TBT: In Search of Bigfoot
“Can all these people be crazy?” asks William Dranginis as we scan the forest with night vision goggles.
“Thousands of people have seen them. How can they all be nuts?”
It’s midnight and the black veil of darkness that pervades the woods has been transformed into varying shades of green, thanks to the night vision goggles we’re using. It’s as if we’ve stepped out of reality and into a video game.
We’re looking for Bigfoot in a wildlife management area on the edge of the Rappahannock River, about an hour from Washington D.C. It’s a strange thing to be doing on a Sunday night in the woods of Eastern Virginia, because A) Bigfoot does not exist according to mainstream scientists, and B) if he does exist, it’s hard to imagine the creature living here, half an hour from the nearest D.C. Metro stop.
But Dranginis claims to have seen a Bigfoot creature not far from here several years ago, and a number of sightings have been reported in this general vicinity dating back to the 1950s. Even though the Pacific Northwest is widely recognized as Bigfoot country, the Southeast has a long history of Bigfoot sightings, from the pre-colonial Native American tribes, to the first settlers in Virginia, to the Dranginises of today. Even more shocking than the prevalence of Bigfoot sightings below the Mason Dixon is the fact that a number of well-respected scientists are starting to warm up to the idea that maybe, just maybe, there’s something to all this Bigfoot business. Dranginis is on the forefront of Bigfoot field research, supplying some of these scientists with the data they need to prove to the world that Bigfoot is not just a mythical creature that exists in the imaginations of a few overzealous believers, but an actual living species of primate that should be recognized by the scientific community.
So here we are, sitting in the dark on a Sunday night, searching the woods with night vision technology, looking for a seven-foot-tall ape-like creature who walks on two legs and is not supposed to exist.
Bigfoot is not alone. Most people assume Bigfoot is a single creature, but researchers believe there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of these man-like apes roaming the forests of the world. Eyewitnesses put the creature anywhere between six and ten feet tall. Reports vary, but they all say it is at least 500 pounds. It runs approximately 40 miles per hour. It is extremely agile, quiet, and curious but suspicious at the same time. Its eyes will sometimes glow red or yellow.
In 1967, two Bigfoot hunters caught on video a large, ape-like creature in Northern California near the Oregon border. For 16 seconds of shaky film, you can watch Bigfoot walk on two legs through a sandy creek bed, swinging its arms with each big stride it takes before disappearing into the dense forest. It’s called the Patterson-Gimlin Film (named after the two hunters who captured the footage), and depending on whom you ask, it is either a glaring hoax or the most convincing evidence of Bigfoot’s existence. Doubters say the film captures nothing more than a man in an ape suit walking through the woods, but some experts in anatomy and motion say there is no way a man in a suit could pull off the locomotive nuances captured on film. To this day, the 16 seconds of film have never been definitively discredited, though many have tried.
Fact or fiction, that film turned the Pacific Northwest into ground zero for Bigfoot encounters, while also inspiring hundreds of amateur “researchers” to hit the woods in hopes of catching a glimpse of the creature for themselves. Sightings have been reported all across America, from Florida to Washington State—eyewitness reports that have fueled a small army of Bigfoot hunters to scour the woods for enough tangible evidence to prove Bigfoot’s existence.
Some say Bigfoot is the missing link, a distant cousin of man on the evolutionary tree. Others say the creatures are simply an undiscovered species of ape. The majority of mainstream scientists refuse to entertain either theory.
“How do you research a creature that the scientific community says does not exist?” Dranginis asks as we sit in a field listening to bullfrogs bellow from a nearby pond. “Intelligence and superior technology. That’s how.”
There are three other Bigfoot researchers with us in the forest, most of whom are decked out in camouflage and safari khaki, and they’re all packing serious technological hardware. Billy Willard is a researcher with his own weekly radio show about Sasquatch hunting who’s filming everything with an infrared digital video recorder. D.B. is a stay-at-home dad and the unofficial “sound guy” of the group. He’s hidden a digital audio recorder in the woods, a few hundred yards from our location, and he has dragged a massive speaker system into the forest on a red Radio Flyer wagon. He’s going to blast Bigfoot calls into the trees, hoping for a response. Then there’s Tom, a large man who refuses to take his Ray Bans off, even indoors, who records and listens to every sound in the forest through a parabolic microphone—a small satellite-looking device that amplifies even the smallest creak in the woods into clear, high-definition sound. Dranginis rolls onto the scene with an infrared digital video recorder, night vision goggles, and the holy grail of Sasquatch hunting: a thermal camera, which translates the landscape into varying heat signatures. The trees and bushes become ghost-white, while humans and animals become shapes of red, orange, and yellow.
The price tag of all this high tech equipment? Over $20,000. And this is just Dranginis’ off-the-shelf equipment. For his day job, he works for Northrup Grumman modifying video security systems for the Department of Defense.
“I get paid to develop technology that helps find people who don’t want to be found,” Dranginis says. “The work I do there parallels the work I do with Bigfoot.”
Case in point: Dranginis has invented a remote camera system called the Eyegotcha that puts off no ultraviolet light or ultrasonic sound. It is the first camera system of its kind, and he hopes that it will be the key ingredient in catching these creatures on film, a feat that has not been accomplished since the original Bigfoot footage in 1967—at least, not to a degree that would satisfy skeptics.
“There’s research that shows animals hear ultrasonic and see in ultraviolet,” Dranginis says, showing me his EyeGotcha system, which looks a lot like the black box of a commercial jet. “I think that’s why we haven’t caught one of these creatures on a trail camera yet. They know the cameras are there, and they avoid them.”
Hundreds of people search for Bigfoot on a regular basis—there are active research groups in all 50 states—but none use the sort of high-tech equipment that Dranginis and his cohorts carry. For several years, Dranginis drove around Virginia and West Virginia in a converted RV stocked with the latest digital video and thermal imaging equipment available. Recently, he’s sold the RV and cashed in a chunk of his 401K to purchase a cabin in West Virginia—a permanent research station in a habitat that’s ripe with Bigfoot sightings.
“It’s on the edge of a steep mountain with banks of old growth that loggers couldn’t get to,” Dranginis says. “I think that area supplied Sasquatch with a safety net, a place where they could live for generations without being harassed.”
At the cabin, Dranginis is setting “curiosity traps” (glowing basketballs, jars of peanut butter, and TV screens that emit blue light into the woods) that trigger security cameras and homing beacons. It’s a project that has cost Dranginis over $100,000— money that he says is perfectly well spent. “Something’s gonna happen at the cabin. This is what’s gonna get me video.”
Dranginis is an even-keeled, professional, middle-aged man with a family and steady job who just happens to be cashing in his retirement fund to hunt for a mythical creature. It’s a quest that Dranginis probably wouldn’t be on if he hadn’t gone metal detecting 13 years ago. That’s when he saw a seven-foot ape standing in the woods on the edge of Washington D.C. Dranginis and two FBI agents were looking for Civil War artifacts in a privately owned forest near Prince William Forest and Quantico. One of the agents dropped his metal detector and pointed toward the woods.
“I look over and a big black head pops out from behind the tree,” Dranginis says. “Both the agents grabbed their weapons and the thing starts running. It was something right out of a book of mythology. Much bigger than human. Muscles flexing, hair blowing in the wind. The shoulders were four feet wide. No way was it a guy in a suit. It was big and bulky, but agile. We had a clear view of it. I looked down at one of my friend’s hands, and his knuckles were white around the gun.”
The craziest thing about Dranginis’ account isn’t that he saw a giant bipedal ape that isn’t supposed to exist, it’s that he saw a giant bipedal ape in Eastern Virginia, thousands of miles away from the misty woods of the Pacific Northwest. If he would have said he saw Bigfoot in a mall outside Richmond, it wouldn’t sound any more unlikely. Dranginis contacted some Bigfoot researchers in California and Oregon at the time of his sighting, but they all told him the same thing: There are no Bigfoot in the Eastern United States.
While most Bigfoot sightings come from the Pacific Northwest, Eastern states like Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Florida have a high frequency of sightings as well. There’s actually a long history of Bigfoot sightings throughout the Southeast. The first settlers to push west into Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia told stories of large apes throwing rocks at their settlements. The Cherokee Indians supposedly had two names for Bigfoot-like creatures: “Nun Yunu Wi” (Stone Man) and “Kecleh-Kudleh” (Hairy Savage). Loggers in the early part of the 20th century described apes along the mountains that divide Virginia and West Virginia. In 1960, a bread truck driver crossed a bridge in West Virginia when a seven-foot-tall ape-man walked in front of him. That particular sighting got picked up by several newspapers. Reports have been frequent in North Carolina’s Madison County since the first homesteaders set up permanent residence in the hollows. Dranginis is currently investigating three farms in Virginia that have repetitive Bigfoot activity.
Bigfoot sightings in the Southeast are common. But then, so are Elvis sightings.
“Anyone who says they’ve seen a Bigfoot is branded as a kook,” Dranginis says. “But this is not a crackpot scheme. There is physical evidence. I know what I saw.”
ALSO KNOWN AS
Large, bipedal apes pop up in the folklore of native people across the globe. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most famous Bigfoot-like creatures.
“Sasquatch” is a derivative of “Sesquac,” which means “wild man” in a British Columbian Native American language.
Stalking the high elevations of the Himalayas, the Yeti has captured the interest of the western world since climbers began tackling peaks like Everest. Local tribes consider the Yeti to be a fact of life, no more strange than the black bears of Appalachia. Reports from Western climbers are frequent throughout the last hundred years, so frequent that even Sir Edmund Hillary himself mounted an expedition in search of the massive man-ape.
Another variety of Bigfoot, this creature lives in the mountainous terrain on the border of Mongolia and China. It’s more human-like than our Bigfoot; some scientists believe it’s more of a Neanderthal than a primate.
This is the ape-man of Central America. The shaggy-haired creature is said to have supernatural powers, which it uses to protect the wilderness. According to legend, the Sisimite will attack hunters in order to protect wildlife.
The Southernmost Bigfoot to occupy North America, the Skunk Ape is a resident of Florida’s extensive Everglades. Some say it is a cousin to Bigfoot, while others say it’s the same species. The number of sightings of the Skunk Ape in Florida rival the number sightings of Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest. The animal earned its name because of its unique smell.