The late afternoon light wanes as Scot Violette trudges up a steep incline in the Umatilla National Forest. I trail a dozen or so paces behind when he hollers to his hiking partner, Pete Nelson: “Hey, I think I’ve found a footprint.” I scamper up the slope to get a closer look.
Nelson hurries over, hunches down and studies a scene of crunched grass and dusty earth. “See it?” asks Violette, pulling out a laser pointer, tracing an imprint vaguely resembling toes and the elongated shape of a humanlike foot, only two to three times larger. Nelson doesn’t see the toes clearly — the print looks faint, weathered, too imprecise to cast with plaster. Violette pockets his laser pointer. “Interesting, but not conclusive,” he says. He knows this wouldn’t pass as evidence.
And that’s the reason he spends so many inky-dark evenings camped out here in the thick conifer forests of the Blue Mountains: to find evidence — credible and empirical evidence.
Raised in Summerville and based in Baker City, Violette has searched for more than two decades for one of the world’s most notorious “cryptids” — that is, a creature whose existence remains unsubstantiated. I, of course, refer to Bigfoot, a legendary species also known as Sasquatch. Violette, who holds his master’s in anthropology from the University of California, Berkley, solely operates Blue Mountain Bigfoot Research and describes his work as scientifically based. Rather than simply collecting eyewitness accounts, Violette employs a bevy of gear — such as cameras, audio recorders and drones — to document an area where he says some 20 sightings are reported each year.
“My approach is to gather as much evidence as possible and then investigate it,” Violette tells me, well aware that hoaxers often try to trick Sasquatch seekers. He sends footprint casts, hair samples, audio recordings and such findings to other cryptozoologists for critical feedback. “I will rule out the vast majority of what we find, but I collect it and analyze it first.”
He has a lofty goal: to prove the existence of “North America’s great apes,” another term Violette and his peers use to refer to Bigfoot. His catchphrase summarizes his strategy — “time on target.” In addition to the countless hours of traipsing through the mountains with friends and, less frequently, his wife, Violette leads a range of trips (“squatching trips” per insider lingo) with travelers, Bigfoot enthusiasts and anybody who wants to venture into these no-reception zones far beyond the reaches of Eastern Oregon’s cell towers.
Turns out he welcomes perennial skeptics, too. I didn’t drive the nearly five hours from Portland with the notion I’d bump into the mysterious biped humanoid. (Nor did I think we’d find any trace of a footprint.) It’s worth noting that Animal Planet has aired some 90 episodes of “Finding Bigfoot” — co-hosted by Portlander Cliff Barackman — without actually finding Bigfoot. If it exists, it manages to evade the gaze of most cameras.
Instead, I want to know what inspires someone to stay on the case when the chances of a sighting seem about as slim as winning the Mega Millions jackpot. To do that, I need to get inside the mind of a researcher. Violette, one of the few professional Sasquatch investigators in the Pacific Northwest, agreed — as long as I’d spend a couple days with him, venturing into the forest to see firsthand how he works.
In the Goldilocks Zone
A digital ding reminiscent of a doorbell alerts us as we near the mobile “squatch pod,” a souped-up camping trailer kitted out with eight motion-sensing, infrared cameras pointed in all directions. Inside, a large screen makes the mobile research unit look like the surveillance monitor you might find in a shopping mall’s security room. Unlike shoplifters (or, in this case, coyotes), Bigfoot has yet to be caught red-handed.
Violette sets the squatch pod up in remote locations in the national forest in an attempt to capture video and audio of the beast. This particular spot is near where a bowhunter reported an encounter about two weeks ago.
“I take people to places where there have been recent sightings and to locations that I’ve scouted,” he says of his night and weekend investigations. “Of course, 99 percent of the time, when we go into the woods looking for stuff, we find nothing. And then there’s that one percent of the time we may find footprints or hear ‘whoops’ in the night and tree knocks — that’s out of this world.”
Depictions of Bigfoot in pop culture invariably cast the simian-like mammal — reportedly standing up to 8 feet tall — in the densely wooded wildernesses of the Pacific Northwest. It’s like the region’s Loch Ness, the famous cryptid of the Scottish Highlands. Unsurprisingly, the Northwest ranks high for Sasquatch sightings. Finding comprehensive data about all North American encounters proves difficult, but some sources estimate as many as a third occur in the continent’s upper left corner. And if these creatures are looking for somewhere to hide, Oregon sounds like an ideal place given that forests carpet roughly half the state.
The most famous video of an alleged Bigfoot sighting, the Patterson-Gimlin film was shot in 1967 just south of the Oregon border in Northern California, along a tributary of the Klamath River. Violette was 7 years old when he saw the Patterson film at the Elgin Opera House; the clip appeared in newsreels that aired in theaters across the country. Nearly three decades later, a U.S. Forest Service employee, Paul Freeman, recorded what he claims to be Bigfoot walking through the Umatilla Forest in Northeastern Oregon, where Violette continues the hunt to this day.
“That’s one of the reasons I enjoy searching in this area, because there is proof and evidence and history here,” Violette says. And he estimates that he spends anywhere from 100 to 150 days a year on investigative trips, both private outings with friends and leading guided excursions.
What does he do with all of that time? During the day, he hikes in what he designates the “Goldilocks zone,” an elevation range — between 5,000 to 7,000 feet — in which he has mapped the most sightings. He looks for tracks, unusual stick structures (which some allege Sasquatches make, possibly as territorial markers) and other anomalies. Many cryptozoologists believe Bigfoot is nocturnal, so come sunset, Violette knocks branches against trees and makes whooping sounds, both thought to be a form of long-distance communication not unlike how apes communicate with each other.
“It can get a little spooky in the pitch black in the middle of the forest,” he says. “That’s when we try to get the audio and thermal evidence.”
After leaving the squatch pod, we climb to a higher altitude, walking along a Forest Service road as darkness sets in. We stop at an overlook, where a full moon creeps across a deep-blue sky obscured by hazy clouds; a valley stretches out below, the dim lights of Baker City speckled in the distance. Violette and Nelson cup their hands, raise them to their mouths, and hoot and bellow — throaty invitations drifting through the shadowy air, questions begging for an answer. With audio recorders turned on, we wait in silence. They hoot and bellow again. I hear nothing but their voices echoing.
Considering the Evidence
The next day I learn that Violette moves through several distinct worlds: He performs as a Steampunk magician known as Professor Algernon. He teaches drama at Baker High School. And he also works with Eastern Oregon Regional Theatre, which is set to oversee a multimillion-dollar restoration of Baker City’s Orpheum Theatre in the coming years. But as I descend the staircase to the basement of his Craftsman home, his primary passion steals the spotlight.
A sign reading “The Sasquatcher’s Lounge” hangs above the door to a room that appears to double as his “man cave,” a subterranean hideaway exclusively dedicated to his bootstrapped operation. A mini library of Bigfoot-related books, a collection of plaster prints and other squatch paraphernalia line shelves. A stuffed Bigfoot with gleaming red eyes peeks out from behind an artificial pine tree in a far corner.
Violette sits at a desk, his face lit only by his laptop screen. He plugs in external hard drives and shows me highlights from his thousands of hours of video and audio — footage sourced from the squatch pod, his drone, his pickup truck’s dash cam and the GoPro cams he mounts on himself during hikes. These are a few of the tools of a modern Bigfoot researcher, tools he stores in an adjacent room dubbed the “Sasquatch lair.”
Even as Violette stresses the centrality of the scientific method to his work, the overwhelming majority of scientists deem Bigfoot a myth and cryptozoology a pseudoscience. They dismiss the widely seen Patterson and Freeman films as having no scientific value. (What little formal analysis of the Patterson film exists has yielded conflicting results, with some concluding the subject is nonhuman and many others suggesting it is a hoax.)
For that reason, only a smattering of formal studies has considered the existence of these so-called North American apes. For example, a 2009 report in the Journal of Biogeography used software for ecological niche modeling; its results suggest that many sightings may, in fact, be mistaken American black bear encounters. The British primatologist John Napier, author of the 1973 book “Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality,” conducted perhaps the first scientific study. Napier conceded that hard evidence suggests Bigfoot does not exist, though he also wrote: “There must be something in Northwest America that needs explaining, and that something leaves man-like footprints.”
Well aware of the consensus in mainstream science, Violette understands what it may take to convince the naysayers. “I think the academic world isn’t going to accept any of our evidence unless we lay a body on a table,” he says. “That’s why taking groups out is important to me. The more people we have in the woods and the more data we collect, the better chance we have of proving this.”
A sense of the unknown inspires the current Sasquatch fervor in America, says Violette. The scant possibility of finding something motivates plenty of people to join him on treks through the wilderness. But they get more out of the guided experience than the mere hope of an encounter: A veteran of the Gulf War, Violette served as a survival instructor, and he incorporates mountain survival skills into each of his outings. Fans of U.S. military field rations get a treat on his weekend trips, which have MREs (“Meal, Ready-to-Eat”) on the menu. Nature reveals its quiet splendors too.
“There’s solitude and freedom out there. You can get away from the rest of the human race for a while and just relax,” he says. “There have been times that I’ve found myself leaning up against a tree listening for Bigfoot, and then waking up three hours later — yeah, I took a nap again.”
It seems the very act of trying to solve this mystery has its own rewards.
Top Bigfoot-Hunting Tips
Pick a forest. The history of recorded sightings in Oregon dates back to at least 1904, when settlers spoke of a “wild man” near the Sixes River. Hairy Bigfoot-like creatures also appear in Native American folklore. Encounters have been reported all over the state since then, largely in wooded areas far from towns and cities. That said, it’s not advisable to wander off into the forest without a map, supplies or a reputable guide who knows the area well.
Take a field guide. One of the few academics widely cited on the subject, anthropologist Jeffrey Meldrum is a professor at Idaho State University and an expert on primate foot morphology; he authored a pocket guide, which Violette gives everyone who attends his trips. The handy foldout guide offers a comprehensive overview of Bigfoot appearance, behavior, communication, habitat and more.
Leave no trace. Follow leave-no-trace principles. Even if an area looks wild, that doesn’t mean it is public land. Do not trespass on private property. Plan in advance and know the area’s regulations. Stick to marked trails in state and national parks and forests. Respect wildlife and leave natural objects where you found them.
Do not shoot. An Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) representative told Mental Floss that it’s technically illegal to shoot Bigfoot per state law. ODFW suggests a live trap as an alternative. In the 1970s, the Eugene-based North American Wildlife Research Team did just that, maintaining the nation’s only known Bigfoot trap. They mostly caught bears.