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Science Is Hot on Heels of Bigfoot Legend

January 21, 1996|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Stories have always been told about things that happened along old Mill Creek Road, the trail of bumps and switchbacks that winds up from the farms of southeastern Washington to the hushed and empty ranges of the Blue Mountains.

The large, human-like footprints found along the creek. The sounds heard late at night outside the lonely cabins on the upper end of the road. The man who was riding his motorcycle and saw something in the brush, 10 or 12 feet tall, making a weird, high-pitched scream.

As far back as the 1920s, there were reports of a family of huge "man-creatures" skulking up near homesteads along the nearby Coppei River. Six dairy cows were said to have been herded away by the beasts. One by one, the homesteaders left and moved back to town. But the stories persisted. As long as anyone remembers, it has been an item of belief for many here that Bigfoot walks the Blue Mountains.

"Up north here, we growed up with this thing. People would say, 'Look out for the wild man.' Man, how can you doubt it when you still got diapers on and they got a picture of you pointing at a Bigfoot track?" said Wes Sumerlin, a Walla Walla mountain man whose alleged sighting of two ape-like creatures about seven miles off Mill Creek Road last summer has led to hopes of the first scientific evidence of the legend.

Sumerlin and two colleagues came back with clumps of hair that Ohio State University researchers are testing for DNA comparisons. The tests, said Oregon primate zoologist H. Henner Fahrenbach, "could legitimize, to my mind at least, the sightings, the footprints, everything. It would put one item of concrete evidence behind all the circumstantial evidence."

Grendel, Snowman

From Northern California to the dense forests of British Columbia, the legends of Sasquatch have been handed down over hundreds of years, a Northwest version of the fearsome fable--from the Grendel of "Beowulf" to the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas--that is as old as the forest and the night.

Now, years after much of the forest has given way to suburbs, the Sasquatch is in resurgence all over the Northwest, a cultural phenomenon that is at least as remarkable as any scientific evidence uncovered in the DNA labs.

Two books were published last year, one documenting Sasquatch legends, the other an attempt to trail Bigfoot across the Dark Divide, an area of the Cascades in southern Washington and northern Oregon.

Bigfoot now commands two sites on the World Wide Web; a well-funded research project has been launched near Oregon's Mt. Hood to exhaustively document and prepare a computer analysis of all plausible Bigfoot reports; a pair of hotlines are in place to collect Bigfoot sightings; the Western Bigfoot Society, the largest of a host of interest groups all over the world, meets monthly in the basement of a used bookstore in northern Portland, Ore.; a Bigfoot symposium is scheduled this summer outside of Vancouver, Canada.

"Something is definitely afoot in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Either an officially undescribed species of hominoid primate dwells there, or an act of self- and group deception of astonishing proportions is taking place. In any case, the phenomenon of Bigfoot exists," Washington naturalist Robert Michael Pyle wrote in "Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide."

Mainstream scientists have scoffed at reports of a man-ape lurking in the forests of the Northwest, something akin to the great apes that dwelt in East Asia approximately half a million years ago. Not only is it unlikely that one wouldn't have been seen and clearly photographed by now, but it would be difficult for so large an animal to find adequate food in the wild lands that remain, they say.

On the other side are a handful of anthropologists, zoologists and others who say that it is possible that the great apes could have crossed the Bering Sea along the ancient ice passage into North America--and survived by cunning, brawn and shyness in the huge tracts of forests in the Northwest.

"We have an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence. We have footprints by the tens of thousands. . . . I have a giant footprint that is 22 inches. And they go bigger than that. The second thing we have is sightings, and they number in the thousands. They're from people in all walks of life, from game wardens to loggers, plain old grandmas, police officers with 20,000-candlepower searchlights," said Fahrenbach, who teaches a course on Bigfoot science at Portland Community College.

To Kill a Bigfoot

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