In this week’s eSkeptic:
About this week’s eSkeptic
In this week’s eSkeptic, in light of recent chatter that a genuine Bigfoot has been captured, we share these confessions from Jonathan Blais — a Bigfoot-hunter-turned-skeptic. This article appeared in Skeptic Magazine issue 18.4 (2013).
Jonathan Blais is a student at the University of Connecticut pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English. Once fascinated by the prospect of a Bigfoot species, he is now committed to the science behind why people believe in extraordinary claims. He has had work published in the Hartford Courant and UConn’s Long River Review.
Bigfoot or Baloney?
Confessions of a Bigfoot Hunter
by Jonathan Blais
Four winters ago, in mid-December, a friend, my cousin, and I sat quietly in our rented Dodge Dakota on the side of a dirt road in the middle of New York’s Adirondack wilderness. After pulling over and rolling the windows down, we sat silently for 15 minutes listening intently to the sounds of the forest.
With the headlights off, the surrounding woods and mountain slopes were in darkness. Only a faint glow shone down on the landscape from the mist of stars above, far more stars than we were used to seeing back in Connecticut. In 20° temperatures, we watched our breaths diffuse from our mouths like smoke from a cigarette. We were here to record Bigfoot vocalizations.
Not the Bigfoot, but one from a species of large bipedal hominids that live in the forests and mountainous areas of the United States and Canada. This, we knew, was a more rational and sensible view of the Bigfoot mystery. We knew the Bigfoot species had to be a remnant of some distant hominin line, like Gigantopithecus blacki, for example, a giant Asian ape that lived between nine million and 100,000 years ago and stood nine feet tall. This animal, the theory posits, could have crossed the land bridge into North America and learned to avoid humans— explaining why Bigfoots have a shy demeanor around people.
We were ready to call blast. “Call blasting” according to Bigfoot hunting websites imitates the sounds they make: high pitch screams and whoops that resonate in the night (Bigfoots are nocturnal) so members of the species can communicate over long distances. We hoped to get a response to our imitations of those supposed calls.
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“Call blasting, 9:01pm,” my recorder still plays. It brings me back to the moment I stuck the small voice recorder out of the driver’s side window and held it above the roof. My cousin, putting both hands to his mouth, let fly two drawn out whoop-like screams. We held our breaths in silence.
Twelve seconds later we heard it—a response. It started off high, similar to the “whoop,” but came down and seemed to whine, like a high-pitched monkey call, before fading out into low groans and stutters, again monkey-like. My heart began racing, the blood drained away from my face. Turning to my cousin, eyes wide open, I noticed he shared a similar look of terror. Okay, he heard it too. It was the same sound as the Bigfoot calls we had heard on the Internet.
A silence followed. I finally ventured: “Did that sound primate?” “Let me do another one,” my cousin said as everyone began whispering. My friend in the back seat leaned forward intently and asked: “You sure?” No, we weren’t. At this point I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and hear my pulse in my ears. The thought of an eight-foot tall, giant, hairy ape looking down on us from only 100 yards away took on new meaning. This was real, this was actually happening.
“We’re going to do another one,” I stuttered into the recorder, legs shaking in fear. Again my cousin leaned out the window and let out a whoop. Trembling, we waited. Seven seconds later we heard something else, a sound that made me more terrified than I had ever been in my life. It was a loud bang, as if someone had broken a baseball bat against a tree. “Tree banging,” presumably done with large branches, is a behavior attributed to Bigfoots—as we well knew. There was no doubt in our mind what was out there that night.
The bang came from about as far away as the first noise, only from a different direction. Were there two creatures now spying on us somewhere in the darkness? We didn’t wait to find out. Regrettably, our courage failing, we started the truck and left the area immediately.
Weeks of excitement followed. We replayed the recording countless times, shared our story with friends and family, and talked to Bigfoot experts.
We also thought to ask a wildlife expert his opinion of the recording. If he admitted to being baffled we would know for sure we had been in the presence of a Bigfoot. But he replied that the animal that made the sound was a Barred Owl. He added that owls are capable of a wide range of vocalizations and said, to our amazement, that they were capable of breaking sticks and branches, especially in territorial displays. Okay, so we were wrong this one time. Anyone could have made that mistake.
The next year we returned to the beautiful winter vistas of upstate New York, set on finding a very remote lake that had been the location of several recently reported Bigfoot sightings. We found ourselves hiking in on a four-wheel drive access road, my aunt’s SUV having taken us as far as it could. The air was chilly, and the snow a foot deep, but we trudged through it up and down the rocky and winding road. Cameras and recorders in hand, we were ready for anything.
Before long we saw a set of deer tracks. We also saw two sets of mouse tracks snaking their way along on the surface of the snow. Then we noticed a set of tracks that made us scratch our heads. Human tracks, we thought. They came from the forest on our right, traveled down an embankment, crossed the narrow road, and continued down the slope back into the wilderness.
“Who would be walking this way in the middle of nowhere?” I asked, observing the tracks. According to the GPS and local information, the only road or trail in the area was the one we were on.
Something about the tracks didn’t seem right— they were big. And in places they seemed to be spread pretty far apart. Most of the tracks measured 15 to 18 inches long and six to seven inches wide. The snow was fresh too, I remember noting: no time for smaller tracks to have melted into bigger ones.
“Okay, this is weird,” my friend said, finally admitting what we were all thinking. We broke off the road and followed the tracks down a gradually sloping hillside. We looked at each other with a familiar look of disbelief. Could it be?
As we followed the tracks, they seemed to move along a strange path, as if whatever made them was walking from tree to tree. Then it struck me: this was noted Bigfoot behavior. In many sightings, it is said the Bigfoot followed the witness from behind rocks or trees, concealing its body as it watched them. Had a Bigfoot crossed the road moments before we arrived and then snuck around to observe us walking up the remote road? I looked at my cousin and friend, who seemed to be getting the same idea—and a similar look of uneasiness.
Hearts pounding again, we knew we had to follow the tracks. If we were ever going to get visual evidence of a Bigfoot, what better way than to follow its fresh tracks in the snow? We weren’t about to turn away, not this time.
Moments later the tracks led under a small pine tree with branches growing low to the ground. A weird place for a Bigfoot to walk, we thought, but we kept investigating. As we pushed our way into the tree, we noticed that whatever had made the tracks changed its walking pattern. Where less snow had fallen under the tree, the animal that made the tracks was revealed. The next step the animal took was not a giant human-like print, but little steps from four, much smaller, weasel-like feet. The prints turned out to be from an Adirondack fisher cat, a member of the weasel family. In deep snow, instead of walking, it leaps through the forest, leaving imprints of its body as it travels through the snow.
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I knew in the next couple of weeks that I had some thinking to do. The doubts were already creeping in. What were the chances we’d go into Bigfoot territory and hear the same sounds and see the same tracks so often reported as some of the best proof of Bigfoot’s existence—only to find out that both pieces of evidence had very mundane explanations?
Why did we believe that this species existed? Had we done a good enough job of evaluating the evidence? What kind of websites were we getting our information from? Were they reliable? Why hadn’t they uncovered the truth behind the vocalizations and tracks? How badly did we want to believe a Bigfoot species existed?
The Baloney Detection Kit—science—delivered us from the belief in a Bigfoot species, and other beliefs like it. And while it explained away our encounters with Bigfoot, it gave us something far more precious— something real—the beauty of a rare night display of Barred Owl vocalizations deep in Adirondack wilderness, and the intrigue of finding the human-like tracks left by the elusive fisher cat as it bounds through deep snow.
Science gave us the chance to grow, and to understand that it is the best system ever devised to explain the beautiful, rare, and dynamic world we live in.
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Doubt: A History
History usually focuses on belief systems, but those who doubt were often engines of creativity and social advances. Dr. Jennifer Michael Hecht shows that doubt has a vibrant story and tradition with its own saints, martyrs, and sages. Hecht blends her wide-ranging historical expertise, passionate admiration of the great doubters, and poet’s sensibility to tell a stimulating story that is part intellectual history and part showcase of ordinary people asking themselves the difficult questions that confront us all.
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