed, was described by his captors as a gorilla-like beast covered in long, black hair, standing four-foot-seven (1.4 metres), and weighing 127 pounds (57 kilograms), who was apparently seen scurrying up a rock wall at an astonishing speed. According to one version of events, a doctor examined the bruised creature, determined it was not human, and ordered that it be fed only berries and goat's milk until it could be shipped to England, where it was meant to go on display for thousands of curious onlookers. But a life of infamy was not in the cards for young Jacko, who vanished into thin air before his transatlantic journey began. (A curious side note in a tale filled with curious side notes: late anthropologist and noted sasquatch researcher Grover Krantz once posited that Jacko was actually bought by American showman P.T. Barnum and exhibited as the infamous sideshow act, Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.)

Like a lot of places where the forest looms large on the imagination, there have been numerous reports of sasquatch over the years in the Sea to Sky.

In 1970, a foreman named Bill Taylor reported seeing a seven-foot-tall specimen scamper across the road with a fish clutched in its fur-covered fist 20 clicks north of Squamish.

A family of three hiking along an abandoned logging route in the Cheakamus Canyon almost a decade ago was startled by a booming grunt and the frightened yaps of their pet dog. Then, the husband saw a dark figure running away on two legs. They all noted a strong, foul odour permeating the air.

A video posted to YouTube last May showed a solitary, black dot in the distance trudging through mounds of snow in a remote mountain range near Tricouni Peak, sparking debate across the country. The clip garnered millions of views and questions about why a rational human would hike through the harsh terrain at 600-metre elevation without any gear. Three weeks after it went online, a Maple Ridge man calling himself "Ridgewalker Pete" came forward to say he was the star of the puzzling video shot nearly two years earlier. Only problem? Pete's own diary puts him in the area in late July, a full three weeks after the footage was taken.

Longtime Whistler resident Dan Swarnstrom, who has spent his fair share of time in the woods building many of the resort's mountain bike trails, is convinced of the infamous cryptid's existence after allegedly observing the beast on three separate occasions.

"It looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger in a grey hoodie with grey overalls," he remembers of one such encounter. But it wasn't just the creature's action-hero physique that's stayed with the outdoorsman, but the resounding baritone of its guttural howls.

"Some of the noises feel like they come out of the ground, they're so powerful. They literally rattle your ribcage," he says.

Swanstrom claims to have come across hundreds of gargantuan tracks throughout the Cheakamus Forest and Tricouni area, and has even set up several motion-sensor cameras deep in the forest to catch another rare glimpse of the hairy hominid.

Still, even for all his amateur sleuthing, Swanstrom admits the sasquatch is a much more keen observer than he ever will be.

"It's been watching me for years," he says. "It knows a lot about me and I know very little about it."

Now, all of this is laid out here not to sway you one way or the other on the debate over Bigfoot's existence, but to provide some historical context. Realistically, all of the sighting reports and muddy footprints in the world will do very little to convince the doubters, and there are already countless articles, books and shoestring-budget documentaries out there for that anyway. The true fascination, I think, lies not in the possibility of some ephemeral phantom of the forest, but our continual quest to find it. What good is a hunt with no distinguishable prey? What keeps these amateur cryptozoologists going in the face of constant ridicule, societal scorn and the dismissal of the mainstream scientific community?

Crackpots vs. Eggheads

We are a society brimming with skepticism, bombarded with more information on a daily basis than any other generation in human history. Our worldviews have become calcified by the know-it-allness of the Internet, the fear of not only being wrong, but also being humiliated for it. For our ancestors, however, the nagging angst of the unknown wasn't just an existential thought experiment, but a daily reality. The far corners of the globe were, for all they knew, teeming with the sort of strange, savage creatures that only the darkest of imaginations could conjure up. Whispers of mysterious monsters roaming the mountains or plumbing the depths of the sea weren't treated with disdain, but an air of plausibility, because, as Kean University historian Brian Regal explains, scientists of the day thought "these unusual, strange variations could give you even more insight into the biological diversity of the world."

Author of Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads and Cryptozoology, Regal credits the shift in science away from the study of monsters to one man: Richard Owen.

One of the Victorian era's most celebrated naturalists, Owen apparently did not suffer fools wisely. So when the captain of a celebrated British warship, the HMS Daedelus, made international headlines after claiming his crew observed a giant sea-faring monster thrashing in the water, Owen began to poke holes in the story.

"He basically became what we would call today a debunker," Regal says.

In a letter to The Times of London, Owen theorized that what the crew likely saw was a giant seal, still uncommon to lay eyes on in those days, or a pair of whales mating, which up to that point had never actually been observed. Of course, Owen wasn't the first to try and discredit tall tales of dangerous beasts in faraway lands, but because of the clout he had, others in his field followed suit, and the battle line between mainstream science and fringe science was drawn.

It's a difference in approach that still divides sasquatch investigators today, with certain groups sticking rigorously to scientific methods in their research, and others more willing to entertain more, let's say, colourful theories.

"There are sasquatch groups in Canada that are outright hoaxes, and other groups that are absolutely mentally ill. They talk about trans-dimensional sasquatch, sasquatch being able to shapeshift and engage in telepathic communication. Well that's in the realm of insanity, that's not from the world of science," says John Kirk, president of the British Columbia Cryptozoology Club.

In his nearly 30 years investigating cryptids, Kirk has found that the divide can often be traced along the 49th Parallel, and has noticed a marked difference between the typical Canadian 'squatcher and the American counterpart.

"Here in Canada the divide is really based on truth and error, and in the States it's based on factionalism, egotism," he says. "Everybody there wants to be the first to have the definitive proof. Here in Canada, we're more patient. Yeah, we'd be happy with whoever got the proof at the end of the day. There's no race to the finish for us, we're all enjoying the journey and looking at the sights as we go along, but in America there's this anxiety that's unreal."

For proof of Kirk's theory, look no further than the Discovery Channel's reality TV series, Killing Bigfoot, (it's currently airing on OLN in Canada), which throws together a ragtag group of gun nuts that includes a Vietnam vet and ex-professional wrestler in their quest to track down a sasquatch. Using military-style stealth operations and live ammo, members of the Gulf Coast-based group were determined to put "Bigfoot on a slab", but never managed to kill anything but a few deer.

Whistlerite Andy Dittrich worked on the show as a grip and camera assistant and, despite enjoying his time following the amateur militia through the thick woods of Texas and muggy swamplands of Louisiana, he didn't come away with any new insights into the evasive animal's existence.

"There are as many Bigfoots out there as there are mermaids, unicorns and Gods," he laughs.

"But those guys were so welcoming and they don't want to be put in a bad light for what they're doing. Yeah, they're wackos or crazy people, but they don't do any harm. They're out there to kill one, but what are they going to kill? They'll never see one, so no harm done."

Yet, contrary to what many Bigfoot researchers believe, there are scientists who would love to add the sasquatch to the biological record. The problem is they haven't been given a reason to look for it quite yet.

"The worst enemies of cryptozoology are not scientists, but other cryptozoologists," Regal says. "You're not going to get the kind of respect you want until you can prove this material. A million eyewitness reports mean nothing until you have some actual physical proof."

On the hunt

I approached my outing with Sasquatch Country Adventures, launched by Miller in 2012, with a little trepidation. And not just because the liability waiver I signed before paying my $115 fee for the privilege of touring Harrison's Bigfoot hotspots warned of: "natural disaster, failure of equipment, occasional meetings with wildlife, and freakish accidents which cannot be foreseen."

The main reason for my wariness was that I had absolutely no idea what kind of person I would be spending the day with. While cryptozoology draws all types, I couldn't shake the stereotype, reinforced time and again in pop culture, of the sasquatch hunter as gun-toting, piffle-spewing nut job. Miller, I would learn, was anything but.

An unassuming, genial man, he is a natural raconteur, capable of filling the pregnant pauses with a steady string of yarn on any number of topics. What struck me most about Miller was just how positively, well, normal he was. He doesn't talk about any grand conspiracy theories or government cover-ups. He has little in the way the high-tech gadgetry that many of his peers trot out on 'squatching expeditions. He is confident in his convictions and doesn't seem all that concerned if you share them.

He's also a cancer survivor, which probably helps to explain his ambivalence towards the non-believers. Why waste precious time convincing others of what you already know at your core to be true? And he has no grand delusions of fame or fortune if he ever happens to find that one piece of incontrovertible proof — a body, a photo, a strand of hair, anything — that would finally confirm Bigfoot's existence.

"I've always said when I can finally get a good film where I can show a sasquatch once and for all — with no doubt, no monkey suit — then I'll be done," he muses.

"I wanna go fishing. I like doing things like that. There's other things I'd like to pursue in what years I got left."

Despite my initial hesitation, I couldn't help but feel excited for our expedition once I climbed into Miller's six-seat Polaris Ranger UTV, a crafty little thing that could careen over tricky terrain with ease.

As we zoomed further into the woodlands overlooking Harrison Lake, dodging low-hanging trees and stopping every so often for a pheasant that would wander onto our path, I found myself opening up to the possibility, however slight, that we might actually see a sasquatch. My senses were on high alert, as if every oddly shaped tree, every distant blur of brown, every crackling of branches confirmed to me that there must be something out there. And maybe that's where the real allure lies for Miller and his compatriots: the willingness to entertain the endless possibilities of the world, the acknowledgement that we don't have all the answers.

"A small part of us wants to believe in magic," says Patricia Taylor, who left a six-figure job in Vancouver several years ago to embark on a new adventure every month. Between stints as a pilot, a treasure hunter and a newspaper delivery woman, Taylor went on a sasquatch hunt of her own. She's now on adventure No. 83, and calls her 'squatching expedition "the coolest" one yet.

"For me, that childhood wonder is so key to everything I do, and I think a lot of us have lost touch with that," she continues. "Part of us would like to go back to those times when we believed in ghosts, when we believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, because it left us with a sense of wonder. Who doesn't like to feel that?"

It's easy to feel that sense of wonder trekking through the brush of Sasquatch Provincial Park, trying to put myself in the shoes of so many before me who've dedicated their lives to searching for something they've never seen, for something they'll never truly understand.

But is the sasquatch really that incomprehensible, conceptually speaking? Perhaps when these determined men and women set out to find Bigfoot, what they're really looking for is an idealized version of themselves.

"The model that Bigfoot presents, being one with nature, not relying upon civilization, remaining undiscovered for millennia, this is a very appealing idea," explains Lynne McNeil, folklorist at Utah State University. "Going Bigfoot hunting lets you act like Bigfoot, it puts you in the wilderness and separates you from civilization and the responsibilities of society.

"It gives people this magical landscape, this opportunity to enact their deepest desires in their own lives."


By the time our tour winds down, I'm no closer to spotting a Bigfoot than when the day started. I'm not disappointed though.

As the Polaris barrels its way over a forest service road back towards the town centre, towards civilization, away from the magical landscape of sasquatch country, Miller pipes up, unprompted.

"I've had a lot of folks tell me: 'Man, I love your stories. If we come back again, will ya tell us some more?'"

He pauses to turn towards me, a sly grin spread across his crimson cheeks.

"I say to 'em: 'I'll not only tell you some more, I might even throw in a true one next time.'"

He lets out a hearty bellow as we drive off, the orange glow of dusk peeking its head over the mountains.

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