SILSBEE (AP) — It’s so quiet in the Big Thicket National Preserve on this cold January night, you can hear a leaf drop.

Scattered throughout this section of the woods, sitting silently and bundled against the near-freezing temperatures, are a dozen or so maverick researchers looking for the large, hairy, elusive embodiment of fringe science — Bigfoot.

Also known as Sasquatch or the Yeti, Bigfoot is a topic that draws its own line in the sandy loam.

Either you believe a highly intelligent, feral ape-like creature roams the rural woods, or you don’t.

The members of the Texas Bigfoot Research Center — teachers, bankers, public safety personnel and men and women from other walks of life and from across Texas and Louisiana — have bought into it.

So they’ve descended on a desolate corner of Southeast Texas where strange sounds have been heard in the woods recently.

To track those strange sounds, the researchers brought their own.

At the top of every hour, expedition leader Daryl Colyer stood up to aim a dim red-beamed flashlight into an olive drab ice chest, where he’s mounted a CD player, a sound booster, and a boat battery to power them. Wires snake out to speakers that hang from tree limbs.

With the flick of a switch, a deafening roar spilled forth from the speakers, rolling across the woods.

Part animal growl, part pained howl and entirely creepy, the “Ohio Howl” is purported to be the only authentic recording of Bigfoot. For Colyer’s group, it’s being used tonight as a digital shout-out intended to elicit a response. He played it several times.

Five teams have been deployed in the woods alongside a logging road on the northern end of the Big Thicket. They’re equipped with listening devices, night vision goggles, video recorders and even throwaway one-shot cameras.

Seconds later, there’s a series of howls coming from the direction of a nearby creek.

“Coyotes,” whispers David Peddy, a college math instructor and part-time police officer, nodding knowingly.

More silence. Then comes a noise, from the other direction, that sounds like chimps impersonating coyotes.

“Barred owls,” says Colyer in a barely audible, breathless voice.

And so it goes for hours.

Throughout history and around the world, there has been something “out there.” Because so many people view it as a myth, a definitive history of Bigfoot is hard to find. There have been sporadic reports for 250 years in North America, dating to Spanish explorers and even earlier to American Indian culture.

Across the oceans, there’s the abominable snowman, or Yeti, that lives in the snows of the Himalayas.

Critics and cynics abound, and David Daegling is foremost among them. The University of Florida anthropologist wrote “Bigfoot Exposed,” a scholarly vivisection of the Bigfoot story from cultural, scientific and historical perspectives.

“I think we have to be careful not to paint the Bigfoot community with too broad of a brush,” he said. “There are, within that community, people who are more skeptically inclined. And then there are true believers, and there’s nothing that can change their mind about it.”

Daegling said the presence of Bigfoot hoaxes hurt serious attempts to prove the existence of the creature.

“One of the historical failings of the Bigfoot community has been that even though they’ll (investigate and) rule out some report as a hoax, they don’t pursue that question vigorously enough,” he said.

There was, for example, the classic grainy 1967 film of Sasquatch traipsing along a tree line in the northern California woods, and footprints found in the same region 10 years earlier. Both were seminal pieces in the growth of the Bigfoot movement. Both were debunked as fakes years later. Neither revelation changed the minds of Bigfoot believers.

Beyond debunked publicity stunts, Daegling said, Bigfoot numbers don’t add up.

Bigfoot is spotted all over the country. Bigfoot prints range from three-toed to nine-toed. Bigfoot’s height ranges from man-size to black bear-size.

“Bigfoot descriptions are all over the map,” Daegling said. “The only thing they have in common is that they’re big and scary.”

Human nature and culture, Daegling said, explain a lot of the Bigfoot myth.

In Tibet and Nepal, Yeti is a meddlesome troublemaker that raids villages and gets drunk off stolen beer. It destroys crops and impregnates local women.

“Our Bigfoot is different,” he said. “Our Bigfoot is quiet, and it’s not scared of people. The encounters in North America are much more mundane. But people who see Bigfoot are affected, and it’s life-changing.”

Daegling said Bigfoot fills in a blank for some people burdened by modern society — it is wild, it is solitary, it can disappear at will, and it can outsmart everyone.

And the legend continues due, in large part, to eyewitness accounts.

“I don’t think these people are lying,” Daegling said. “They remember seeing Bigfoot, but there’s a difference between remembering it and actually seeing it. That’s because memories are fallible.”

Typically, there is a sighting in an area. Then other people, who’ve heard the report, see or hear something they can’t explain. Their subconscious fills in the blank, Daegling said, with Bigfoot.

“The only thing to do, at this point, is collect a specimen,” Daegling said.“By dumb luck, someone sometime has got to find a carcass. Just once in 50 years, you’d think one of these thousands of people would’ve come across it.”

Daegling’s request sounds simple, but it’s not. “Sasquatch has the stealth of a cougar, has at least the intelligence of the chimpanzee and is as rare as a jaguarondi,” Colyer said.

Bigfoot is nocturnal, nomadic and stays in remote areas where few people live.

Eighty percent of the sightings in the Lone Star State came from East Texas, Colyer said, where most of the land is densely forested, receives lots of rain and is sparsely populated. Of those interactions, hunters, who as a practice go out of their way to find remote places, report most of the sightings.

The Texas Bigfoot Research Center, one of dozens of groups nationally that conduct self-funded forays into the woods, was created to take an orderly scientific approach to investigating the reports.

“We get eyewitness accounts all of the time,” he said, “and I’ll bet that only two or three of 10 are possibly legitimate. If you’re not familiar with the woods, it’s easy to misinterpret sounds.”

The center’s protocol is based on the principle used by birders and hunters, who employ animal calls to lure the critter being sought. A day team follows up and searches areas where suspicious noises emanate. Many times, the group comes out of the woods empty-handed.

Beyond that, team members realize the public’s skepticism about Bigfoot. Two state workers, for example, asked not to be identified in this story for fear of repercussions from co-workers and skittish supervisors.

Mike Hall, a Palestine contractor, said he saw something suspicious in the Sam Houston National Forest during a research trip last January.

He was driving back to the base when a humanoid figure appeared at the edge of the range of his headlights.

When Hall stopped his truck, the creature ran into the woods. It hid behind a tree briefly, then disappeared into the brush.

Kessler said he shot video that seems to show blinking non-human eyes in the dark brush.

And in a September incident, after a night of back-and-forth vocalizations, Colyer said, the group’s base camp possibly was approached by an unknown entity.

He awoke to a fecund animal smell permeating the camp. At the same time, another member’s dog began barking aggressively, and there was movement in the darkened woods outside of the group’s sight. And there was a voice.

“It sounded,” Colyer said, “like moans, groans and wailing.”

But that was months ago.

This night yielded only some suspicious knocks — something hitting a tree to the south before Colyer radioed the other teams at 4 a.m. with orders to pack it up for the night. Two days later, the teams would see a shadowy figure in the woods and hear it growl, though they couldn’t capture the image or the sound for proof. At least three members saw the shadowy figure and several more heard the growl.

Colyer suspects it was Sasquatch, but he’s not always convinced when the team encounters evidence.

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