Call it Yeti, Wendigo, Chuchuna or Sasquatch, you’d better believe there are believers.
BY EDNOR THERRIAULT
Something is killing the deer in Pattee Canyon near Missoula, Montana, and that something is doing some crazy things with their bones.
The southeast corner of the Missoula Valley is teeming with whitetails and the odd mulie, and they do share the habitat with a few predators, from mountain lions and coyotes to the occasional wolf. Black bears also roam the forests of the canyon, but they’re highly unlikely to kill an adult deer and Pattee Canyon is quite a ways from Montana’s grizzly recovery zones. Brian “Duke” Sullivan claims to have seen evidence of predatory behavior that has never been displayed by the animals known to live in the area. There’s only one explanation, he claims: It’s Bigfoot.
Sullivan, a slender, bespectacled Minnesota native who established the Facebook group the Montana Bigfoot Project, stumbled upon a puzzling sight a few years ago in this part of the Lolo National Forest that’s drawn keen interest from Sasquatch hunters. For years, Bigfoot researchers have discovered lodgepole pine and other small trees bent over for no apparent reason, or yanked from the ground or broken off and stacked in crisscross patterns. Sullivan and other Bigfoot buffs believe these arrangements serve as a kind of communication between the mythical creatures, either marking their territory or sending some other kind of message or warning. It could be, he says, simply a sign to identify their clan.
What Sullivan witnessed a few years ago in those woods, however, sparked a new set of possibilities for the inveterate Bigfoot hunter: he spotted an animal skeleton arranged on a tree limb 14 feet off the ground. “There was no meat on the bones when I found it,” he reported. “It must be a marker of some kind; there’s no reason for anything to put it there.” Sullivan is convinced that the Sasquatch population thought by some to live in Pattee Canyon are living off deer, and apparently using their bones to communicate with other Bigfoots (Bigfeet?). “If you see one,” he warned, “it might be the last thing you ever do see.”
In 1976, the FBI investigated. Spurned by a letter and hair samples from Peter Cochran, Director of the Bigfoot Information Center in the city of The Dalles, Oregon, FBI officials took to the lab. “The examination included a study of morphological characteristics such as root structure, medullary structure and cuticle thickness in addition to scale casts,” wrote Jay Cochran Jr., assistant director of the FBI’s Scientific and Technical Services Division. “It was concluded … that the hairs are of deer family origin. The hair sample you submitted is being returned as an enclosure to this letter.”
Over the last 50 years, more than 10,000 Bigfoot sightings have been reported in the U.S., one-third of them coming from Oregon, long considered prime Sasquatch country for its dense, heavily forested terrain and a relatively sparse human population. But sightings have been reported all over: In 2018 Marion, North Carolina, population 7,800, named Bigfoot the town’s “official animal,” and its third annual WNC Bigfoot Festival is scheduled for September 2020. More than 70,000 believers attended the first two events.
Bigfoot has faded from the headlines recently, the occasional beef jerky or car insurance commercial notwithstanding, but every couple of years or so there’s mini-frenzy over a sighting. A series of photos captured in January 2020 by a Washington state Department of Transportation highway-cam depicted a large, humanoid creature apparently striding across a snowbank above Highway 20. Turns out it was a plywood cutout, painted black and fastened to a tree.
While reports of Bigfoot encounters may have slowed, there has been no such drop-off in the number of people who continue to search for the mythic creature. It’s just a matter of time, say the hardcore Bigfoot devotees, before we accept that the giant beast lurks in the woods. At this point, though, we’re still waiting for irrefutable evidence, any tangible proof that this tall, smelly, hairy hominid of folklore actually exists.
When nearly every square mile of land on the planet has been photographed, mapped, measured and scrutinized, is it possible that an entire species of ape-like creatures has escaped detection? Hannah Davenport thinks so.
“As good scientists,” Davenport says, “as people who are conducting good and true science, we need to work at proving that something doesn’t exist in order to prove that it does. I’m pretty sure that’s how we proved black holes are real, by working to prove that they weren’t real.”
“…as people who are conducting good and true science, we need to work at proving that something doesn’t exist in order to prove that it does.”
Davenport received her degree from Montana State University in archaeological zoology, and her interest in Bigfoot research was encouraged by another scientist, Dr. Jeff Meldrum, a foot morphology expert from Pocatello, Idaho. “Jeff is great in that he is openly doing research in a university capacity, and he’s starting to draw a little bit of attention because it pulls that stigma away. There are so many scientists not giving out funding to scientists who want to do research on Bigfoot, where they’re not letting articles get published in academic journals because they don’t think it’s worthwhile. [It’s] just unfortunate because, as scientists, we’re trying to be objective.”
A self-professed “Bigfoot nerd,” Davenport grew up in Wisconsin where she had a firsthand encounter with the creature, but kept it to herself for years. “I had a sighting when I was in high school and I didn’t tell anybody about it until I was in my 20s because I was so afraid that people would think that I was lying, or that I was doing it for attention.” When she finally told her family about her experience, her grandfather confessed that he, too, had seen a Bigfoot when he was a young man and had kept his secret for decades. “He never talked about it,” Davenport said, “because he was very much of a generation where you don’t talk about it. You don’t bring it up.”
Pete Wilson is happy to bring it up. After moving to Montana and founding Sasquatch Watch of Montana in 2012, Wilson has dedicated much of his time to following up on reports of Bigfoot sightings throughout the state. And he found his own Bigfoot hotspot in Montana. “I did quite a bit of research time on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, and spent a few years investigating in Poplar.”
The town of Frazer, located in the southeast corner of the reservation, was also the site of multiple reports. Wilson dutifully followed up but ultimately came up empty handed. “Nothing was found but I had an interesting conversation with a ranch hand in the area,” he said. Wilson declined to reveal the subject of the conversation but hinted at paranormal activity, another of his interests.
While the number of Bigfoot reports is dwindling in Montana, Wilson says the creature is just really good at hiding. “Normally they’re curious about humans but prefer to keep their distance,” he said. “They’ll know you’re there long before you know they’re around.” Wilson has heard tree limbs being knocked together deep in the woods, and had rocks thrown at him from an unseen creature. He adds that Sasquatches are nocturnal, mostly active between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., although many sightings have been reported outside this oddly specific window.
Once in a while a Bigfoot story generates headlines in Montana, illustrating the bizarre fascination we continue to have for the elusive cryptid. In December 2018, a man reported to the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff that a hunter who claimed to have mistaken him for a Bigfoot took shots at him. The victim confronted the shooter, who suggested that the man wear hunter orange if he was going to be in the woods.
Another even more shocking story made national headlines in 2012. Randy Lee Tenley of Kalispell was killed after being struck by two cars on U.S. Highway 93. He was wearing a ghillie suit—a fringed camouflage covering favored by snipers. According to authorities, Tenley had been attempting to generate rumors of a Sasquatch sighting, reportedly standing in the road when he was struck in quick succession by two vehicles, each driven by a teenage girl. Not surprisingly, alcohol may have been a factor in the accident, news reports read.
Although most of 2020’s Bigfoot conventions were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of conferences sell out across the country every year, a clear sign that interest in the mysterious giant primate that leaves behind nothing but ginormous footprints and powerful B.O. isn’t going to wane anytime soon.
Sightings go up in summer when more people are in the woods tramping through Sasquatch territory, which, coincidentally, is considered to be exactly the same as bear habitat. Researchers like Hannah Davenport will continue to boil down hard data that may one day reveal a new species, while investigators like Pete Wilson keep following up on stories about sightings and encounters in Montana. As for the rest of us, well, next time we go for a hike, we might leave the beef jerky locked in the car.
Ednor Therriault is a Missoula-based humorist, writer and musician who has published six books and released five CDs of original music under the moniker Bob Wire.