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Bigfoot's Big Feat: New Life

A prankster's deeds revealed posthumously appeared to doom the legend. But Sasquatch still looms large, and scientists are intrigued.

April 19, 2003|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

WILLOW CREEK, Calif. — Here on the doorstep of the Pacific Northwest, trees grow tall and mystery runs deep. For generations, the dark gorges have yielded lumber, and a legend.

Willow Creek is a vortex of Bigfoot lore. This is where the discovery of jumbo footprints attributed to the oversized and doggedly undiscovered man-ape first captivated America nearly a half century ago. Years later, a classic film snippet caught a purported Bigfoot nearby. The one-time logging town long ago adopted the beast as civic emblem and tourist draw.

With so much at stake, the claims of Ray Wallace's clan landed like a gut punch.

Wallace, a road builder and inveterate prankster, died late last year, at 84. After the funeral, his survivors let loose a secret: Their father had used a set of carved alder-wood feet to stomp the footprints that his work crew found north of Willow Creek in 1958. The whole thing was a hoax, his kin declared. Ray Wallace was Bigfoot, and Bigfoot was dead.

Not so fast. Wallace's passing coincided with a quiet ripple of curiosity in the scientific community, where Sasquatch had long been derided as a fuzzy-headed myth best suited to the supermarket tabloid rack.

Some well-regarded scientists now say the possibility that the giant primate exists deserves a serious look. A brave few lay odds that Bigfoot could be real, among them renowned chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, who is expected at a Sasquatch summit this September in Willow Creek.

George Schaller, a pioneer in gorilla research and director of international science for the Wildlife Conservation Society, is a Bigfoot skeptic but says the giant ape cannot be dismissed as fantasy or folklore without a thorough scientific inquiry. Finding the animal "would reshape our thinking of the status of humans on this earth," he said. "People write it off as a hoax or myth. I don't think that's fair."

"It would be one of the greatest discoveries ever made," said Esteban Sarmiento, a primate researcher at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It also would be "one of the most bizarre."

No more bizarre than the Bigfoot tales that have been the stuff of everyday conversation in Willow Creek for decades.

The town, barely five blocks long, is cradled in a valley carved by the Trinity River, 30 miles east of Eureka. Puffs of clouds hug woodsy hillsides. With industrial logging gone belly up, the hamlet (population 1,500) long ago hitched its fortunes to sightseeing, fishing, rafting -- and Bigfoot.

It was 30 miles north, in the remote expanse of the Six Rivers National Forest, that Bigfoot tracks were spotted 45 years ago near Bluff Creek. Jerry Crew, a tractor operator for Wallace, returned to town with a plaster of Paris cast of a whopper footprint. Jaws dropped, the news media pounced and the hunt was on.

Tom Slick, a Texas oilman and adventurer, hired a team of hunters and outdoorsmen to find the creature in 1960, the same year Sir Edmund Hillary conducted his celebrated Himalayan search for Bigfoot's putative cousin, the Yeti. Both came up empty.

The wild lands north of Willow Creek also produced the most hotly debated piece of Bigfoot memorabilia -- the jerky one-minute film of a hulking figure striding up a dry riverbed, shot in 1967 by Roger Patterson, a rodeo cowboy and part-time Sasquatch sleuth. The 16-millimeter film, brushed off by doubters as a man in a monkey suit, has yet to be proved fake.

"Bigfoot has become a part of our culture," said Jo Ann Hereford, president of the Willow Creek-China Flat Museum, a repository for Bigfoot artifacts and lore. Hereford considers herself a skeptic. But, she adds with a wink, "I firmly believe in the economic value of Bigfoot."

Sasquatch's capitalist imprint here is impossible to miss.

There is the Bigfoot Country Club and Bigfoot Lumber, Bigfoot Rafting and the Bigfoot Motel. A local cafe features the Bigfoot Burger and Chocolate Bigfoot doughnut (both are big and, of course, shaped like a foot). The weekly newspaper features the hairy hominoid on its masthead. Highway 299, the main drag through town, is the Bigfoot Scenic Byway.

Out front of the museum, a wood carving of the creature, nearly two stories tall, beckons the curious. Inside, the Bigfoot wing's curator, Al Hodgson, says many who believe in the beast -- or at least in its possibility -- were rankled when Wallace's clan tried to blow up the Bigfoot legend.

Museum docents struck back by offering a $100,000 reward to anyone who could demonstrate that the scores of footprints discovered in 1958 were fraudulent.

Bigfoot devotees say it can't be done. Wood-carved feet can't sink deep enough, they say, can't produce the dermal ridges -- the tiny lines on a footprint -- and shifting toe positions, step by step, that make many of the plaster casts so tantalizing. "There's $100,000 that says it's impossible to hoax," said John Green, a retired journalist, longtime Bigfoot researcher and author.

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