MOUNT HOOD, Ore. - Vultures take to the sky, and in an instant, Peter Byrne turns off the engine of his red Jeep and lets it glide to a silent stop. He steals into the forest, sniffs the air, tosses dry grass seed to check the wind's direction, and walks a hundred yards to what he hopes is a corpse belonging to a 600-pound, 7-foot-tall Bigfoot. Alas, it's not Bigfoot. It's a beaver.
"This time it's not a Bigfoot," he says, leaning over the freshly dead beaver's body and trying not to appear disappointed. "Next time it could be. You can never ignore any lead when you're looking for a Bigfoot." Byrne runs the nation's most intensive, high-tech, well-funded search for Bigfoot. The Bigfoot Research Project is financed through a grant from the Academy of Applied Science, which supports research outside the scientific mainstream. The five-year project, which ends next year, has won praise from some university anthropologists impressed by its scientific rigor. The man leading the search is a cross between Don Quixote and Indiana Jones. Byrne, 70, a native of Ireland who speaks with a refined English accent, has a penchant for khaki clothes and silk ascots. For the last two decades, he has leapt out of many a Jeep in pursuit of Bigfoot.
"Bigfoot is out there. Of this, I am certain," says Byrne, who's spent his life leading safaris in Nepal, searching the Himalayas for the Abominable Snowman and looking for Bigfoot. "We just need proof." In June, his search adds an expensive night-vision, heat-sensing system. When a big animal triggers infrared sensors and automated cameras, phones will alert Byrne. Bigfoot scouts will be swiftly deployed. The public is cooperating, too. The project's hot line - 1-800-BIG-FOOT - rings constantly. (It's accessible only in the Bigfoot-prone Northwest.) Last month, the four-person project staff fielded about 4,000 calls. Calls to the hot line often go like this: "Agghhhh! I'm being eaten by Bigfoot!" In the background, adolescents guffaw.
Byrne and his staff listen patiently to every call. "We're waiting for the one call that will lead to the big find," he says. "That's how we wade through the hoaxes."
The Bigfoot search faces widespread scientific skepticism. "I don't believe the thing exists," says Daris Swindler, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Washington.
Byrne knows hoaxes are plentiful. He keeps a photo on his shelf of an artificial-looking furry creature with no neck. "The man who sent us this has sent us five pictures, all fake," Byrne says. "Some people want attention; others want money."
Ecologist Robert Michael Pyle says most cultures have human-like giants in their folk history. "We have this need for some larger-than-life creature," says Pyle, author of Where Bigfoot Walks. Pyle is skeptical that Bigfoot exists but hasn't ruled it out. "This could be a case where biology and mythology correspond."
For 200 years, reports of immense, dark, hairy bipeds have circulated in northern California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and parts of western Canada. Believers say as many as 2,000 of the creatures may live in the region. Some think Bigfoot, also called Sasquatch, descended from the extinct gigantopithecus, the largest ape that ever lived. They theorize the ape crossed over to North America and survived here in small numbers before dying off in its native Asia. Others think Bigfoot is a much closer cousin to humans. But how could such a huge creature elude humans in the most industrialized country in the world? Bigfootologists say the answer rests in Bigfoot habits. Bigfoot is a gentle, nocturnal animal that avoids people. In addition, forests in Bigfoot's habitat are so densely wooded and sparsely populated that some planes that crash are never found. One day, Byrne hopes to encounter a Bigfoot in the flesh, so he can get a pellet-sized flesh sample to help prove his case through DNA. Among the Bigfoot project's resources are a couple of helicopters and some special tissue sample guns to help with the task.
"I wouldn't want to hurt it. I'd love to go up to it and somehow communicate. It would be the culmination of a lifetime's work," says Byrne, a far-off look in his intense blue eyes.
Interest in Bigfoot is at an all-time high, Bigfoot researchers say. Visits to the three main World Wide Web Bigfoot sites have increased dramatically. (The Bigfoot Research Project is at http://www.teleport .com/~tbrp. New Bigfoot interest groups are popping up, often in unlikely places.
"People say, 'A Bigfoot in Kansas? Are you crazy?' " says Matt Dennis, who founded the Kansas Bigfoot Center last year. "But I'm almost willing to bet they exist here." Portland's 300-member Western Bigfoot Society is the nation's largest Bigfoot club. Its newsletter, The Track Record, reports new sightings every month. But club founder Ray Crowe warns members to "wear their skepticals" when reading the reports.
Bigfoot attracts its share of unusual fans. A San Francisco-area man is trying to start a Bigfoot/UFO museum. Others swear they converse on a psychic basis with Bigfoot.
"Some Bigfoot people are like Elvis people," says Pyle, who received a Guggenheim fellowship to research his Bigfoot book. "It's not a matter of them not having both oars in the water. They don't even have a boat."
While some reports are kooky, Byrne says many credible witnesses don't tell anyone: "They're afraid people will call them crazy; sometimes their families think they are."
D.W. Patino, a former forest ranger who is now a police officer, says he and his fiance saw Bigfoot last year while camping on the Oregon coast. He's reluctant to speak of his Bigfoot encounter for fear of losing his job. "I don't want to be thought of as crazy," he says.
He says the creature walked along the beach without looking at him. "I was terrified," Patino says. "It was something none of my training prepared me for." The next day, he photographed 6-inch-deep, 16-inch-long footprints in the sand. He sent the photos to Byrne. "I was so relieved to talk to someone who took my story so seriously and had such deep respect for the animal," he says. "If I were Bigfoot and had to have someone find me, I'd want the person to be Peter Byrne."
Bigfoot Merely Amuses Most Scientists
By Maria Goodavage, USA TODAY, 24 May 1996
In the scientific community, Bigfoot is usually good for a few laughs. John Crane, a zoologist and biologist at Washington State, declares: "There is no such thing as Bigfoot. No data other than material that's clearly been fabricated has ever been presented." In college, Crane and his buddies faked Bigfoot footprints. The locals believed they were real. "It was fun," he says.
But a handful of academics believe in Bigfoot, including a respected colleague of Crane's. "I don't even call myself a believer. It's not a belief. I'm absolutely convinced they exist," says Grover Krantz, a Washington State anthropologist.
But J. Richard Greenwell, zoologist at the International Society of Cryptozoology, which studies evidence of unverified animals, cites the mountain gorilla. It was thought to be a myth until the early 1900s. "It's the largest known primate in the world, and it took a long, long time to prove it really exists," he says. Scientists willing to suspend disbelief say the grainy "Patterson film," shot in 1967, got them to take Bigfoot seriously.
Jeff Meldrum, an Idaho State University anthropologist, set out to debunk another recent blurry video but couldn't. "There's more to these films than can be easily brushed aside," he says. Meldrum says footprint evidence is most important: "Those that aren't obviously faked have such consistent morphology (form and structure) over the decades that it's almost impossible to believe even a highly trained hoaxer could have made them."
But for many scientists, even seeing is not believing. Daris Swindler, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Washington, says, "That Patterson film is just a man in a costume."