The hairiest experience Chuck Langrill ever had while he was out 'Sasquatching' in the Sierra Nevada took place one night as he followed a riverbed into the mountains. Searching for signs of the elusive bigfoot in the soft mud, he heard whooping vocalizations coming from both sides of a nearby valley. So like any good Sasquatch searcher, Langrill sat down and waited as the sounds got closer.
"I was sitting there with my camera in my hand. I just had a feeling something was going to happen. Then the trees start to move and I see this black, furry thing," Langrill said.
The shape that emerged turned out to be nothing more exotic than a resident black bear, but Langrill said he's convinced he was surrounded by a group of Sasquatches that night. The whooping sounded just like a primate's cry, he said.
Langrill, who runs the website Sierra Tahoe Bigfoot Research, didn't catch a glimpse of a bigfoot on that trip. In fact, during the four years since he founded the site that's dedicated to research of the giant primate and its habitat in Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada, he's never seen one.
But that hasn't damped his confidence in the species' existence.
"There are just so many sightings in the Tahoe area, and they're credible people who have seen them. Everything I've witnessed at night, no one can tell me they're not real. And all these people who have seen them, they're obsessed," Langrill said.
California is second only to Washington state when it comes to reported bigfoot sightings, according to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. More than 420 Californians have posted alleged sightings online, 24 of which occurred in El Dorado County.
But in an arena overrun by amateur researchers, the anthropological has morphed into the mythological. Photos of the eight-foot primate are too blurred to make out, bones decompose rapidly or are scavenged too quickly to find again, and some sightings turn out to be people masquerading in hairy ape suites.
"Probably what it's going to take is someone is going to have to capture one. I don't think a picture is going to do it," Langrill said.
Even a recent DNA study led by researcher Melba Ketchum that purports to confirm the existence of the large primate has already lost some credibility in the ensuing "soap opera," Langrill said. Though the study hasn't been published, findings suggest that the animal emerged about 1,500 years ago as a hybrid species related to modern Homo sapiens and another unknown primate.
The report, leaked through Facebook, didn't follow the traditional methods of academic dissemination and it's unclear where the DNA came from. According to Langrill, the sample came from a piece of meat, called "The Steak," that was cut off a Sasquatch killed in the Sierra Nevada, but he admits there are many ways it could have been tainted.
Jeffrey Meldrum, PhD, doesn't believe in the Sasquatch. He thinks it exists, but faith doesn't play a role in his hypothesis.
The researcher and professor with the Department of Biological Sciences at Idaho State University saw alleged Sasquatch footprints for the first time in the wild about six years ago outside Walla Walla, Wash. No matter what the skeptics say, he said, the footprints exist and warrant evaluation.
Meldrum, who also worked at Northwestern University's Department of Cell, Molecular and Structural Biology, specializes in primate and bipedal locomotion. The muddy footprints sparked his curiosity and he started collecting casts of the bigfoot tracks.
"From my vantage of experience, it's the most comprehensive evidence that they're out there. I'm not trying to proselytize or gather converts to a belief. I'm just saying here's some really interesting evidence and follow it to see where it leads. Belief has no role in my suspicion, and that's why I'm determined to continue this in the face of prejudice, or pre-judgment," Meldrum said.
He's confident enough that the prints aren't elaborate hoaxes to start a new project this year under the auspices of Idaho State University to prove the existence of the Sasquatch. One of his challenges is to turn the search from a New Age tabloid to a legitimate scientific exploration, and he thinks the new Falcon Project might quiet the skeptics for good by capturing high-quality images of the animals on film.
"When you have a creature with those characteristics - they're solitary, nocturnal, far-ranging and intelligent - they're notoriously difficult to study, and the solution to the proverbial moving needle in the haystack is to get up to a falcon's viewpoint," Meldrum said.
Meldrum hopes to launch the Falcon Project's Aurora Mark II --a 50-foot, unmanned blimp that can carry up to eight pounds of camera equipment --by April 2013. Controlled from the ground, the stealthy airship will hopefully capture photos and thermal images of the wild primates, he said.
Prepared for every eventuality, Meldrum said they'll send volunteers dressed in hairy suits to test the equipment, ensuring that when the times comes researchers can differentiate between costumed humans and real Sasquatch.
In the meantime, Langrill will keep searching for the primates using more low-tech methods. It's just fun, he said, but he'd love to see one of the animals someday.
"We just look for any evidence we can. We usually don't hear much in the daytime. We don't like to bang on trees, hoop-and-holler - that's a little silly. They're more intelligent than that. It's kind of disrespectful," Langrill said.