Nighttime field trips, gripping testimonials, scientific seminars: In East Texas, the hunt for Bigfoot is serious business.
IT WASN’T AS IF DARYL COLYER’S encounter with Bigfoot in May 2004 was a chance meeting. The gym-fit 44-year-old banker from Lorena had actively gone looking for the creature one Saturday evening along the banks of the Trinity River, where he’d heard that a seven-foot-tall apelike being had been seen wandering a few months before. He’d even talked his beautiful brunette wife, Dalinda, into going with him, and the two had set out together toward a stretch of the river sixty miles northeast of Houston. But he still wasn’t prepared for what he saw that day.
For Daryl, who until this past August volunteered regularly as an investigator for an international cybergroup known as the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO), the expedition was nothing out of the ordinary. As one of the few Texas members of the group, he’d gone on many of these searches in the previous year, following up on reported Bigfoot sightings in the Texas-Oklahoma area. He enjoyed it; he’d been fascinated with the idea of Bigfoot for as long as he could remember. As a boy in Atlanta, in the Piney Woods of East Texas, he’d heard stories about the thing his father called the Burton Bottom Creek Monster. He had listened to tales of an animal that shadowed locals in the woods, one that screamed like a woman and made the hair on your arm straighten like toothpicks. And although he’d left the state in 1985 to become an intelligence analyst for the Air Force, these memories had never strayed far from his mind. When he returned to Texas, in 1990, his interest was rekindled, and a few years later, he sat down and Googled “Bigfoot.” “I wanted to solve a mystery for myself,” he explains. “I wasn’t going to be an armchair skeptic.”
But since joining the BFRO, in mid-2003, Daryl hadn’t seen Bigfoot himself. He had spent many hours poring over Bigfoot stories, though; he didn’t want to be caught unprepared. So when he and Dalinda spotted a trail by the riverside that matched the description from one of the BFRO’s sighting reports, he felt his usual tinge of excitement. He pulled over. The sun was setting along the tree-lined path, which ran parallel to the river about fifty yards below. He hurried down it while Dalinda tagged along some thirty yards behind, her high heels no match for the mud. The path gradually curved to the left, and Daryl disappeared. Dalinda bent over, focusing on something that had slithered across her foot.
And suddenly, there it was, on the trail: A reddish-brown, hairy thing, about five and a half feet tall. Daryl froze as he watched it hop across the path once, then twice, before disappearing into the woods. He stared into the trees.
“Did you see that?” he hollered.
Dalinda looked up from her feet. “See what?”
THESE DAYS, THANKS TO THE INTERNET, Daryl Colyer hasn’t had any trouble finding others who’ve met Bigfoot. Craig Woolheater, for example. The 45-year-old office manager from Dallas came across a seven-foot-tall gray-haired creature on the side of the road in Louisiana when he was driving home from a trip in 1994. The vision so inspired him that in 1999 he founded the Texas Bigfoot Research Center (TBRC), a volunteer-run, self-funded organization dedicated to finding the Lone Star State’s Sasquatch. This closer-to-home version of the BFRO soon caught Colyer’s attention, and after taking on a field expedition for Woolheater in January 2004, he decided he’d work for the TBRC in addition to his regular Bigfoot-hunting gig. A brotherhood was formed, and the two men talk on the phone almost daily, discussing new scientific findings and the anecdotes posted on the group’s Web site, texasbigfoot.com.
Their work is far from boring. Due in part to the TBRC’s efforts, interest in Bigfoot has taken hold in the state, particularly in East Texas, which has the dense woods and plentiful waterways said to be the habitat of choice for this mysterious species. According to Woolheater, there have been about 150 credible sightings each year since he started fielding reports in 2000; investigators believe that there are in fact many Bigfoots populating the area. Nearly every day the center’s thirtysome members communicate via e-mail or phone on some Bigfoot-related subject (what was that strange sound heard recently in the Piney Woods? A whoop? Or more of a chatter? How tall was the creature in that last sighting? What color hair? Any good new devices to use in the woods?). And every fall, Woolheater spearheads a pivotal event for Sasquatch fans everywhere: the TBRC’s Bigfoot conference, held in the East Texas town of Jefferson.
The convention, now in its fifth year, has grown steadily since its September 2001 inception. That year 150 visitors descended on the town (a good thing, since Woolheater, then a recently unemployed software developer, had sunk $2,000 of his own cash into the project); by 2004 attendance was up to 334. At this year’s conference, which will take place October 14—16 in the commons area of Jefferson High School, Colyer and Woolheater expect to see 400 people. The list of guest speakers they’ve drawn up includes Chris Murphy, the author of Meet the Sasquatch; Jeffrey Meldrum, the author of From Biped to Strider: The Emergence of Modern Human Walking, Running, and Resource Transport; and Loren Coleman, the author of both Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America and The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide. Speakers’ titles range from associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University to president of the Masonic Stamp Club of New York. Colyer himself will be teaching a seminar called “Sasquatch 101: A Primer for the Uninitiated.” A Bigfoot Bayou Boogie concert, complete with a performance by an enthusiast who also happens to be an Elvis impersonator, will round out the events.
For Jefferson, the convention is a huge boon, a way to fill up its hotels and restaurants. For the members of the TBRC, which does not yet have a central office, it’s an opportunity to meet and greet and feel out the area for a potentially permanent location. Not that they take it easy the rest of the year. Their mission, as stated on the TBRC Web site, is “to validate what we believe to be an undocumented species of bipedal, nocturnal primate commonly referred to as Bigfoot or Sasquatch.” And that means following up each day on every testimonial they receive.
Bigfoot investigators will make clear (once, then again and again) that the object of their fascination is not a monster but a species of primate. It seldom breaks into farmhouses, beating its chest and tossing furniture, as you might imagine from seeing horror movies. More often, reports set the creature in pastoral scenes worthy of a Jean-François Millet painting. If it’s not shucking corn, it’s squatting next to fences or hanging out on the side of the road like a lost dog. Motorists write in. Hunters write in. Law enforcement officers write in. And they all say basically the same thing: A smelly, hairy ape between five and seven feet tall is hiding out here in East Texas. Woolheater, who runs the Web site, takes the information down and either follows up with an interview himself or delegates to one of his twelve volunteer investigators, who make calls over the phone or in person many weekends out of the year. Colyer alone has investigated reports from more than a hundred folks who have written in to the Web site, although his experience has taught him to proceed with caution: Eight of ten accounts end in disappointment. Even after eliminating obvious misidentifications, there are still pranksters, and he regularly braces himself for the moment when a father takes the phone to apologize on behalf of his enthusiastic, Web-savvy son. Which makes the TBRC investigator’s work difficult indeed.
Woolheater and Colyer believe wholeheartedly in Bigfoot. They are not embarrassed by their conviction. Woolheater freely relates Sasquatch anecdotes he has heard to anyone who asks and nods unhesitatingly when people ask if he’s “the Bigfoot guy.” Colyer is the same way. His business card, which he eagerly distributes, features an ape’s face sleepily peering out through a cutout form of the state of Texas. He is as persistent as a Jehovah’s Witness and as enthusiastic as an Aggie, happy to reproduce Bigfoot “whoop” calls in public places. He might take a minute to gain his composure when others make cracks about Harry and the Hendersons, but he rarely loses his temper. Rather, he’ll laugh nervously, his leg twitching. And then, before any other monster jokes are introduced into conversation, he will compare his research to hunts for other elusive greats, such as the giant squid or the coelacanth. “We know it sounds incredible,” he’ll say. “But we think we know where they are. We think we’ve got the zoological find of the century right here at our fingertips.”
One day recently, I met the two researchers at a plantation-style bed-and-breakfast in Jefferson. They were checking out accommodations for the upcoming convention, discussing the logistics of the Bayou Boogie concert. Immediately they launched into a discussion about Bigfoot. “You get reports of something rifling through backpacks,” said Woolheater, “of people watching TV who look out the window and see an apelike face looking in.
“It’s not faith like religion,” he continued. “Seeing is believing. Daryl was skeptical until he saw it himself.”
Colyer nodded. “I’m still skeptical of every report,” he said. “But you can’t argue with the fact that something is out there.”
“We are dealing with a nocturnal, bipedal primate,” Woolheater said. “Something that follows the rivers in these twelve million acres of East Texas forestry.” Colyer estimates that there may be fifty to a hundred living in Texas, two thousand nationwide.
“It took more than fifty full-time workers a year to find the ivory-billed woodpecker,” Woolheater said. “They were well funded. We’re not.”
While they were talking, a woman they had met at breakfast walked into the room.
“She’s from Texarkana, and she has heard stories about Bigfoot all her life,” Colyer said.
“All my life,” the woman replied with a smile.
You get the uneasy feeling from walking around with Woolheater and Colyer that everyone has seen Bigfoot except you.
STORIES ABOUT BIGFOOT ARE NOT NEW TO TEXAS. An encounter with a hairy creature was documented as early as 1924, in Legends of Texas, published by the Texas Folklore Society. But the documentation seems to have stepped up in more-recent decades. Dwaine Dennis, a now-retired 81-year-old, was the owner of the Jefferson Jimplecute newspaper back in 1965 when a big-eared thirteen-year-old boy named Johnny Maples stirred up Marion County with tales of a seven-foot-tall ape. (Dennis’s original report has been lost, but the Marshall News Messenger picked up the story and gave it the headline “Boy Says For Real Sighting of Monster Renews Marion Legend.”) Colyer and Woolheater are both familiar with the story, and the TBRC has had contact with Dennis before by phone; his account is recorded on the center’s Web site. But in August, thinking he might make a good speaker for a future conference, Colyer and Woolheater decided to pay Dennis a personal visit.
Dennis did not seem completely sold on the idea of Bigfoot. But he did like to tell stories. Sitting in his Lay-Z-Boy recliner, surrounded by wood sculptures he had made over the years, he was all too happy to relate the tale while his wife, Virginia, interjected once in a while as she unpacked groceries in the kitchen. “I heard that this boy was scared the night before by a monster,” he explained. “I looked him up. I talked to him, and he was still shaking. He said he heard a noise in the trees.”
“Sounds familiar,” said Colyer, leaning in.
“He ran so fast,” Dennis continued. “His mom said he tore the soles of his shoes off.”
Virginia spoke up from the kitchen. “He looked all over for those soles on the road. A true newspaperman.”
“I wanted to break the news, so I didn’t tell anyone about it at first. He saw something.” Here Dennis raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Virginia and I went to Scott’s Creek Bridge, where Johnny said he saw the creature. I went down there and saw lots of snakes, and I also saw two footprints. The next day we happened to be at a cemetery nearby. At the entrance we saw a fantastic footprint with five claw marks. I put some salt in it to make it out more clearly. We also saw a pear tree with limbs up about eight feet off the ground that had teeth marks in the fruit.”
“Here we go,” said Colyer.
“Well, the story I wrote created quite a sensation,” Dennis said. “Everybody went down to the creek to check it out. The fun lasted two or three weeks. People came down every weekend to look for the monster.”
“I found a headline that read ‘Town Fed Up With Monster Hunters,’” said Woolheater. “I think it said there were throngs of people looking for Bigfoot here.”
“I don’t know about ‘throngs,’” Dennis said with a laugh. “How many make up a throng?”
The exchange was not unusual for a TBRC investigator, although, according to Colyer, these meetings are sometimes traumatic for the person giving his testimonial. He’s seen grown men shake and cry while describing their encounters. “These sightings are life-changing experiences,” Colyer said. “It’s cathartic for people to get this information off their chests.”
Spurred on by Dennis’ story, Colyer and Woolheater decided to check out the areas where Dennis had found the footprints and the bitten pear. Although recent activity seems to be coming more from a wooded area farther south of Jefferson, in the Sam Houston National Forest area, they were confident that Jefferson was still the perfect location for their conference. Dennis’s account and a few others they’d heard had connected the Caddo Lake region historically to Bigfoot. When they pulled up to Scott’s Creek Bridge, the brush had been cleared on the side of the road, and the rickety old wooden bridge had been replaced by a solid cement one. But just as before, it passed over a creek that quickly tucked itself away in a thick mass of pines. Colyer stood on the bridge and peered into the woods, pointing a finger. “This is like so many other spots where people have had sightings,” he said. “It’s on a watercourse. It’s remotely populated. It’s perfect.”
They moved on to the cemetery. Woolheater and Colyer couldn’t find any trace of a pear tree but searched the area anyway, looking at the ground and into the trees for recent signs of a large animal. “If you want to get struck by lightning, you can’t go outside on a sunny day,” Colyer said. “There may be only two thousand of these animals. I’ve spent time in the woods where black bear live, and I’ve never seen a black bear.”
“It’s a one-hundred-and-twenty-to-one shot,” Woolheater said. “You’ve got to find them, but they’re always moving. And now we’re in that lightning-strike area.” At this, he spotted an imprint on the ground and sized it up against his shoe.
ANYONE WHO WONDERS HOW THE TOWN OF JEFFERSON feels about the attention from Bigfoot conferencegoers might remember that “creature” lore has good footing in these swamps. Locals will quickly brag that both the films The Creature From Black Lake and The Legend of Boggy Creek were shot nearby. Along the historic strip in town, tiny stickers in the windows of establishments display their support—“Warning: Protected by a Texas Bigfoot.”
Which is not to say that everyone warmly embraces the idea of Jefferson as a home for Bigfoot lovers. Many of the natives would rather have the focus on their town’s history, not on ghosts or monsters, and Bigfoot is not a subheading under “zoology.” “Well, why has no one found a body?” they’ll ask.
Woolheater and Colyer are receptive to skeptics’ criticisms. “There is no fossil record of higher-order primates in North America,” Colyer acknowledged.
“And we’re trying to find something that is not common or identifiable,” said Woolheater.
The two grew excited as they talked, interrupting each other.
“We understand that’s freaky to a lot of people, but the fact remains—”
“Thousands of people have these stories!”
“And there’s only a couple of possibilities as to why that is happening. Either they’re lying to you—”
“Or they’re misidentifying a known animal.”
“So either they’re hallucinating,” continued Woolheater, “or they saw what they saw. Even if one of these people is telling the truth, then something is out there.”
“And both of us are telling the truth,” said Colyer.
Some members of the community shrug and say they’re keeping an open mind—for good reason. At lunch at Lamache’s Italian Restaurant recently, Woolheater and Colyer schmoozed with the Jefferson director of tourism development, Juanita Wakefield-Chitwood. An animated woman with short, frosted hair, Wakefield-Chitwood is tied to Jefferson going back several generations, so she speaks with authority when she boasts, “Here in Jefferson we have eccentric people and we attract eccentric people.”
“I heard the city is officially labeling October 14 through 16 ‘Bigfoot Weekend’ in Jefferson!” Woolheater said.
“That’s right,” Wakefield-Chitwood said. “This conference is huge. I remember the first conference. I was working at the hotel where one of the speakers stayed. He gave me a personal lecture.” She belted out a laugh. Seeing that the others weren’t as amused, she soberly nodded. “It was very interesting.”
“I’d like to have a main town where we can set up a research center,” Woolheater said.
Wakefield-Chitwood pointed to herself.
Colyer piped up. “We were talking about having it here.”
“I’ll take care of that,” Wakefield-Chitwood said with a smile.
“It’s a matter of funding,” Woolheater said. But he continued to warm her up. “We’re going to bring the Travel Channel out to Caddo Lake this fall; we’ll take them into Jefferson.”
“This is why we embrace Bigfoot,” she said. “The conference is an education. The coverage is good! The economic impact is good!”
Woolheater looked up sheepishly. “You know, I got a call recently from Athens. The head of tourism said she wanted me to move the convention there.”
Rubbing her hands together playfully, Wakefield-Chitwood said, “Can you give me this woman’s name?”
OF COURSE, SUPPORT IS NICE. But in the end, it means little to the faithful, whose determination to find Bigfoot is unflagging. They don’t wait for grants; they are comfortable taking the research responsibilities into their own hands. Almost every weekend Colyer and two others follow up on reports of sightings. And about three times a year six to ten TBRC field investigators go on a four-day-long “field study” and record their findings.
The thrill of these studies cannot be overstated. Imagine Ahab seeking Moby Dick. Usually, the group heads to a remote location in the Piney Woods where the creature has been spotted by someone in the TBRC Web circle. (To elude pranksters, locations of the studies are kept top secret.) During the day, the group looks for tracks, hair, scat, and “nestlike areas.” They set up camp. They sleep. And when the sun sets, they gear up. Smearing themselves in scent blocker, dressed in camouflage, they split up into groups of two or three with devices that would make the most die-hard Cabela’s devotee turn to Jell-O: night vision goggles, NightShot cameras, a call blaster that emits gibbon sounds, plaster for footprint casts, a video recorder, a minidisc recorder, bionic ears, walkie-talkies, and boom microphones. They also bring along special “pheromone chips” designed to entice the ape.
What the investigators report is mixed. Sometimes they go for days without hearing or seeing anything but the woods. Other times, they say, an animal they believe to be Bigfoot tries to intimidate them, grunting and screaming and snapping twigs. Some nights it seems more cooperative. “On a field study last year,” Colyer said, “I was with one other guy. We waited for the sun to go down in San Jacinto County. Around seven-thirty, we blasted three yells. I stood up, and the creature returned an aggressive call from within a hundred yards. It was so close! I thought I was going to have to get my weapon. But then we didn’t hear anything the rest of the night.”
All the pheromone chips and call blasters in the world don’t seem to be luring Sasquatch out of hiding. In the six weekend investigations held over the past two years, the TBRC has recorded three good “vocalizations” and made plaster casts of six footprints. They don’t intend to ever shoot a Bigfoot if they find one, but right now they haven’t even gotten close enough to have the option. “We’ll get it on video,” Colyer said.
“I’ve devoted a lot of time to this,” said Woolheater. “Even good video wouldn’t be the final piece of the puzzle. If someone got a live specimen, I think I’d finally be vindicated. The ultimate proof is going to come.”
BEFORE I LEFT JEFFERSON, Woolheater took me down to a pier on Caddo Lake, a swampy area where the Spanish moss hangs down in thick curtains. “It always follows the waterways,” Woolheater said. It was about eleven-thirty at night, and the toads’ rickit croaks swelled to compete with the cicadas’ strident drone. Everything that had been asleep was now awake, and everything that had been awake was asleep. It was a different world, one that made you jump at every twig’s snap. We walked out onto the dark pier, where tree roots protruded like fingers along the lake bed. All we saw that night were lily pads and black water and woods and shadows. But a Bigfoot hunter is never disappointed. On the way home, Woolheater turned on his brights and leaned forward in his seat, keeping his eyes on the side of the road.