photograph by Carrie Marie Burr
A sunny fall Saturday in Whitehall, along the banks of the Champlain Canal, believers walked among the browsers. “Investigators” mingled with kids eyeing “Gone ’squatching” stickers and tourists buying handmade crafts and fragrant fried dough. And throughout Skenesborough Park, people in brown, furry costumes strutted and posed for pictures near “Bigfoot Crossing” signs.
The 2021 Sasquatch Festival and Calling Contest marked a happy return of the annual gathering, which was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Author Paul Bartholomew manned a table where the crowd was three-deep, waiting to speak to him. He presented plaster casts of alleged footprints and talked about his own experiences investigating hundreds of eyewitness accounts over the last few decades. He said he’s become convinced that the creature people are reporting is real. “I think there’s no question about it,” he said.
Bartholomew said he understands why some people may not be swayed. But, he wondered, how does one explain the stories dating back hundreds of years, all sharing the same common threads?
The festival is one place where enthusiasts and self-styled experts can discuss these questions. Whitehall is a natural spot for the event, because the area is a hotbed of reported Bigfoot activity. “Going back through Native folklore, the Algonquin, for example, you have stories of ‘wildmen’ dating back centuries,” Bartholomew said. More recently, sightings throughout the Adirondacks have been documented on sites like BFRO, the home of the Bigfoot Research Organization. The BFRO database shows eight Sasquatch sightings in Washington County alone, dating back to 1981.
Bartholomew said that in the Whitehall area, a number of sightings have been reported by police officers, which he believes gives the stories more credibility and helps cement the region’s reputation as Sasquatch territory.
But what, exactly, is a Sasquatch?
Folklorists say the name derived from the language of the Salish in the Pacific Northwest. Their word se’sxac translates to “wild men.” Bigfoot is a more recent nickname for the same creature. Both words refer to an enormous, apelike being that witnesses and investigators say ranges from six to 15 feet tall. (For comparison, an adult grizzly bear fully reared up on its hind legs would be about nine feet tall.)
Though Sasquatch stories have long been part of Indigenous folklore, it wasn’t until 1958 that the modern idea of Bigfoot entered American popular culture. A newspaper columnist named Andrew Genzoli wrote in the Humboldt Times about loggers in Northern California who reported discovering huge footprints in the mud near their logging site. Genzoli suggested, in good fun, “Maybe we have a relative of the Abominable Snowman in the Himalayas.” To his surprise, readers were intrigued. Genzoli and his colleagues wrote more stories, which produced more reports of sightings. Soon, stories of “Bigfoot” began turning up in adventure magazines and cheap paperback novels, and the legend as we know it took root.
Of course, despite how many plaster casts of huge footprints people may have presented (at the Sasquatch Festival, there were many), there is no hard evidence that such a creature exists. No one has ever produced a Sasquatch carcass, skeptics point out, nor any droppings. This lack of definitive proof means Bigfoot exists in the realm of cryptozoology, the study of—and to some, the passionate belief in—creatures like the Loch Ness Monster.
For Barbara Spoor, belief in Bigfoot is irrelevant. She’s the Whitehall native who took over organizing the festival in 2019, following the death of its founder, Whitehall resident David Molnar. “We’ve had some infamous sightings around here and Bigfoot has always been a kind of protected species in Whitehall, so we celebrate that,” she said.
And there is a lot to celebrate. In 2021, the festival attracted 75 vendors, a dozen official Bigfoot experts and authors, and thousands of visitors. Spoor said the event’s purpose isn’t so much to prove Sasquatch exists, but to bring joy. “When you bring up Bigfoot, people smile. … We don’t hold it against you if you’re a skeptic, and we don’t mind if you’re a true believer either.”
The centerpiece of the festival is the Sasquatch Calling Contest. Dozens of contestants lined up in the bowl of the park’s crowded outdoor amphitheater to give their best rendition of a Sasquatch call. Some grunted, some howled, others screamed. One woman erupted in heartstopping shrieks followed by a series of stomps and howls, as judges listened with their backs turned.
The winner in the adult category was 31-year-old Greg Kennedy. His shrill howls were accompanied by him banging two heavy tree branches together. Some Bigfoot investigators say that the creatures engage in a behavior called “knocking” in order to communicate with others of their kind.
Later, Kennedy said his winning impression was taken from experience. Several years ago he was fishing in western New York late at night. He used the call that won him the contest—one he’s tried frequently when out in the wilderness—and for the first time, he received a reply. “We started to hear the tree knocking. It definitely produced. It was creepy, definitely creepy. We got out of there pretty quickly that night,” he said.
It wasn’t Kennedy’s only encounter with a suspected Sasquatch. One night, while camping deep in the woods of the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania, he and his girlfriend heard a terrifying sound of something enormous approaching their tent. “Whatever it was, my girlfriend said its shadow covered the whole tent. It sat there in front of our tent the whole night.” Kennedy said it sounded like it was munching on something. He could hear a sound that reminded him of “ripping leather” and “crushing bones.”
The next morning, he said, there were no signs of a visit. No tracks, no animal carcasses, no stray fur left behind. But the experience made him a little more fearful to camp, and also strengthened his belief in Sasquatch.
Bartholomew said the Bigfoot phenomenon isn’t something the Whitehall community always felt warmly about. “In the 1970s, or even the ’80s, these sightings were seen as negative,” he said. “People didn’t want to admit they saw anything, because they would be open to ridicule from half the town.”
With the annual event, he said, “now we have a fun and festive way to embrace this. This is part of our rich history.”
Spoor, the festival organizer, said her own thinking on the truth behind the legend has evolved over the years. “What I do know is that Bigfoot has become a staple of the Whitehall community. In that sense, I would say one-hundred percent he is real, because he has just created so much commotion around our village.”
The 2022 Sasquatch Festival and Calling Contest is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., September 24, at Skenesborough Park. Find more information on Facebook.