Bigfooting––Science on the fringe?
As a relatively new resident of Santa Cruz, I have a lot to learn––like the Santa Cruz Metro bus schedules, how to catch the perfect wave, planning beach hikes around King Tides, not getting sucked into Fata Morgana illusions while sailing the bay, the best crab bait, and the art and science of bigfooting.
I had no idea that people here take Bigfoot as seriously as the tide charts.
I’ve seen and heard the lore from the Pacific Northwest, but I never grew up with it. Not a lot of Bigfoot sightings occur outside of Chicago, according to here: 20 Places to encounter Bigfoot and here: Bigfoot Sightings 2018.
But I do have experience with the Yeti legend in Nepal. And I have come to believe that people who have lived somewhere for a very long time and believe in things that don’t seem real have their own solid reasons for doing so.
But why, oh why are skulls always involved? In Nepal I was told that if I paid a small donation, I would be able to see the Yeti skull, affectionately termed the Abominable Snowman. I did. It didn’t really rock my world. I had no idea that the discovery of the Yeti helped to inspire Mike Rugg, the founder of the Bigfoot Discovery Museum.
I couldn’t wait to get the story about Mike and about Bigfoot. I wanted to know so many things. So who or what is it with this guy Bigfoot? Did a gorilla mate with a giant? Why is he so elusive, being as big as he is? Because let’s face it, if he walked up to In-and-Out Burger he’d probably get served first. I think I’d take advantage of it if I were him. I’m guessing if he wanted his own reality show it would win an Emmy. Is he a genetic experiment gone wrong? Is there a Mrs. Bigfoot? Did he drink from the fountain of youth or something? I mean, he’s been lumbering around for a coon’s age now all over the country if you believe all the sighting statistics. Maybe there is a society of Bigfoots, or is that Bigfeet, living deep in the forests of North America.
Clearly, I needed to go deeper.
Lucky for me there’s lots of free information about the guy. While getting up to speed on current Bigfoot news, I got to broaden my vocabulary to include bigfooting––the quest to find the creature; and blobsquatch, when your brain turns any blob into Bigfoot because that is what you most want to see.
I also learned about Bigfoot hunting drones and that he has his own community on Facebook. He even has his own Instagram account too where he sells a lot of tye-dye shirts some with his adorable likeness on the front, while others depict him playing the saxophone. Man, that guy is about as talented as he is reclusive.
But I needed more. And lucky for me, I didn’t have to go far. Just up the road from Santa Cruz to Felton on highway 9, about 9 miles out of town. There, tucked away in a modest cabin in the woods, you can get your Bigfoot on. In five to ten hairy, hair-raising minutes you’ll have taken in all the humble horror, mystery and intrigue that is Bigfoot––longer if you care to pour over the many scrapbooks, memorabilia, and books dedicated to bigfooting. There’s not only a lot to love about the collection of evidence and paraphernalia, but there’s a bit of romance in the air when you meet the man behind the museum. Mike has been curating the museum for lucky number 13 years.
You simply can’t find a man more enthused with the quest. But why? What drives his bigfooting? As it turns out he had a remarkable encounter.
I have to admit before I learned about his story I just thought the guy was maybe a little, well crazy. It seems such an off-beat obsession, almost too off-beat to be taken seriously. But I’d learn otherwise.
The beginning of the story takes place after WWII when Mike’s father had to find work to support his family. He ended up operating a sawmill in the town of Laytonville in Northern California. At this point, Mike had only been a gleam in his father’s eye, so this part of the story got handed down to him over the years. It was because of that sawmill and its location that his dad knew about the Eel River and the swimming holes there. His dad loved to fish, and his mom enjoyed collecting driftwood and making sculptures out of them.
This became the family camping spot. In 1950, when Mike was four years old, they went on a camping trip there as they loved to do. His parents were making breakfast on the camp stove––his dad loved to eat fish for breakfast––when Mike wandered off down a trail following the bend in the river where he encountered a sandbar. When Mike stepped out of the forest and onto the sandbar, he spotted a very large hairy person standing no more than ten yards in front of him. Their eyes met. Mike suspected the creature had heard his approach.
Mike put it best in an interview when he spoke of the experience. “I was awestruck. I had no way to describe it, and nothing to compare it to.”
At that moment he heard his parents yelling in a frantic search to find him. When they reunited, Mike told his parents about the giant hairy man and they followed him back to the spot of the encounter, but the creature had fled. His parents reassured him that everything was fine and he probably met up with a tramp, or vagrant.
And that might have been the end of the story, until a year later. The news wires filled up with a journalist in the Himalayas in Nepal who encountered what he termed the Abominable Snowman. When Mike heard the news, he insisted that his mom buy him a scrapbook. So his mom sweetly bought him the biggest scrapbook she could find. A boy would need a big scrapbook to tape articles about Bigfoot, wouldn’t he? And this turned out to be the beginning of the museum you can visit today.
Turns out, Mike has company. Idaho State University’s “Falcon Project,” proposed by faculty professor Jeff Meldrum, proposed constructing a remote-controlled blimp to gather evidence of Bigfoot’s existence. When the bill came to a whopping $300,000 the school and state research institution gave the project the thumbs down. So Meldrum sought to raise the funds through private donations. He has a similar, yet less dramatic story of an encounter with the creature in Canada a handful of years ago.
His documentary called “Discovering Bigfoot” can be seen on Netflix. In a recent interview, Meldrum expanded my Bigfoot vocabulary with yet another new term “The Curse of Bigfoot,” a phenomenon where electronics stop working whenever the creature is near––which explains why there is so much left to explain, including why Bigfoot as an affection for apples.
As the mystery continues to unfurl, the best way to stay up to date on the latest Bigfoot news will be a visit to the Bigfoot Discovery Museum. But the best reason to visit is to simply meet Mike and hear his stories. One thing is certain, there are an awful lot of gigantic concrete footprints that have been poured over the years.
Say what you will about their quest, scientist Trent D. Stephens of Idaho State brings up a very good point in a book he co-authored with Jeff Meldrum on evolutionary biology.
“The stuff that is on the margins, the stuff that isn’t popular—we scientists are horrible at judging it. And we say our mistakes about the fringe are all historical; we claim we are not making those mistakes today. The fringe has produced wonderful science, and it has produced wonderfully abysmal science. It has never been a comfortable place to live.” – Trent D. Stephens, scientist and Emeritus Professor at Idaho State University
I take note of the awesome opportunities that lie on the fringe. Bigfooting inspired me to get uncomfortable, to know more about Santa Cruz and reflect on the power of a scrapbook.