Sam McManis / smcmanis @sacbee.com

The Willow Creek-China Flat Museum in Willow Creek has lots of paraphernalia recounting either the tall tale or real story of the legendary Bigfoot. Lots of believers visit, say those who work there.

Discoveries: In Willow Creek there are Bigfoot believers

Published: Sunday, Sep. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H

WILLOW CREEK – Sad to say that, lo these many years, the field of crypto- zoology still has not advanced enough to give us definitive and irrefutable proof of the existence of a hirsute, hulking humanoid known in these parts as Bigfoot.

Not for lack of trying, though.

Popular books and scientific monographs have been written, supposed foot- and handprint casts scrutinized by experts in critters' dermal ridges, hair samples studied with microscopic intensity, a single 55-second film given Zapruder-like, frame-by-frame analysis.

Don't hold your breath for a big reveal any time soon. Heck, cryptozoologists can't even get to the bottom of Loch Ness Monster phenomena, and that's focused in a single lake in the Scottish highlands. Bigfoot – a.k.a. Sasquatch, or its quasi-scientific name, Gigantopithecus – could be anywhere from here in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest to Oregon, Washington or British Columbia.

It's better just to let the mystery be, don't you think? Let people believe what they want and keep a torch for the apelike creature with size-15 feet and God-awful primordial stench. Who are we to say they're wrong, deluded or absolutely bonkers to think the big lug could still be roaming these very woods?

Certainly, suspending your disbelief makes a trip to the Bigfoot exhibit at the China Flat Museum off Highway 299 in Willow Creek, about 40 miles east of Arcata, much more entertaining.

I made the mistake of going all Sammy Skeptic when I entered the low-slung building with the 30-foot wood-carved statue of Bigfoot beckoning me from the roadside.

"How many true believers do you get here?" I snidely asked Mikki Albright, behind the cash register at the museum gift shop.

"Me," she said, curtly. "I'm one."

Oops. Social faux pas. (Note to self: Never make fun of Bigfoot in a town with places called Big Foot Rafting, Bigfoot Burgers, Bigfoot Books, Bigfoot Campground ...)

Her co-worker, Peggy McWilliams came to Albright's defense.

"Most of the people who come in are either a believer or right on the fence," McWilliams said. "Very few strictly nonbelievers. And we get about 75 to 90 (visitors) a day. We get a lot of overseas people into Bigfoot."

Albright: "Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Czech (Republic), Switzerland and Australia, of course, because they have the Yowie. It's the Bigfoot of Australia."

Yowie's got some big footprints to fill if it's going to gain the popularity of Bigfoot. When Willow Creek held a Bigfoot Symposium in 2003, more than 1,500 people arrived in a town with a population of 1,710.

Everyone from tenured biologists to psychic bounty hunters to tabloid reporters attended lectures, seminars and poster presentations. The only one missing was the guest of honor, who has kept a really low profile since a spike in sightings and evidence-gathering from the late 1950s to mid-'80s.

I was trying – unsuccessfully, I feared – to keep the smirk off my face while chatting with these nice ladies. Albright seemed to sense my skeptical aura.

"I've just talked to so many people who have seen and smelled and heard, that I really do believe," she said. "A Russian scientist came to the symposium. He's an expert on studying dermal ridges of handprints of apes and humans, and he believes."

I nodded, more polite now in my incredulity.

"A lot of people here are serious that they've seen or know somebody reliable who's seen it," McWilliams added. With that, she pointed me in the direction of the Bigfoot wing, which takes up half the museum space. (The other half is devoted to Willow Creek/China Flat gold mining and logging history.)

There were lots of blown-up newspaper and magazine stories, and blurry blobs of photos. There were close to a dozen plaster casts of footprints and handprints, renderings of what cryptozoologists believe might be the size of Bigfoot's skull and impressive jawline.

There were maps dubbed "Bigfoot Topography," with pins stuck where it's been sighted. And there were research papers with important-sounding titles, such as "Evaluation of Alleged Sasquatch Footprints and Their Inferred Functional Morphology," by Idaho State University scientists.

I quickly learned why Willow Creek is something of a Ground Zero for Bigfoot studies. (And, no, smarty- pants, it's not because it makes for a tourist-friendly roadside attraction.)

It seems that back in 1958, a backcountry bulldozer operator found hideously large footprints near a local road-construction site. A Humboldt County newspaper reporter got wind and ran with it, calling the creature Bigfoot. Then, on Oct. 20, 1967, locals Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin went searching Bluff Creek here with a 16 mm movie camera and "filmed a hairy giant as it walked up the hillside away from the men."

The blurry, shaky film became a staple of popular TV documentaries. You can watch it at the museum and catch it all over YouTube. All I could think while viewing: If the hairy, long-armed biped really didn't want to be seen, it would've got those size-15 feet running, rather than just casually strolling up the hillside. Was "Bigfoot" preening, hoping for a close-up instead of a pan shot?

Then, I remembered something McWilliams said back at the gift shop.

"When (experts) look at the movie, they say you can see the muscles contracting in the thigh, the right thigh, and the swing of the long arms," she said. "They can prove it's not a costume with a longer arm hanging down."

Just as a single seed of doubt was being planted in my skeptical mind, I was joined in the exhibit by tourists Larry Schafer and Adria Williams, from Port Moody, British Columbia.

"We call it Sasquatch at home," Williams said. "There are a ton of stories, so I think something's there."

"Oh, yeah, definitely," Schafer said.

"I don't think there'd just be one," Williams added. "I just read that people in B.C. have seen groups of them. One guy in B.C. reported seeing up to 10. A whole family."

Are you sure it wasn't the Kardashians?

"We are believers," Williams reiterated. "Canadians believe."

MAKE TRACKS TO BIGFOOT EXHIBIT

The Willow Creek-China Flat Museum, featuring the Bigfoot exhibit, is at 38949 Highway 299 in Willow Creek. It's open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays from May through September, noon to 4 p.m. in October and by appointment November through April. Admission is free; donations accepted. Call (530) 629-2653. The website is: http://bigfootcountry.net.

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