Big Foot, Big Deal
© Copyright 2021 by Laurel Hendrickson
My family recently moved to Ontario, Oregon and I was looking for local interest stories to learn about our new town. I wrote this essay this summer after talking with the nationally-renowned human tracker Joel Hardin. He told me the long story about his first debunking of a Bigfoot claim. Writing this article helped me learn about our region as I found the towns mentioned on maps of the West. A version of this story was published in Ontario Neighbors magazine in August 2020.Gather round the campfire and let’s freak ourselves out by talking about an Oregon folklore favorite: Bigfoot! Most people have at least one story about something uncanny that they’ve experienced but don’t have a good way to explain. This is the crux of Bigfoot fun- someone heard or saw something strange in the wilderness and a special glee comes from it maybe- just maybe- being Bigfoot.
In fact, there are several websites where encounters with Bigfoot (or Sasquatch, or Yeti, if you prefer) are recorded by witnesses. These accounts can give you the willies (or the thrillies) because the reports are so...plausible. They sound like something that could happen to anyone in the woods. Take this excerpt from a witness’s report on the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization website, from Sumpter, Oregon, in Baker County, September 2011: “...As my head was turning back toward the low growling in the tree cluster, halfway, I was stunned to see an absolutely massive, huge, very tall creature hurrying toward the tree cluster. It actually had to slide past me to get to the cluster and I heard no further noise…” And from the same website, another report from a camping family in Granite, Oregon, in Grant County, September 2004: “...I heard the dog bark and I turned my head and looked back and all I saw was a 7-8 foot tall black streak running down the hill… [and later] my little brother saw something orange in color walking on two legs, following me… [and he] saw the top of his head through the trailer window and he had long hair and… my brother freaked out.” What would you think if you saw something big and hairy running, or something orange and hairy walking outside the window of your camp trailer? The thing about Bigfoot reports is that they are realistic enough to make you wonder (privately), what else could it be?
To be skeptical, it could be a lot of things. Everyone loves to poke holes in stories of Bigfoot- it was only a bear, the growling was a coyote or badger, recovered fur tufts are from dogs, so-called Bigfoot teeth are various mammal teeth… Bigfoot sightings and near-sightings have been debunked over and over. Historians quoted on the Wikipedia Bigfoot page state that the idea of a “human-like giant” was common in cultural mythology all over the world and that the modern popularity of Bigfoot is part-folk belief and part-cultural increase in environmental concerns, even though lack of scientific grounds for its existence relegates Bigfoot studies to pseudo-science. So how does one prove that a sighting or physical evidence of Bigfoot is a hoax (or misidentification of another animal)? One calls an expert in the field…
In 1982 the US Forest Service received a report from one of its field employees in Walla Walla, Washington that the employee had followed tracks and signs of Bigfoot in the Umatilla National Forest. To investigate this claim, the Walla Walla Ranger District decided to hire a professional tracker. They called Joel Hardin.
Hardin was on his annual leave as a United States border patrolman in Chula Vista, California. He was spending time with his wife and four daughters at his parents’ farm in Emmett, Idaho when he answered the call from the Forest Service looking for an expert tracker. The Forest Service offered to send a charter plane from Boise to pick him up in Emmett and bring him to the scene in Walla Walla, Washington. A couple of wildlife scientists and Forest Service Rangers met Hardin at the office in Walla Walla and the group drove out to the woods. Hardin had not investigated a Bigfoot claim before but he was well-prepared for this task.
Joel Hardin was born in Ontario, Oregon in 1940. His family’s five-acre farm was on the hill across from the hospital, and his granddad owned 40 acres in nearby Cairo Junction. One of his early memories was the end of WWII. He was five years old, standing around while his dad and granddad cut hay when the civil defense siren, steam whistles, and nearby horns blew long and loud. His dad told him, “They’re signing the armistice today!” but he was too little to know what that meant. Soon after, his family moved to a ranch that was in his family on Idaho’s Gem and Payette County line. His dad resurrected the construction company he’d started before the war and he used to say he built half the buildings in Ontario. Hardin graduated from high school in Emmett, Idaho in 1958 and joined the military straight away rather than being drafted or enrolling in college. He joined the Air Guard and after his time in the Air Force he got interested in police work because he wanted to do something different every day and to jump into challenges. He worked as a policeman in Emmett from 1960-65 but with a salary of $350/mo and no benefits or pension, and with a growing family, he needed a better career. Hardin joined seven other trainees for an 18-week intensive academy for border patrolmen in Chula Vista, south of San Diego, California.
During his 25-year career in the US Border Patrol, he worked with trackers to catch smugglers and groups of people who had entered the US illegally. In 1970 he testified in a smuggling court case that set the national precedent for use of tracking evidence in court. Hardin’s detailed report and drawings of following the drug suspect’s tracks, marking his beer can, and apprehending him by car impressed the US Attorney on the case. But at that time the Border Patrol didn’t teach employees how to track, so not many patrolmen were familiar with the skills Hardin had picked up from the few savvy trackers on patrol.
Hardin saw Bigfoot tracking as basically the same as human tracking, and he was a true expert. The group arrived at the closed off protected wildlife area and began to look around for the reported Bigfoot signs. Hardin marked where he saw tracks in three different places on a well-worn 18-inch wide trail. He walked down to a bog and marked more tracks. The Rangers, scientists, and Hardin re-grouped and Hardin said, “This is the most clever hoax I’ve seen. The footprints are not human, and not Bigfoot or another animal. They’re artificially made of soft rubber or plastic but not real.” To demonstrate the hoax he took a ball of string and marked the center of the print’s heel, and up to the center of the next heel mark, and so on for ten visible tracks. “Not even Bigfoot walks that perfectly. With paces exactly the same distance apart, you can’t do that if you try. It’s mechanical. Measured.” As further proof, Hardin escorted the group down to the bog footprints and pushed a piece of straw through the ball of the footprint, down another three feet. “A 900-pound Bigfoot would sink,” he explained. “Also, there were ten tracks, and none before or after those.” Someone jokingly pointed out that Bigfoot can levitate, didn’t you know? The Rangers and the scientists agreed with Hardin that the Forest Service employee had created a hoax and it was reported as such in Washington State. Hardin notes that the only serious opposition to the de-bunking was from the Dean of Anthropology at Washington State University at the time, who was, incidentally, the President of the Bigfoot Society in the US. Hardin additionally notes that the employee who created the hoax went on to create several more Bigfoot hoaxes in the following years.
Joel Hardin has worked a lot of Bigfoot scenes since then. He retired as the most senior special agent of the Border Patrol in 1990. As a retirement project he founded Joel Hardin Tracking Services to train rescue responders, law enforcement, and military personnel in proper tracking techniques and evidence collection and presentation. He has trained thousands of trackers. Hardin says he and his staff have worked Bigfoot scenes all over the country since the one in Walla Walla in 1982 and have debunked all of them. But he is not an utter skeptic. “I don’t know whether there is one or not. But it just makes sense that some day you’d find a carcass or some tufts of hair or something,” he laughs.
Perhaps one day some indisputable proof of Bigfoot will be found. Maybe an expert tracker will make clear the true existence of a large North American bi-pedal primate. But for now, the fact that Bigfoot remains so beloved and popular the world over should make us all cheer for the truly weird strength of wilderness folklore. As you gather round the campfire this summer, now you have your own Bigfoot story to tell.
Reference websites for this article: BFRO.net, fs.usda.gov, jhardin-inc.com, https://en.m/wikipedia.org/wiki/Bigfoot
Laurel Hendrickson grew up to be
in Portland, Oregon and has taught English as a Second Language and
Spanish to all sorts of humans for 15 years internationally and in
Oregon. She has a handsome husband and three wild children and enjoys
schadenfreude, harmless vandalism, and hemacite. She dreams of
becoming quite rich and not at all famous.