Joe Beelart says he has seen Sasquatch (or “Bigfoot”), and he’s written in detail on the topic. I joined him for a trip through the woods of the Pacific north-west – a region whose woods have a sacred feel whether you believe the stories or not.
Joe Beelart carefully places a red apple on a mossy stump. “We’re going to set out our first offering here.” He performs the same ritual every time he comes out into Mount Hood national forest.
“We used to call it baiting, but now we call it offering. It changed because we started to think of them as more human. An offering seems to make them more responsive to you.”
He and his fellow enthusiasts cite the Hewkin-Sullivan rule, after the adventurers who coined it: on average, it takes an observer 200 hours on the ground to encounter any new evidence of Bigfoot.
In the past, he put out an apple a month, but the time and expense of camping is a greater burden in retirement. Still, he’s been up eight times in the last year. He’s always mindful that fewer hours mean fewer rewards.
By the time he laid out the fruit, we had been driving through pre-dawn darkness and mist for two hours, aiming for a stretch of road that is not only the topic of Beelart’s recently published book The Oregon Bigfoot Highway but also his pole star. The region is known for its reported Sasquatch sightings, and the earliest ones he documents date back more than a century, to 1911.
Our pilgrimage started on Oregon Route 224, which heads south-east from Portland. It sheds lanes as it works its way through the city’s dwindling outskirts, and then into rolling farmlands. In less than an hour, it brings you to the foothill town of Estacada.
This is where the Bigfoot road properly begins. Route 224 continues south west, up into the alders, maples and firs and the gloom and fog of Mount Hood National Forest, all the way to Ripplebrook.
From late fall until the thaw in May, ice and snow mean that this is as far as most cars can go. But there is a forest road that kicks back to the south-west, running downhill along the banks of the Breitenbush and ending at a lake and town both named Detroit.
This dogleg is set in a national forest that sprawls out for more than 1m square acres. Some 345,000 acres of that is old-growth forest, and a little over 311,000 acres is protected wilderness. It’s just about at the center of a joined-up band of temperate rainforest that stretches from northern California to Canada.
It’s all big enough, and empty enough, to invite a certain kind of mind to fill it up.
Beelart was a marine in his youth, but changes in the service after Vietnam led him to the door. For the rest of his working life he was in the pump game, dealing in the rude, mechanical practicalities of getting water from one place to another. This pragmatic life lasted until the moment in the early 1990s that changed everything.
“One Christmas day after dinner, me and my nephews went out looking for deer on logging roads.” Suddenly a hairy, man-like creature emerged from the brush. “It was a normal, traditional Sasquatch. I saw it for 15 seconds.”
His sighting was typical in that it was fleeting. Most of the solid ones, he says, last for eight to 15 seconds. Any longer than that and they’re open to more critical scrutiny.
As for our search that day, I never saw a Bigfoot on our drive, and I can’t say at the end of our long day together that I believe that there are any to see. But there are some things we can agree on. There is something about the forests of the Pacific north-west that exceeds our powers of description and understanding.