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Articles and Scientific Papers...

August 2000

In Search of Bigfoot

By Matthew Burtch ‘82

Reed Magazine


Henry Franzoni '78 went looking for Bigfoot and found something even bigger

"To admit we do not understand a phenomenon is not to admit the presence of the miraculous but merely, reasonably, to accept the limitations of human knowledge."
-- Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet

At first blush, Henry Franzoni '78 does not appear to be a stark-raving-mad loony.

But Henry Franzoni must be nuts. Because he is a noted expert on "Bigfoot," the legendary ape-man of the Northwest. Bigfoot researchers, well, aren't they the sort of people waiting in the wings to follow crack-addict day traders onto daytime talk shows?

But in fact, as we sit out on his porch in the sheep-encrusted farmlands near St. Helens, enjoying an atypically warm Oregon day, Franzoni is articulate, thoughtful, and funny. And thoroughly rational.

It appears Franzoni is no loony. Yes, he has played the drums in a band called "Face Ditch" and another called "Cave-man Shoestore." Yes, he did leave a high-paying Wall Street job to count bubbles on fish flesh. And, yes, he has spent a lot of time searching for Bigfoot. In fact, if this were a tabloid, the headline for this article might be "Bigfoot Changed His Life." But Franzoni is not nuts.

Because, you see, Bigfoot did change his life.

If anything can make you go starkers, it might be growing up in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, 13 miles from downtown Manhattan but, as Franzoni tells it, closer in spirit to a Teheran military academy than Broadway or the Blue Note. The Glen Ridge of his adolescence was a place where jocks and cheerleaders ruled with an iron pom-pom, making life miserable for anyone who didn't fit in. (The town would later be skewered in the documentary Our Guys, about a rape committed by members of the high school football team.) No wonder he elected to go to college as far from New Jersey as possible-to Oregon and to Reed.

"I totally blossomed at Reed," he says. "It was the first place I was ever really accepted. I owe everything to the college. Reed made me realize I was an intellectual person and taught me to value fierce intellectual independence. It taught me that I could learn everything." He recalls writing a paper on King Lear for a class taught by Robert Knapp. "Knapp ripped it to shreds," Franzoni says. "It was a ten-page paper, and I got eight pages of comments back. I resubmitted it eight times, and I still wound up with a C+ for the class. But it taught me how to write." Franzoni adds, "I'm constantly using the skills and knowledge I acquired at Reed."

While in college Franzoni formed Face Ditch with Neil Minturn '79 and Randal Davis '77, and before his senior year dropped out of Reed to pursue his music, working as a surgical assistant to support himself. (He still gigs, and has recorded some 10 albums. Asked to characterize the type of music he plays, he grins sharply and shrugs, "evil jazz.")

Before leaving Reed, he'd taught himself computer programming on the school's old card-operated IBM 11/30, and he used those skills to earn a living. From 1983 to 1988 Franzoni led the life of a high-paid techie in Manhattan, writing programs for banks, the NBA, Avon, AT&T/Lucent, even the Swiss government. "That was my ambitious phase," he says. "Work was all that mattered. But all I got out of it was that I noticed that I was eating at better and better restaurants."

By the end, he'd grown uneasy with his job, which often involved creating automated systems that took jobs away from low-wage earners or gave them the sort of mindless, repetitive work that could force even a lab monkey to take hostages. "I was contributing to the First World-Third World division." Franzoni had what he calls his "Blues Brothers moment": he told his boss he was quitting. "I'm going back to Oregon and putting the band back together," he said, and headed west.

Once back in the Beaver State, besides playing music, he began spending a lot of time camping, and it was on one such trip with his wife that he had what he calls the "15 seconds that changed my life." He encountered-possibly, anyway-Bigfoot.

Henry Franzoni does not claim to have seen a Bigfoot. He says only that he may have encountered one, that other explanations-and, Lord, he's heard them all-don't fit any better.

"We were camping in our van," he says, "and we suddenly smelled this incredible odor, I mean, just awful. Like nothing I'd ever smelled before. And we noticed that, all of a sudden, all the birds fell silent. We heard something outside, then the smell went away, and the birds started up again." Rank odor is a hallmark of many Bigfoot en- counters; the creature is said to possess a foul, mephitic stench usually associated only with cadavers, fecal matter, refuse dumps, and corporate lobbyists.

Up to that point, Franzoni had been entirely uninterested in the topic of Bigfoot. But with characteristic zeal he began to investigate the phenomenon, which lead him to the Bigfoot Research Center and a $2.5 million research project that combined anthropology, forensics, computer modeling, and plenty of outdoor legwork.

The researchers set up lures and sophisticated sensors; they even had a helicopter with infrared cameras, ready to go at a moment's notice. They hired a forensic scientist to examine in detail the famed 1967 Patterson film. (This crude bit of cinema verit‚ appears to show, depending on your level of skepticism, either a pendulous-breasted ape-woman or a sort of gigantic renegade sock puppet.) Meanwhile, Franzoni collected sightings, many from Indian tribes, and correlated the stories along various conceptual axes, using sophisticated computer models. The idea was to apply the most rigorous scientific methods to the evidence.

While much of the Bigfoot evidence could be explained away as the result of hoaxes, hysteria, or simple mistakes, not all of it could, and in the end, the project neither confirmed the existence of Sasquatch nor disproved the possibility. After seven years searching for the creature, Franzoni has moved on. But the experience had changed him. "Over the years I spent a lot of time out in the woods, chasing Bigfoot, and I gained a profound appreciation for nature," he says. "I began to see how fragile and interconnected the natural world is. At the same time, it definitely lowered my opinion of my fellow man. A lot of scientists are simply closed-minded or don't care about Bigfoot because that's not where the funding is. On the other hand, a lot of Bigfoot hunters are cowboys, guys who just want to bag a big trophy, who have no appreciation for the science involved or any desire to preserve endangered species. We're savages-our classic approach to the unknown is either to deny it or to shoot it."

Today Franzoni works for the Fish Passage Center, a branch of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority. The FPC is charged with monitoring fish populations, particularly salmon that must navigate the basin's 50 dams, and with making recommen-dations about how best to preserve existing fish species. In the Northwest, this is controversial work. Franzoni found that the skills he'd developed doing computer modeling on Bigfoot data fit perfectly into his new job. So did the thick hide he'd acquired.

"We're not an advocacy agency, but we're perceived as being pro-salmon," Franzoni says. "But what we do has to be data-driven, dispassionate. Our science has to be not just objective, but acceptable to all sides of the debate, because both sides get the data we develop." This is all interesting, I tell him, but what everyone wants to know is: does Bigfoot exist?

Franzoni takes a deep pause. He answers with a verbal feint or two. He begins by stressing that he is "retired" from L'Affaire Sasquatch, that he no longer follows the subject actively nor speaks about it much. In part this is because he had followed the leads about as far as they would go, and in part because he was tired of being seen as a kook "when the whole point was to approach Bigfoot in the most scientific way possible. Whether or not Bigfoot exists, the Bigfoot phenomenon is undeniable. That alone is worth paying attention to. A lot of people believe they've seen Bigfoot, or his tracks. So whatever the explanation-hoax, mass hallucination, bears, whatever-you can't just ignore the phenomenon."

Okay, I agree, the phenomenon exists, but does Bigfoot?

"It's really interesting," Franzoni replies, slyly. "People ask, `Do you believe in Bigfoot?' and not `is it possible?'" Fair enough, I concede, it's possible. But: does Bigfoot exist?

"There was a time when I would have wanted Bigfoot to exist, but I came to realize that it was better to leave it as a mystery," he says. "The evidence does not rise to the level of scientific proof, although it might be good enough for a courtroom. So that's how I look at it now: as a mystery."

He describes himself as "skeptically open-minded" on the issue, and I ask him how one should balance the two, skepticism and open-mindedness. "You have to wear your `skepticles,'" he replies. "You have to maintain a very critical attitude." So . . . he doesn't believe? He smiles. "I tell people, if you'd seen all the evidence I have, you'd be open-minded, too. I also tell people that the science of today is not the science of tomorrow." (This last point can be used to buttress either faith or skepticism. One Bigfoot book from the mid-70s that I read compared Bigfoot to coelacanths and the Tasaday tribespeople-phenomena that took mainstream science by surprise. Coelacanths turned out to be genuine prehistoric relics, while the Tasaday were later exposed as a hoax.)

As I listen, I can't help but wonder if open-minded might be a code word for I'm admitting nothing. If it is, I can't blame Henry; after all, if you acknowledge believing in Bigfoot, people either get out their butterfly nets or try to sell you keychains from Atlantis. As Franzoni points out, researching Bigfoot has very little upside and a lot of downside. In any case, it appears Franzoni has another reason for being cagey: protecting the big, hairy lug.

"I realized that all these stories I was making public-sightings going back hundreds of years-were like recipes on how to find Bigfoot," Franzoni says. "And I came to the conclusion that that wouldn't be a good thing. So now I cover my tracks. I don't mention details. If I saw a Bigfoot picnicking at Champoeg Park, I'd probably come home and tell my wife, and that would be the end of it."

It seems, for Henry Franzoni, Bigfoot isn't really about Bigfoot, anyway. "If I were going to write a book about my Bigfoot research, Bigfoot itself would be a tiny footnote in the appendix," he says. "It's all the other stuff that I learned that I find much more interesting. I gained a real appreciation for how fragile the natural balance is. I learned a hell of a lot about Indian myths and Indian societies. I learned how to do good science, and that sometimes good science isn't good enough. And all this led me to doing what I'm doing now.

"I've kept the values I had at Reed. I learned there to focus on the things that are important." He laughs. "In my case, that turned out to be three things: rock and roll, Bigfoot, and salmon."

Matthew Burtch '82 is a freelance writer in San Francisco. He wrote about Joan Holden '60 in "The Play's the Sting" in the February 2000 issue.