LUMBERJACKS are known for telling tall tales, mostly about themselves. Every logging camp has its own exaggerations: Ask around about a local Paul Bunyan at some lumberjack bar in southwestern Canada and you'll be told a few tongue-in-cheek stories. Even when they're drinking, the big men with the big-checked flannel shirts know pretty much where the truth stops and the fables begin. Nobody believes in The Blue Ox. Yet a lot of lumberjacks will swear by the existence of a giant humanoid standing close to ten feet tall and weighing up to 1000 pounds, called "Bigfoot" in California and the Pacific Northwest and "Sasquatch" in British Columbia.
A circle of locals sitting in a bar is hardly an unimpeachable source, but broader opinion at times supports the Sasquatch story. Some anthropologists and zoologists, too, believe a Bigfoot or Abominable Snowman may exist in the coastal mountains. Eyewitness reports and folk-legends are supported by footprints and fossil evidence as well as by less-convincing alleged hair and alleged feces. Bigfoot is big business as well. Magazines such as True and Argosy run frequent articles; Willow Creek, Calif., holds a Bigfoot carnival every year during which the townspeople put Bigfoot footprints on the sidewalk and sell Bigfoot ashtrays.
In 1961, a young woman claimed to have been raped near Bemidji, Minn., by the iceman, a Bigfoot-like creature, and at least one tabloid screamed, "I Was Raped by the Abominable Snowman." A Canadian logger waited until 1957 before claiming he had been carried off to the home of a Sasquatch in 1924. Though still in his sleeping bag when he arrived, his report suggests, he soon adjusted to life as captive of a Sasquatch family of four. He said he escaped after a week.
Most of the stories have been less sensational: seeing a large, hairy man-like creature at some distance, being scared away, returning later and finding prints of big wide feet. Quick encounters of this sort seem the most believable, but they are also the most susceptible to mistakes in observation.
The only quick glimpse preserved on film is a 20 foot, 16 mm color sequence made by Sasquatch stalker Roger Patterson in 1967. The first few seconds are blurred and shaky, as Patterson, thrown by his horse, runs toward the Sasquatch and tries to frame. Then there are a few dramatic seconds of clarity, as the Sasquatch strides along a river bed. At the end of the sequence she (the sex is suggested, by hairy, pendulous breasts) walks placidly back into the underbrush.
Experts have presented quite a few arguments against the film's authenticity, but have not been able to flatly discount it. John R. Napier, then director of the primate biology program at the Smithsonian Institution, examined the film some 30 times and wrote Patterson in May 1968, "There was nothing I could see that could conclusively indicate a hoax." In his 1973 book, Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality, Napier explained his having told Argosy magazine not to dismiss the film. "In effect," he wrote, "what I meant was that I could not see the zipper; and I still can't."
Patterson's film might really show a Sasquatch. But footprints seem to be stronger evidence, though still at the level of unexplained events--not positive proof of anything. Here the Sasquatch comes off better than other legendary wild mountain men. Napier claims he can explain in terms of other animals all but one footprint attributed to the Himalayan yeti, the original Abominable Snowman. Most Bigfoot prints, on the other hand, are still a mystery.
Maybe the Sasquatch is only the pipedream of Patterson, Napier, and other researchers including Rene Dahinden and Boris Porshnev (who was better known as a historian of peasant uprisings in France). Yet other missing links have been found: The gorilla, a shy creature not at all like King Kong, was a legendary jungle man until authenticated in the middle of the 19th century, and only in the last decade were reports of proto-pygmies in Tanzania born out by the discovery of the Gombe stream chimp. Napier estimates that a population of 500-1000 Bigfoot could explain all the footprints and still jibe with the difficulty of direct observation. There's simply no way to say.
MORE PERPLEXING than the Sasquatch himself is the societal reaction to the investigation. The Sikkimese and Tibetans never sold Yeti ashtrays. In the Himalayas no neighborhood whispering campaign ever ostracized investigators for antisocial speculation, broke up an investigator's marriage, or made witnesses fear for their jobs. All those things happened in North America.
A taxidermist spent quite some time looking for the Sasquatch in Canada, supported by an American millionaire. He used an original approach. He would snatch used sanitary napkins from women's bathrooms at gas stations, then run through the woods tacking them to trees in hopes they would attract a Sasquatch. If our mountain snowman when discovered really is abominable, he will have no trouble assimilating the traits of our society.
A Sasquatch symposium tonight at the Science Center at 8 p.m. includes Patterson's film and a long-distance phone interview. The film and lecture will be repeated at 9:30 p.m.