I’ve always been Sasquatch-curious. I try to err on the side of believing stories of unexplained sightings and bumps in the night. And as far as Bigfoot is concerned, if narwhals are real and giant squid, why not a few big, hairy creatures wandering the woods of the Pacific Northwest? I can’t prove their existence, but I like living in a Sasquatch-positive paradigm.
So when the opportunity to interview one of the foremost Sasquatch researchers presented itself, I hopped in the car and drove three hours to Pocatello to meet professor Jeffrey Meldrum at Idaho State University.
When I knocked on his office door, I expected an eccentric, Dr. Emmett Brown type. Instead, I found a demure, soft-spoken man standing in a nondescript, utilitarian lab — a bonafide scientist.
Meldrum ended up being one of the most serious, academic people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. He spent two hours using a lot of words I later had to Google to explain the scientific research supporting the existence of Bigfoot.
An existence on which I am now sold.
Meldrum’s reluctant fascination with Bigfoot began in the fifth grade. His classmates were abuzz over footage captured by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin in Northern California. Patterson and Gimlin filmed a large, fur-covered, ape-like creature (you may know her as Patty) standing on two legs. Meldrum convinced his dad to take him to the Spokane Coliseum where Patterson was presenting his documentary and answering questions from the audience.
Meldrum left the screening with a copy of Patterson’s book, “Do Abominable Snowmen of America Really Exist?”
“If narwhals are real and giant squid, why not a few big, hairy creatures wandering the woods of the Pacific Northwest?”
The next year, Meldrum and his sixth-grade peers were studying primates. His long-suffering teacher asked the class to list some examples of primates, and a sassy 11-year-old suggested Bigfoot. Instead of dismissing the comment, she engaged with the students and suggested someone write a report on the creature. Meldrum’s hand shot up immediately and he marched to the library to start the research that would eventually transform his career.
Today Meldrum is a professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University. According to his biographical sketch, his research encompasses questions of vertebrate evolutionary morphology generally, primate locomotor adaptations more particularly, and the emergence of modern human bipedalism.
Like I said. I did a lot of Googling.
Meldrum honed his research skills as he received a bachelor’s degree in zoology from Brigham Young University, followed by a master’s in zoology, then a doctorate in anatomical sciences from State University of New York. He topped it off with a postdoctoral visiting assistant professor post at Duke University Medical Center, a teaching position at Northwestern University Medical Center in Chicago, and finally, he landed at Idaho State University — just close enough to the Pacific Northwest to investigate a subject area where other scholars fear to tread.
During Meldrum’s study of paleo primatology, he came across a few obscure references to giant South American monkeys. He contacted Richard Greenwall, the director of the International Cryptozoology Society — yes, that’s a real thing — to find out more. Greenwall invited him to California to evaluate some video footage of a large, ape-like creature. “I undertook that project as an exercise in exposing the zipper,” Meldrum says. He was convinced a costumed man in an ape suit was traipsing through the woods, fooling all the eager believers. “But the more I dug into it, the more intriguing it became.”
A friend Meldrum made in the Sasquatch-searching circuit — once again, a real thing — invited him to southeast Washington. It was there he saw Sasquatch footprints for the first time. His friend led him to a dirt road, along the side of which were impeccable footprints, too large to be human, too human to be animal.
“I was just flabbergasted,” says Meldrum.
Given his expertise, he’s seen a good number of fossilized footprints and written extensive papers on various footprints from around the globe. His specific experience is matched only by a dozen or so other academics in the entire world, and these Sasquatch footprints looked as real as any he’d ever seen. The prints were what Meldrum calls animated tracks with pressure ridges, tension cracks and proof of movement in the toes.
Meldrum wondered how his friend had managed to fake such convincing footprints. “I couldn’t find the zipper,” he says. He photographed and cast the prints, and then, when he ultimately gave up trying to find the zipper, decided a Sasquatch had indeed walked along the road the night before.
Meldrum tells me the hair on his arms stands up every time he tells the story.
At that moment in his career, Meldrum had a choice to make. He had watched one of his predecessors, Grover Krantz, who had pursued the search for Sasquatch, receive ridicule and harassment. Krantz’s promotion to full professor was delayed by decades. As Meldrum explains it, “There was actually this little moment where this angel sits on my shoulder and says, ‘Do you really want to go down this path?’ and the devil on the other shoulder says, ‘How could you not?’”
Meldrum now has over 300 Sasquatch footprint casts in his Pocatello lab. Or, more specifically, footprint casts from Sasquatch, Yeti and other relic hominoids. When I look perplexed by the mention of multiple species of ape-like giants, Meldrum reaches for an activity book made for children, which, unfortunately, is probably entirely appropriate for my intellectual understanding of the subject matter.
He points to a comparative chart with corresponding footprints. There’s Sasquatch, Yeti, Neanderthal and the Orang Pendek (small furry creatures said to inhabit the mountains of Indonesia).
Meldrum’s focus is on the Sasquatch found in North America. He believes they could live in areas where there is sufficient cover and habitat to support them. These happen to be the areas where black bears live — not only in the Pacific Northwest but also in the Intermountain West and down in Utah, Idaho and the Rocky Mountains. But he also believes they could be in the mountain ranges that surround the Colorado Plateau, the boreal forests in Canada, the Great Lakes region and down through Appalachia. Credible Sasquatch sightings, he tells me, have been reported from all of these areas.
When he says credible, Meldrum means reports made under good conditions or by credible witnesses, often corroborated with footprints, hair, scat or other signs of a large animal. According to Meldrum there have been a couple thousand credible reports.
“There was actually this little moment where this angel sits on my shoulder and says, ‘Do you really want to go down this path?’ and the devil on the other shoulder says, ‘How could you not?’”
Sightings are rare, he explains, because Sasquatches are few in number. He estimates there is one Sasquatch for every 100 black bears. Sasquatches are also solitary creatures, and Meldrum believes a single male inhabits and defends about 1,000 square miles.
I asked him what he believes is the most credible Sasquatch sighting, and he tells me about his friend Julie Davis. She hiked the entire Continental Divide Trail through Colorado accompanied only by her pet goats and dogs. While she was bushwhacking to reach a remote lake, her dogs’ hackles raised, eyeing the tree line. She was prepared to encounter bears but saw nothing. Thinking little of it, Davis set up camp. Later the dogs began reacting to something and again she assumed a bear was nearby. She scrambled to grab her bear spray and get the dogs safely in the tent. Crawling out from under the rain fly, Davis found her goats peering over the tarp. Following their line of sight, she saw just 15 feet away - an 81⁄2-foot tall Sasquatch.
She described the Sasquatch’s appearance to Meldrum as “a big, hairy linebacker with bulging muscles.” Davis, whose account was first published in the Denver Post in 2003, said the Sasquatch looked at her, then at the goats, and then back at her. Then they had a sort of subliminal connection, and the Sasquatch’s demeanor softened. THEN, A SECOND SMALLER SASQUATCH PEAKED OUT FROM BEHIND THE FIRST. The two Sasquatches turned and walked away, the larger in the front and the smaller behind. They glided gracefully toward the tree line, and just before they were out of sight, the larger Sasquatch turned, cocked his head back, and let out a high pitch whistle.
Meldrum himself has only had hints of sightings. The closest he’s come was in Alberta, Canada, when he was using night vision binoculars in very low ambient light. Something approached the camp, breaking brush and making the characteristic whistling vocalizations along the way. Although it was difficult to see exact detail through the grainy night vision lens, Meldrum could make out large swinging arms attached to a large body, smoothly stomping through the area. The creature walked off into the forest, where Meldrum and his team later found 13-inch footprints. The Sasquatch had also taken the bait the team had set out the day before — apples impaled on a tree branch — now gone, with giant footprints leading up to and away from the tree.
“So is Sasquatch human or animal?” I ask, hoping to hear some weird, maybe slightly upsetting stories in response.
Meldrum doesn’t disappoint.
He tells me about the “almasty”— a creature that’s said to inhabit the Altai Mountains of western Mongolia. They are rumored to wear clothing and trade with townspeople. In other words, more human than ape. Reports of the Sasquatch and Yeti, however, feel more akin to early sightings of the lowland gorilla, he says, a creature not officially “discovered” until the 1900s.
But then there are some strange anecdotes that don’t quite align with either classification.
Like a story from World War II about a Russian surgeon called in to examine a prisoner captured during the war. The soldiers assumed their prisoner had been surgically altered. He was covered in hair, had a heavy brow and low-slung head with a barrel chest. He was presumed mute as he had not muttered a word. When the surgeon saw him he proclaimed he was, in fact, not human and should be released into the wild.
Meldrum reminds me that some of our oldest Western literary traditions feature half-man half-creature protagonists, perhaps suggesting the idea of some kind of missing link. Think Beowulf, or Spiderman.
Finally, because I just can’t wait any longer, I ask the obvious question, “Is Cain from the Bible Bigfoot?” If anyone is qualified to verify or debunk this lore, it’s this Latter-day Saint expert and academic who has spent the last 30 years researching Sasquatch.
Meldrum laughs. The myth, as he explains it, tells a tale of the Latter-day Saint apostle David W. Patten walking alongside Bigfoot for 45 minutes. Given the rate a human walks, he says, and the rate Sasquatch walks in reported sightings, the chances of Patten keeping up with the creature for so long is very unlikely. Plus, the published story was a secondhand account, told 50 years after the alleged incident.
So no, he says, Bigfoot is probably not Cain cursed to walk the Earth for eternity.
The Cain question is not the only quandary Meldrum gets from his fellow Latter-day Saints and other Christians. He says he gets pushback from some who think the existence of Sasquatch undermines their faith. To which Meldrum asks, “Do you feel threatened by a gorilla?”
He adds, “It’s a biological species, not some paranormal phenomenon.” Which is bad news for me, a weirdo who roots for confirmation of paranormal phenomena, but perhaps good news for the more serious Sasquatch believers among us.
He also gets pushback from fellow academics, as the angel on his shoulder so many years ago predicted he would. Skeptics say, “The science starts when you have a body.” Meldrum wholly disagrees.
Bigfoot is probably not Cain cursed to walk the Earth for eternity.
“The science starts when you have a question,” he contends.
“The science is the process of discovery, not the result of discovery. Show me an atom. Show me a string. Show me a black hole,” he argues, explaining that so much of science is the study of phenomena for which there is no “body.”
“It’s an ongoing process. And we’re at a point in that path to discovery that has been followed by many others before us.”
Meldrum leads me to his adjacent lab, littered with Sasquatch paraphernalia. There’s a cutout of Patty (the ape-like creature filmed in Northern California) on the far wall, looking menacingly over her shoulder. He shows me a few footprint casts, pointing out the ridges and pressure points, and the varying toe positions.
Then he pulls out a giant, circular cast with a raised center and two craters on either side. I look at him confused and ask, “Giant hooves?” Meldrum giggles and says, “No, Sasquatch posterior.”
It’s exactly the kind of thing I had hoped to see when I made the cross-state journey to his office. It was also the first time in our two hours together when I felt I could meet Meldrum on his intellectual level, or perhaps he was willing to stoop to mine.
In the end, this very serious, and very academic man made me more of a believer than any eccentric ever could.