An unusual group of hominid was spotted Saturday in the fir-ringed valley at Lane Community College in south Eugene.
Although the skies were sunny, 210 of them gathered in the shade of a lecture hall and exchanged vocalizations on the subject of a bigger, hairier and more elusive and most controversial species — bigfoot.
“One thing these people have in common is determination in the face of societal opposition,” said Jim Kiser, who researches bigfoot from his home in Newberg. “My son thinks I’m crazy and my brother-in-law is less polite. My Ph.D.-in-chemistry friend says he has a bigfoot detector — and it’s a six pack.”
The range of the bigfoot-seeking hominid is national, but, since 2003, large seasonal gatherings have occurred in California, Oklahoma, east Texas and Ohio — where 670 turned up in April, said Jeffery Meldrum, who teaches anatomy at Idaho State University.
“It’s a curious commentary on human nature that there are these sorts of gatherings all over the country,” he said. “It becomes a social network that fills a human need, obviously.”
Saturday’s gathering, called the Oregon Sasquatch Symposium, drew participants from — besides Oregon — Washington, Idaho, California, Nevada, Florida, Texas, Hawaii and New Zealand. The symposium continues today in Building 17 at LCC.
The participants’ habitat — while traveling — is the Red Lion Inn or similar motels. But their ordinary location is out in the woods, listening for unaccounted-for knocks and whoops that might indicate the presence of bigfoot.
“Many of them devote any time they’re off the job,” said Jon Nichols, a Sasquatch researcher and bull breeder from Vancouver, Wash.
Bigfoot followers cannot be distinguished by surface activities, such as career or political affiliation, Nichols said. “You’ll see computer programmers to pipe fitters — a wide spectrum,” he said. “You have everything from the greenies to the rabid conservatives.”
They are tool users, these human bigfoot-seekers. They employ infrared night vision goggles, motion activated cameras, plaster casting kits. Some have developed mobile field research laboratories they tow behind pickup trucks to support their work.
Increasingly, they pursue bigfoot on the Internet, where several websites have cataloged signs and sightings of the elusive animal.
The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, for instance, lists 224 sightings in Oregon, including 13 in Lane County — including details of each encounter.
The bigfoot-seekers refer to themselves as “witnesses” if they’ve glimpsed a bigfoot-type creature and “habituators” if they’ve “come to know these beings,” said Toby Johnson, a University of Oregon student and the symposium organizer. Although, he said, the term “habituator” is fading in favor of “long-term witness.” The group calls itself the “bigfoot community.”
The community has its alpha individuals, who are revered for their experiences, their knowledge of foot- or voice-print — or their ability to rivet an audience to an encounter story.
Robert Gimlin, who shot the most famous bigfoot footage in 1967, was on hand Saturday. So was Meldrum, who is among the most prominent academicians to venture into Sasquatch study, despite the ridicule of university peers.
But the rock star was Autumn Williams, the keynote speaker, who was feted with whoops and cheers. “We are a family,” the slender blond woman said as she started her story, “drawn together by our interests.”
Williams told the story of a 50-year-old bulldozer driver in Florida, who took up residence in a swamp to escape the tragedies in his life.
There, Williams said, he took up a Jane Goodall-style life with a tribe of bigfoot. She referred to him only as “Mike” and said that she was the only human in the world to which he would confide.
Mike is a profane and funny witness, given to playfully calling his friends, the bigfoot — bigfeet? — “snapperheads.”
Williams said Mike would not supply her with a picture because he is wary of the demand for such “evidence,” but he allowed an artist to simulate an image that he verified was close to accurate, she said.
“Oh,” a woman in the audience gasped, when Williams flashed a close-up of the hairy face with luminous eyes, wrinkled nose and broad mouth on the lecture hall screen.
“Wow,” other audience members said.
Williams took questions after her speech, and none were critical, Meldrum noticed. “There were no probing questions, none of that,” he said, later adding: “It reflected the attitude of the audience. They were won over to her story.”
Many bigfoot enthusiasts are fervent — and some range into the realm of anti-science, Meldrum said. At an earlier conference, he said, “I thought I was in a Bible belt meeting in the South.”
The bigfoot-seekers are fairly shy. A half dozen wouldn’t mind sharing their experiences for this story, but not if they were identified by name.
“I just don’t want anybody to know,” said a woman from Spokane.
There are a number of reasons for their reticence, Nichols said. “As a (bigfoot) researcher, your highest priority is to not let anybody know what your doing and keep your mouth shut. They don’t want to be held up to ridicule.”
Another reason, Nichols said, seekers are proprietary about the woods where they do their field research. They don’t want their sites compromised.
“Mike,” the habituator in Florida, must remain secret so his identity doesn’t bring attention and jeopardize the safety of bigfoot — which he calls Enoch, Williams said.
“The big guy comes first,” she said Mike said.
Those who follow bigfoot’s trail tend to assume that the creature they seek is, generally speaking, friendly and intelligent.
Some have been influenced by the movie Avatar, Meldrum said, whether they recognize it or not. Williams, for instance, depicts bigfoot as a kind of noble savage who shuns the use of technology and lives communally.
She juxtaposes bigfoot with man’s image-and-possession obsessed society.
“That’s the politically correct posture for a lot of people,” Meldrum said. “The Sasquatch has chosen a path that’s more pristine and pure.”
Copyright: The Register-Guard