[intro-text size=”25px”]A glimpse into Northeast Ohio’s most mythic and enigmatic resident…[/intro-text]
Dateline: June 24, 1980; Bellefontaine, Ohio- “I was unloading eight pigs I had bought about 11 p.m. I shut off the light in the barn and went around the corner to see what my two dogs were raising Cain about.” So starts the Ohio Daily News’s account of police officer, Ray Quay. Quay was “dumbfounded and surprised” to find a “seven-feet tall, hairy animal” lurking in the corners of his barn. Other officers were sent to corroborate his account, but to Quay’s frustration, nothing was found. Tales like this are as apocryphal as they are abundant for Northeastern Ohio.
According to local Bigfoot researcher, Marc DeWerth, the Allegheny mountain range, which spills into Northeastern Ohio, possesses an “abundance of water, a huge deer population, and lacks of any natural predators like cougars and wolves. The Sasquatch are on the top of the food chain,” he contends, “and Ohio has an abundance of food that they may take advantage of with little or no competition.” Dewerth coordinates his investigations through the Bigfoot Research Organization (BFRO), which claims to be the “only scientific research organization exploring the Bigfoot/Sasquatch mystery.” According to the site’s database, aside from Northern California and the Florida Everglades, there is no other state with more recorded sightings than Ohio. So replete are Bigfoot sightings in Eastern Ohio that famed cryptozoologist and founder of the Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, Loren Coleman, has stated in his book, Mysterious America, “Besides California, I don’t know of another state that has as many Big Foot investigators.”
I held a conversation with a person whose 2013 case prompted an independent investigation. “Suzy” did not want her real name revealed, but shortly after moving to the rural area outside of Loudonville, she encountered a lumbering figure in thick black fur leaping before her car as she passed some grazing horses. Her family was quick to assure her that it must have been a bear, but the spark had been lit. “It changed my life,” she admitted. The months following her experience found her descending into rabbit holes of personal research and meetings with members of the BFRO as well as the team from the television series, Finding Bigfoot. “I spent the next two and a half years trying to figure out what happened … the only thing that really saves my sanity is the science.” It was not long before her burgeoning obsession would begin to raise eyebrows. “Both sides of my family were just like, ‘Wow, what happened to Suzy?’”
Paul Hayes, of Stark County, had a similarly profound experience in 2011, which led him to create his own Bigfoot investigative branch known as the Genoskwa Project. He told me that it all started “on a regular night, one of those sleepless nights.” Stepping out for a midnight smoke, Hayes was met with a thunderous guttural howl erupting from the nearby pines. Intrigued, Hayes took his son into the woods in search of the sound’s origin several days later. “My son was standing in a small clearing. The grass is ten inches tall, degraded.” Hayes described the fateful night, the event still fresh in his mind these years later. “There were still leaves on the trees. I hunched down and there he was … I couldn’t even tell you how long the sighting even lasted. You were just in a shock where time stood still. It was amazing.” His tone went from sensational to somber when he added, “It changes you drastically. When you walk into the woods, you’re constantly looking over your shoulder, jumping at every twig snapping.”
Both Hayes’ and Suzy’s encounters are listed in the BFRO database, but the site’s primary function is its hotline. Here, people can call or email reports of potential sightings, not only in Ohio, but throughout the country. From there, researchers, like DeWerth, are dispatched into the field to follow up alleged sightings with a discriminating eye. Despite ruling out ninety percent of the cases he has investigated as either misidentification, a prank or hoax, when pressed, DeWerth contends that the remaining ten percent have proven compelling enough to keep the faith.
According to Dewerth, Holmes County and the area near Mohican State Park is currently the most active area, with over twenty ongoing sightings within the last thirty months. While the region around Salt Fork State Park in Guernsey County serves as the state’s Sasquatch Mecca. Due to the park’s prolific amount of sightings, it serves host to an annual Bigfoot Convention, of which DeWerth helps coordinate. The event is more than a weekend of fanfare for enthusiasts; it also doubles as a de facto support group. Witnesses are able to open up and share their experiences with others caught up in the same unexplained mystery.
Unfortunately, the specter of forgery has persistently haunted the credibility of the American Bigfoot legend since its inception. During one of our conversations, DeWerth recounted how “Bigfoot” was first named. “In 1958,” he explained, “Gerry Crew was out bulldozing roads in Northern California and found huge tracks around his excavator, it just happened that there was a reporter from the Eureka Times there interviewing someone about the road development. They saw the cast in [Gerry’s] hand and asked what it was. He answered, ‘a bigfoot.’ It hit the AP wire and that was that.” However, it should be known that the brother of the man who owned the construction site came out after his death and confessed to manufacturing the prints as part of a hoax. This confession was also corroborated by several members of the man’s family.
The Patterson-Gimlin video, that famous 1960s shaky-cam footage of an apparent Bigfoot sighting within the forests of Northern California, is paradoxically the most damning of evidence for or against the creature’s existence, depending on one’s personal interpretation. Believers will defend the footage, despite multiple confessions by supposed guilty parties throughout the years. While some “confessions” have been discredited, there are others that remain, casting a dubious pallor over the entire enterprise. I pressed DeWerth on the film’s validity and he answered as any true believer would, “There’s little or no doubt that the [film] is an authentic female Bigfoot creature. Having been to the actual location … would convince even the hardest skeptic.” When asked what it was about being there that made such a compelling argument, he answered, “It’s so many miles away from the beaten path, and I mean the beaten path, that it would just be absolutely impossible for someone to be dressed in a suit just waiting back there.”
Many enthusiasts see challenges to credibility as tests of faith rather than condemnations of their pursuits. As any true devout could attest, their unwavering belief is not without consequence. Whether the rest of the world will ever accept the accounts from people like those generous enough to share their experiences with me is irrelevant postscript. The lives of those that the Bigfoot touches are genuinely affected in profound and lasting ways. “Usually, when people go into the woods they play in the creek and they just have a good time,” Hayes lamented in our conversations. “When you have an experience like me, that good time is gone. You will never get that back. That’s something that you get robbed of.” I asked Suzy the same and she answered without hesitation, “Absolutely. One hundred percent, absolutely. I hate to say it, but you become obsessed with it.”
Whether there is actually a mythic beast roaming across Eastern Ohio, or whether it proves to be our own hearts’ desires that we’ve been chasing all these years, the answer is the same. As we push ourselves deeper into forests of the unknown, whether what we are seeking is the truth or merely validation, whether our motivations are rooted in attention or the basic human need for acceptance, one thing is clear: we are not alone.