Sasquatch in the Sierra.
In last week’s installment, 16-year-old Theresa Bier turned up missing, and the last person she was seen with, 43-year-old Skip Welch, mostly just wanted to talk about Bigfoot. This week, we step back and take a look at that legendary creature, its surprising history and prominence not all that far from Fresno, and some remarkable photos that Skip claimed to have taken.
In the early 1980s, a house painter and self-described mountain man was able to convince the Chair of the Anthropology Department at Fresno State University to meet with him. Skip Welch wanted to show the anthropologist photographic proof he possessed of Bigfoot’s existence in the nearby central Sierra.
For Roger LaJeunesse, Ph.D., the meeting, which he reluctantly agreed to, was a memorable one. His conversations with Skip were not the first — nor would they be the last — discussions this man of science would have on the subject of Sasquatch. And Skip Welch was far from the first — and certainly not the last — person to claim he had seen the legendary creature in the central Sierra, in the mountains just east of Fresno.
Before there was Bigfoot or Sasquatch, before even the Europeans arrived in California, there was Hairy Man. Native American lore is ripe with references to a Sasquatch-like creature.
Indeed, the word Sasquatch is believed to come from the Salish — the language of Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest — word Sasq’ets, meaning “wild man” or “hairy man.” Closer to Central California, the North Fork band of Mono Indians have long believed the creature exists and have two names for it: Kooseekoosnow and Kakownow.
Perhaps nowhere have local native legends manifested more dramatically than at Painted Rock on the Tule Indian Reservation in the hills above Porterville in southern Tulare County.
Painted Rock is a stone shelter associated with a prehistoric village with ancient pictographs painted on its ceiling and walls. Some of this artwork, estimated at 500 to 1,000 years old, depicts an entire family — a male, a female, and a child — of large, hair-covered, human-like beings. The male has his arms spread wide and appears to have long hair and big haunting eyes streaked with tears.
According to the oral traditions of the Tule River Indians, Hairy Man is a big, bipedal, hair-covered human-like being with large feet who lives in the mountains and roams freely at night, stealing food when he can. A local creation myth claims that Hairy Man helped the animals to create people, but when they saw Hairy Man, they were scared and ran away.
This is why Hairy Man’s picture is crying to this day. Hairy Man’s most important cultural role is as caretaker of the recently deceased. To this day, members of the tribe still believe that Hairy Man, or Bigfoot if you will, comes and carries the dead to Mt. Tillman, above Painted Rock.
Euro-Americans and Bigfoot
Accounts of sightings by the white men who came later go back as far as 1873, when C.D. Barton informed the Visalia Delta newspaper of two hunters on upper Dry Creek who came upon “an animal of human form in nude condition” that fled, running in a “bent or stooped position.” The account also noted that another hunter saw a creature a few days before that “whose whole anatomy and physiognomy beggar all description.” The hunter did, however, observe that “the gorilla was about six feet in height, covered with hair and strongly built, with arms of great power and length.” Acknowledging other reported sightings in the area, the Delta concluded that “it seems likely that there is a family of this Darwinian link that binds us to the past, living in our hills.”
Bigfoot on trial
More than a century later, we would learn how Cary Stayner spotted a Sasquatch in Foresta, on Yosemite’s edge, in the early 1980s. According to an expert witness called by the defense in Stayner’s trial for the 1999 murders of three tourists near the national park, Stayner “remains obsessed with bigfoot as a religious or mystical figure.” The psychiatrist told jurors Stayner literally “thinks about this continually. It’s been going on for decades.” Today, Stayner is on death row at California’s San Quentin State Prison. He has yet to respond to my letter asking him for comment on his Bigfoot obsession.
This is not to say, however, that seeing a Sasquatch, or believing in Bigfoot, should automatically be equated with mental instability. Plenty of perfectly normal, grounded individuals have stories of close encounters with the legendary creature.
In 1985, for example, actress Ally Sheedy was on vacation, not long after the premier of St. Elmo’s Fire, with friends up near Shaver Lake, Calif., in Fresno County. While sunbathing one afternoon, she heard a terrible noise. It sounded like someone struggling to breath.
When she sat up, she saw two glowing red eyes looking at her from the nearby bushes. The creature then let loose a terrifying scream.
Sheedy ran back to where the cars were parked and refused to leave her vehicle for the rest of the weekend. This information comes from a Bigfoot blog on the internet, so its veracity should probably be questioned (and Ms. Sheedy has not responded to an email seeking comment).
Google “Bigfoot” and “Shaver Lake,” and it is just one of numerous sightings from the small lakeside resort in Sierra National Forest. Indeed, the popular Animal Planet series, “Finding Bigfoot,” even taped an episode there in 2012.
Going down the internet rabbit hole when it comes to Bigfoot will, in addition to highlighting countless eyewitness accounts by everyone from serial killers to brat packers, eventually lead to the “woo” spectrum of Sasquatchery. (Woo as in “Woo, that’s out there!”)
This would include the more paranormal theories that seek to explain a creature that has yet to provide us with hard physical evidence of its existence. You know, like a body.
The woo fringe believe everything from the inter-dimensionality of Sasquatch and the existence of portals of time and dimension that the creature passes through, to the extraterrestrial aspect and extrasensory abilities of the Bigfoot community.
And from there it gets even weirder, to the point that Bigfoot erotica is an actual thing. (Don’t believe me? Google it. Then maybe erase your browser history.)
So perhaps it is not surprising that very few of the myriad sightings and encounters with Bigfoot garner any mainstream media coverage. One particular sighting, however, deep in the local Sierra, did prompt generous coverage in major regional newspapers in the 1980s.
On August 9, 1986, a headline in the Fresno Bee proclaimed there had been a “Hair-Raising creature reported by workers in southern Sierra.” Headline ink further stated that “Men say they saw giant, lumbering figure, heard fearful screams.”
The article recounted how a trail crew, building a bridge on the Pacific Crest Trail over the Kern River near Monache Mountain, heard a scream that was so loud it “sounded like a stadium loudspeaker.” After firing a warning shot from a rifle, the men described seeing a “shadowy outline of a human-looking creature at least 8 feet tall.” The creature was “lumbering and kind of hunched over,” but was traveling upright on two legs.
The article concluded by quoting well-known Bigfoot researcher Grover Krantz. The anthropologist from Washington State University was best known outside of academia as the first serious researcher to devote his professional energies to the scientific study of Bigfoot.
Although originally an agnostic on the subject, Krantz’s decades of Sasquatch research eventually led him to believe that it might be an actual creature. He theorized there could be small pockets of surviving Gigantopithecus, an extinct genus of ape that existed as recently as one hundred thousand years ago — during the same period as Homo erectus — and could have migrated across the Bering land bridge used by humans to enter North America. Outside of Krantz’s formal studies in evolutionary anthropology and primatology, his research in cryptozoology (a pseudoscience and subculture seeking to prove the existence of entities from folklore such as Bigfoot or the Chupacabra) drew heavy criticism from his colleagues, costing him research grants and promotions, and delaying his tenure at the university.
The preeminent Bigfoot expert told the Bee, however, that he was skeptical of any sightings south of Lake Tahoe, but did note that the crew’s description of the screams was consistent with earlier reports he had compiled. Krantz described the howl of a Sasquatch as “an extraordinarily loud scream, louder than any living things on Earth.”
The Bee also quoted a local anthropologist from Fresno State University about his take on the sighting. He was a professor decidedly more skeptical of Bigfoot than Grover Krantz, and while he too commented on the lack of any known sightings south of Lake Tahoe, he theorized that “the poor light conditions and the crew’s fatigue… may have caused them to mistake a bear for the creature.”
Coincidentally, this anthropologist also happened to be a former student of Grover Krantz and was a good friend of the brilliant but eccentric scientist. Many a time, the two men of science would debate cryptozoology.
It was odd, however, that Grover’s former student, the man who was today the Chair of the Anthropology Department at Fresno State, would tell the local newspaper that he was “unaware of any reported [Bigfoot] sighting south of Lake Tahoe.” Odd because only a few years before that he sat in his university office with a local Fresno man, a house painter by trade, who claimed to have proof of Bigfoot in the mountains just east of Fresno.
The proof is in the photos. Or not.
Roger LaJuenesse well remembers his meeting with Skip Welch in the early 1980s. The persistent tradesman, then in his mid- to late-30s, had been bugging his secretary to meet “about the issue of Sasquatch.”
The serious young professor, also in his 30s at the time, was hesitant to meet as he considered himself a skeptic on the matter. But meet they finally did, and LaJuenesse can still remember Skip sitting there in his office, in a flannel shirt, with a stack of photos an inch or two thick.
“We went through each and every one of them,” the anthropology professor recalled. “They were pictures of shadows in the lee of trees, rocks, and shrubs taken in an alpine transitional landscape, such as you’ll see in the Sierra, that the individual showing them claimed were of Bigfoot.”
The meeting took up a great deal of the professor’s time, and LaJuenesse became impatient, going over photo after photo.
“Each and every photo was the same, it was just shadow after shadow after shadow. I remember it was excruciating because each and every photograph was just a duplicate of the previous one.”
The frustrated anthropologist then pointed out, trying to be very “gentle and delicate” in doing so, that the shadows just didn’t show anything that could be recognized as a humanoid form. He explained to Skip the concept of projection: the potential some people may have to “project” onto images notions of what they want, or expect, to see.
LaJuenesse recalls that while Skip was persistent, he was not threatening in any way. He didn’t seem to be high or anything, just an unschooled individual who adamantly believed he had photographed Sasquatch. There was, however, something about him that made the professor uncomfortable. He was undoubtedly relieved when he was finally able to ease Skip Welch the out of his office. He never saw him again.
Skip did, however, return to LaJuenesse’s office to drop something off a few days later, leaving it with the professor’s secretary. It was a brown paper bag, like the kind you would get in a grocery store, containing skeletal remains. It was literally a bag of bones! Skip was certainly persistent in seeking to provide the anthropologist with proof that Bigfoot existed.
A few years later, Skip Welch would find himself sitting in Interview Room #3 at the Fresno police headquarters, and there he would be equally persistent in trying to convince Fresno police detective Doug Stokes that Bigfoot was alive and well in the mountains east of Fresno.
In next week’s installment of Meth, Murder, and Bigfoot, Skip finally tells Detective Stokes “all the truth, bigger than life” and his tale of what happened to Theresa Bier is truly mind-blowing.