Cari and Chris George are crunching through the leaves on a tract of wooded land in Oconee County. It’s cold and gray, and the wind keeps up a faint growl as it rattles the winter-bare trees.
Chris points out brown muscadine vines wrapped around skinny trees in fascinating twists and tangles. He shows us tender saplings bent over, growing at odd angles, some nearly parallel to the ground.
They take us into an old barn in the middle of a clearing — so old Chris’ grandparents don’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. The dirt floor is littered with cattle bones.
We’re in Upstate South Carolina. But I can’t tell you exactly where we are today, because photographer Sean Rayford and I agreed to sign a nondisclosure agreement. The Georges want to protect Bigfoot.
“Spike has this $10 million bounty now,” Cari explains.
The television network is offering $10 million for irrefutable proof that Bigfoot exists — or at least that’s what Spike claims. Turn on the show $10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty and you’ll see teams of Bigfoot hunters tramping all over California and the Pacific Northwest in search of the cash prize, being eliminated Survivor-style along the way. It makes for good TV.
The Georges want no part of that — they’re worried people will try to shoot one of the Bigfoots they believe are living in this area. And they’re more interested in protecting and coexisting with Bigfoot than in hauling in a bounty.
“I don’t want drunk rednecks running around,” Chris says.
He’s wearing a camo jacket and a bandana covered in skulls. He works in construction; Cari designs logos and does social media and brand consulting. They share a small house with their two young kids and some dogs. Chris’ grandparents live next door.
The Georges, along with Chris’ parents, Marty and Lisa George, are among the founding members of the Carolina Cryptid Crew, a part of the Carolina Society for Paranormal Research and Investigation.
Cryptids are animals whose existence is suspected but that haven’t yet been discovered — animals known only from indirect evidence like eyewitness accounts, footprints and legends, rather than direct evidence like skeletons and DNA. Cryptids include legendary beasts like chupacabras and yeti, yes, but also species like the okapi or the giant squid, which many believed were legends until they were finally discovered.
Mostly, though, the Carolina Cryptid Crew is interested in Bigfoot. The group formed last summer.
“Since June, we’ve just been exploring and finding things,” Cari says.
Take the “tree structures” Cari and Chris are showing us today — vines knotted around limbs and saplings; clumps of sticks.
“There’s no way they grew like that or fell like that,” Cari says. “And you would have to have thumbs to make them the way they are.”
“You can’t say ‘Hey, Bigfoot did that’ — you didn’t actually see him do it,” Chris says. “But then it comes to the question: What animal’s going to weave limbs together?”
They’ve found footprints. They’ve heard “tree knocks” — a common Bigfoot sign, according to online forums — “like someone took a baseball bat and hit a tree as hard as they could,” Cari explains. They’ve heard “whoops.” Cari demonstrates, letting out a drawn-out, rising-pitched “WOOOOOOUP!” that echoes off the trees. They’ve noticed roadkill vanishing from area roads.
Also, Cari and her mother-in-law have actually seen a Bigfoot. But we’ll get to that.
I’m not going to build up any false suspense here. I didn’t see anything unexplainable in the woods of Oconee County. I didn’t expect to. The vines twisted around sticks and trees? I have no difficulty believing they just grew like that. The trees leaning over at funny angles, or fallen against another tree to form an X? Sometimes trees do that. The footprints the crew has found don’t look enough like footprints to convince me they’re not just incidental shapes in the mud. I think an animal as large as Bigfoot, living in North America in the 21st century, would have been found by now.
But the Carolina Cryptid Crew — I think they really do believe in Bigfoot.
The same goes for the people who showed up at the Oconee County Public Library’s Seneca branch Feb. 1 for a community meeting hosted by the Crew. “Have you had a Bigfoot experience — or with another cryptid?” the Facebook invite read. “Are you interested or curious about our team? Do you want to know what drives us and how we do our research?”
Eight crew members host the meeting, wearing nametags and Carolina Cryptid Crew T-shirts. They arrange themselves at the front of the room behind a desk of Bigfoot books and monitoring instruments. They tell their stories of possible sightings, footprints seen, tree knocks heard, other evidence. And then they open it up for questions.
“Was there any UFO sightings at the same time?” asks one woman loudly from the third row of plastic chairs, arms crossed over her chest.
I hold my breath, waiting to see how the Bigfoot hunters will react to this mockery.
But it turns out she’s serious. Bigfoot sightings and UFO sightings seem to go together, she says. Some people think that’s because Bigfoot’s an alien.
The woman’s preteen granddaughter sits next to her, staring down and fidgeting with her phone.
Another woman in the audience speaks up.
“I’m an avid Bigfoot believer — a knower,” she says. She asks the team members what their goal is — why do they want to find Bigfoot?
Marty George, Chris’ father, says he’s had other paranormal experiences — living in a haunted house, for example — so he knows there’s something out there.
“We search for Bigfoot because we know this exists,” he says. “We have to have the answers.”
Marty explains that he’s going to try to communicate with Bigfoot through tree structures.
“We’re going to try to create some wood structures,” he says. “Just to see if they try to correct them, or if they’re not good enough for them.”
Six members of the public show up for the meeting. Cari says the library staff turned people away, telling them the meeting wasn’t on the schedule for today, and that’s why so few people showed up.
When the Crew halts the meeting to take a smoke break, I linger near the desk, waiting to ask the circulation guy whether he’s been turning people away, but he’s busy helping patrons. He looks annoyed.
People have been spotting large, hairy hominids in North America for at least a century — and, if you believe some folks, for much longer than that. Some Bigfoot enthusiasts say there’ve been “Indian sightings” for centuries. The skeptic literature points out, however, that only a small subset of stories, all among Pacific Northwest tribes, really match up with the Bigfoot legend, and the record of those dates to the 1920s.
The majority of Bigfoot sightings in North America have been in the Pacific Northwest. But a surprising number of sightings and signs over the years have occurred in South Carolina.
The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization — a group that’s pioneered a lot of Bigfoot research and reporting techniques — lists 50 Bigfoot reports in South Carolina dating back to 1968. (Compare that with 427 reports in California and 574 in Washington, but only six in Vermont and North Dakota, and none in Hawaii.) Four of the South Carolina reports are from Oconee County, and one is pretty near where the Georges have been searching for Bigfoot.
The BFRO actually rolls together Bigfoot sightings in with some sightings of another Carolina cryptid — the Lizard Man. In the 1980s, there were reports of a large, scaly hominid in Scape Ore Swamp near Bishopville. Some people suggested it was a Bigfoot relative. The Lizard Man is now widely held to be a hoax perpetrated by Lee County locals.
There’ve been Bigfoot hoaxes over the years, and suspected hoaxes. But there’ve also been sightings and reports over the years that haven’t been debunked.
But to those who write about pseudoscience, the sheer amount of indirect evidence of Bigfoot without direct evidence — a body, for example — means it’s unlikely the creature exists.
“At the heart of the mystery of Bigfoot is a paradox: many people see Sasquatches, but no one can find one,” writes Daniel Loxton in
Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie and Other Famous Cryptids. “This is an extremely uncomfortable dilemma for Bigfoot advocates. Either Sasquatches are too rare to locate, in which case they should also be too rare to see; or the common and widespread sighting reports are by and large accurate, in which case science should long ago have located a specimen.”
This doesn’t trouble most Bigfoot enthusiasts.
Scientists are finding new species all the time, Cryptid Crew members keep telling me. Cari sends me a link to a story about a new species of anemone found clinging to the underside of ice in the Antarctic. She mentions jellyfish that were recently found in nearby Lake Hartwell. (Scientists believe some eggs were carried up the Savannah River by a fish or by boat and hatched in the lake.)
How could there be so many sightings, they reason, if Bigfoot doesn’t exist.
Bigfoot’s long been popular, of course. Cari traces her lifelong interest in Bigfoot to a children’s newspaper to which her mom bought her a subscription as a kid; that’s where she learned all about the legend of the animal and the various sightings.
But there’s been a bit of a recent surge in Bigfoot interest.
Loxton traces the surge to several factors: the rise of the Internet and the 24-hour TV news cycle, as well as to the rise in pseudoscientific “documentaries” — think Ancient Aliens.
Indeed, a couple of popular TV shows are currently tracking people looking for the beast. Besides the aforementioned $10 Million Bigfoot
Bounty, there’s Finding Bigfoot, which tracks some members of the BFRO in their searches.
The Carolina Cryptid Crew fits right in with that TV-ready tradition.
The Carolina Cryptid Crew is a slick operation. They have a website on which they’ve been posting YouTube videos of some of the Bigfoot “evidence” they’ve found. Two Upstate TV stations have done stories on the crew.
Cari and team member Mark Dill also cohost Paralina Radio, a radio show that explores all sorts of paranormal phenomena. They’ve had guests on the show from other organizations like Ghost Hunters United and the American Institute for Paranormal Research.
The media-savvy nature of the team is largely Cari’s doing. She has a degree in journalism from Winthrop. It’s hard to track down all her social media accounts and online activities — she’s a prolific “lifestyle blogger” and a thorough promoter of the Crew.
Like its umbrella organization, the Carolina Society for Paranormal Research and Investigation, the Carolina Cryptid Crew takes a scientific approach to its investigations, says Cari.
“We use the scientific method when we’re researching,” she says. “We’ll firstly always try to find an alternative explanation.”
The CSPRI takes on everything from angel sightings to UFOs to demonic possession. The Georges got involved with the group, Cari tells me, when their house was possessed.
The CSPRI is also an explicitly Christian group. That doesn’t come up often during the Bigfoot searches, but does inform some of its other work.
“When it comes to helping people, if there is spiritual activity, we use a Christian approach to help them,” Cari says.
I see some nods to objectivity at the library meeting. A woman in the audience tells a story from years ago when she heard a strange sound outside her house — at first she thought it was a duck; later she thought it might have been Bigfoot.
Dill suggests it may have just been trees rubbing together.
The crew even tries to take skeptics along with them on their Bigfoot explorations in hopes of bringing some objectivity to the search.
“Basically, if people can explain it or find a cause behind it, then we’ll throw it out,” Chris says. “But if everybody’s in agreement — nobody can explain what could possibly have done it — then we’ll put it out there.”
But despite the science-y approach, sometimes things go off the rails. Like when Marty George tells me scientists have found hobbits.
“Hobbits has been scientifically proven,” he says. “I can’t wait ‘til they find a Bigfoot.”
Hobbits? I ask. Nobody was ever claiming hobbits were real, were they? Are there Tolkien Truthers out there?
Turns out he’s talking about fossil evidence from Indonesia of Homo floresiensis, an extinct human relative that researchers have nicknamed “hobbit” because of its small stature and flat feet.
There are any number of theories among Bigfoot enthusiasts out there about what Bigfoot might be. Bigfoot is a human with a genetic defect that makes it hairy. Bigfoot is descended from a line of large apes. Bigfoot is an alien. The U.S. government is covering up Bigfoot.
And then there are the black helicopters. Ever since they’ve been hunting for Bigfoot, according to the Georges, they’ve been noticing black helicopters skimming low over the land where they believe Bigfoot lives.
“Flying around so low you could actually see the armed soldiers inside,” Chris says. “You could actually see the shoulder harnesses and M-16s on the back.”
I’ve only known Cari George for about 10 minutes when she tells me about the time she saw Bigfoot.
It was during the summer. Chris was laid up on the couch, and Cari and her in-laws were out looking for evidence.
“We were walking,” she says. “My mother-in-law stops; she says, ‘There’s a tree moving.’” Then her mother-in-law saw a flash of red, she says.
Was she scared?
“My adrenaline was going, because I’ve been interested in Bigfoot since I was a little girl,” Cari says. “I thought they were all in Washington. I didn’t think I’d ever see one.”
She and her mother-in-law went one way; and her father-in-law — who had a videocamera rolling — went another.
And then, Cari says, “I just stop — because this creature steps out of the trees, looks at me, turns around, walks a little bit, turns around again, looks at me, and it’s like it was saying ‘Don’t follow me.’ And I was just kind of frozen. Then it just walked on and disappeared in the trees.”
“Then I’m thinking, ‘Why didn’t I take a picture?’ But it was like I was so mesmerized by this thing. I had the camera in my hand but I just couldn’t do it. It’s just mystical and you never think you’re going to see one. When that happens, you’re not prepared.”
The Bigfoot was about seven feet tall, Cari says, and completely covered in hair.
“You think if you see one it’s going to look like Harry and the Hendersons. It wasn’t like that. It was like a teddy bear. Very friendly looking. It had some white on its face, but it was nothing like what I expected. It looked more like an Ewok.”
“Since then, it’s like ‘OK, I know they exist.’ But now it’s just showing the whole world that I’m not crazy.”
I tell Cari, “People aren’t going to believe you, but it doesn’t sound like that bothers you, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t,” she says. “I thought it would, but it doesn’t.”
When I’m talking to Chris alone, I ask if he believes his wife really saw a Bigfoot. He nods.
The following week, at the community meeting, I ask another group member, Mark Dill, what he thinks of Cari’s sighting.
“I’m more of a skeptic,” Dill says.
He has his own Bigfoot sighting, he explains, but it’s much less of a sure thing. He was driving one day and saw, off to the side of the road, something tall standing by a pine tree, holding down one of the limbs to peer out over it.
He slammed on the brakes and whipped the vehicle around, but it was gone.
“Could it have been a bear? Sure. But bears aren’t in the habit of pulling down limbs,” he says, demonstrating what the creature was doing.
He’s always been interested in Bigfoot, he says, but his belief has ebbed and flowed over the years.
He shows me the Bigfoot tattoo on his bicep.
Is there anything that would persuade you Bigfoot doesn’t exist? I ask Dill.
No, not really, he says. “There’s so much in this world we don’t know about,” he says. “Infinite plausibilities.”
“That’s the whole point of cryptozoology,” Dill goes on. “We’re not saying ‘By God, there’s something there.’ We’re saying ‘There’s something — we don’t quite know what it is.’”
He says again, “There’s so much in this world we don’t know about.”
You can hear it on the audio recordings I made as we tramped around the cold, windy woods. I went in determined to ask tough questions, to box these Bigfoot hunters into a corner. But it didn’t really matter. They either have an answer, or the fact that they don’t have an answer reinforces how little is known about Bigfoot. And it didn’t matter to them that I was skeptical.
Why hasn’t anyone found a Bigfoot body? I ask.
Many people think Bigfoots bury their dead, says Cari. And think about it, she says: It’s not all that common to run across the carcass of a large mammal out in the woods, right?
Don’t you have game cameras up out here to catch a Bigfoot on film?
Bigfoots can see the little red lights on the cameras, Cari explains. The crew often finds their cameras moved, or turned around, or the photos are blocked by sticks, as though something has used a branch to block or readjust them, she says.
For all the time they spend telling their stories, pointing out evidence, they seem oddly unperturbed by nonbelievers.
Cari says she’s been surprised at some people’s reactions to her Bigfoot hunting — how mean people are.
“I expected some, but not as much,” she says. “OK, you don’t believe, that’s fine. But like a family member of mine said, ‘I’d rather have you looking for Bigfoot than standing on a street corner.’”
“My parents they’ve been great about it,” she goes on. “They know how long I’ve been interested. But some of the other [family members] think it’s funny, they think it’s a joke. … But those are the ones that I didn’t tell my story to, because they were just going to criticize. But in all honesty, things like that, nothing’s going to change their mind, not even a body. Because then they’ll just say it’s fake. So I don’t worry about people who don’t believe.
It’s kind of like with ghosts. You either believe or you don’t — until something happens to you.”
Despite all the nods to scientific research and skepticism, then, Cari and Chris George and Mark Dill and the others are, at heart, believers.
And like believers, it doesn’t really matter to them if the rest of us don’t believe. They’ll try to convince us of what they know to be the truth, but in the end, they know it and we don’t.
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