Yesterday, while flipping through my Minneapolis Continuing Education fall catalog, I noticed a class on the Great Mysteries of Science, which turned out to be lake monsters, Sasquatch and UFOs. The class was to be taught by a retired University of Minnesota professor who has since participated in an expedition to study said Sasquatch.
Now, this surprised me, because I had previously pegged Bigfoot as one of those coastal elites, who spent all his time in the Pacific Northwest and shunned the forests here in flyover country. But, apparently, Sasquatch is a Real American after all. In fact, sightings are common enough in northern Minnesota that the Bigfoot Field Research Organization recently organized a Sasquatch search party up there. Forty-two people went along, including my friend, travel journalist Frank Bures, who wrote about the experience of "'squatch hunting" for Minnesota Monthly magazine.
We'd been split into 15 camps, and we were carrying an armament of investigative equipment: night-vision scopes, walkie-talkies, GPS, infrared cameras, thermal-recording devices, video and audio recorders, and more. Someone handed me a thermal imager, which would show bright heat signatures of the living things in the forest. I scanned the area around us but saw nothing except a few warm rocks and something that may have been a raccoon.
"We've got some activity here," came another report across the radio. "They're walking around our site." Whenever the group laughed, apparently, there was a rustling in the woods. When they laughed really hard, there was even more rustling.
Those lucky bastards!
Just that morning I had seen the ghost of a footprint in the soft sphagnum near the other group's tent. It looked not quite human, but not quite ape. It had toes, but it was hard to tell what kind of biped might have made it. Two of the people in that camp, a young couple who had once recorded sounds thought to be a Sasquatch running through their hometown near Cass Lake, had heard many strange noises and seen odd shapes just beyond the light of their campfire the previous night.
"We can hear it walking past our tent," they now called over the radio. "It sounds like it's wearing corduroys."
"So," someone in our group replied dryly, "Sasquatch isn't very stylish."
The article contains more science than you might expect. After being told about the alleged Sasquatch's alleged ability to "zap" potential prey into submission with ultra-low frequency sounds, Frank muses on the vast gulf between the deeply silly Sasquatch and the Sasquatch which may, at least, have some tenuous connection to reality.
From Bigfoot's invisible energy beams, it's not far to the edge of the cliff that many enthusiasts have happily thrown themselves over, leaping from simple zoological fact into a morass of New Age nonsense. ... Even if I did want to believe, these things make it very hard.
The notion that there are small populations of unknown primates around the world got an unexpected boost when Scientific American published a cover story in 2000, titled: "We Were Not Alone." It began: "Our species had at least 15 cousins. Only we remain. Why?" The article said our last relative died out 25,000 years ago. But a 16th cousin was added in 2003, when the existence of the "hobbit," a human-like creature that scientists believe died out 12,000 years ago, was confirmed in Indonesia.
For years, locals in that country had told stories of Orang Pendek, a small hairy person that lived in the forest, yet such tales were dismissed as folklore. Now that science has begun to rewrite the evolutionary family tree, the question arises: Are we really alone?
Recently, scientists with more than a few credentials have started to take that question seriously, people like primatologist Jane Goodall (who, in 2002, told Talk of the Nation host Ira Flatow, "You'll be amazed when I tell you I'm sure they exist") and Jeff Meldrum, an anthropology professor at Idaho State University. In his book, Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science, Meldrum looks at the assembled evidence and finds that some Sasquatch footprints have a midfoot joint that's common in nonhuman primates while others have toe prints running lengthwise instead of across the foot. And new examinations of the old Patterson-Gimlin footage suggest the figure's torso and limbs don't match typical human anatomy.
But what about the zapping? Seriously? Zapping?
... After all, as Meldrum pointed out, it was recently discovered that tigers stun their prey with a blast of infrasound just before they pounce.
They zap them.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.