CARSON, Wash. -- Go ahead. Make a monkey out of Sasquatch, say folks in this tiny town in the heart of Bigfoot country. That won't stop them from throwing their annual bash for the big galoot.
Or from believing -- or at least wanting to believe -- that Sasquatch, the man-beast also known as Bigfoot, still exists somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. True believers haven't missed a beat since two of their flock broke ranks last month to debunk the most famous home movie since the Zapruder film.
The grainy, 16 mm movie shot in 1967 of a terrified Bigfoot thrashing about in a Northern California forest is actually nothing more than footage of a man in a monkey suit, says Cliff Crook, a charter-bus driver and Bigfoot buff who has been chasing the beast for four decades.
The proof, he says, is in a detail seen in four computer-enhanced frames of the film that had previously eluded detection: a zipper.
"He's not even a good actor," says the soft-spoken Crook. "He turns toward the camera as if to say, 'Is it still on?' "
But in Carson, a rugged little lumber town in the Columbia River Gorge 40 minutes from Portland, the response is, who cares?
"It really doesn't matter what I believe," says Harry Schumacher, a 36-year-old painter, sculptor and Bigfoot booster.
Schumacher is the founder of Bigfoot Daze, a two-day annual festival that for eight years now has drawn several hundred people to Big Foot Park, a trailer park that's also home to about 85 mobile home families.
Schumacher says the "gung ho" -- those who say they have seen the man-ape or his footprints -- will not be put off by Crook's findings. And people who show up for the Bigfoot burgers and beer served up at the Daze have no reason to stop eating and drinking to the beast's health.
This year's event, which will fall on the weekend of Aug. 28-29, includes speakers, a Bigfoot chili cook-off (like Bigfoot burgers, made with more pedestrian meats), and the Bigfoot Stomp dance on Saturday night. On Sunday, teams of four people will slip their feet into 8-foot-long slabs of foot-shaped wood and struggle for the finish line in the climactic Bigfoot Race.
And, as always, there will be an appearance by himself -- made possible by the same magic that brings Santa to your local mall each year.
"We don't know who will play him this year. Someone big, I guess," says Ray Crowe, director of the Western Bigfoot Society in Hillsboro, Ore., a clearinghouse for Sasquatch sightings and the other Bigfoot film debunker.
Carson is in the heart of Skamania County, where the seldom-seen but much-loved hairy beast has enjoyed the protection of the law for a generation.
Thirty years ago, county commissioners designated the Sasquatch "an endangered species" and proclaimed the entire million-acre county a "Sasquatch Refuge." Kill one of the elusive hominids and you face a $1,000 fine and/or one year in jail.
Despite the security of such status, though, Bigfoot does not blithely walk the streets of Carson. The closest most folks here have come to a sighting is a 5-foot-tall plywood version that marks Schumacher's trailer park, or the 10-foot furry statue with the marble eyes that Schumacher drags out of his garage in honor of Bigfoot Daze.
Over in neighboring Stevenson, the huge white paw prints on the pavement lead you not to a Bigfoot lair, but to Stevenson High School, home of the Bulldogs.
Because of Bigfoot's shy ways, the 952 shaky frames of film shot by rodeo cowboy Roger Patterson and tracker Robert Gimlin 32 years ago have served as Bigfoot's primary credentials.
Crowe of the Western Bigfoot Society, who has been a participant in Bigfoot Daze since the beginning, worries that the film's exposure as a hoax could lead to more hoaxes or worse.
"We rely on the general public to come forward with their findings. If we get more hoaxes, people might feel foolish coming forward with their sightings or might think, 'It was just my imagination.' "
Though he's debunked the Patterson film, Crook has not lost hope that Sasquatch is real. He says he will now concentrate his search for the beast on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, where some encouraging tracks have been reported.
Crook's house in Bothell, Wash., contains several rooms of artifacts, and Crowe is looking for a new location for his Bigfoot Information Center and Museum (the old location, the basement of his North Portland bookstore, was labeled unsafe by the fire marshal).
Each year, the two men sift through hundreds of photos of tracks, plaster casts of footprints and written reports of unexplained sounds.
They move quickly to out the hucksters, the folks who have seen "Harry and the Hendersons" one too many times, the loonies who need a monster to believe in ("Nessie's dead, long live Bigfoot!") -- anyone who might cheapen their search.
In his 1995 book, "Where Bigfoot Walks, Crossing the Dark Divide," Dr. Robert Pyle explains how the beast gets the best of man:
"I think Bigfoot bewitches men. They fall in love with the idea of Sasquatch when they first see something or find a print on a muddy bank. They love the attention it brings them, and they see the glittering prospects of catching what everyone else wants to catch. They think they have an inside track on the chase. Or they find a friend in Bigfoot, who becomes the object of their passion.
"When their devotion is unrequited, with no more tracks or sightings and nothing to film, they grow desperate. Ignored by men and monsters, they contrive to renew the thrill by making their own evidence, and once they do that, they are lost, for they will never be believed again."
Maybe. But Crowe believes Bigfoot is still out there, watching, and looks forward to the day we can see him.
"We keep hoping we'll find a dead one, a roadkill or the victim of an accident," he says. "Until then, always read these reports with your skepticals on."
Pub Date: 02/14/99