Meet the super-serious Sasquatch chasers of America’s premier Bigfoot conference

For these “citizen scientists” and researchers, Bigfoot is very real

Published July 2, 2017 11:59AM (EDT)

 (Matthew Collins/Narratively)
(Matthew Collins/Narratively)

This article originally appeared on Narratively.

narratively_logo Marc DeWerth’s encounter with the creature was sudden, terrifying and beautiful. He can recall the events of that afternoon down to the minute.

It was April 20, 1997. DeWerth was a mile-and-a-half deep in the forests of Coshocton County, Ohio, investigating what he had been told was an interesting collection of beaver dens. Though he never found them, DeWerth had a satisfactory day in the woods, and left for home at approximately four p.m. But as he walked to the clearing where he’d parked his truck, he had an unmistakable feeling he was being followed. He sensed a set of eyes at his back, and swore he could hear footsteps walking in step with him. He walked a little faster, at times approaching a brisk trot, and breathed a sigh of relief when he finally arrived at his vehicle. Then, as he approached his truck, DeWerth saw that something was in front of him too. Across the clearing, crouched on a hill, was what he thought was a bear, but then it looked at him and stood up. Stretching to its full height of over eight feet tall, it had broad shoulders and obvious muscles. It was also covered in jet-black hair.

Holy shit, he thought, that’s a Bigfoot.

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DeWerth – a stubbly, brusque guy, now in his late forties — and the creature stared at each other for a moment. DeWerth reached for his camera, but the movement prompted the creature to turn and run. Whatever was behind DeWerth sprang into action as well, snapping branches and rustling bushes only a few feet away from him. DeWerth jumped into his truck and got the hell out of there.

DeWerth, who swears that everything recounted in the scene above is true, trusted what he’d seen and took the sighting as affirmation of what he already believed: Bigfoot is real. Studying the creature was a lifelong passion of his, and DeWerth redoubled his dedication to the field. He now occupies a prominent place in the Bigfoot enthusiast community as the organizer of the annual Ohio Bigfoot Conference — North America’s premier Bigfoot event.

“I want to promote Bigfoot awareness,” DeWerth says. “I want to teach people there’s more out there than just trees.”

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The annual Ohio Bigfoot Conference — or OBC for short — was first held in 1989. It combines the intellectual exchange of an academic forum with the oddball bonhomie of a “Star Trek” convention. Salt Fork State Park — a 17,000-acre expanse of lush forests, lakes and hills in southeastern Ohio – plays host. (Thanks in part to the number of historic Bigfoot sightings in the park, Ohio ranks behind only the Pacific Northwest in reported U.S. Bigfoot activity. DeWerth thinks the creature left the Pacific Northwest for Ohio in a search for more privacy.)

The 2017 OBC was held on May 20, welcoming a thousand guests from all over the country, with the foremost draw a series of talks by luminaries of the Bigfoot fan community. VIP tickets, which cost $50 and reserve the bearer a seat in the conference room where presentations occur, sold out in four minutes.

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Emceed this year by Cliff Barackman, co-host of Animal Planet’s “Finding Bigfoot,” the OBC also features Bigfoot-themed merchandise of every kind: busts, t-shirts, jewelry, footprint casts, “sasqWatches,” mimeographed field reports, framed artwork, and even two kinds of Bigfoot wine. Attendees catch up with old friends, but they also learn about how to take better footprint casts and the latest in cryptozoology — the search for and study of animals whose existence is unsubstantiated.

A true Bigfoot has, of course, never been captured, and most purported evidence falls into the category of forensic ephemera, such as hair, footprints and scat. But this only spurs Bigfoot searchers to work harder. OBC-goers analyze evidence but also explore hypothetical aspects of the creature’s existence, looking for clues as to how they might behave and, thus, where they might be found. They ask: What exactly is a Bigfoot? Are they intelligent? Are they dangerous? What do they eat? Attendees also explore the field’s hard-hitting ethical questions, including whether or not it is morally permissible to shoot a Bigfoot to prove they’re real.

* * *

The Bigfoot discipline is constantly growing and changing, and Sasquatch science takes a few big steps forward each year at the Ohio Bigfoot Conference. DeWerth says this year’s gathering is the biggest OBC to date, and he’s rushing around the conference floor all day, greeting guests and making sure things are running as smoothly as possible. He appears to be enjoying himself, but occasionally snaps at people to keep things moving. Still, he happily obliges the attendees who want a picture with him, a testament to his achievements in the field.

“This event is nothing but positive,” he says. “People in the Bigfoot community love to give a helping hand, and kids are growing up with Bigfoot and the conference.”

A half hour after the conference opens, DeWerth is at a table selling vintage Bigfoot books. One edition costs $800. He asks the proprietor for a magic marker and quickly writes up some signs directing the lines forming in the crowded vendor area. DeWerth attributes this year’s particularly manic crowd to the current profusion of TV shows about the creature. Though one attendant refers to programs like “Killing Bigfoot” as “craptozoology” — due to their sensationalized, non-serious nature and unscientific approach to the search — DeWerth says that many more people now believe the creature could actually exist.

The merchandise tables spill from the exhibition area outside next to the pool. One vendor is selling military-grade thermal imaging cameras for $450, which he says are so powerful and so proprietary that it’s illegal to take them out of the country. Books outline in much self-published detail what people think the creature is, and a tranquilizer gun used by a prominent Bigfoot hunter later sells for $500.

During this bustle of commerce, a number of people are also talking theory. One says Bigfoot is a quantum being using “vortex holes” to go in and out of the Earth’s dimension, while another takes a more ecumenical approach and theorizes that Bigfoot and other cryptids could be Nephilim, the fallen angels cast out by God.

Making his way slowly from table to table is Colin Schneider, sixteen, a New Yorker who introduces himself as “probably one of the world’s youngest cryptozoologists” and host of the weekly public radio show “The Crypto-Kid.” Schneider, quiet, with glasses and a brimmed hat, hands each presenter a stapled sheaf of papers listing cryptids from around the world and the different names they go by.

“They’re divided into themes,” Schneider says of his lists. “’Dwarves,’ ‘canine creatures,’ and ‘ape men.’”

Given his age, he can’t spend as much time in the field as he’d like, but he’s done tons of research to make up for it.

After delivering his papers, Schneider stands off to the side of the vendor area with fellow crypto kid John Lee, 27, as the two discuss Bigfoot’s origin. Lee, who has long hair and a goatee, often goes hiking in Chestnut Ridge, Pennsylvania, where there have been reported sightings of both Bigfoot and UFOs. The sudden appearance of military personnel deep in the woods opened Lee’s mind to the possibility that the two are related. Lee says the government would certainly know how to orchestrate a cover-up, citing reports of soldiers spiriting away Bigfoot bodies after the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980.

Featured presenter Thom Powell takes it one step further. Powell, a wide-eyed author and retired science teacher, weaves together a theory that unites Bigfoot, Indian burial mounds, crop circles and UFOs. In essence, he says, Bigfoots are likely a subterranean race that built the mounds for an unknown alien entity. Powell admits the theory seems far-fetched, but says his ideas nonetheless bear consideration.

“Pursue your own paradigm,” Powell says. “But resist denigrating alternative paradigms.”

But by DeWerth’s estimation, only around two percent of OBC attendees are serious about the creature having cosmic qualities, as the evidence simply doesn’t add up. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years,” he says, “and I’ve interviewed over three hundred witnesses. Not one mentioned an accompanying UFO or involved Bigfoot vanishing into thin air.”

“People who are into aliens want to connect everything back to aliens,” he adds.

Another OBC presenter, Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, 59, is an avuncular, smiling professor with white hair and a white beard. He teaches gross anatomy and organic evolution at Idaho State University, and is a frequent guest at Bigfoot conventions, attending an average of one per month. He sees conferences like the OBC as “the opportunity to present grounded, rational, objective perspective” on Bigfoot, and an opportunity to raise the bar for the “citizen scientists” whose work often augments his own. He says, “Not a day goes by that I don’t get four to five emails and phone calls” from someone with something cryptozoological to share.

He recalls one instance in which a person took a picture of a Sasquatch footprint using their own boot for size comparison. Meldrum told him he couldn’t use the photo because he didn’t know how big the boot was, and a few days later the boot arrived in the mail.

Meldrum says footprints are the most compelling evidence, and he can extrapolate information about the creature from minute details in the tracks. Toe position speaks for musculature and gait, which in turn imply behavior and diet. Meldrum’s talk at the 2017 OBC provides an overview of his conclusions as exemplified by the landmark Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967, in which what the filmmakers believe was a female Bigfoot strides across a California creek bed and looks toward the camera. He plays a looping video of the creature in motion, and explains that Bigfoot is likely a “relict hominoid” — a holdover from a prehistoric world.

According to Meldrum, at one point the world was populated by a few dozen species of hairy bipeds, including Homo sapiens, who competed against each other for resources and space. “It was a true ‘Planet of the Apes,’” he says. Homo sapiens eventually came out ahead, but jaws and teeth found across Asia reveal the existence of an enormous hominid called Gigantopithecus blacki, which stood around ten feet tall and weighed 1,100 pounds. The creature, a perfect analogue for Bigfoot, could have dispersed around the world alongside man, which would explain the rumors of Sasquatch-like creatures on every corner of the globe.

But while Meldrum makes a compelling case for what the creature could be, it stands to reason that we’ll never definitively know unless we can study it for ourselves. In the Bigfoot community, the how and why of capturing a Sasquatch is a complex and emotional concern.

Another presenter, author, researcher and musician Lyle Blackburn, is rangy and usually clad in denim, with facial hair trimmed into well-sculpted designs. With his big hat, tattoos and jewelry, he looks like a handsome swamp adventurer, which he actually is. Blackburn has been into cryptids since he was a kid, and his lifelong passion has led to gigs as a talking head on documentaries and TV shows. He’s spent years studying a legendary Arkansas swamp-Bigfoot called the Fouke Monster, and wrote its definitive case history, "The Beast of Boggy Creek". He too attends ten or twelve cryptid conferences every year.

This is Blackburn’s second time speaking at the OBC and the third time he’s attended overall. Being a Texan, his stomping grounds are the states of the Deep South, and his talk touches on encounters with “Southern Sasquatches,” whose names — Brush Ape, Wood Devil, Shiny Gorilla, Ol’ Mossyback, and, in Florida, the Abominable Sandman — vary depending on the region.

“I keep an open mind about it at all times,” Blackburn says. “Theories can get outlandish, so I keep it simple. I let research and evidence speak for itself.”

Like many of the presenters, Blackburn brings props with him to illustrate a point, but this means he sometimes inadvertently draws attention to himself outside of the conference. He says carry-on bags packed with plaster casts often catch the eyes of TSA agents. Once they realize what they’re looking at, the agents laugh and want to know more. “Everyone tends to be really curious about Bigfoot,” Blackburn says.

In Blackburn’s estimation, Bigfoot is probably the most plausible cryptid, followed by lake monsters and creatures like the Chupacabra.

* * *

The question of killing Bigfoot is probably the most contentious issue among Sasquatch aficionados. Blogs and research groups proudly designate themselves “no-kill,” while others don’t have such compunction, driven to hunt by the fame of bagging a Bigfoot or fear of the unknown. Others feel that killing one Bigfoot would be a “regrettable sacrifice” for the greater good. Perhaps definitive proof would inspire such awe that we’d vow to leave the creatures alone and protect their habitat.

But DeWerth insists that only a fraction of OBC attendees are pro-kill. The closest anyone at this year’s OBC comes to supporting active hunting is Schneider, the “Crypto-Kid,” who says he cautiously supports hunting because a verifiable body is the only way the field will be taken seriously.

Meldrum’s talk is the last guest presentation of the evening, and is followed by the premier of “The Back 80,” a documentary about a woman who had a difficult time coming to terms with her Bigfoot encounter. Her experience demonstrated another reason why Bigfoot enthusiasts believe events like the OBC are necessary. They help suss out origin theories and create a forum for abstract what-ifs, but also make room for the human side of the encounter, such as how to deal with the emotional fallout of being met with derision and disbelief.

* * *

The next morning is the Ohio Bigfoot Festival, a cookout hosted by the United States Bigfoot Research Association. Attendees mingle with the conference presenters before learning how to make plaster casts and embarking on a family-friendly hike. Also scheduled is a “special chainsaw carving demonstration” by Snuffy Destefano, a musician and artist known for his life-size Bigfoot carvings. Unfortunately, due to rain, Destefano does a scaled-down demonstration, refining a small bust with a Dremel.

At the cookout is Suzanne Ferencak, the subject of the documentary that premiered the night before. She says that people “looked at her sideways” when she tried to explain what she’d seen. Ferencak smokes a cigarette as she talks with Joe Keski, 43, who had his own encounter in 1995. Keski was hiking with his best friend when they heard a “hellacious scream” that he says was so loud it “made [his] ears itch.” Bigfoot then popped out of the swamp and rushed them, and from that moment, Keski’s former best friend has refused to speak to him. They were inseparable growing up and the friend was supposed to be Keski’s best man. “And now he won’t even be my friend on Facebook,” Keski says.

Ferencak nods sympathetically. After an encounter, she says, some people become obsessed with Bigfoot while others refuse to acknowledge what happened. The emotional distance is heartbreaking, but both agree they couldn’t be in better company when it comes to people willing to lend a sympathetic ear.

Sunday’s rain continues; the hike and other outdoor activities are cancelled. To make up for it, Cliff Barackman does an impromptu Q&A about his “Finding Bigfoot” show.

“I’m not a Bigfoot expert but I play one on TV,” he says, downplaying his role as explorer and researcher across the show’s nine seasons.

While the show’s hosts have yet to have a verifiable encounter, Barackman believes they’ve come close. He admits they sometimes re-shoot facial expressions if the hosts didn’t look surprised or scared enough the first time they hear a strange sound in the woods, but, he stresses, they only do that for incidents that genuinely occurred.

But the awestruck expressions following Barackman’s talk are totally sincere, affirming a love for the creature and an eagerness to keep exploring.

And who knows what discoveries will come before next year’s OBC? Attendees here are going to keep searching for Bigfoot, but it’s a safe bet they will be squatching with the most respectful of intentions.

“Only when a Bigfoot is found will our questions be answered,” DeWerth says. “And one way or another, it will be found.”

By Dylan Taylor-Lehman

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