Searching for Sasquatch: The Curious Lives of Cryptozoologists
Cryptozoologists face long hours, probable divorce and societal scorn. Still, they take to the forest looking for something bigger-and hairier-than themselves.
Thomas Steenburg went into the British Columbia wilderness in April 1986, and he didn’t come out again until Halloween. He was looking for Sasquatch.
One day in early summer, the 25-year-old, on several months’ leave from the army, was searching for prints in the shoulder of a forest service road northeast of Whistler. As he scanned the ground, he heard a noise. Suddenly, something huge charged at him. He started shimmying up a cluster of thin trees, but claws grabbed him by the backpack and dragged him toward the ground. “For whatever reason, she let go, and I climbed right back up those trees,” Steenburg says. Turning his head, Steenburg saw that the creature was no Sasquatch, but a grizzly bear. The bear shuffled and huffed around the base of the trees before lumbering toward deeper forest. Two of the bear’s claws left puncture wounds in Steenburg’s lower back-he still has the scars today.
He was shaken but not ready to abandon the hunt. A few weeks later, an American couple said they’d seen something pace through their camp on the bank of the Chehalis River. Steenburg went to the site and found the best Sasquatch tracks he had ever seen. “That sealed my fate,” he says. “If it wasn’t for that find, I might have given up on the Sasquatch mystery and gone on to what my ex-wife used to call ‘more important things.’”
Today, Steenburg drives a dark-blue SUV with “Sasquatch Research” and his phone number printed in big letters on the side. A kind of freelance Sasquatch stalker, he runs a one-man cryptozoology operation in Mission, B.C.
Broken down into its component Greek parts, cryptozoology means “the study of hidden animals.” Hinted at by folklore, legend and eyewitness accounts, the objects of cryptozoologists’ dogged pursuits are creatures-called cryptids-not proven to exist. (“Not yet proven,” cryptozoologists hasten to add.) Famous examples include the elusive, white-haired yeti of the Himalayas (a.k.a. the Abominable Snowman); the long, rippling serpent of B.C.’s Lake Okanagan, Ogopogo; the spiny, goat-sucking reptile chupacabra of the Americas; and, of course, the hairy bipedal hominid Bigfoot, called Sasquatch in Canada.
Cryptozoology is young enough-and fringe enough-that to even call it a field is controversial. There’s no governing body monitoring the practice; you can’t earn a degree in it; and, except in rare cases of oddball private patronage, no one will pay you to do it. The only requirement for being a cryptozoologist is to call yourself one. As a hobby, it’s hunkered down where science and pseudo-science meet.
Yet, when modern cryptozoology emerged in the mid-20th century, its proponents kept up a tone of academic seriousness. These researchers want their work to be appreciated as a valid offshoot of orthodox zoology, rather than a pursuit of the paranormal. They hunt for evidence, hoping to find definitive proof that will earn their cryptid-and maybe themselves-a place in mainstream science.
“Timekeeping is the last thing a Sasquatch investigator is capable of doing,” declares John Kirk, president of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club (BCSCC). Things aren’t going as planned at the club’s annual barbecue. A rogue bear was sighted at their usual venue in Sasquatch Provincial Park, so the BCSCC has settled for a manicured patch of grass at an RV park closer to Harrison Hot Springs. Worse, the guy who’s supposed to bring the meat has gone AWOL. Finally, up pulls an open-air utility terrain vehicle, and a cooler of hamburgers, hot dogs and sausages is carried from the trailer in back. The club’s VP and webmaster fires up a portable grill, and the annual general meeting of cryptozoologists kicks off.
Dressed in camo flood pants and a sleeveless black T-shirt, with a baseball cap over his long hair, Kirk looks like he’s in a Harry Potter spinoff where Professor Snape cuts loose on vacation. I ask him how much time he devotes to cryptozoology. “Too much, eh?” he asks his wife beside him. Between staying up to date on the literature, writing his own articles and handling the club’s newsletter, he says it’s about five hours. A week? I ask. No, he says, a day. Not counting time in the field.
On shows like the Discovery Channel’s Finding Bigfoot, investigators thrash and bellow their way through the woods, always just missing a cryptid encounter. It’s Sasquatch cast as a more dangerous Polkaroo. For serious researchers, the reality is more mundane: drive into the backcountry or to the site of an alleged sighting, and pick over trees, mud, bushes and logs. The aim isn’t to encounter the creature face to face, but rather to find evidence of its presence: footprints, hair, tissue, Sasquatch scat. Kirk might spend a whole day combing a small patch of woods; interesting finds might come only once or twice in a lifetime.
Many BCSCC members believe that if they were able to get out more often, they’d have greater success. And they’d be happy to. After all, “A bad day of Squatchin’ is better than a good day of work.” But this is no easygoing hobby. The places cryptids might turn up are wild and isolated, and investigators must beware of wildlife, harsh geography and even abandoned grow ops. Most go into the woods armed with emergency supplies, navigational tools and often guns. And, of course, no Squatcher is without recording technology in case they actually find something: audio recorders, top-of-the-line cameras. Cryptozoology isn’t cheap.
Many long-time Squatchers sacrifice more than just time and money. “It has resulted in divorces,” Kirk admits. At the BCSCC barbecue, there are just two women: the fiancée of a man with large Sasquatch tattoos on his arms, and Kirk’s wife, Paula. Paula estimates the community is more than 90 per cent men. She’s been told she’s a “reverse skeptic”: someone who believes everything is true until proven false. “You just have to be alert to the idea that you might see something,” she explains. “I see a bald eagle almost every day. Now, why do I see one? Because I’m looking up in the sky.”
And why should looking bother anyone? To the non-believer, cryptozoology field research might seem like nothing more than eccentrically motivated camping trips. Where’s the harm?
The harm is that cryptozoologists aren’t the only ones with a vested interest in seeing mainstream science proven wrong. Setting science up as a bastion in want of a good storming puts cryptozoologists in the same camp as creationists, and the two are not just hypothetical bedfellows; there’s a bid on the part of creationists to co-opt the pursuit of certain cryptids, mistakenly believing their existence to be the thread pull that will unravel Darwinian evolution.
Daniel Loxton knows cryptozoology can act as a slippery slope to more insidious ways of resisting science. An editor at Junior Skeptic magazine and co-author of the book Abominable Science!, which examines cryptid case studies from a historical perspective, he makes a living at debunking. But he stills sees a lot of good in cryptozoology. “Monsters are more valuable than just the question of their physical existence,” Loxton says. “There’s something there that tells us something about us.”
The Sasquatch is a wild man; us, but also not us. It offers fodder for an ancient crisis of human identity: capable of acting enlightened as gods, we are stuck in our mortal bodies, doomed to live as animals. Sasquatch-our dumber, more powerful, more beastly cousin-looms between what we fantasize we could be and what we fear we are.
Cryptid hunters hope their work will one day be validated as the cutting edge of science, but it may offer a glimpse into the past rather than the future. Cryptozoology recalls an age of the scientist as intrepid explorer, when heading off into the field meant travelling into uncharted territory. You might see something no one else had seen before. You just had to be brave enough to look. The BCSCC members show me plaster casts of famous Sasquatch footprints. These could very easily be the work of hoaxers, but they’re certainly not bear prints, or random squelches in the mud, or anything else from nature as we know it. They look like human footprints, but much, much bigger.
To cryptozoologists, it feels as though evidence is mounting. But the accumulation of sightings, sound recordings, blurry videos and tracks-no matter how intriguing-will never prove them right. In the case of Sasquatch, the only thing that will is a body: a hairy, seven-foot-plus, 600-pound body that stinks like a skunk carcass, screams like a barrel-chested banshee and walks upright like a human.
The only place where Sasquatch definitely exists is in the human imagination. The monster’s grip on our culture (the powerful grip of a 12-inch-long hand, if cryptozoologists are right) reveals an ambivalence about how we see the world. As we encroach further and further into places once considered wild, our need to believe in the Earth’s undiscovered enclaves grows more pressing. We go looking in order to assure ourselves that there’s still something left to find.