On Friday, Bigfoot believers will descend on a remote part of Northern California to celebrate a shaky, minute-long film from 1967 that not only introduced Sasquatch to the wider world, but transformed the cryptid into a pop culture phenomenon that still captivates us half a century later.
Look up the Bigfoot Wikipedia entry, and you'll see a familiar and famous frame from the footage that Roger Patterson, aspiring filmmaker and ne'er-do-well from Yakima, Washington, claims to have shot in the wilderness outside Willow Creek, Calif., 50 years ago on Oct. 20. In the clip, a tall, broad-shouldered, long-limbed, fur-covered creature walking on two legs through a clearing glances directly at the camera for a moment, as if to briefly satisfy the relentless paparazzi before disappearing into the woods.
"It's a fascinating piece of film," says Jeff Meldrum, an Idaho State University anatomy and anthropology professor. He's also the most prominent scientist performing serious Sasquatch research, though not without raising the ire of colleagues. "It's grossly underrated and offhandedly dismissed, naively dismissed by the skeptics."
But the naysayers didn't stop Patterson's film and the larger Bigfoot phenomenon from cementing themselves in a culture enthralled with the idea there are other intelligent species, Late Night with Johnny Carson.", still waiting to be discovered. In the months after it was shot, the film appeared on all the major talk and late-night shows of the day, from Joey Bishop and Merv Griffin to "
The bashful biped has become a cottage industry that's only grown with the rise of the internet and cable TV: conferences, expeditions, books, movies, theme park rides andgenre are just as common as .
But the modern ground zero for the legend remains the dense forests of Humboldt County, where Bigfoot enthusiast Patterson and his friend Bob Gimlin rode into the wilderness on horseback in search of the beast. That's where this weekend's anniversary conference and celebration takes place, featuring Meldrum and Sasquatch celebrities like Cliff Barackman from Animal Planet's "Finding Bigfoot."
"Sightings are still reported to this day," says Steven Streufert, owner of the used bookstore Bigfoot Books in Willow Creek. (A new sighting was reported on the other side of the state near Fresno just this week.)
Streufert is also one of the founders of the Bluff Creek Project, an effort by a handful of volunteers who've set up as many as 20 HD cameras in and around the site where Patterson and Gimlin captured their footage. Today, the project's primary goal is simple: "to determine if Bigfoot is real." But it grew out of the more basic task that initially brought the group together, which was to rediscover the site that had been "lost" due to the regrowth of foliage (the stream bed had been stripped bare by a flood in 1964).
Using GPS coordinates, the group identified surviving trees and other landmarks from the footage that led to the rediscovery of the film site in 2011. Since then, it's been under near constant surveillance, despite the fact that the spot is closed to visitors from October through June.
"Our cameras are running up there 24/7, year round," Streufert said. "If Bigfoot is out there, we should be able to find one on our HD video one of these years."
So far, the cameras have captured cool footage of cougars, bears and the rare Humboldt marten, but no Bigfoot. The lack of any new Sasquatch sightings doesn't bother the team.
"I think back to the first Antarctic explorers and how their expeditions were inspired by tales of the hollow earth... that absurd idea gave inspiration and drive for those early explorers to race to the South Pole," Jamie Wayne, the lead on the Bluff Creek Project said. "For me, Bigfoot is kinda like that, it's very inspiring to get me out there and keep installing trail cameras."
Bigfoot or big fake?
Skeptics have an easy time explaining the lack of Sasquatch appearances at the site of the most famous Sasquatch appearance of all time. Scientists rejected Patterson and Gimlin's film as fraudulent within a few weeks of their trip into the wilderness.
Staff at the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Zoological Society were unimpressed when Patterson brought his film to New York City in late 1967 with the intention of having it validated.
When the big-city scientists failed to give their stamp of approval to Patterson's footage, both Life and Look Magazines backed out of conditional deals to publish major features on the find. An account of the story was eventually published in Argosy Magazine in 1968, and the BBC later paid to use the footage in a Bigfoot docudrama. Along with several other media appearances, it was enough to capture the public's imagination and the legend has continued to grow ever since, even without the endorsement of the scientific community.
In 2004, writer Greg Long published "The Making of Bigfoot: The Inside Story" based on interviews with acquaintances of Patterson, (including Bob Heironimus, who claims to be the man in the suit). Long makes a substantial but controversial case that the famous film is a hoax, and like the story of Sasquatch itself, no physical proof such as the suit itself, or receipts or damning outtakes is presented.
Where many others have seen a hoax pulled off by a cameraman of dubious reputation and a man in an elaborate suit, Meldrum still sees humanity's long lost (or rather, well hidden) relative.
"As an anatomist I can go from the head down to the toes (in the film) and just point out features that you would not see in a costume," he told me. "The anatomy is appropriate and functional for a large bipedal hominid… Yet in 1967 the anthropologists wouldn't have been able to accurately portray that, let alone a rodeo rider from Yakima who couldn't keep a job for more than eight months at a time. He didn't have the wherewithal to conceive of such a thing, let alone pull off the fakery involved if it were a hoax."
Meldrum argues the creature shown in the film displays features consistent with what science has come to understand about hominin evolution in the decades since the film was shot.
Don't stop believing
Still, half a century after the brief clip ignited a firestorm of debate, questions about its authenticity remain.
Science historian Brian Regal says that may continue to be the case because of the poor quality of the film.
"The low resolution of the original grainy 16mm footage renders it practically impossible to analyze in great detail," he writes in his book "Searching for Sasquatch." "We may never know whether Patterson meant it to be this way, or that it was just the dumb luck of an individual unskilled and unsophisticated in the ways of filmmaking."
Doubters be damned, Meldrum and members of the Bluff Creek Project will be in Willow Creek presenting their latest research at the 50th Anniversary conference and celebration, They'll be joined by a Bigfoot authority who became a believer 50 years ago -- Gimlin, the surviving member of the expedition that produced the famous film. He'll talk about what he saw that day and what's happened since.
As for the Sasquatch herself (Gimlin and others maintain the creature nicknamed "Patty" was female and had clearly visible breasts), Gimlin told the CBC on Wednesday he believes she's still alive because he's heard from another "Bigfooter" who "communicated with her son."
No word yet on if anyone managed to capture that communication on camera, though.
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