The Horror in the Ouachita Mountains

by James McGirk

01/22/2016

This story was made possible in part by our friends at City of Guthrie. Thank you, City of Guthrie, for supporting progressive storytelling and narrative journalism from the middle of America. 


The closest Paul Bowman ever came to killing Bigfoot was in 2011: “I was kicking around camp around two, three in the afternoon when there was a rock impact from the west, a large one—he couldn’t have been far—so I get suited up and grab my camo and rifle and go out. Bob Strain stood guard. Daryl Colyer set off down the path where he’d wounded Bigfoot earlier that year. I thought I’d put the sneak on him and go around by the creek. I look south and see movement about 75–80 yards away, something walking fast through the foliage at a 45-degree angle. I wonder who it is: This is treacherous ground and this guy is gliding over it. There was a break in foliage where two trees had grown apart and the sun was beaming through the canopy, so I wait to see who it was—and here’s my ‘oh shit’ moment—I see him, him; he was backlit by the sun, he had a pointy, conical head that was haloed with reddish fur, and his face and chest were leathery gray like a lady’s handbag, and his movement was fluid almost like he’s bibbity-bopping about on the slippery ground. He’s big too. Built lean and mean. He dips out of sight for a second. My immediate thought was this is Daryl. ‘Bob!’ I said, ‘who’s out there?’ Then my brain starts clicking, that wasn’t Daryl, Daryl doesn’t look like what I saw. I hoist my rifle up and point to where I think he’s going to emerge and I see the head again and take the shot.”

The bullet nicked a branch and deflected upwards and the one they call Beelzebub loped off into the woods and got away.

Bowman is vice-chairman of the North American Wood Ape Conservancy (NAWAC), a remarkably professional organization that has eschewed much of the cultural detritus surrounding Bigfoot and instead adopted what to many devotees seems like a cold and vicious approach to proving the existence of the alleged North American ape. They want to capture a type specimen. Recall the drawers full of pinned and mounted moths and butterflies at the Natural History Museum. To prove a new species of animal exists, killing and preserving a scientific specimen remains the best way to do it. It seems to harken back to 19th century adventure novels: a group of seasoned woodsmen and amateur scientists going out into the woods in the Ouachita Mountains and proving generations of scientists and sneering skeptics wrong.

Granted, the Arkoma border might seem an unlikely place to go looking for an undiscovered species of great ape, which is the most plausible explanation for Bigfoot, provided you accept the premise there is something out there to begin with (a big if). There’s a small community of scientists—including a research center called The Relict Hominoid Inquiry at Idaho State University—who think there could be an undiscovered species of ape living in the United States. Humans are said to have come to the American continent during the last ice age via a land bridge where the Bering Strait is now. It’s possible something else came over too. There was a genus of hulking apes called Gigantopithecus—apes the size of polar bears—that lived in Vietnam, India, and China and lived alongside homo sapiens for tens of thousands of years before going extinct. It’s possible they didn’t all die off. (These creatures have also been suggested as an explanation for the Yeti, the goat-gobbling abominable snowman said to live in the Himalayas between India and China). There’s compelling historical evidence too. Idaho State University’s Dr. John Green (a veteran Sasquatch researcher) gave a speech to the Annual Conference of the International Society for Cryptozoology in 1989 at Washington State University, outlining some of the more compelling examples of in the historical record:

Reports of hair-covered, human-like creatures resembling what we know as Sasquatches go back about as far you can go… We in the Sasquatch field can go back to the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh [with Enkidu, hybrid of man and animal, described as “all covered with hair but with the dexterity of a man”].

He goes on to describe hairy bipeds in Greek mythology, and the appearance of the “hairy Wild Man” that obsessed Europeans in the Middle Ages. In North America, “newspaper reports of hairy bipeds have been found in issues from the 1800s and the early years of the United States.” Far fewer reports have come out of Australia, however, which Green implies would give life to the idea that Bigfoot sightings are a purely cultural phenomenon, as UFO abductions are thought to be (he also notes that sightings didn’t increase after the release of Harry and the Hendersons in 1987). Ethnographic literature, according to Green, contains references to giants and ape-like monsters in indigenous cultures, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, which happens to be one of the few areas that might be able to sustain a community of seven-foot-tall creatures. There the weather is mild, mollusks and berries and small delicious mammals are available year-round, and much of the forest has never been logged for timber.

Deep, inaccessible woods help address the most damning evidence against creature’s existence—the lack of physical evidence: to date no one has found a Bigfoot corpse, nor a scrap of bone, nor DNA, nor scat, nor been able to verify any of the blood and hair found. Granted, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but when you consider that the last carnivorous mammal to be discovered in the Americas (2013), according to Smithsonian Magazine, was a small red raccoon-like thing found in a dense, foggy Andean cloud forest, and that was the first new mammal they’d found in the Western hemisphere since the Colombian weasel in 1978 (and there were misidentified specimens of both creatures in museums collections already), it seems hard to imagine that something so big could go undetected for so long.

For now believing in Bigfoot remains a question of faith, and like faith is subject to quickenings and self-reflecting theosophies. Most serious Bigfoot researchers start in Washington state or British Columbia. But the Ouachita Mountains in southeastern Oklahoma aren’t a completely implausible place for Bigfoot to hide.

In March 2015 NAWAC released version 1.1 of The Ouachita Project, a monograph detailing a decade’s worth of evidence they’d accumulated studying the region. I don’t think The Ouachita Project is a hoax or work of fiction. If it is, it’s the most exciting experimental fiction I’ve read in my entire life: That said, I do have a theory about explaining what happens in the Ouachita Mountains, and it places me much closer to the skeptical side of the spectrum. I’ll get to it eventually. But, if nothing else, the organization should be applauded for producing an incredibly compelling document.

North American Wood Ape Conservancy has concentrated its resources on a single area in the Ouachita Mountains (in southeastern Oklahoma). It’s called Area X, described in the literature as an “isolated study area [on] private property in the Ouachita Mountains… Only one difficult and rocky road leads to the property, which is set [among] hundreds of thousands of acres of publicly and privately held forest land and mountainous formations.” It’s an unusually moist, dense part of the state that hasn’t been logged since the 19th century. There are a few crude cabins on the property. The closest neighbors are dozens of miles away. Depending on the funds and vacation time they can scrape together, the NAWAC spends several weeks in the spring or early summer on site in four-man teams, monitoring the surrounding forest 24-hours a day.

They’ve been coming to the area since 2000, when chairman Alton Higgins, an assistant professor at Mid-America Christian University (and a former wildlife biologist employed by the State of Arizona) found “an anomalous series of humanoid tracks in a dried mud hole just off the [path].” The following year Higgins heard about the site itself, when a “retired gentleman” described “strange, extremely loud vocalizations” and “rocks that were sometimes hurled from the nearby mountainside, occasionally striking the cabin.” On his first week-long venture into the woods, Higgins’ team was approached in the darkness, and they heard heavy footfalls and pistol-shot like snaps of branches breaking, all “very much in the manner of the known great apes when producing intimidation displays.” That year they heard other reports—a deer hunter saw something that he described as a “black chimp-like animal, ‘three-to-four-feet’ in height.” It was promising stuff though far from conclusive. A trip the following year reported:

External cabin walls were loudly and forcefully “slapped” or struck; team members were stalked by unseen lurkers; rocks were thrown at the cabins; and, loud, bizarre, and unfamiliar vocalizations were produced by some type of wildlife that always remained out of sight.

Area X was fast becoming one of the liveliest Bigfoot locations in the country. Following an extremely active site visit in 2004, when a new member, Daryl Colyer, “a lifetime outdoorsman with a background in Air Force airborne intelligence… trained in evasion techniques and wilderness survival,” and his wife and stepson confirmed Higgins’ accounts of nighttime salvos of “thrown objects” and found fresh tracks and even heard a “distinct ape-like grunt from the nearby dense foliage,” which came a few moments after a near miss with a large boulder. This was compelling enough evidence that they launched a long-term camera trap project. The idea was that the traps would snap photos of any creatures passing through.

They called it Operation Forest Vigil, and apparently most of the cameras were damaged by a mischievous colony of black bears “attracted as they are to a variety of petroleum-based products, including fuels, plastics, and rubber.” Bear boxes, tough bear-proof cages around trap cameras, wouldn’t work because they made the traps too conspicuous. (The monograph refers to reports of alpha coyotes avoiding camera traps.) The pictures captured by the cameras weren’t much use, but each time the team returned to Area X they would report dozens of encounters: rock throws and loud rhythmic wood-on-wood knocking, called “wood knocks,” which came in patterns that seemed like they had to be intentional. They seemed tantalizingly close to finding definitive proof for “The Anthropoid Hypothesis.” But they would need something stronger than photography to prove something as audacious as a great ape living in Oklahoma. And thus (in 2011) they began The Ouachita Project: a series of on-site, scientifically documented stays that would collect “independently verifiable evidence (preferably a type specimen) of [an unlisted anthropoid].” Think of the stuffed creatures haunting the Natural History Museum: those are type specimens. A corpse would provide definitive evidence of Bigfoot’s existence.

And so they went to war. Taunting the apes. Playing porno at full blast and projecting chimpanzee antics on a giant screen. The results are a hell of a read: Meticulously recorded and annotated observations, discussion of alternate possibilities, references to outside sources. The tossed rocks and wood knocks seemed genuinely strange on their own, let alone the actual sightings. The only peculiar note was the almost pornographic description of weapons and camera technology. Not just a pistol, but a “Sig Sauer P226,” a garbage-bag-swaddled firing stand described as “two swivel chairs with Sako .338 Lapua and Marlin 1895 GBL .45-70, both equipped with ATN ThOR 320 60hz thermal scopes. The shemaghs were used to cover the thermal optics and the heads of the team members to guard against face and body illumination.” This gear-head glee would be terribly easy to mock if I hadn’t been seduced by it myself. I had to make contact.

Paul Bowman—NAWAC’s vice chair—was selected to speak with me. (All media appearances are voted on by the NAWAC’s leadership committee and usually vetoed.) We agreed to meet in a boutique coffee shop in downtown Tulsa, the backdrop of sleek office towers and tastefully reinterpreted hipster kitsch adding considerably to the weirdness of the occasion. Bowman was a former marine and police officer who was running a NGO that took wounded veterans hunting. He sounded like a tough customer and this was a high-stakes interview.

The monograph was intriguing but wasn’t enough on its own. Were they con artists? Did they seem deluded? Would they rely on the furtive fallacy for proof? Were they going out into the woods and getting loaded and seeing things through their night scopes? What I made of him would ultimately determine what shape my story would take.

I liked Paul Bowman very much; he had a hint of vulnerability he wasn’t afraid to show, and I felt bad that a radio station I was loosely affiliated with had gratuitously belittled his life’s work and compared it to a search for a coffee bean plant. Bowman reminded me of my bond-trading uncle, who leans toward you to tell stories with a whisper, stories that crackle with intelligence and only occasionally shade into slightly improbable fantasy (e.g. my uncle likes to tell the story of how he faced off with the Japanese Prime Minister and his entourage in a park Newport Beach and refused to step off the path, forcing them to walk around him). They both seemed to share the same uncanny sense of smell.

“There’s this smell—I call it the zoo smell. Normally the camp smells of honeysuckle and pine and normal camp smells and even animal smells, but then suddenly there’s this overwhelming smell of zoo—then it’s gone—some people call it a wet horse smell, for me it’s always been the zoo, a rotten, weird, meaty, musky smell. When I first smelled it was like eureka—this is not something a hoaxer can fake.”

I asked how people got started. He said he was like most of the crew in that he’d always been interested, especially after seeing shows like The Legend of Boggy Creek. He came to the organization after serving in the First Gulf War and talking to a group of fellow Okies about their experiences in the southeastern woods. He explained to me why the group was so publicity shy: Bigfoot has become big business, and hoaxes (such as a recent one involving a bag of bloody cow guts and Chewbacca mask) abound. Reality television producers are hungry for new material. Formerly august organizations like the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization have essentially sold their credibility for cash and publicity. NAWAC (in an earlier incarnation) had let one production company shoot a pilot about their efforts in Texas and seeing what they did with the footage was humiliating; they made them out to be toothless hicks. No, it was far better to approach the press once they had the body in cold storage and had proven it was the real thing. And after that? After that they wanted to raise funds to protect Bigfoot’s habitat, hence the “Conservancy” in their organization’s title.

“Okay,” I said, “Is there anyway I can go out to Area X to see all this for myself?” He told me he’d bounce the idea off the committee and get back to me.

As we were both gathering our things to leave, Bowman turned and said to me, almost as if he were summarizing his position, “Now why would I want to leave my wife and family at home and spend all my vacation time out in the woods with a bunch of guys and guns hunting a phantom?” It was the only slightly disingenuous moment of the exchange.

In what seemed like a monster movie cliché, I realized afterwards that my iPhone hadn’t recorded our conversation properly (the interview has been reconstructed from my handwritten notes). I spent the next couple of weeks fantasizing about what my role in the camp would be. Certainly I would need a pistol for protection, but could I kill a sentient being? I decided I would be an embedded journalist, an official noncombatant who would follow orders and protect myself if I had to. Secretly I debated whether I’d bag the furry-footed fucker myself—would I reach first for my camera or my revolver?

Pondering what kind of equipment I’d bring became a kind of obsession. I decided on my Olympus PEN E-P3 camera on a fast action sling equipped with M. Zuiko Pro 12-40mm F2.8 lens and a 3″ Smith and Wesson 686 loaded with .357 magnum Buffalo Bore bullets and my Nepalese head-lopping kukri knife. (“Don’t bring a gun,” suggested Tony Tiger, a friend who is an experienced hunter. “You’ll trip over a log and shoot yourself and bleed out.”) I was obsessed, completely sucked in to the mystery of Bigfoot and rearing to go for my very own walk in the woods.

Alas. Permission to visit Area X was never granted.

So I took The Ouachita Project monograph around to various skeptics and scientists to see what they made of it. James Garrison, president of the Oklahoma Skeptics Society, was kind enough to go over The Ouachita Monograph with me over the phone. He agreed it was a well-organized piece of work but saw some flaws. “Ninety percent of the time with Bigfoot research, it’s pure speculation,” Garrison says, “and they don’t go out of their way to eliminate other possibilities. Why aren’t there videos of the rocks being thrown [at NAWAC]?” He points out that squirrels, crows, and raptors can drop pebbles—which wouldn’t explain the rocks reported by NAWAC, but might account for some of it. The larger rocks could come from the nearby cliff face.

Garrison wasn’t convinced by the zoo smells either: “Skunks and beavers have a castor gland and emit a strong, musky odor; bobcats, coyotes, and most male cats also leave scents, and so do boars and wild pigs and male goats that actually urinate on their own beards. The problem with the scent is that it’s one of our most undeveloped senses, plus it only operates at very close range, usually if you can smell something you can see it, so this fleeting stink could have been a small animal moving by.”

A lot of the citations seem to be taken from their side of the fence, says Garrison, and many are fairly old, though he admits it’s well cited and he would have to read the original sources to fully test their claims. He suspects a few of the cited studies were taken out of context or misread. Garrison was quite impressed by NAWAC’s equipment, however. Tens of thousands of dollars worth of stuff, he says, the batteries for the night scopes alone running into the thousands.

“The wood knocking really is weird though,” Garrison admits, but he says the ape-like defensive howls in the darkness could have been made by almost any kind of creature. There’s no smoking gun in the document, he says, even the sketches made after the alleged sightings are vague and lack context. There are so many other explanations to exhaust before you can assume an unknown creature caused an encounter: Maybe they saw a black bear with mange, maybe it was a poacher, maybe someone was pranking them—people have been shot (not by NAWAC) wearing Bigfoot costumes and hoaxers are constantly upping their game. When people complained that alleged Bigfoot tracks lacked ridges the way other prints do, all of sudden they started finding ridges on Bigfoot tracks.

How do you explain something like Bowman’s sighting? I asked.

Humans are prone to pareidolia, explains Garrison, which is a kind of brain palimpsest where you misread cues and project familiar patterns onto random phenomena. “Probably an evolutionary development. People who saw a tiger ran and those that didn’t, didn’t survive, and humans are good at this. You see the wind shifting the trees making a weird pattern and suddenly you see things they can’t explain. I’m not a psychologist but I do think certain people are predisposed to think that way.”

A lot comes down to belief and politics. “Why do people believe in magical thinking?” asks Garrison. “Homeopathy, naturopathy, conspiracy theories—they want this idea that people are in control instead of how random life really is. With Bigfoot and the Chupacabra a lot of it honestly is all in good fun but there is another side of it too, there’s a lot of people on the right wing who feel that if they can discover Bigfoot then they can disprove evolution and global warming and all that other liberal ideology too. I guess it’s really just a kind of escapism.”

That’s what it was for me. I’m 35, my hair and beard are going gray, my adrenaline and testosterone are on a downward slide toward fatness and death, and the odds of making a grand splash with my life are looking increasingly slim. My brief flirtation with idea of going out into the woods and helping kill Bigfoot was a way of stepping out of my humdrum small-town life of grading papers and into a kind of Joseph Conrad, Jack London, Jules Verne, Herman Melville-like narrative—guts and glory, dragging the carcass of my adversary home with me, my life never to be the same again. The scent of blood in my nostrils soon faded, however, and the fantasy was appropriated and reconfigured into a kind of boring and potentially expensive obsession with the vital statistics of cameras and firearms. Mercifully, that too would decay.

Yet, I wasn’t sure about whether or not I believed in Bigfoot until one morning when I was drinking coffee on our covered veranda. A gentle breeze blew through the screens and there was a terrific noise against the tin roof outside. I cringed. Something bounced off. Something hard like a ricocheting bullet or a hurled rock. Was it a baseball? Someone playing golf? There was another and another and another. I was under attack! I ducked and scurried around looking for cover as what seemed like a barrage missiles rained down. My old neighbor saw my agitation: “Didja hear those acorns falling? Pretty loud!”

I felt a fool but in the quiet morning it made sense. Woods do strange things to a man’s senses. I thought of how as kid I’d conjure up stories of seeing fragments of Father Christmas out of a sense of obligation and esprit de corpsand convince myself afterward that I really did see them. I thought of how grand it would be to be murmuring on the radio to my comrades as I patrolled in pitch darkness wearing infra-red goggles, hunting for the enemy. Confabulation, mass hysteria, just plain wanting to believe… I suppose NAWAC really has reduced the equation down to its essence: I won’t believe in the Ouachita Bigfoot until he’s dragged from the woods, dead or alive.


Originally published in This Land: Winter 2016