Before “reality TV” made them nightly magnets for ridicule and disbelief, Bigfoot sightings, alien visitations and the Loch Ness monster only appeared occasionally in popular magazines and newspapers.
In my favorite bookstore of my college days I stumbled upon Bernard Heuvelmans’ now-classic treatise, In the Wake of the Sea Serpent. Here was the first scientist to make a serious attempt at cataloguing unknown marine creatures based on historical sightings (see also his On the Track of Unknown Animals). Heuvelmans is now considered the founder of cryptozoology, the study of anecdotal reports and physical evidence of animals which have eluded more conventional scientific study due to either their scarcity, or their fictitious nature.
Just consider the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish thought extinct for tens of millions of years, which inadvertently “surfaced” in a fish market display in 1938 (and is now considered an endangered species), or the long-denied Giant Squid—thought to be the Kraken of legendary fame—now acknowledged to exist, or even the horseshoe crab, little changed over 450 million years, well, why not more of the same? What other mysteries are yet to be uncovered?
My biology professor enthralled the lecture hall with his tale of an oceanography expedition from his grad school days. Their research vessel was taking soundings above a deep water trench off the Chilean coast when sonar picked up the image of a huge creature in the shape of a plesiosaur, an extinct dinosaur of the sea. The leader of the expedition put in to port and ordered the fashioning of a giant iron hook. Returning to the deep water site, they baited the massive hook with the carcass of a cow and lowered it on a metal cable from a motorized winch on the stern. For several hours they trolled above the underwater chasm as the grad students stared at the sonar screen. Abruptly a massive jolt shook the research vessel and they realized they had a strike. The crew reeled back in the cable, only to find the beef-kabob missing, and the “hook” now a spiral of twisted metal.
Damn…now I was hooked. I wanted to witness something amazing, too.
So when my sister who lived in California’s remote Alpine County told me that several of their local friends had reported mysterious objects rising and descending in the night sky from a distant desert valley in neighboring Nevada, I related the news to three college buddies. It was quickly agreed that a road trip was in order, the perfect opportunity to camp out in that desolate wilderness and watch for alien traffic. But then we learned that nighttime temperatures in that high desert location were dropping below freezing, we opted instead to camp out in Calaveras County along an abandoned narrow-gauge logging railroad known to one of my friends.
“Perhaps we’ll see Bigfoot, instead of aliens,” joked Maury.
Now anyone who knows me knows I’ve never had problems with friendly hoaxes and practical jokes. So I got to thinking: what if I cast in reinforced plaster some large footprints, sneak them along, and play fast and loose with the credibility of my friends? Great idea! I let Dave in on the prank, since I had to hide those impressive casts in the back of his VW. But Maury and Todd were destined to be the targets of my evil undertaking.
So there we were, our two tents set up on the site of an abandoned railroad camp. As darkness descended on the woods we sat around the campfire exchanging stories and arguing the Vietnam war, and I sensed my moment of practical-joke greatness. Excusing myself to search for firewood, I found my way up the forest service road with flashlight in hand to a rutted pool of rainwater, found the plaster feet secretly hidden in the rocks upon our arrival, and laid out a nice pattern of footprints in the mud.
Satisfied with my work, I returned to the fire to announce in faux amazement that I had seen a depression in the mud resembling a large human foot! Genuine disbelief all around. No one wanted to leave the warmth of the fire.
So Dave gave it the needed impetus: “Come on, let’s check it out.”
With Coleman lantern and flashlights in hand, we returned to the site of the “sighting” and began a diligent search….and no one spotted a thing. I finally realized I would have to be the one to make out the muddy prints.
“Look, there! And there!”
Once the depressions in the mud were revealed, all agreed without hesitation that here was truly proof of the elusive Sasquatch. And here another! And another! Some huge humanoid creature had stumbled around the pool, probably drinking from its muddy rainwater. And Maury and Todd determined that we should pack up our tents and quit our camp for more familiar territory…home. Despite my and Dave’s pleading for courage, they weren’t about to spend the night with such a large creature lurking nearby and probably observing us from the darkness at that very moment, so I came clean.
Trying my best to put a cheerful spin on the prank, I admitted to the hoax, confessing that I had created the footprints. There was a stunned silence. But Maury and Todd would have none of it. Oh, they believed now that it was a hoax, since Dave and I showed them the plaster casts. But neither believed I was the hoaxer, blaming it all instead on poor Dave, the co-conspirator but certainly not the evil mastermind.
“Pat would never do such a thing,” said trusting Maury.
In a mood of general suspicion all agreed we’d stay the night, after all.
I made my way up from our campfire to use an old, half-burned out privy we had righted sufficiently to suit our needs. As I went about my business I heard an odd and disturbing guttural sound coming from behind the outhouse.
“Knock it off, guys,” I said. “You’re not getting even that easily,” I warned. Again, the unusual sound, now directly to the rear through the charred hole at the back of the structure. “Forget it, it’s not working,” I let my buddies know. Silence.
I looked down toward the campfire., saw three bodies silhouetted by the flames. Hastily abandoning the privy, I stumbled down to join my friends, hoping against hope that nothing came lumbering after me. And once in the fireside’s warm embrace, I knew better than to try to tell them about the strange sounds I had just heard at my back.
I destroyed the bogus footprints in the mud before we left our campsite the next morning.
And a week later I asked a zoology professor what might make such a sound I had heard coming from behind the outhouse. “Curious mountain lion,” he replied.
Now let’s flash forward about ten years…
My wife and I are hiking in the high Sierra Nevada, our German Shepherd Tanya at our side. Returning from spending the day in a wilderness area near Union Reservoir, we stroll down a well-groomed trail between two tall stands of pine.
With a bound Tanya leaves our side and races a hundred feet ahead to stare intently at something she has seen. She doesn’t let out a raucous bark, as she normally does at pretty much any discovery. We peer down the trail, interested in her find.
And there, stealthily traversing the path from left to right, moves a large, hairy figure. Taller than any man despite its hunched profile, covered in shaggy reddish fur, the being strides quickly on two legs, obviously intent on reaching the shelter of the woods. It does not turn its head in our direction. Tanya remains quiet, observing but showing no inclination to chase into the woods after the stranger.
We now race forward to where it disappeared from our sight, and see nothing amidst the growth of pines to our right. Nothing moves. Total silence. But Tanya’s ears remain alert as she stares, even after we encourage her to move on and we make our way down the path.
It might have been Maury or Todd, exacting a decades-old revenge for my college prank. But I doubt it. I suspect Bernard Heuvelmans would doubt it, too.
Copyright 2013 Patrick W. O’Bryon