Original story ran in the August 2008 issue of Blue Ridge Outdoors.
Blue Ridge Outdoors goes 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.
THE SCIENCE OF BIGFOOT
“I get accused of believing in Bigfoot, but belief has nothing to do with it,” says Dr. Jeff Meldrum, an anthropologist and professor at Idaho State University as well as a curator at the Idaho Museum of Natural History. “One of my goals is to establish a base of what we know about Bigfoot and determine if there is enough evidence to warrant serious scientific study. My conclusion, as well as the conclusion of other academics and professionals, is yes, there is something to this. Something is leaving footprints, shedding hair, and vocalizing.”
More and more legitimate scientists are starting to open their minds to the notion that there may be an unknown species living in the mountains of North America. George Shaller, one of the pioneers of primate research and the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, has called for a serious scientific inquiry into the Sasquatch phenomenon. Famous primatologist Jane Goodall (inspiration for the movie Gorillas in the Mist) has spoken at Sasquatch seminars and came out on National Public Radio as a Bigfoot believer, telling the reporter, “You’ll be amazed when I tell you I’m sure they exist. I’ve talked to so many Native Americans who all described the same sounds. Two who have seen them…”
The most outspoken Sasquatch scientist, however, is Meldrum, who specializes in primate locomotion and evolution. Meldrum has a collection of legitimate evidence that could intrigue even the staunchest skeptic: dozens of hair samples that scientists have not been able to classify as any known mammal, a cornucopia of sighting reports from credible witnesses like Dranginis, and hundreds of footprint casts which, according to Meldrum, are the most convincing pieces of evidence that Bigfoot exists.
“There are some questionable casts, as well as some glaring hoaxes, but a heck of a lot of these casts are suggestive of consistent, distinct anatomy,” Meldrum says. “In these footprints, we see a flexible-footed primate, elegantly suited to the environment it finds itself in. It is overwhelmingly the foot of a primate that appears to have evolved and adapted to its environment.”
Among the thousands of footprint casts that Meldrum studies, hundreds display the same unique characteristics. They come from all over the country, but have subtle similarities that Meldrum maintains could not be forged. The legitimate Bigfoot footprints all display dermal ridges (similar to a fingerprint, but on the bottom of a primate’s foot), as well as the mid-tarsal break, which suggests a flexible foot. Minute details like these that only a primate anthropologist would recognize have Meldrum convinced that there is a natural, living species behind the footprints.
“It’s more incredible to suggest that all of this is the result of an elaborate hoax that spans decades and thousands of miles than it is to suggest there is an unknown species leaving these footprints,” Meldrum says. “Today, you never know if these eyewitnesses are just pulling the descriptions off the web. But stories that leave footprints and shed hair? If these are all fake, if all these people through the decades, across continents, are partaking in a hoax based on remarkably subtle consistencies that only an anthropologist would recognize, then who’s passing out the instruction manual? Who’s telling these people exactly what to do over the last 50 years?”
BIG FOOT ON MYSPACE
“Would you rather have the brain squeeze or the heart punch?” D.B. asks as we huddle together on a gravel forest road, waiting for Bigfoot to come charging through the woods, or scream at the top of his lungs, or throw a rock in our direction.
He’s referring to a cheesy “Bigfoot Attacks” horror movie where Sasquatch goes on a killing rampage, squeezing brains and punching people in the heart. There’s a lot of schlock surrounding the Bigfoot phenomenon. For instance, Bigfoot has his own Myspace page. It says Sasquatch likes “breaking sticks, facial hair, and ‘Will and Grace.’”
Some Bigfoot enthusiasts believe the creature has mind control and telepathic powers. Others think Bigfoot can walk through portals of time and space. There’s a popular theory that involves an alien race who used the Bigfoot creatures as the building block for a genetic modification project which led to the human race. Others suggest Bigfoot is an offshoot of humanity, a pit stop along the evolutionary journey to our current state.
All of this is peripheral static that clouds the true science of Bigfoot research, according to Meldrum.
“Bigfoot is not a close relative to people. This species does not rewrite history or evolution—it is simply another great ape,” Meldrum says. “There’s an automatic lumping of Sasquatch with the paranormal, the otherworldly or alien. There’s a stigma involved with this research. Part of the problem is that there is a void in the field left because of the rejection of Bigfoot from the scientific establishment. Into that void steps the amateur investigator. There are a lot of people who are just too enthusiastic, who see Bigfoot everywhere.”
Eyewitness reports are usually treated with skepticism because of the “enthusiasm factor,” but the quantity of sightings can’t be ignored. Neither can the locations.
“In Idaho, 99 percent of the reported sightings exist in an area of the state that gets 16 inches or more of rain annually,” Meldrum says. “The majority of reports across North America come from similar ecosystems. We’re not seeing reports by certain types of people, but by people who venture into certain types of ecosystems. We don’t get sightings from the deserts of Nevada. The sightings aren’t demographic, but geographic.”
The geographic similarities in the sightings help support the leading scientific theory regarding Bigfoot, which involves an ancient species of giant primate who migrated across the Bering land bridge. Gigantopithecus was the largest ape ever to roam the earth. Projections based on molars and partial skeletons recovered in Chinese medicine shops put the primate at 10 feet tall and 1,200 pounds. Researchers believe that climate change and resource competition from early humans either killed off Gigantopithecus, or forced it to migrate into friendlier ecosystems. Several species alive during the same time period migrated across the land bridge between Asia and North America, including certain species of the brown bear.
“Gigantopithecus was the right size, in the right location, and lived at the right time to migrate across the land bridge,” Meldrum says. “If the Gigantopithecus was a ground ape of a large size, as it is believed to be, it makes sense that it would have wanted to migrate into these forests.”
Certain Native American mythology and artifacts support this theory. Most North American tribes refer to Bigfoot-like creatures. The Sioux called Bigfoot their “elder brother.” The Hopi considered Bigfoot a messenger who appeared in evil times as a warning from the creator. The Anasazi painted petroglyphs of demi-god figures with enlarged hands and feet. Masks created by the Tsimshia Tribes near British Columbia depict monkey faces. Stone heads were carved by Native Americans in the Columbia River Basin that resemble the face of an ape. The heads and masks date from 1500 BCE to 200 AD. If there was never a species of primate living in North America, where did these tribes find primate faces to base their artwork from?
In light of the cultural and physical evidence that’s being gathered, there is a thawing in the scientific community in regards to Bigfoot, according to Meldrum. “When you have the likes of Jane Goodall and others taking a “let’s see” attitude, it certainly lends an amount of credibility.”
A BIG FOOT ENCOUNTER
Jason Valenti studied to be a minister at Oral Roberts University. He was taught to believe that evolution was just a thin theory and that humans were put on this earth by God’s hand several thousand years ago. He believed these things without question until the night he saw a Bigfoot creature on the side of the road in northern Florida.
“I was driving outside of Tallahassee with a friend,” Valenti says. “We got lost and took a wrong road through the national forest. It was about 4am, but both of us were wide awake. When I saw the creature first, I thought it was an Irish Setter chasing its tail on the side of the road. So I put my brights on. Then the thing stood up. She was 6’8”, maybe 7’. Her hip came to the top of the door jamb of the truck. It was a big creature, hair on its chest. It stumbled backwards, mouth open, hands covering its face. You could see the muscles in her arms, the tendons. She had incredibly wide shoulders, no neck, and sort of an hourglass figure. Primates are incredibly furry, but in places, you could see patches of skin, like the palms of her hands. She had such human-looking hands, it made me wonder what this thing was. She dropped down, bringing her fists to the ground, and she did a standing broad jump, twisting in the air and jumping 30 feet away. She hit the ground and immediately jumped again, and she was gone. Humans just don’t have any comprehension about how fast these things can move. They move like lightning.
“My friend and I sat in complete silence the whole way home. We didn’t talk about it for another year, until I got to the point where I was beginning to doubt it ever happened. Eventually, I told everyone at church and they all thought I was possessed by a demon. I couldn’t stop obsessing about it.”
The sighting made Valenti question everything he had been taught to believe within his church—if evolution was not true, then what was this thing that was so human-like, yet so animal-like as well? Valenti left the church and moved to Oregon to study Bigfoot full-time.
“I had to start a whole new life because of my sighting. It blew my belief system into pieces,” Valenti says.
“I’m using Bigfoot as a springboard into something so fantastic and amazing. I’m looking for answers as to why the human race has appeared out of nowhere like it has. I’m interested in Bigfoot because of where it leads us theologically. I want to prove the existence of Bigfoot so we can move on to the bigger questions.”
THE LION EATER
Villagers in a remote corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo tell stories of a giant ape that kills lions. Legend has it, the apes are seven feet tall with large black faces. They catch fish and howl at the moon, walk on two feet, and hunt in packs. Aside from a few footprints and some questionable first-person accounts, these legends were all primatologists had to go on when they embarked on a massive search of the Congo for these giant apes in 2003. A massive primate species in the Congo intrigued scientists, since no known species of chimpanzee had reached the epic size described, and the nearest gorilla population in Africa was thousands of miles away.
Researchers descended upon the Congo in droves, armed with the latest technology and hundreds of thousands of dollars in research grants. Several months later, they discovered the Bili Ape, a giant chimpanzee, larger than any other chimp or gorilla, that has developed a completely new chimpanzee culture due to their isolated habitat. The Bili Ape isn’t a relative of Bigfoot or Gigantopithecus, but it proves two things: Large primates like Bigfoot do still exist, and sometimes, legends are more than just stories.
The massive chimps (chimps are the closest evolutionary relative to humans) occasionally walk on two feet, sleep on the ground, and use rocks to smash the shells of turtles and snails to gain access to meat. Scientists believe these chimps have developed a completely different culture, departing from chimpanzee norms. Given the Bili Ape’s distinct and highly developed “smashing culture,” some even believe they are catching evolution in the act.
“What’s interesting about the Bili Ape is the evidence the researchers had on hand,” Meldrum says. “Oversized footprints, nests, local lore. This is the same kind of evidence we have for the existence of the Sasquatch, only in the case of the Bili Ape, there was much less of it. Still, the evidence warranted huge grants and interest from mainstream anthropologists.”
What will it take to send mainstream anthropologists into the forests of North America looking for a similar species of giant ape? Considering there has never been a record of an ape species living in North America, it’s going to take a dead body. The fact that no hunter has ever shot a Bigfoot and strapped it to the hood of his truck is the most damning piece of evidence against the theory of an unknown species of ape lurking in North America’s forests.
“Where’s the body?” Dranginis asks as we watch the woods through his thermal camera. There are no heat signatures on the screen—nothing but white trees and bushes. “I honestly don’t know why we’ve never come across a dead Sasquatch. I’m working with a statistician to examine this. Assuming there are a certain number of Sasquatch out there, assuming a certain number will get struck by lightning or have a tree fall on them, or get shot and crawl off to die, what is the probability of coming across one in the woods? That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
Based on eyewitness reports and legitimate footprint casts, Meldrum puts the entire Sasquatch population at about 500 for all of North America, which he believes is large enough to sustain reproduction without inbreeding, given the numbers of other species of ape. Factor in the low number of the animals, the expanse of North America’s wildlands, and the 35-50-year life expectancy of an ape species in that size range, and Meldrum doesn’t see the lack of a body to be that damning of a feature.
“When you’ve only got one or two Sasquatch dying in a given year in all of North America, what are the odds of finding a carcass?” Meldrum asks. “We’re looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack.”
THE FINAL FRONTIER
Dranginis and I sit in our camping chairs on the edge of the Rappahannock and listen to Bigfoot’s howl pierce the woods in front of us. It sounds like a coyote, or a werewolf howling at the moon. The noise comes from D.B.’s speaker blast, and the sound quality is excellent.
A number of Bigfoot calls have been recorded over the years, and “vocalizations” are one of the more puzzling pieces of evidence that Bigfoot exists. The call D.B. is blasting is known as the “Illinois Howl.” The most famous Bigfoot vocalization is actually a series of recordings known as “Sierra Sounds,” which is periodical Bigfoot chatter recorded over a period of years in the Sierra Nevadas. The chatter has been tested by a number of linguists, sound engineers, and wildlife experts, all of whom have determined that the vocalizations did not match any known animal and could not be human because of the vocal range.
We sit, quiet and still, and wait for a response. Nothing. No repeated howl. No scream in response. No call back.
“Tonight, there are maybe ten other people in the entire United States doing this exact same thing,” Dranginis says, filling the night with his voice. “When I first got the thermal camera, I thought I’d see the creatures everywhere, but nothing. It’s been 13 years and I’ve never had another sighting.”
The skeptic would say that Dranginis never had a sighting in the first place. What he and the two FBI agents saw 13 years ago was a psychological event, or a massive bear, or a man in a suit—anything but a seven-foot-tall ape that walks on two feet. The reluctance to believe these Bigfoot sightings, hair samples, footprints, local legends, and legitimate scientists is understandable given the well-traveled terrain of North America. Our highway systems are expansive, our suburbs are sprawling. Only 5% of America’s old growth forest remains intact—we’ve cut down the rest. How could a species of giant ape go undetected during the systematic clearing of our forests over the last 100 years?
“The attitude that every nook and cranny of North America has been explored is frustrating,” Meldrum says. “A lot of people don’t have a sense of the vastness of our forests. There are a lot of places that I’m quite sure have not seen a human footprint.”
In the Southeast, more old growth is being discovered every year. More importantly, species that were previously driven out of our region are returning, like the coyote, cougar, and red wolf. Perhaps Bigfoot is undergoing a similar migration. Perhaps the great apes have hidden in the small pockets of untouched forests for decades and are only now coming back home.
For fun, I pick up the thermal camera and train it on the forest in front of us. The trees register a stone white. The pond has cooled down in the few hours we’ve been staking out the area, shifting from a warm pink to a cool gray. Everything on the thermal screen is now a cold, white hue. There is no Sasquatch in front of us, but according to Meldrum and others, that doesn’t mean there is no Sasquatch.