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Sasquatch meets the citizen science movement

A drawing from the book. Credit: Richard Goettling

Acclaimed Seattle science writer David George Gordon is intrigued by tales of the legendary Sasquatch that have fueled the lore of the Pacific Northwest for centuries.

Gordon notes that so far, evidence of this celebrated Wild Man of the Woods has been dubious. But, in his new book, The Sasquatch Seeker’s Field Manual: Using Citizen Science to Uncover North America’s Most Elusive Creature (Mountaineers Books), Gordon encourages people to follow the tenets of science in gathering credible data to further the understanding of the Sasquatch.

He sets forth the scientific protocols for data collection, from effective written and photographic documentation to collecting hair, scat, footprints and other evidence. The book also details hikes in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California where sightings have been previously reported. Gordon has created a website for reports from intrepid Sasquatch hunters and other interested readers.

The new book has been nominated for the 2015 National Outdoor Book Award in the Nature and Environment category. Gordon, who lives in Seattle with his wife, artist Karen Luke Fildes, is the author of 19 other books on nature and biology on subjects ranging from gray whales and cockroaches to sea lions and bald eagles. His best known book may be The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook, which has led to appearances ranging from the Smithsonian Institution and Yale University to the Singapore Food Festival and the San Diego Comic Con.

How did you come to write this somewhat offbeat field guide?

I actually had written a little book in 1992 called The Field Guide to the Sasquatch. Then, at the Northwest Science Writers Association annual party three years ago, I bumped into a woman who said I should consider redoing the book because it was out of print. She was also an editor at Mountaineers Books, so with an outline and a short proposal, I was off and running.

I had been working as a science writer at Washington Sea Grant, a branch of NOAA at the University of Washington, so I was aware of citizen science, I turned this book into citizen science meets the Sasquatch, and how to be a better citizen scientist.

David George Gordon
David George Gordon Credit: Kassinger

You discuss how to gather scientific evidence in a manner that rivals building a legal case.

I didn’t realize this until doing the book, but the idea of being a professional scientist is fairly recent. In the 1700s or even early 1800s, for example, people were not professional, full-time scientists. Most of them also had a day job of some sort. For that matter, many people were self-taught. So the idea of becoming a professional scientist only began to hit when museums and universities started hiring people.

Citizen science, the idea that non-professionals can go out and collect meaningful data, is a new thing, and I think, a great thing.

What are some established citizen science programs?

The Cornell University Ornithology Lab has a number of [these programs], and they’re leading proponents of citizen science. They have programs that are no more involved than people who make observations of their backyard birdfeeders, so they can look at trends from all over. There’s another program called Budwatch where people report exactly when their shrubbery begins to bud or leaf out.

My all-time favorite is here in Seattle at the University of Washington, the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST). They send people out to survey Washington’s coastal beaches, and if they find a dead seabird, they note their findings and submit that. They can gain a lot of information about what’s going on in the ocean even 100 miles offshore that may not be detected by satellite.

You describe scientific evidence collection and accepted protocols and this seems like valuable information for any budding naturalist or citizen scientist.

The goal of my book ostensibly is to get people to bring in enough evidence to confirm or to rule out the existence of a Sasquatch. I also have another agenda and that’s to get people out into nature. They may see the mating behavior of a land snail, for example, and they’d be in a great position to document it.

For people who may not have a clear idea, what is a Sasquatch or Bigfoot?

It turns out the term Bigfoot came from California in a newspaper article after a person found a giant footprint. In a deathbed confession, [that] person said he had staged that particular footprint. So Bigfoot is a popular term but it started at an already-bogus level.

The word “Sasquatch” comes from the Chehalis Indian tribe of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, and it refers to a large mammal-like creature or being anywhere between 4- to 8-eight-feet in height, having large feet to spread the weight of what might be a 1,000-pound individual, covered with hair, that lives without tools or other civilized traits in our woods.

You introduce the tales of these creatures not only on the western coast of North America but also the yetis in the Himalayas and even biblical stories of other wild, giant, humanoid creatures.

It fascinated me that in the Northwest many different tribes tell similar stories. I quote a study by Wayne Suttles of Portland State University who looked at these legends and put them on a grid to find commonalities and then put forth different theories on why all of these tribes have these stories. One of them is, of course, that this creature exists. But other theories include that this could have been a code name or slang for other tribes they fought with during incursions or taking slaves. Another idea was to keep children closer to the campfire.

There were several theories, but Suttles only found two things in common for all of these stories. One was that these creatures were large—gigantic, and the other was that they lived in mountainous areas. Everything else varied from tribe to tribe.

Another thing is that humans have a need for something that is not human to define our own humanity. Even in the Bible, there’s lots of stories about the hairy guy in Cain and Abel and in Esau and Jacob. It was a way of establishing what a good human was like.

It may even go back to the idea of ancestral memory—the theory that we have memory in our DNA of when we were not the only large primates coexisting or fighting it out for supremacy.

What’s your view now of this legendary Sasquatch creature?

I’m a fence sitter for the most part. I’ve said there may be something out there. I’ve talked to enough people who are well versed in the outdoors not to mistake this thing for a grizzly bear or an elk, but they say they’ve seen something and they’re not sure what it is. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to go to court with the evidence because there are all sorts of holes in it.

In the book I ask, “Does the Sasquatch really exist? I don’t know. You tell me.” I want people to go out and gather evidence correctly, do analytics and resolve this.

Were there some sightings that were more intriguing or possibly more plausible than others?

It’s interesting to me that the footprint casts are the predominant evidence people have. Some of those casts are clearly faked. On the other hand, they do find periodically footprints that have the flexion you’d expect in a real foot walking in terrain. There’s one cast from eastern Washington where you can see the dermal ridges, like fingerprint markings of a foot, and that would be incredibly hard to fake.

I’ve also talked to many people. During my talk at Elliott Bay Books, I told about a guy from Bremerton who had seen Sasquatch footprints several times. He’s a retired electrical engineer and he’s not trying to get on the Late, Late Show or make a name for himself. In fact, he’s opening himself up to a lot of ridicule by his community. There’s no motive for him to misrepresent what he’s finding, and that’s convincing to me.

What do you think of that film clip of a large, hairy creature in the forest in California?

That’s probably the biggest piece of evidence that gets brought up. It’s a very short film—under a minute—of a Sasquatch walking away from the camera. It was taken by Roger Patterson from Yakima in the ’60s.

The film has been viewed by many renowned scientists, including animal behaviorists and primatologists. At this point, no one has found a reason to think it’s a fake. But many things about the film are suspicious. They don’t have a filmstrip leader that shows where and when the film was developed [or] any other footage from the same roll. And there’s confusion over the chronology of where the film was developed.

Patterson sold the exclusive rights to that film to several people, which is shady. The person who had the rights most recently made a career of finding people who used the images and then suing them.

How did other science writers respond to your Sasquatch book?

Being a member of the Northwest Science Writers Association, when I told my fellow writers I was writing about the Sasquatch, I got these odd looks like, “Come on. Really?” I’d say it’s really about citizen science and how to use those principles to resolve whether the Sasquatch exists. Then those people said, “Oh, cool.” So I could tell I was on the right track.

If we go back 20 years or so, citizen science was regarded as a feel-good exercise, and hard-core scientists would look down their noses at it. But now there are training classes and other developments so the people who gather the data are very effective [and] people are contributing meaningful information. An outdoorsman may know as much if not more than a trained scientist about what’s going on in his region. I like the whole movement a lot, and it’s greatly improved.

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