Lots of 'finding' of Bigfoot — but nothing's ever found
You’d think, on a TV show called “Finding Bigfoot,” that maybe just once in a while, if only to mollify the habitual channel-changers, the cast would actually find, well, a Bigfoot.
And I mean a real Bigfoot.
Not that CGI beast that roars before and after each commercial break.
The cast members from The Animal Planet program, which recently started its second season, frequently imply that they’re practically surrounded by unidentified, but apparently quite elusive, primates.
They’re forever having rocks heaved in their general direction, and inevitably the shot-putters are deemed to be Bigfoots.
The cast frequently deduces the presence of the hirsute bipeds by other means as well — howls or footprints or vague images from a heat-seeking video camera.
Amazingly, the show has had the good fortune to never locate an episode in a place that isn’t, to borrow the crew's favorite adjective, “squatchy.”
(This derived from sasquatch, the Anglicized version of the word some Native American tribes used to describe a hairy wildman of the woods.)
That’s like the Super Bowl going to overtime every year.
But as for finding a Bigfoot, the show, despite haunting forests in several states, including Oregon, has failed in rather spectacular fashion.
Or maybe I’m just hung up on semantics.
To me, finding a Bigfoot means you bring one in from the woods — alive in a cage, ideally, although I’d also accept as proof a carcass strapped to the roof of an SUV with bungee cords or duct tape.
I’ll concede, though, that the Animal Planet producers could employ the defense that, hey, they didn’t name the show “We Found Bigfoot.”
I suspect that I judge “Finding Bigfoot” by rather more stringent standards than most viewers.
This is in part because I have a personal connection, admittedly a tenuous one, with the program.
One of its stars, Cliff Barackman, last year visited my parents’ house.
(Cliff is the gray-bearded guy who often tramps around in the forest by himself and who, compared with his male co-hosts, seems neither a huckster nor an affable buffoon.)
What prompted Barackman’s visits is a plaster cast. This pasty white hunk preserves the shape of a mark left in the mud beside a beaver pond in the western foothills of the Cascades.
My brother-in-law found this impression — several of them, in fact — in 1994 on his grandparents’ timbered property southeast of Salem, not far from Detroit Reservoir.
He called in my brother, my brother's friend, and my dad, and they poured plaster into one of the marks to make a permanent record before rain eroded it.
Bigfoot researchers would refer to this as a footprint.
And the cast my dad has certainly looks, if you give it a casual glance, like the shape the bare foot of a biped would leave in soft mud.
But I don’t call it a footprint.
That’s because I don’t know what made it.
I can’t prove, and neither can anyone else, that there was even a foot involved, much less claim to know the species the foot was attached to.
That said, the cast fascinates me.
If the prints were made by a Bigfoot hoaxer — hardly a rare breed — I’m convinced that my brother-in-law wasn’t involved.
Yet it seems to me implausible (though of course not impossible) that someone pulling a prank would choose to do so on private property.
Faking Bigfoot tracks is sort of a waste of time if no one’s likely to come by and see them.
Who wants to get all muddy if they don’t get to laugh later about the rubes who couldn’t tell a plywood cutout from the spoor of a flesh-and-blood animal?
Had there been only one impression I could more easily accept that it was merely the work of some natural process I don’t know anything about.
(Which is most of them.)
But that’s an unsatisfying explanation when you’re dealing with a line of several marks, of nearly identical shape, which led out into the pond and then returned to the shore and clambered up the soft, grassy bank.
Also, my brother-in-law found nearby the carcass of a beaver that appeared to have been eviscerated.
Ultimately, these tracks are merely a curious anecdote, a story ideal for provoking a shiver when told around a campfire far out in the backcountry.
I can get the hair on the back of my neck to quiver merely by thinking about the cast when I’ve hiking alone in the deep woods.
As proof that a species of undiscovered primate roams the United States, though, this incident stinks.
The tracks prove nothing except that someone, or something, displaced some mud.
It might have been the foot of an animal which, according to science, does not exist.
I hope it was.
But I don’t — can’t — know that it was.
This brand of skepticism never intrudes on “Finding Bigfoot,” and this absence prevents me from enjoying the show as much as I’d like to.
The program whips relentless, childlike credulity and smug certainty into a gruel which not only lacks the nutrition of solid science but also leaves a bitter aftertaste.
I was particularly annoyed by a segment on the recent episode set in Rhode Island.
(We’ll ignore, briefly, the sketchy notion that a population of half-ton bipeds could inhabit a state that’s barely one-third the size of Baker County.)
Barackman was hiking in the woods at night when he heard the call of what he identified as a barred owl.
At first I was impressed that, rare on this show, a cast member heard a noise in the forest that wasn’t made by a Bigfoot.
But Barackman went on to say, with the confidence of a museum curator leading his thousandth tour of the exhibits, that the barred owl’s howl is often confused with the vocal stylings of a Bigfoot.
The nonsense of this statement goes without saying.
But I’ll say it anyway: How can we know what a Bigfoot’s voice sounds like when no one has ever found a Bigfoot, much less herded one into Abbey Road and put a microphone in front of its beetling brow?
It’s not as if the creatures are mailing in audition tapes, after all.
(At least this possibility has not been broached on “Finding Bigfoot.” Yet.)
I don’t mean to single out Barackman.
His aforementioned co-hosts, Matt Moneymaker and James “Bobo” Fay, are, if anything, more gullible.
I’ve never met Barackman. But from what my dad tells me, combined with a few extended podcast interviews I've listened to, it seems to me that he’s friendly, smart and engaging. The sort of guy you’d enjoy sharing a beer with while swapping tales of mountain trails and things that went bump in the night.
I recognize too that “Finding Bigfoot” is intended to entertain more than to educate. These people are making a TV show, not writing a doctoral dissertation.
But I wonder whether Animal Planet might realize a modest ratings bump were the cast to admit, every now and again, that by any sensible measure the evidence for the existence of Bigfoot is a fair patch short of definitive.
That said, I don’t doubt that Barackman and the other hosts are sincere in their belief.
At least they’re not scouring the woods for chupacabras or mothmen or some other species which, unlike Bigfoot, lacks much in the way of biological plausibility.
And I respect Barackman, who started putting his own money, and time, into the search many years before cable TV opened its pockets.
Yet the average viewer, with a couple hundred channels to peruse, and Netflix streaming besides, is an impatient fellow.
If “Finding” continues to fall short of turning into “Found,” our viewer is apt to go elsewhere.
Perhaps even on the same network.
Take "Hillbilly Handfishing," also part of Animal Planet’s lineup.
Now that’s true reality TV.
Those boys don’t just talk about fish they think they've heard.
During every episode they reach into some mucky stream and come out with huge cats, real as life and twice as ugly.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.