They are a part of Native American lore from coast to coast. Daniel Boone bragged that he bagged one, and Teddy Roosevelt was quite vocal about his desire to do the same. Tales of sightings of Bigfoot — the elusive half-man, half-ape creature — are woven into the fabric of Americana. In many people’s minds, the famed 1967 “Patterson” footage of a supposed Bigfoot traipsing through a clearing in the northern California woods has cemented the idea that the creature lives in the Pacific Northwest. But the Northeast in general — and the Hudson Valley in particular — also has been a hotbed for sightings through the years. A partial list of the various locations of local sightings reads like a regional hiker’s hit list: Nuclear Lake in Pawling, Stissing Mountain in Pine Plains, Peekamoose in Ulster County, Bear Mountain in Rockland, the ice caves in Ellenville, and Greenwood Lake in Orange, to name a few.
Don’t expect these sightings to slow down anytime soon. Bigfoot Fever seems to be sweeping the nation — fueled, in part, by the popular Discovery Channel show Finding Bigfoot, in which Matt Moneymaker and three pals crisscross the country tracking Bigfoot sightings with fancy equipment and newfangled plans. The opening episode of Season Two found the investigators in the Hudson Valley. They held a town hall meeting in Pawling and asked locals to come forth and share their own Bigfoot experiences. The Catskills region is famous for the “New York Baby Footage,” taken by Doug Pridgen in 1997, which apparently shows a small ape-like creature swinging in some trees. During the same episode, one of the show’s investigators, Cliff Barackman, actually climbs into a tree on the same property to try to replicate the young ape’s movements. On his blog, Barackman concludes, “It is clear that whatever it is that Doug captured on video is an ape, and based on the context, I am leaning towards it being a juvenile sasquatch.”
“Awareness is growing because of the show. People are starting to realize that these animals could be in their backyard”
“Awareness is growing more and more because of the show, so people are starting to realize that these animals could be in their backyard,” says Nick Maione, lead investigator for the New England region of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO), an all-volunteer network of about 150 investigators which was founded by Moneymaker. “We actually have scientists that go out and do field reports, and we compile everything into a database in the hopes that one day we will have the information to know a little bit about Bigfoot’s ecology and habits,” Maione explains.
The beliefs of the organization’s members are clarified on www.bfro.net, the group’s Web site: “These large apes are spotted mostly in forested regions with abundant protein sources… deer in particular… Unlike gorillas and chimps, their family/groupings are small and mobile, making it very difficult for modern humans to hunt them.”
Still, according to the BFRO, a total of no fewer than 55 sightings have occurred in Albany, Columbia, Greene, Ulster, Dutchess, Putnam, Orange, Rockland, and Sullivan counties. The group maintains what is probably the largest online database of Bigfoot sightings on their site. As recently as 2009, for instance, a young Kingston man reported a daylight visual encounter with a Bigfoot while driving on Pilgrims Progress Road in Rhinebeck. His observations are posted on the database; he sums up his report by saying, “I was nervous, confused, and excited at the same time.”
You won’t, however, find the details of every one of the 55 aforementioned sightings online, as many witnesses request that their stories be kept confidential. And that’s okay with BFRO, according to Maione. “We encourage witnesses to submit their reports through the site,” he says. “But we always stress that you’re in control of your own report.”
BFRO estimates that 80 percent of sightings go unreported because witnesses fear ridicule and disbelief, says Maione. There is no official tally; the state Department of Environmental Conservation doesn’t keep any record of Bigfoot sightings. “We don’t have any comments on Bigfoots,” said Region 4 Spokesman Rick Georgeson. “We don’t track reports of mythical creatures.”
Maione owns two Victorian inns in Newport, Rhode Island. More than six years ago, he spotted a Bigfoot — a hairy, black, matted creature that walked like a man — in Newport at a distance of 75 to 100 feet. As he watched it, he also heard a distinctive whooping cry from behind. “I had trouble sleeping for months afterward,” he said. “It’s hard to get a grip on what you’re seeing. It changes the way you view the world.” Today, Maione leads a couple of expeditions, and investigates about 50 reported sightings, each year. (The BFRO Web site maintains an updated list of expeditions nationwide; as of press time, there are none scheduled in New York during 2012.)
Courtesy of Animal Planet
So what actually goes on during one of these expeditions? I hit the trail with Maione in a remote part of the Catskills to find out. It was a rainy spring afternoon three years ago when we bushwacked up the back side of Slide Mountain near Peekamoose. We had settled on this rural, feral heart of Ulster County’s famed Burroughs Range because of word-of-mouth reports of a sighting there four or five years ago.
While we hiked, Maione explained the various environmental characteristics that Bigfoot researchers look for on expeditions: twisted branches in the tree line seven to nine feet from the ground, stick or rock formations, bedding areas, and of course — the Holy Grail of evidence, short of an actual sasquatch itself — footprints or other impressions. That day, we discovered no telltale signs of the elusive Bigfoot.
Another reported regional sighting took place in 1985. Two women on a winter hike near the ice caves in Ellenville reported seeing a Bigfoot at a distance of approximately 150 feet. During a second expedition, I visited the tiny hamlet of Cragsmoor, the only community atop the Shawangunk Ridge and the nearest population center to the 5,400-acre Sam’s Point Preserve, which includes the ice caves.
Preserve Manager Heidi Wagner smiled when told of the reported sighting. “Research is still ongoing trying to prove the presence of mountain lions in the area, let alone Bigfoot,” she said. After a few minutes of conversation, the longtime preserve manager began digging through her files. Wagner said she recalled a letter received about 10 years ago in which the signators — two women — claimed to have seen a strange, hairy biped, but she was unable to find the actual letter.
Wagner then shared another tale. “When I first began here, one of the locals came to me and told me that he had been hiking in one of the ice caves in the late 1960s and had come across a hairy man that wasn’t quite human squatting in a corner in one of the caves,” she said. “I must have smirked, because the look on his face instantly changed, and I knew that whatever he had seen, he wasn’t making it up.”
Dutchess County resident Brian Spinner, who occasionally attends a BFRO expedition, grew up in Pawling. He’s heard plenty of local tales of encounters, including incidents involving his own family. “In the mid-’70s, my dad heard [Bigfoot] on a mountainside,” Spinner said. “He and his friend were raccoon hunting with their three dogs. The dogs came yelping and cowering back toward them. My dad and his friend then heard the sound of breaking branches and smelled a foul stench, unlike any other animal from around here. That’s when they decided they better get out of there. They found all three hunting dogs cowering under the car.”
Sometimes Spinner will visit the rumored Pawling hot spots late at night, by himself, and use large sticks to produce knocking noises against trees, something Bigfoot researchers believe the creatures do to communicate. “I’m not afraid to have an encounter,” Spinner said. “I crave an encounter. I don’t know what I would do, but I think I would be in awe.” At the same time, Spinner keeps an open mind, which is crucial to help rule out other, more mundane explanations for supposed Bigfoot encounters. “You have to be skeptical when you do this type of investigation; you have to rule everything else out first.”
Armed with these insights — and a Pentax K1000 with high-speed film (just in case) — I decided to take a look for myself during a hike along the trail that loops around Pawling’s Nuclear Lake, not far from where the Appalachian Trail crosses through Dutchess County. I observed the environment carefully during my meandering hike that sunny afternoon, but I found no twisted tree branches, makeshift bedding areas, or crude cairn-like piles of sticks and rocks, much less a footprint.
As I arced across the far side of the lake, as deep into the woods and as alone as I would be that day, I paused and decided I should at least try the knocking technique. I looked around for a sizable, sturdy fallen branch, and found one about three or four inches in diameter. Hefting it like a baseball bat, I slowly and steadily gave three whacks to the side of a tree. Nothing — not even an echo — came back at me.
I gave one last glance across the vast expanse of woodland north of the lake, returned to the trail, and headed out. I walked about 50 yards before I heard it, coming from far off in the woods behind me. Three slow, steady knocks in the same cadence as my own, but with a deeper, more resonant thump, as if a much larger branch (tree trunk?) was being used to strike the side of a tree. I turned again to head out. I was content with the vague, uneasy yet exhilarating moment I had just experienced. It also made me decide to quicken my pace. But I will return to hike the Nuclear Lake loop again.