In The News

Bigfoot hunting

By Stephanie Earls

A true believer sniffs out the big guy's trail in the upstate wilds

Pitching down a half-asphalt side road in Washington County, into a narrow gully then bump-bump, bump-bump over the railroad tracks, Steven Kulls hits open backroad and jams his cherry-red Suzuki Sidekick into four-wheel drive. The flyweight truck shoots up a rise (Kulls had the engine beefed up for just such feats) and into a clearing, surprising a tumbledown, boarded-up shack that's slowly cooking into the banks above this boggy finger of the Champlain Canal.

A pile of junk — gutted TV, unlegged chair, decent-looking door — molders nearby, entertaining mosquitoes. Grasshoppers chirp in undulating two-four time, the soundtrack of a summer day that's turned oppressively muggy — even for bipeds who don't have thick coats of fur to contend with.

Whose woods these are, he does not know, but this clearing looks like the kind of place teenagers come to do things they shouldn't. A place that's maybe earned a nickname at the local high school.

But Kulls is in search of something that does not traffic in such illicit pastimes.

And if the tip that has brought Kulls here pans out, a new nickname may be in order for the neighborhood.

"Bigfoot Holler" has got a nice ring to it, don't you think?

For those who thought you were safe from Bigfoot here on the East Coast, in the creeping shadow of sprawling development, investigators have got some bad news. They say sightings date back decades, emerging from surburban back yards and rural, Adirondack wildlands.

Bigfoot, they say, is wandering closer.

Take, for instance, the evidence: Half a footprint here. Mysterious fibers there. Branches snapped at telltale heights, or saplings twisted and bent just so, sometimes.

When you're an investigator, even a part-time one, you find Bigfoot clues where others wouldn't think to look. ("See all those posted 'No-hunting' signs. You know why they're there?" Kulls prods, piloting down snaky roads while playing a CD of sasquatch calls. "Everybody's out looking for the big guy.")

Seeking evidence

Elusive evidence — and hope — are enough to fuel the population of sasquatch field researchers, a motley collection of do-it-yourself data collectors, paranormal buffs and mystery chasers, interspersed with the occasional hard scientist.

Of course, there's no across-the-board consensus on what constitutes Bigfoot "evidence." One man's definitive print could be the next one's divot-in-the-mud. Likewise, there's no test to pass to become a Bigfoot investigator. They aren't issued badges. There is no common denominator, other than thick skin (and, possibly, a vehicle) and a passion for the chase.

Kulls — a full-time retail fraud investigator and part-time nightclub bouncer — hasn't seen the creature that gobbles up so much of his free time, but he's hopeful.

"In my opinion, people who've seen it are blessed," he says.

Even in the absence of physical proof, believers like Kulls toil on in dogged pursuit of a legend that steadfastly eludes confirmation. It's a passion alternately hamstrung by pranksterism, scoffed at by the masses — and, occasionally, bolstered by science and respected scientists, like primate researcher Dr. Jane Goodall, who's admitted she is a believer.

Still, "in this area, when you say Bigfoot, people chuckle," Kulls says, shaking his head.

Faked tracks

It's been nearly a year since Bigfoot Svengali Ray Wallace died at a nursing home in Washington state, at age 84. It's been nearly a year, too, since his family fessed up about their patriarch's part in the modern history of the North American ape-man legend: Namely, that Dad more or less revived the creature from the obscurity of Native American myth and rumors by strapping on fake, wooden feet and tromping around the muddy ground of a logging camp in Northern California as a prank on his buddies.

The "discovery" of those faked tracks in 1958 marked the beginning of the sasquatch boom, which spread like the smell of unwashed primate in a sauna in June.

The hubbub only heightened in 1967 when former rodeo rider Roger Patterson (acting on a tip from Wallace) headed into the California wilderness and returned with what has become the most famous Bigfoot footage ever, a 16-millimeter film of a creature loping slope-shouldered through a scrubby clearing, flinging an accusatory look at the camera.

Wallace's family claimed the film was staged. Skeptics gloated.

But Kulls and other Bigfoot devotees didn't buy it for a minute. They say Wallace was always a prankster, never respected in Bigfoot circles, and that his family was just cashing in on the media attention.

"I don't believe the Patterson film is a hoax," says Kulls, who has the footage on DVD and has inspected it meticulously, frame by frame. "There's a herniation of the leg muscle. The foot has distinct toes. At the time period, the most advanced makeup they had was 'Planet of the Apes.' They just didn't have special effects good enough to fake that."

Worldwide phenomemon

Whitehall resident Paul Bartholomew, co-author of the 1992 book "Monsters of the Northwoods," calls it a "ridiculous assertion" that Wallace was the sole force behind the mystery.

"It's a global phenomenon, and to suggest that this one man created it is ludicrous," says Bartholomew.

He points to evidence like enigmatic hair samples, the thousands of unconnected sightings, and to dermal ridges — or distinctive finger-print like whorls all primates bear on their hands and feet — detected on plaster casts of Bigfoot footprints.

"We've got all the evidence. Everything but the creature itself," he says.

Over the decades, as Patterson's film became the go-to piece for believers, sasquatch was busy going bicoastal. The creature blossomed into a cottage industry from the Pacific Northwest to the Adirondacks, turning up in place names and as tourist draws, on tabloid covers ("I Married Bigfoot!") and in movies.

Meantime, pillars within the sasquatch set — as well as investigators — were known to bicker like schoolkids.

"There are a lot of ego tiffs within the Bigfoot community," says Kulls, sitting in a low-ceilinged nook of his home in a neatly landscaped mobile home community in Clifton Park. The corner of the toy-scattered living room by the widescreen TV is home base for the Adirondack Research Organization. Kulls, whose lifelong fascination with the creature began after watching a monster flick as a child, founded the group three years ago to investigate Bigfoot sightings in upstate New York.

The 34-year-old father of three also investigates sightings for the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization — the "only scientific organization probing the Bigfoot/sasquatch mystery," according to its Web site. "Some people are out for recognition, some for glory," Kulls says. "Me, I just want this creature to be found."

Which could be tough if the skeptics and the naysayers wind up being right.

Appeal of the search

"It defies all logic that there is a population of these things sufficient to keep them going," says Phillips Stevens, a cultural anthropologist and ethnologist at the University at Buffalo. "What it takes to maintain any species, especially a long-lived species, is you gotta have a breeding population. That requires a substantial number, spread out over a fairly wide area where they can find sufficient food and shelter to keep hidden from all the investigators."

Stevens, however, can understand the appeal of the search.

"Their argument is that there are so many reports of these things from so many groups that have nothing to do with one another that there must be something to it," Stevens says. "The idea there are humanlike creatures living out there in the woods in a pristine state is very attractive. It has a long history in folklore."

The divide between believers and nonbelievers may have more to do with human nature than it does an oversized, camera-shy ape guy, says world renowned mentalist The Amazing Kreskin.

"People who believe in certain phenomena will find evidence all over the place, even if the evidence is only shadows," Kreskin says. "People who don't believe in it won't find evidence, even when faced with existing evidence."

On the trail

For Kulls, late summer brings a chance for new, fresh clues in the woods of northern Washington County, where there had been reports of a sighting.

As he slides from his truck, Kulls hopes aloud that the trail's still hot.

Looking like a war vet who can't quite outrun his high-adrenaline past — camouflage shirt, black parachute pants, a walking creation of caffeine and nicotine and heavy metal music — he slips his sunglasses off, lifts his baseball cap to swipe sweat from his shaven head. He checks his gear: tape measure, microphone with wind-shield, magnifying glass; equipment that "cost about the same as a good set of golf clubs," he says.

The plaster casting kit, a more high-end tool, had to wait. Bigfoot hunting, you see, doesn't come with a petty cash fund.

And with a family to support and bills to pay, sasquatch is far from a financial priority.

"A lot of people think the people into this are crackpots, but I know scientists, police officers, ex-police officers," he says. "Everybody loves a good mystery."

Kulls crouches and peers into the forest, looking for signs something big has powered through. He stomps up a small hill, where a tree limb snapped at shoulder level catches his attention.

He puckers and exhales onto the branch, with the delicacy of someone blowing an eyelash off a cheek. Good way to find snagged sasquatch hairs, he says. He pauses a moment to consider the suspicious resting place of a nut on a rock. Perhaps a Bigfoot placed it there? And then he's gone, stepping through underbrush like he's being chased.

Close encounters

According to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, local encounters have ranged from howls outside a home in Guilderland in June 2001 to a 1981 incident in which a Whitehall teen and his girlfriend said they were chased by a tall, hairy creature while joy-riding on back roads. In 1976, a state trooper in northern Washington County even reportedly took a shot at a mysterious creature matching sasquatch's description.

A year before that, Cliff Sparks saw something strange — "big, with glowing red eyes" — on the grounds of his Whitehall golf course, Skene Valley Country Club. He waited a year to tell his family. Now, he talks about it openly.

"I think more people believe now," says Sparks, who after the sighting decided to add Bigfoot's image (hoisting a golf flag) to his club's logo. "I think some people probably think I'm crazy, but they weren't there. They didn't see it."

Whitehall town Supervisor Vernon Scribner, an avid outdoorsman, is on the fence about the legend, and its local appearances. Some neighbors may laugh, but nature — Scribner knows — can be sneaky.

"There's lots of moose out here, but my wife's never seen one of them," Scribner says. "Some animals are very elusive."

If there is a Bigfoot hereabouts, it's apparently smart enough to sniff out a trap.

Slivers of hope

Bait stands and primate pheromones set up during a May expedition staged by a camera crew from the Outdoor Life Network failed to lure the big fella out, or turn up any sasquatch flotsam.

But sometimes, the forest does offer up a sliver of hope, if you know where and how to look.

In the boggy ground of a stream bed outside Whitehall, by a bent spruce tree, Kulls found a 14-and-a-half-inch reason to keep trudging on: a massive, deep-pressed print. He picked the shape out from the pock-marked, mottled ground with the practiced eye of a specialist deciphering an X-ray.

Kulls says it's the best evidence he's ever come across. If only he'd had that plaster casting kit.

Next time.

"Sure I'd like to be 'Steve Kulls, The Guy Who Discovered Bigfoot.' I think that's what all of us really want," Kulls says. "But it would be a nice feeling just to say, 'He's alive.'"

From: Albany Times Union, 19 October 2003.