Hairy tales of the Northwest’s mythic man

🕔Jan 29, 2009

It’s been close to a decade since I started exploring the outdoors, and I have come a long way from the city girl who had never set foot in a canoe or off a well-signed, gravelled trail—yet the true backcountry still unnerves me. As beckoning as nature is, it also boggles with its sheer adversity, challenges with its imperviousness, and taunts with its secrets. Our Northwest wilderness harbours histories that reach back at least as far as the end of the last ice age, ten to twelve thousand years ago.
The original inhabitants of this land, generation upon generation of coastal and inland First Nations, spoke of upright, long-haired wild men (and women) of the woods. Many early European settlers and their descendents encountered a similar beast (and/or his tracks, smells, sounds, or nests). Houston, Babine Lake, Grassy Plains, Moricetown, Hazelton, Terrace, Masset, Juskatla, Skidegate, Klemtu, Hartley Bay, Kemano, and Kitimaat are just some of the many locations where the Sasquatch has popped up.
Myself, I’ve never seen any evidence of Sasquatch—but I’ve never looked, either. Truth be told, I find nature in all its glory already intimidating enough. However, if you’re the type that doesn’t balk at solo ventures in the great outdoors (as a friend said, “Sasquatch doesn’t visit groups”), or you have a penchant for the outlandish and curious—read on. And try to keep an open mind; when asked what the smartest animal is, the Andean wise man replied, “The one that is barely seen and never found.”

In the beginning
First Nations lore in the Northwest includes Sasquatch and some Sasquatch-like figures, although many are reluctant to have an outright discussion about what is known. Some feel that to see a Sasquatch is a blessing; others say it is a curse. In Gitxsan he is called Bah-diks, and may be associated with a large footprint found in a rock near the village of Kispiox. Called “Wegyet’s footprint” (after the Gitxsan trickster figure), the rock was destroyed during road-building by the Department of Highways.
The Tlingit have their Kooshdaa Khaa (Land Otter Man) which, rather than being a Bigfoot per se, is described as the the shapeshifting souls of lost or drowned Tlingits – definitely still spooky and forest-dwelling, although not large, and not big-footed. Across the water, the Haida have Gagiit, a man of the woods whose description meshes more with what we expect Sasquatch to be: tall, upright, hairy and with enormous feet. And the Tsimshian speak of Bowis, while the Haisla have B’gwus. (Farther flung regions are no different: pre-contact oral traditions and artworks from around the world indicate that Sasquatch is global.)

The Eyes Have It
Robert Michael Pyle in Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide states that only some see Bigfoot because only some are looking in the right way. Perhaps it is similar to drawing, where the real skill is to see what you are looking at. Maybe some of us just aren’t seeing properly. Our European perspective demands that in order for Bigfoot to be true, we need to see him clearly, up close, and often. We want to find our tall, hairy friend whenever we look for him. Yet how realistic is that? We believe in cougars, spirit bears, and other reclusive, intelligent animals which few of us have actually seen under such circumstances.
It doesn’t help that nowadays, when most people hear “Bigfoot”, they roll their eyes and think of tabloid covers that scream “Woman births Bigfoot Baby!” or beer commercials where Mel the Sasquatch steals a cold one and escapes by snowboarding down the glacier. Given the hard-nosed, no-nonsense, pragmatic nature of most people that live in the north, perhaps it requires more bravery than wackiness to speak up. Even if you were convinced, would you want to tell anyone?
Some First Nations perspectives tolerate more ambiguity than our Western eyes. In the novel Monkey Beach, a coming-of-age tale narrated by a young Haisla woman, B’gwus comes to the main character in dreams, yet also peeks at her while she is berry-picking and runs in front of her car while she is driving. The grandmother, mother and daughter credit the daughter’s visions and experiences as valid (although the father does not). (Pyle calls this “seeing with Indian eyes” and references the southern BC Kwakiutl First Nation [northeastern Vancouver Island] as an example of a different, more fluid reality. There, an object can be solid one day and phantom the next, yet is still considered real.)

Visitors Who Never Left
Copious First Nations oral legends involving Sasquatch are supplemented with numerous reports and sightings upon arrival of the white man. Early white traders tell of First Nations showing up at trading posts with warnings and stories of Sasquatch, and many European immigrants (prospectors, hunters, fishermen, farmers) began to speak up about different occasions where large, hairy humans were spotted.
In 1924, Albert Ostman headed up to the mouth of Toba Inlet near Lund, BC to check out a possible gold mine. His Indian guide warned him of “the big people of the mountains” which Ostman brushed off as nonsense, yet he asserted until his death in 1975 that his subsequent kidnapping and harrowing escape from a family of Sasquatches was true. (Ostman’s detailed, lengthy account is one of BC’s classic Sasquatch encounters.) In 1929, Macleans magazine ran an article titled, “Introducing British Columbia’s Hairy Giants.”

Kooky or Kosher? You decide:
A nine-foot-tall walking ape was seen crossing the highway at Hazelton, and 17-inch footprints, suggesting a seven-foot stride, were found on the bank of the Skeena. A man fishing the Kincolith River in 2003 watched something gigantic and two-legged play in the water downstream of him for over an hour; he called to it repeatedly, was ignored, then watched as it up and walked into the forest rather than into town.
In 2006, 30 kilometres from Dawson Creek, a man described a den formed by windfall that had two- to three-inch-long matted, stringy, reddish-orange hair tangled up in it—along with an approximately size-14 footprint and some branches snapped off in a fashion he had never before seen. In the same year a trucker (who is an avid hunter) reported a series of howls unlike anything he had ever heard before and the persistent feeling of being watched while at a rest stop near Bell 2 along Highway 37; he was scared enough to hop in his rig, lock the door, and hit the road.
A New Aiyansh resident has spoken with more than 40 witnesses over a number of years and described a number of reported encounters—not least among them a fight between two “big” bigfoot males.
A Telkwa resident spoke of time spent in Haida Gwaii where fear of and respect for Gagiit was simply common sense: pregnant at the time, she was told that she should take care when camping. (I found more references to Sasquatch’s apparent soft spot for pregnant women while researching this article.) Just last summer a female in Houston went public with a detailed sighting of a Sasquatch, and her story was picked up internationally. Brian Vike, who lives in Houston and collects and updates a heavily visited database of sightings of paranormal events, spoke to the number of reports regarding Bigfoot recently: “There have also been recent sightings in Campbell River and Port Renfrew. It appears Sasquatch is making his presence known in BC.”

Prank or possibility?
One scientifically plausible argument for Sasquatch’s origin is that he may be a leftover, a relict species (his cousins died out but he survived). Perhaps he’s just a shyer version of the erect, bipedal (two-footed) primates some would call our ancestors.
When all’s said and done, I don’t need to see Sasquatch to feel like there’s a lot out there that we still don’t know, and I also don’t find it a hard stretch at all to imagine that Sasquatch is smart enough to steer clear of us—we are not exactly a quiet or subtle species. If we headed into the bush without our motors, gadgets, attitudes, and irreverence, who knows what might find us? Ultimately, we all choose to see what we want to see, and, as George Orwell said, “Myths which are believed in tend to become true.” Clearly, the reverse applies as well.

From the Salishan language of southwestern British Columbia meaning “wild men” [sesq_c]; variations: Saskehavas, Tselatiks, Sehlatiks, Seeahltk, Salatiks, See’atco.

Sasquatch around the world

Eastern Athabascan – Windago
Gwich’in – Na’in
Nuxalk (Bella Coola) – Boq’s /Bkw’s or Pukw’s
Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) – K!a’wa!a / Pkw’s
Plains Cree – Weetekow
Algonkian – Windigo
Iroquois – Stoneclad
Asia – Yeti
Mongolia – Alma
China – Yeh Ren
Siberia – Chuchunaa
Haiti – Cigouave
Borneo – Sedopa
Malyasia – Orang-Dalam
East Africa – Agogue
Columbia – Duendi

the study of hidden animals to date, not formally recognized (by what is often termed Western science or formal zoology) but supported in some way by testimony from a human being and evidence of their presence.