Searching for Bigfoot in 2019 means long walks in the woods and maintaining a sense of wonder in the face of advancing technology. It’s about howling into the darkness and waiting for the unknown to howl back, about putting aside skepticism to bond with your kids, and, depending on whom you ask, it’s about interdimensional travel.
Sometimes, though, it’s about staring at poop.
“Naw, babe, I’m pretty sure that’s just dog poop,” Michele Talmadge, 53, told her husband, Jason, along a muddy trail on Luzerne County’s Bald Mountain during a search earlier this spring.
Jason, 34, is a cofounder of Pennsylvania Bigfoot Investigations, a group of enthusiasts who search for signs of the big, hairy primates in the state. To the uninformed, that might seem as sensible here as a ski club in Florida. But a recent report from the Travel Channel and the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) found that Pennsylvania is the third best state to have a Sasquatch sighting, behind the traditional stomping grounds of Washington and California. We beat Michigan and Oregon. According to the data site Squatchermetrics — yes, it’s real — no county in America had more sightings in February and March than Westmoreland, east of Pittsburgh.
They live in the Poconos, and hundreds of miles west in the rural Laurel Highlands, a hotbed for sightings in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and everywhere in between.
Travis Lau, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said official reports of alleged Bigfoot sightings are rare. But Gov. Tom Wolf, in a statement, said he can understand why Bigfoot would want to call Penn’s Woods home and encourages everyone to “explore one of our beautiful towns or parks, and see what you find.” A spokesperson for Lt. Gov. John Fetterman said he could neither confirm nor deny the alignment of Bigfoot sightings with the locations of his recreational marijuana tour stops.
Fetterman, the spokesperson said, uttered two quotes when asked about the phenomenon: “Not all who wander are lost” and “The truth is out there.”
Fetterman wears a size 14 or 15 shoe. He prefers to go barefoot.
In the leafy streets of Chestnut Hill, where one might expect raccoons toppling trash cans and not Sasquatch, students in Springside Chestnut Hill Academy’s Conspiracy Theory Club have formed an offshoot, the Sasqualogy Club. The teens, with the help of Matt Moneymaker, from the reality show Finding Bigfoot, are plotting a top-secret search this summer, in some undisclosed corner of the state.
“It’s part of Pennsylvania folklore that people are just intrigued by,” said student Rex Leininger, 18.
Last weekend, more than a thousand enthusiasts and researchers came together for the annual Bigfoot Camping Adventure, a conference-of-sorts at a Fayette County campground. Fees for the sold-out event ranged from $40 per day to $60, with approximately $3,000 going to local charities, said organizer Eric Altman, a Bigfoot researcher from Westmoreland County.
“It’s kind of like the Force in Star Wars — it’s the thing that binds us all together,” Cliff Barackman, a star of Finding Bigfoot, told the crowd during opening ceremonies.
Steve “Squatch Detective” Kulls and Brian D. Parson, a paranormal investigator from Ohio, led a night hike as part of the festivities. Just after 11 p.m. on Friday, they took a small group a half-mile down a rocky road on State Game Lands 51 near the campground. The ultimate goal, on any search, is a documented sighting of a Bigfoot, generally hairy, taller than 6 feet, 6 inches, with an odor Michele Talmadge described as “like a skunk and dead fish, and a rotting animal, all rolled up in garbage.”
"Anyone here seen a Sasquatch before?” Kulls, who sports a Bigfoot tattoo on his forearm, asked the people circled around him.
Most of the land near the campground sits along the Chestnut Ridge, a mountain range that continues south into West Virginia, where there are also lots of Squatch sightings. While it’s not the most rural, or even the most densely forested, it is Pennsylvania’s version of the Bermuda Triangle, just with more barns and the occasional Sheetz. Still, the crowd said they’d never seen a Bigfoot.
Kulls asked them if they believed.
“We’re here, ain’t we?" one man hollered.
Bedded deer were spotted, their eyes glowing green in a spotlight. Coyotes called to one another in the distance. Kulls used a thermal camera that made living things glow white. Over a loudspeaker, he blasted the unsettling sound of a crying baby into the forest.
Only the frogs answered.
“The best way to provoke a sighting is just talk normal, act normal," Kulls, an Upstate New York native, said during the hike. “It keeps the bad critters away, but the Sasquatch are primates and they’re naturally curious. We’re their entertainment.”
If Bigfoots were watching the Benner’s Meadow Run campground that weekend, they saw T-shirts with their likeness on them, bumper stickers, jewelry, and clocks made out of toilet seats, and heard lots of howling children trying to imitate them. Snuffy DeStefano, a chainsaw virtuoso from Elk County, said Bigfoot carvings make up 80 percent of his business. A 7-foot tall, white-haired version, known as the Yeti in the Himalayas or the “white Bigfoot of Carbondale" in Lackawanna County, was selling for $1,100.
The Appalachian Investigators of Mysterious Sightings, or A.I.M.S, proved to be the biggest draw, signing autographs and draping their long beards over children’s heads during photographs. The group stars in the Destination America reality show Mountain Monsters, and nearly every celebrity or guest speaker in attendance had a show, podcast, YouTube channel, or was angling for one.
Pottstown resident Greg Longaker, 47, slept in a tent all weekend with his daughter, Jordin, who “devours” books about Bigfoot. The trip was a 10th birthday present for her.
“It’s a way for us to bond,” he said.
The most iconic image of Bigfoot came from the famous 1967 “Patterson-Gimlin film.” As a boy in Washington, Jeff Meldrum watched that footage, featuring an alleged Bigfoot walking across a dry creek bed, and the hooks were set.
“The claims of debunking have never held up under scrutiny," he said, "and no one has ever been able to produce the costume or replicate what’s on the film.”
Today, Meldrum is a professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University, and the weekend’s most esteemed guest. He studied how primates and humans walk, which led him into the world of Bigfoot. He has a collection of 300 alleged footprint casts. Meldrum said he was ostracized by colleagues in academia for his interests. Beneath the tent in Pennsylvania, he was signing autographs.
Altman, the camping organizer, urged attendees to share sighting stories, promising “no judgment, no ridicule.”
A man named “Cottonmouth" recalled tracking a big house cat into an abandoned home. A boy said he was stalked by aggressive Bigfoots. Author Stan Gordon, who’s been studying Bigfoot and UFOs since 1959, said he’s never seen either. With no bodies or skeletons popping up, with so few pictures or videos existing when 92 percent of Americans own cell phones and thousands of landowners and hunters mount trail cameras to trees, Bigfoot’s origins, Gordon suggested, may not be of this world.
“So many people, even in the last year, in Pennsylvania are reporting these strange incidents with Bigfoot being there and suddenly disappearing and trails in the snow disappearing,” said Gordon, author of Silent Invasion: The Pennsylvania UFO-Bigfoot Casebook.
Joe Nickell wasn’t invited to the Bigfoot Camping Adventure. He’s a skeptic, a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry in New York. There’s a tendency for confirmation bias during searches, he said — to see piles of branches, a muddy hole, or the sound of a snapping twig as proof of Bigfoot.
“You can endlessly do this if you don’t let skepticism get in the way,” he said.
Nickell believes people are seeing something in the woods. He just believes those things are bears. In Pennsylvania, it would be a black bear, which can stand up to 7 feet tall on its hind legs. A Game Commission study from 2015 estimates the state’s black bear population at 20,000.
On Wednesday, the FBI released a series of correspondence it had with the Bigfoot Information Center and Exhibition of Oregon in the mid-1970s. The Bigfoot Center wanted to know if the FBI had ever tested supposed hair samples. The agency said it couldn’t find records that it ever had. Eventually, the FBI did test the hairs, the results a further blow to believers.
“The hairs were determined to be from a member of the deer family," the FBI wrote.
Still, Nickell thinks the Bigfoot phenomenon is “relatively harmless." There’s a general camaraderie between Bigfoot enthusiasts, he said, while the UFO folks tend to be a bit more conspiratorial.
“I think the end result is not the goal,” he said. “It’s about the process."
Back on Bald Mountain in Luzerne County, Jason Talmadge banged rocks together near a wind farm, hoping a Bigfoot would bang rocks back. He peered into muddy tracks along an ATV trail, glanced at downed branches, then decided they were nothing.
After about 90 minutes, the sun set, and he and Michele hurried out as the sky went from deep blue to black.
“It was a typical Bigfoot investigation,” he said afterward. “We found no evidence, had a nice walk in the woods, and had nice conversation.”