A bigfoot’s howl is multidimensional: a deep and undulating whoop that starts low and ends in a high, feral squeal or resolves completely, like a siren. The first time I unleashed one, while crouching on a bluff overlooking the eastern bank of the Apalachicola River, Matt Moneymaker — who, moments earlier, had loosed a robust, commanding shriek that echoed cleanly through the valley — responded with a hearty guffaw.
“I have a cold,” I mumbled by way of an excuse. It was nearly 2 a.m., and we were huddled in the dark in Torreya State Park near Bristol, on the Florida Panhandle.
Moneymaker is the founder and president of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (bfro.net), a group of Bigfoot investigators dedicated to acquiring “conclusive documentation of the species’ existence.”
Bigfoots, also known as Sasquatches or yetis, are famously elusive creatures — if, in fact, they exist at all — and since 2000, the organization has hosted research expeditions, some of which are open to nonmembers, to suspected Bigfoot habitats across North America. The goal is to rouse and record a Bigfoot.
The trips, which typically last four days and cost between $300 and $500 (not including airfare, camping equipment or food), are led by a BFRO investigator native to the region and center on nightly jaunts through the woods.
In December, on an outing in the same park, Matt Craig, 26, spotted what he believed was a Bigfoot on a thermal imaging device. He and five others watched while it hugged a tree and popped in and out of hiding, as if it were playing peek-a-boo. “At that point, my mind was trying to rationalize what it was,” Craig said. “I was shaking so bad I couldn’t even look through the thermal after that.”
Now, 11 of us — three women and eight men, including Craig — had assembled with hopes of repeating his encounter. I was dubious but also willing to accept that I didn’t know exactly what kinds of oddball creatures might be loping around the forest late at night.
The Bigfoot organization’s online database contains more than 30,000 user-submitted Bigfoot reports, and it’s a surprisingly consistent body of data: By most accounts, adult Sasquatches weigh around 650 pounds and are 7 to 10 feet tall, nocturnal, fond of women and packaged sweets, hairy, bipedal, omnivorous, flat-footed, and distinctly malodorous.
On BFRO expeditions, faith in the existence of Bigfoots is presumed, and the hunts proceed with a kind of grim earnestness. Members are accustomed to incredulity: Detractors (including most reputable scientists) insist that all observed phenomena could easily be attributed to a bear, or a rogue primate, or some dude in a gorilla suit. Bring us a body, they say, or anything that can be objectively authenticated (to date, no definitive Bigfoot remains have been excavated).
Cliff Barackman, for one, isn’t troubled by dissenters. “I don’t care what people think,” he said. “I think skepticism is healthy and good.”
Moneymaker and Barackman are co-stars on the Animal Planet series “Finding Bigfoot,” in which they amble through dark thickets, howling at one another and banging blocks of wood together (Sasquatches purportedly communicate via “knocking” — the belligerent pounding of trees or their own bodies).
For believers, rustling up a Sasquatch, as they are often called by the team, is serious business, and “Finding Bigfoot” is deliberately low on high jinks. Moneymaker and his crew host town hall meetings, re-create sightings and employ a cornucopia of enticement techniques, like arranging glazed doughnuts on a log.
Membership in the BFRO is by invitation only, and requires (paradoxically, perhaps) at least the appearance of good sense.
At 10:30 p.m., after we’d roasted hot dogs and exchanged a couple of squatching yarns, Moneymaker ran through a few rules. “Don’t freak out” was the prevailing theme. He said he’d seen otherwise stoic men — soldiers, even — turn into “sniveling messes” when led into a dark forest. Before attendees can be registered for an expedition, they are required to read a chapter from the BFRO handbook that helps people “deal with the terror of a first experience.”
Moneymaker distributed night vision monoculars called Ghost Hunters, which render everything in shades of green. We split into two groups, putting enough distance between us that we could convincingly initiate and return calls. We hoped to hear a few knock backs right away.
“It’s not going to be a human out there making knock backs, it’s going to be a squatch,” Moneymaker said. “If we hear knock backs then we’re in business.”
When hiking through the woods, it’s remarkably easy to lose sight of everyone around you, and even that false sense of isolation can be deeply terrifying. Our group of five crept toward the river in a single line. We paused near the sight of Craig’s encounter and, after radioing Barackman’s team, tried a few howls.
Much of Bigfooting is listening, and like any kind of hunting, it requires extraordinary patience. While we waited for a reply, I pulled a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup out of my back pocket and laid it on the ground. (I’d been told that Bigfoots have a particular affinity for Zagnut bars, but they weren’t stocked by the local Walmart.) A foraging armadillo let out a few inquisitive grunts, but Sasquatches, it seemed, were uninterested in initiating contact just yet.
Eventually, we trekked back to camp and reorganized. Around 3 a.m., I followed Barackman and four others east toward the park’s sandy access roads. We howled, knocked and scanned for glowing eyes, but our solicitations were not reciprocated. By 4:30 a.m., I was asleep in my tent with my hiking boots still on.
The next morning, I sat by the fire snacking on a slice of bacon and a powdered doughnut. The other team had heard and recorded a response howl — a brief, high-pitched hoot. We speculated about whether it was human. Barackman described the results of the expedition as fairly typical. “We recorded something that we don’t know the origin of,” he said. “The mystery continues.”
A few minutes later, something screeched in the distance, and Moneymaker, barefoot, abandoned his breakfast and bounded into the woods at full speed. Although the sound turned out to be nothing, I was impressed by Moneymaker’s enthusiastic gait. It was that of a believer.
Search parties: ghosts, UFOS and Nessie
Bigfoot hunters aren’t the only ones out there searching for the unknown. Here are a few other “hunts” that travelers can join.
• The Atlantic Paranormal Society
Perhaps the ghosting equivalent of the Bigfoot organization, this group organizes excursions to paranormal hot spots (its founders, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, are regulars on the Syfy series “Ghost Hunters”). On Saturday, the group heads to the Menard House in Galveston, Texas. $150, reservations recommended.
Contact: 413-478-3642; http://idealeventmanage.com.
• The New Jersey Ghost Hunters Society
A kind of modern-day ghost-busting squad, this group trains newcomers in “the basic protocols for paranormal investigating.” In the spring and summer, the organization leads ghost hunts through cemeteries in New York and New Jersey. $25 for a lifetime membership (new investigators must complete at least two cemetery training hunts with a team leader before being considered for a private team).
• UFO Skywatch
Tom Dongo, a celebrated UFO researcher (he’s written eight books on the topic), offers a six-hour “UFO Skywatch” tour, which unfolds in “a remote location that is well known for paranormal sightings” near Sedona, Ariz. $100, two-person minimum, reservations by special arrangement.
Contact: 928-300-2788; www.tomdongo.com.
• Loch Ness Day Tour
Nessie is one of history’s more elusive creatures, but this day tour through Loch Ness, Glencoe and the Scottish Highlands includes an optional monster-hunting jaunt aboard a boat equipped with sonar and underwater imaging systems. From $69.
Contact: 44-1-31-557-9393; www.haggis adventures.com.