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How I almost became a believer: Exploring the Bigfoot phenomenon in Eastern Washington

Tue., Aug. 15, 2017, 5 a.m.

In pitch-black darkness atop a mountain near Walla Walla, Cliff Barackman let loose the biggest howl I’ve ever heard.

In pitch-black darkness atop a mountain near Walla Walla, Cliff Barackman let loose the biggest howl I’ve ever heard.

It echoed through the surrounding valley for several moments. Then, silence. Barackman, a “Finding Bigfoot” co-host, Colin Mulvany, a Spokesman-Review photographer, and I held our breath in anticipation.

Nothing howled back, though I admit, I half-expected it to.

A few minutes earlier, we’d been walking along an old Forest Service road in the Blue Mountains when Barackman stopped to bang on some trees with a special bat. The attempt, he said, was to imitate the sound Bigfoot creatures are said to make to communicate with one another.

It could have been anything – maybe another animal, a couple rocks falling or maybe I imagined it. No one else heard anything. But, in my mind, I’m sure. I heard something clap back, ever so faintly.

It wasn’t enough to turn me into a Bigfoot believer, but it made me want to believe. It also made me wonder: Why do people believe in Bigfoot? What reports have surfaced about the elusive skunk ape around Spokane? And if Bigfoot creatures were real, what would that say about us?

Throughout the night, I scanned the forest, looking through the fancy night vision scope I borrowed from Barackman, hoping to see something. A couple of times, I looked up at the stars with it and thought of just how mysterious the universe was.

The making of a Bigfoot researcher

A few hours before our night walk, Barackman, wearing a ring made from a meteorite and a shirt depicting an octopus on the moon, pulled a Yeti cooler out of his black Jeep and started preparing dinner. As he did, he recounted the series of events that brought him to his current preoccupation – an activity he referred to as “Bigfooting.” He’d always been into “nerd stuff” as a kid, he said: Star Wars, monsters, King Kong, Frankenstein, UFOs. And he loved science.

“That stuff sunk into my psyche and changed who I was,” he said.

It wasn’t until he began college at California State University in Long Beach that he became interested in Bigfoot. He was walking through the library one day pulling books off shelves when he found some tomes concerning the reclusive legend in the anthropology section. From then on, he said, he was hooked.

Though Barackman describes himself as a “general weirdo,” he’s professional and easy to talk to. A former elementary school teacher, he spends a lot of time reading, and he’s good at explaining complicated concepts surrounding Bigfoot morphology and evolution in a simple way.

Though he quit his teaching job to search for Bigfoot full time for Animal Planet’s “Finding Bigfoot” six years ago, Barackman has heard about Bigfoot creatures in Eastern Washington for years. And the number of Bigfoot sightings and evidence found in the area was more than enough to warrant some investigation.

Big feet, big roots

For centuries, Native Americans in Eastern Washington have told stories of a big, hairy human-like being that roams around the woods. Elkanah Walker, a missionary to the Spokane Indians, wrote in his diary that tribes spoke of “men-stealers” with tracks a foot and a half long who inhabited mountains in the area, stealing fish from salmon fishers’ nets and eating them raw, like bears. Legend had it they came to people’s lodges at night when they were asleep and took them back to their caves, the victim asleep and unaware the whole time.

For a long time, Native Americans were the only ones in the area talking about these creatures. That all changed, though, when two cowboys shot the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film in the ’60s, showing a shambling, shaggy figure moving through a stand of trees. After the film was released, Bigfoot mania spread. Eastern Washington has been no exception, in a state with the most reported Bigfoot sightings in the country, according to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization.

Perhaps one of the most high-profile alleged sightings on the eastern side of the state was in the Blue Mountains near Walla Walla in 1994. Paul Freeman, another cowboy cryptozoologist, was filming in the Blues when he claims he caught a Bigfoot family on tape. Though the footage was grainy and shaky, it caught the attention of academic Bigfoot researchers Grover Krantz and Jeff Meldrum and prompted numerous Walla Walla residents to search for prints in the mountains.

Barackman estimates 50 to 75 Bigfoot tracks were found between 1982 – when Freeman first reported seeing a Bigfoot in the Blues without any footage – and 2000. Barackman was returning some footprint casts from a prior visit to their owners when he searched for Bigfoot in the Blues a few weeks ago.

The Blue Mountains aren’t the only area in Eastern Washington where there have been Bigfoot sightings. Bigfoot hunters visited Brooks Memorial State Park in 2014 to film an episode of “10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty,” a Spike TV reality show.

One woman claimed to have accidentally caught a Bigfoot on tape while hiking with her sons at Downriver Park in 2011.

Alleged Bigfoot sightings aren’t new to the region, and given the trend, they won’t stop any time soon.

The case for Bigfoot

One question Barackman gets a lot is why no one has found a Bigfoot skeleton. Barackman usually responds by asking why no one finds cougar or bear skeletons.

While bear and cougar skeletons have been found, the rate at which their skeletons are discovered doesn’t necessarily align with the rate at which they die. This is because animals will often go to a secluded spot in the woods to die when they get sick, and animals will usually eat them once they’re dead and disperse their bones. Barackman thinks the same thing happens to Bigfoot creatures.

The most basic question he gets asked is why he thinks they’re real. It all comes down to the evidence, he said. He has read numerous anthropological accounts and analyzed many footprint casts. He’s found footprints on his own in remote areas. And though he can’t confirm it, he thinks he may have seen a Bigfoot, through thermal goggles, walking up a mountain in North Carolina while shooting “Finding Bigfoot.”

He’s also gone on field expeditions with Jeff Meldrum, an Idaho State University anthropology professor and Bigfoot aficionado. Meldrum specializes in foot morphology and primate locomotion, and he has more than 300 Bigfoot footprint casts and has written papers on the potential existence of Bigfoots, which he referred to as “relict hominoids.” He thinks they are a more ancient species that never died out.

He dislikes when people use the word “believe” in asking what he thinks about Bigfoot. Belief connotes faith, Meldrum said, and he’s not going off faith. He insists the evidence convinced him that Bigfoot creatures exist.

Meldrum spent his grade-school years in Spokane, where he first saw the Patterson-Gimlin film screened. He spent a lot of time analyzing the film since then, and he’s convinced it’s legitimate.

Meldrum and Barackman both said the main reason people don’t believe in Bigfoot is because they have never considered the evidence.

Why Bigfoot matters

While most Bigfoot sightings turn out to be black bears, elaborate hoaxes or, more recently, wandering shamans covered in animal fur, the question of why people believe in Bigfoot isn’t as important as why Bigfoot matters.

There’s a reason there are so many Bigfoot television shows, books and paraphernalia. It captures the public’s imagination, Meldrum said. It’s the same reason why people like to go to zoos to see monkeys. That familiarity strikes a chord. It’s like seeing a funhouse mirror version of ourselves, he said.

Bigfoots teach us what it means to be human, Barackman said.

Barackman sees Bigfoots as creatures that could dethrone humans, in a way, by bringing us down from the special evolutionary pedestal on which we’ve placed ourselves. The discovery of a Bigfoot might mean characteristics that we thought were specific to humans, like bipedalism or the ability to create and use tools, might not be exclusively demonstrated within our species, he said.

“I think it’s our precarious position on this heap that’s got us in trouble,” he said.

He hopes that if Bigfoot is discovered and people can see how their actions affect a living creature so similar to them, it will encourage people to show more compassion toward one another and the environment.

“They might be the ones that save us,” he said.