Casting Tracks: Cliff Barackman and Sasquatch Culture by Joseph Blair
Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Editor's Choice, July 11th, 2014
“Keep an eye out,” Cliff advised. “There have been recent sightings around here.”
Hidden away in a garage in the heart of Portland, Oregon is the world’s second largest collection of historical and scientific artifacts purporting to provide evidence that gargantuan, bipedal primates reside undiscovered throughout North America. While the term “Bigfoot” has now only been used for just over 55 years to describe what many Native Americans referred to as “Sasquatch,” the culture surrounding these beasts is more longstanding and pervasive than even this collection is able to indicate. Cliff Barackman, co-host of Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot, is the proprietor of this particular ensemble of footage, samples, paraphernalia, and over 150 casts. Upon meeting Cliff, I quickly learned the on-screen persona I had come to know was exactly who he was off-screen: gracious, patient, willing, and charismatic. Cliff is pointedly generous with his expertise, and believes with fervent and infectious certainty that “Bigfoots” are roaming the backwoods of the U.S. while remaining cleverly–and even playfully–out of sight. Undecided on the matter as I might be, I felt privileged to be invited into this leading researcher’s home, just miles from my own, to be regaled with the truly compelling details surrounding many of the relics housed therein. Cliff suggested that the only reason his collection is not the largest is because he frequently sends casts to his friend, Dr. Jeff Meldrum, Professor of Anatomy and Anthropology at Idaho State College, who for years now has been actively compiling a comprehensive, rigorously scientific investigation into Sasquatch. Cliff handed me a large, remarkably well-defined plaster foot impression, measuring about 16 inches long, explaining that this was cast by a sheriff named Dennis Heryford in Grays Harbor, Washington, 1982, just twenty-four years after the Bluff Creek, California footprints that, once reported to the local authorities and media, gave birth to the appellation Bigfoot.
To date, Cliff has spent decades engaged in field work in search of Bigfoot. After reading a collection of scholarly articles on the subject in 1994, Cliff started researching the subject, and this ultimately lead to a 1995 purchase of his first cast from Dr. Grover Krantz at Washington State University. He lauds Dr. Krantz as “the first academic to stick his head out and say [Bigfoots] are real.” Dr. Krantz, Dr. Meldrum, and Cliff are examples of highly educated, serious individuals who, without dismissing an overwhelming body of variegated anecdote and mythology, pursue hard evidence of the elusive, bipedal, North American hominoid that has in recent years given rise to the innumerable pop-culture “artifacts” made proliferate in large part due to modern communications technology, and the countless, frequently cerebral devotees to this cryptozoological avocation. To wit, Cliff visited Indonesia to film an episode of Finding Bigfoot, where the evidence he encountered was so compelling that he decided to further his research there by starting the Orang Pendek Project to investigate encounters with another elusive, albeit shorter (3-5’ tall), bipedal hominoid species, which organization within months of its inauguration uncovered prints which might only be described as “simian” or “pongid.” Cliff understands the world to be broader, wondrous, and more interconnected than many of us choose to believe, and this work, just as his work in North America, is constant and ongoing. It’s folks like Cliff and his colleagues, their academic principles, and dogged tenacity that recently piqued my interest in this particular endeavor–“Bigfooting” or “Squatchin’,” as it is referred to by its practitioners–and had me first consider some of the questions to which their rigor lends latent credibility. Exactly how unlikely is it, for instance, that this species remained elusive for thousands or even millions of years and was then captured on the famous Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin video of October 20th, 1967?
Before we left for a drive, Cliff showed me casts from between the late 1960s and early 1980s, collected from separate locations, that appear to be of the same feet, including identifying scars and toe-spacing. My belief is that these were either the result of the most elaborate, long-running hoax in history, which would likely require a silicon-type replica complete with working robotic toes and massive weight behind it for the deep impressions, or else they were authentic. As curious as I am in the possibility of the existence of Sasquatch, I have always tried to approach the unknown with skepticism; however, I personally couldn’t conceive of any other explanation than that somehow, something akin to Bigfoot does indeed exist. I decided in those moments to view the casts not as anecdotal conversation pieces, but as evidence. I examined a knuckle imprint cast taken on June 1982 near Walla Walla, Washington, which includes a clear thumbnail impression. On his North American Bigfoot blog, Cliff explains, “The positioning of this thumbnail gives some insight into the thumb of a Sasquatch. It seems that the thumb is rotated outwards towards the other fingers. This makes the thumb close inwards towards the palm, like the other digits. This has been noted in eyewitness accounts. The thumbs are described as curling around objects in the same direction as the other fingers.” Generally speaking, on certain levels this comports biologically with the anatomy of some apes, yet remains uniquely Sasquatchian. I found myself in genuine awe of the evidence gathered before me, and how consistent and insightful a picture they painted of a mystery unraveling. Is the popular belief that Bigfoot might be a descendent of the Gigantopithecus–a primitive genus of ape that stood nearly ten feet tall and weighed over a thousand pounds–plausible and founded?
As night fell, we loaded Cliff’s Jeep and headed toward the woods for a tour of local Bigfoot culture. Also in the Jeep were Craig Flipy, Cliff’s co-star in the cult film Bigfoot Roadtrip, and Xochitl, Cliff’s adopted dog, acquired during a search for Sasquatch in Northern California after a member of Cliff’s team found her tied to a tree in the thickets, left for dead. Just over ten driving miles outside of Sandy, Oregon, in a rural area where a majority of the inhabitants matter-of-factly believe these creatures are living around them, we began to travel more and more slowly, weaving along the roads beneath a spring canopy of leafy, mossy trees spaced like dominoes. “Keep an eye out,” Cliff advised. “There have been recent sightings around here.” I felt like a kid looking out the back of the car, trying to catch a glimpse of the Matterhorn rising above Disneyland from the 5 in Anaheim, my fogged window of journalistic skepticism lowered significantly. We passed trails, side roads, homes, small business establishments, and came to a shut-down barbershop, the logo for which depicted a barber chasing a Bigfoot with a pair of scissors. Cliff pointed out homes whose inhabitants claimed to have spotted these creatures going through garbage and replacing the lids, or slapping the houses, perhaps playfully, perhaps tauntingly. “There’s been a lot of recent activity here, but there’s no way we’d be successful with all the noise of the kids,” Cliff iterated as we came upon a site near an active youth camp. We moved on and pulled up to a “No Trespassing” sign. Cliff explained this had previously been private property that recently became public domain, and the sign was probably put up by hunters to keep people out. Locals knew of the area, which contained a creek along which Sandy kids who had left town would do what Sandy kids do in seclusion, so there would probably be little human activity beyond the sign, where Bigfoots might potentially feel more comfortable and likely to pass through. At least four Bigfoot encounters have been reported by Sandy kids scared away from this area by projectile rocks, loud howling, and other mysterious nighttime occurrences. Also, power lines were strung overhead, the proximity of which appear with alarming frequency in reports of sightings. One of Cliff’s footprint casts came from this area.
Cliff supplied me with a broken axe handle. “For knocks?” I asked. He confirmed, “Yeah, I’m out of wooden baseball bats. I tend to burn through those quickly.” He also handed me a FLIR thermal imager and night vision. We headed into the woods, Cliff, Craig, Xochitl and I. We trekked deeper and deeper, all the while knocking on trees. Though a number of encounters record “wood knocks” and it is widely believed Sasquatch use wood knocking as a discreet form of communication, nothing knocked back. Cliff let loose a couple “Whoop” calls, and after a short while, some howls. Nothing responded. “They’re just not here tonight,” Cliff finally said. “We could stay out here as long as you’d like in hopes of one walking through, but they’re not here right now.” So as muddy as my shoes were, and as hopeful as I was that I might hear something firsthand, the beers Cliff suggested earlier were starting to sound mighty fine. As we left the backwoods, instead of staying silent with the lights out, we did the opposite. Our lights were bright, we were loud, we knocked a little more, and we made sure that if anything was out there that might want to be seen, we would draw it to us. I was impressed by the logical, well-rounded technique; each excursion is a primitive experiment in many ways, but perfectly sensible in many as well. I am convinced that if these things are out there, this is how to connect with them. The roads grew wider as we neared the bar. For all of my willingness to enter into his world, Cliff is acutely aware of how the species and his mission are commonly perceived, and is, naturally, steeped in the difficulty of producing undeniable proof. As we pulled into NE Portland, I asked Cliff, “Do you think the way media portrays Sasquatch is a factor in [formal studies being] ignored or frowned upon?” “Sure,” Cliff said, expanding on the stigmas attached to the name “Bigfoot” alone. “People ask, ‘Have you found him?’ This shows the innate problem media has inflicted upon the species.”
As we parted ways for the night, Cliff noted, in good humor and perhaps redolent with every conundrum we’ve hereupon tread, “Everyone’s heard of Murphy’s Law. Nobody knew Murphy was a Bigfoot.” Perhaps mixed metaphors are one of the few things we North Americans have that allow us to introspect about the paradoxical, to hint at the things we most tenuously grasp. Could Sasquatch be as manmade as the animatronic Yeti within Disneyland’s Matterhorn Mountain? A missing piece to an unsolvable puzzle? I suppose either of these is possible, but undeniable is the fact that from Native American to backwoods and country-living peoples across the world and centuries, there exists no shortage of cultures which simply accept the existence of Bigfoots–a collection of plaster casts in a suburban Portland garage or meticulous archive at some distant university notwithstanding. At the very least, these cultures belie some deeper thing deserving of study. Whether that thing is an actual creature, one of the greatest hoaxes ever devised, a construction spawned of our greatest fears and desires embodied, or simply another something to fill the vacuum of the unknown, of this much I am sure: there is something more than just stories out there. For now, Bigfoot is whoever we each want him to be, and Cliff Barackman is a man who deserves our attention as he continues with great determination to make the difficult-to-comprehend as simple as possible, to face that highly individual thing we each decided as children was nothing more than a movie monster, to persist in the precarious face of monumental skepticism against the very notion that there remain no more fountains, no more grails, no more mystery.
[All photo credits: Craig Flipy]
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Joseph Blair, a failing writer by night, a reluctant capitalist by day, and a full-time family man until expiry, can often be found wandering Southeast Portland with a mesmerized face of overwhelm. He is all too accessible via twitter as @josephesque.