Mary Beth Pope knows what she saw. On a clear night in November 2007, while hiking on an overgrown logging road in Sumter National Forest with four fellow members of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, she heard a crunch of leaves and twigs, glanced to her left, and saw an eight-foot-tall creature walking alongside her. It had shaggy fur and arms that swung down by its knees, and it was perhaps 30 feet away. She froze in her tracks and tried to stay calm.
Pope, who runs a sustainable-food wholesale and retail business on Pawleys Island, moonlights as a sasquatch investigator with BFRO, which is perhaps the largest group of Bigfoot believers in North America. Formed in 1995 by a man in Ohio named Matt Moneymaker, the BFRO sends its members into small towns and backwaters to check out reports of Bigfoot sightings and either confirm or debunk them. According to the group's website, the state with the largest number of reports is Washington, with 525. The one with the fewest is Delaware, with two. South Carolina has 49.
For this particular investigation, the team drove to the end of a forest service road and began hiking single-file toward a meadow clearing where skookum activity had been reported (skookum, like skunk ape or knobby, is just one of the many regional names for sasquatch). The researchers maintained a distance of 20 to 30 feet between each other and kept silent as they made their way through the pine forest. Pope was fourth in line, and she didn't want to spook the intimidating beast that had appeared to her left.
"I didn't want it to know that I knew it was there, so I started walking again," she says. "When I started walking, it started walking. It kept its head straight ahead." She quickened her pace to catch up with the third person in line, but he shushed her when she tried to get his attention.
"I could see the meadow and our people coming to the end of their hike, and all I wanted to do was get there, get where I could be close to other people," Pope says. Just before she got to the clearing, the creature peeled off and disappeared into the woods.
That night as they camped out in the clearing, she told her fellow researchers about the encounter. They believed it. Back home, her tales usually fall on skeptical ears. She remains unshaken. "For me, I don't feel like I have to convince anyone, because I know what I saw," she says.
Pope estimates that she has contributed to 75 to 100 reports since joining BFRO in 2007, although most are not publicly available on the BFRO website. She says the point of the data collection is not to prove the existence of Bigfoot — the members already know where they stand on that issue. Rather, the group is tracking data like rainfall and deer migration patterns to learn what it can about America's best-known cryptid.
Many of the people who report Bigfoot sightings don't want their names or locations made public, either out of fear that they will be ridiculed or that droves of sasquatch enthusiasts will come traipsing onto their property. BFRO protects its sources' anonymity when they request it.
"There's a lot of stigma attached to Bigfoot and Bigfoot sightings," Pope says. Her own brother had a face-to-face sighting with a mother sasquatch and her child in broad daylight in rural North Carolina, but he doesn't go around broadcasting that information.
"He doesn't like to talk about it," she says.
When a person spends enough time alone in the woods, he can get the feeling that he is not, in fact, alone. Don Tart, a BFRO member from Westminster, S.C., says most of the game hunters he has talked to know exactly what that uncanny sixth sense feels like. When they admit they've felt it before, he tells them about infrasound.
Tart believes that sasquatches are capable of emitting sound waves below the 20-Hz threshold for human hearing. Like many of their other adaptations, he says, infrasound serves to help sasquatches either scare off or avoid human beings. They have also been known to bang on tree trunks and throw rocks when they are in distress, either to scare off intruders or to alert their families. They are even believed to use sticks to build small teepees indicating the presence of humans nearby, a behavior that he thinks might be related to the creatures' pre-Colonial contact with Native Americans.
And then there's the howl. "To me, it sounds like a cow in distress, but it carries for a lot longer," he says. "It's an eerie sound."
Tart himself has felt the unease of not being alone in the woods. The first time was in June 1980 near Mt. St. Helens, which had recently erupted and killed 57 people. The volcano was still spewing hot ash when Tart, then a freelance photographer, hiked into the red zone — the 10-mile radius where officials had said they would arrest anyone caught trespassing.
He walked toward the mountain in the dark morning hours, before the guards were to arrive at 7 a.m., and was scoping out vantage points for photographs when he looked down and saw a solitary footprint pressed deep in the mud that was perhaps 16 inches long and 5 inches wide. In his mind, he wrote it off as an enormous bear track, but a part of him felt a strong urge to get away.
For years after that first queasy encounter, he was only a casual observer of Bigfoot phenomena. He took a job at Duke Energy's Oconee Nuclear Station near Seneca. Eventually, after accompanying some BFRO investigators on a 2006 expedition in North Carolina, he accepted an invitation to become a member.
"In my line of business, as an engineer, I validate assumptions," Tart says. "But I've seen a lot that I can't explain. I've seen them up close and personal."
Here's what Cliff Barackman knows about sasquatches: They are omnivores. They have flat feet. They are probably nocturnal, which would explain the scarcity of daytime sightings.
"If you had never been to school — no culture, no math, no ability to make fires — but you had that big old brain and you funneled all that intelligence into avoiding people and surviving, you'd be very good at it too," he says. Barackman is one of the stars of Finding Bigfoot, a TV show about BFRO investigators (including Matt Moneymaker) that recently began its second season on Animal Planet after becoming one of the network's top three series in 2011. He knows people regard his career choice with derision, and they have even yelled at him in public for promoting Bigfoot theories. He understands why.
"It strikes this chord in us because they are so similar to us," Barackman says. "Perhaps, in some people, it makes them so uncomfortable because it reminds us that we are animals, that we are part of the food chain, and that we are still, in some ways, beasts."
Establishing credibility is a big part of Barackman's job these days. He says he focuses his energy on researching Bigfoot, but not other murky phenomena such as UFOs or chupacabra sightings, because he has realized that "the more diverse the weird things I'm into, the less credible I become."
Barackman has done investigations across the United States, and he says the reports don't vary based on demographics — he gets them from people of all races, creeds, and backgrounds. He also says that, for every report that the BFRO receives voluntarily, he meets 10 people on the ground who have never spoken up about their own Bigfoot sightings.
"In small towns, your reputation is sometimes the only thing you have," Barackman says. "You don't want to be seen as a liar or someone who hallucinates or is on drugs."
As a researcher, Barackman stands on the shoulders of luminaries in the field, people like Idaho State University professor Jeffrey Meldrum, who is perhaps the only person with a collection of sasquatch footprint casts that is larger than Barackman's. After authenticating plaster molds from the field — looking for telltale signs of a fake, such as the presence of an arch — he often shares them with Meldrum. By marking the lengths of footprints on a scatter plot, he and Meldrum have determined that male sasquatches have slightly larger feet that females, as is the pattern in most primates.
What should you do if you come face-to-face with a Bigfoot? Finding Bigfoot co-host James "Bobo" Fay likes to talk to the beasts, place food on the ground, and then leave the area. Barackman cites Oregon Bigfoot researcher Autumn Williams as giving the advice to "let it retain control, because you're not in control anyway."
"If they were dangerous and came after us, we would have gone after them with pitchforks and torches centuries ago," he says. "That said, I think it would be stupid to shoot one, because it would probably retaliate."
The last time South Carolina made it on the map, Bigfoot-wise, was in 1988. That summer, in rural Lee County, tourists and international media swarmed the tiny town of Bishopville hoping to catch a glimpse of the Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp.
According to contemporary newspaper accounts, it all started when 17-year-old Christopher Davis pulled his car to the side of the road around 2 a.m. one June night. He had blown a tire near the swamp on the way home from work, and when he got out of the car to change the flat, he saw a monster with green skin and glowing red eyes bounding toward him. Terrified, he scrambled back into the car and pulled away, but not before something banged on his bumper and then jumped onto the roof. He swerved to throw the creature off and then sped home, taking hours to settle his nerves before telling his parents what he had seen.
After Davis finally worked up the nerve to tell Sheriff Liston Truesdale what he had seen, other reports started coming in from around the swamp and the Browntown neighborhood. In some instances, people reported torn-off fenders and bite marks on wheel wells.
To this day, the Lizard Man is a topic of conversation in Bishopville. There are believers who have evidence to back up their claims, and there are nonbelievers. There is now a Lizard Man 5K, and at least three songs have been written about the creature, while a museum in the town still peddles T-shirts and hats featuring crude drawings of the Lizard Man, vestiges of the year when Bishopville became an international curiosity and tourist hot spot.
Of course, the Lizard Man does not exactly fit the traditional model of Bigfoot stories. For one thing, it is much too aggressive. For another, it has been identified as a reptile with three toes per foot — although the authenticity of the tracks has been disputed. But Barackman thinks the Lizard Man might have been a sasquatch with a wrinkled face that spectators mistook for a scaly face. And anyway, the study of the Lizard Man falls under the same field of research as Bigfoot sightings, known as cryptozoology, or the study of creatures whose existence has not been proven.
In the summer of 2011, three professors from the College of Charleston — a biologist, a historian, and a communications researcher — traveled to Bishopville to hear Lizard Man stories, which by then had reached mythic status. Christopher Davis was murdered in 2009, but Sheriff Truesdale was still around and willing to talk.
The professors' two-day expedition did not yield any positive evidence. They saw the landmarks and heard stories from town historians, but they left as unconvinced as they had been when they arrived. Today, they talk about it with an air of academic distance. Their aim, after all, had been to learn about the Lizard Man's believers, not the Lizard Man himself.
Eric McElroy, who studies reptiles in the college's biology department, says the story of the Lizard Man would likely not have made it outside of Lee County if Truesdale had not taken Davis' story seriously. There are those who believe the Lizard Man was really a local farmer who dressed up to scare away people who had been stealing the copper coils from the air-conditioning unit in his butterbean shed.
"The sheriff said, 'I'm not here to be skeptical. I'm just here to investigate,'" McElroy says. "He treated it as a real case."
McElroy, for his part, did not take the same approach when he traveled to Bishopville. He knew that a reptile-human hybrid is an impossibility, and, as with all Bigfoot claims, he saw a simple lack of solid evidence. "These animals are eight feet tall and furry," he says. "I have a hard time believing that there's a population of these in existence that we've never seen a carcass and no one has ever kept one in captivity."
As a researcher, he was somewhat disheartened to learn about all the time and effort people had poured into validating legends like the Lizard Man. "The amount of money that goes toward researching Bigfoot is disappointing when you consider that basic science research is hurting for money," he says.
Robert Westerfelhaus, a CofC communications professor, had heard of Bigfoot stories while living in Columbus, Ohio, in the '80s. At the time, rumors abounded that Bigfoot-like creatures had come down from the Appalachian foothills in the southeastern part of the state. Sheriffs and teetotaler preachers had provided credible eyewitness accounts, but the culprit turned out to be bears that crossed over from West Virginia when a harsh winter froze the Ohio River.
After traveling to Bishopville, the thing Westerfelhaus found most remarkable was the way the Lizard Man had briefly buoyed local businesses and inspired hopes of economic revival. To this day, there are those who call for the construction of a Lizard Man statue in the town.
Perhaps the most keenly interested of the three professors was Scott Poole, the history professor and author of the 2011 nonfiction book Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. In his book, he wrote that although Bigfoot-style stories have existed in America since the Colonial days, when they represented a fear of the unknown on the New World frontier, they really reached their golden age in the 1950s and '60s. He cites the proliferation of so-called "creature features" and alien-invasion films at the dawn of a nuclear age as a sign of unease with the direction of American scientific research.
"I tend to think that beliefs about Bigfoot, beliefs about UFOs, beliefs in the paranormal, this current fascination with ghosts and specters and hauntings, it comes in part from a religious impulse and an effort to re-enchant the world," Poole says. "We want to reject the idea that the world has been explained for us, that there's order, that there's rationality, and that science can answer the big questions."
Cliff Barackman, like many Bigfoot hunters, tends to see his research as more scientific than mystical. But ask him why his TV show is such a success and why sasquatch tales continue to fascinate decades after Bigfoot's prime as a cultural phenomenon, and he gives an answer similar to Poole's. "Humans have this arrogance where we think we have things all figured out, but we don't," Barackman says. "It's kind of neat to know that there is still mystery in the world, and these things have still eluded us, and we don't know everything yet. It's even cooler that it's right in our own backyard."