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The Yukon’s Bigfoot Bears

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Briefs Volume 24.2, Summer 2014

Canada’s Yukon Territory is a wild, rugged land, its summers having a “midnight sun,” and its winters a day-long dark. Bordered on the west by Alaska, the east by the Northwest Territories, the south by British Columbia, and the north by the Beaufort Sea, the Yukon became famous for the Klondike gold rush of 1897–1898. In addition to gold, its treasures include the breathtaking northern lights and rich flora and fauna. The latter’s mammals include the caribou (the same species as reindeer), moose, mountain goat, Alaskan and timber wolf, red fox, mink, otter, and many others, including the black and grizzly bear. In modern times, some say, it is also home to the legendary Sasquatch, usually known since 1958 as Bigfoot.

Bigfoot Country?

I spent most of two adventure-filled years, 1975–1976, in the Yukon, living in frontier Dawson City and working as a casino dealer, museologist, riverboat manager, and newspaper stringer, among many other activities (Nickell 2008). I have reported elsewhere on my investigations of Yukon gold dowsers (Nickell 1988, 89–102) and Dawson’s “haunted” Palace Grand Theatre (Nickell 2012, 167–170).

I had not yet begun my search for what I now call the Bigfoot Bear—referring to an upright-standing bear’s propensity to be mistaken for Bigfoot in general anatomy and coloration as well as behavior and geographic distribution (Nickell 2013). However, both my work and leisure put me in contact with many Yukon outdoorsmen—like riverboat captain Dick Stevenson, numerous salmon fishermen and gold miners, dog-sled-traveling trappers like Ed Wolfe and “Skipper” Mendelsohn, and many, many more, including old Joe Henry, a nationally famous Native American snowshoe maker and my favorite wintertime bar companion. I never heard mention of Bigfoot from any of these people, but they were all familiar with bears. I was often out in bear country myself, hunting, prospecting, and the like—most often with Captain Stevenson—and I once helped him as he bravely caught (by manually operating the game warden’s defective mobile bear-trapping cage) a large, nuisance brown bear (Nickell 1976).

Despite a lack of convincing evidence for Bigfoot, belief persists, and Bigfoot buffs are active almost everywhere, including the sparsely populated Yukon. Indian legends are often trotted out, like the Kushtaka or “Land Otter Man” of the Tlingits of the Pacific Northwest. Kushtaka, it is said, “moves like the wind and disappears at will only to reappear again elsewhere, all the time keeping its hand before its face and peering out at times through its fingers” And “Whenever Kushtaka catches and breathes on its captive, he loses all sense of reality until the Kushtaka leaves” (Coleman 2011). Clearly Kushtaka is a kind of supernatural bogeyman of the Tlingits—not the supposedly real object of Sasquatch hunters’ quests. Yukon Sasquatcher Red Grossinger, a retired Canadian Army officer, admits he has never seen a Sasquatch/Bigfoot, but he assumes an unidentified smell he experienced in 2003 may have been from one. He says his Canadian Sasquatch Research Organization (CSRO) would like to “prove its existence” (Patrick 2009), a kind of cart-before-the-horse motivation that seems a recipe for bias. In this light, let us look at some published reports of creatures that are supposed to be Bigfoot but may well be familiar creatures instead.

‘Black Giants?’

As one source notes of the interest in Bigfoot:

So intense is this fascination that some Bigfoot enthusiasts seem to have labeled just about every mythological creature ever known in the western hemisphere as another name for Sasquatch. There are amusing collections of “Native American names for Bigfoot” online that include the names of giants, dwarves, ghosts, gods, underwater monsters, four-legged predators, an enormous bird, and a disembodied flying head. (“Native American” 2013)

Dolores Cline Brown, in her book Yukon Trophy Trails (1971, 153), along with another writer (Kristian 2013), tells of one such Yukon “Indian” legend (no further identification given) about one bogeyman known as the Bushman or Black Giant. Authentic native lore or not, this man-beast sounds curiously familiar, resembling a bear standing upright, a common posture with a “human appearance” (Van Wormer, 1966, 30). The creatures were very large and covered in black hair like the typical Ursus americanus, the black bear, or even like the much larger Ursus arctos, the grizzly (brown) bear, which can on occasion be black (Herrero 2002, 37, 133). They were said to live alone in caves or recesses during winter—like bears in their dens—and to have enormous feet (Brown 1971, 153; Kristian 2013). Bears, in fact, leave very “humanlike” hindprints—up to sixteen or more inches for a grizzly—that can appear larger in soft ground or when, at moderate gaits, hind- and forefoot prints may superimpose to appear as a single track (Nickell 2013).

A black-colored bear may well explain reports (relatively modern ones) of the Black Giant looking through cabin windows—the common behavior of bears who stand upright and peer into dwellings looking for food. It may also explain a reported instance of a presumed Black Giant heavily rattling a Yukon cabin door in the middle of the night, attempting to gain entry, which was thwarted by occupants shoving furniture against the door (Brown 1971, 153).

Reportedly, the fearsome Black Giants also occasionally “ate Indians” (Brown 1971, 153). True accounts of grizzlies and black bears eating people are gruesome indeed. One woman, carried off from camp by a grizzly, was heard to cry, “He’s got my arm off,” and “Oh God, I’m dead,” and then was heard no more. Her body was subsequently found, partially devoured. Later, park rangers hunted down and killed the bear, actually an old female, and an autopsy revealed human hair still in her stomach (Herrero 2002, 49–50).

But why would Native Americans not recognize the Black Giant as a bear? Perhaps the putative legends got started (and we do not know how old they are) with the appearance of a rare black grizzly, standing upright (as they do in alert mode), and resembling for all the world a man-beast—indeed a black giant. To a people who believed in many imaginative beings and who were inveterate storytellers, such accounts are not at all surprising—especially if they are of modern vintage and influenced by the Bigfoot myth.

A Bearlike Creature

It pays to backtrack sources. One compendium (Bord and Bord 2006, 231) related a case from the Yukon Territory in the 1940s, in which a witness shot his .30-06 rifle at a ten-foot Bigfoot (no further description given) that reportedly left tracks eighteen to twenty-two inches long. The original source, however, had been a letter from the man, who actually admitted he was “not sure it was not a bear” (Green 1973, 17).

We need be no less skeptical than the witness himself, and the solid evidence for the existence of bears trumps that for Bigfoot, which is zero. As to the tracks, we have only the man’s memory about them—a memory so lacking that he could not even remember the exact year of the event “in the 1940s.” Also, recall our earlier discussion about bear tracks.

‘Bluish’ Bigfoot?

On October 4, 1975, a man named Ben Able reported a strange encounter near Jake’s Corner, Yukon. He passed a bipedal figure on the road at night but, when he backed up to offer a ride, the figure moved away from the road. Covered with fur, it was about five and a half feet tall—generally the appearance and size of a small black bear (a standing one can be up to seven feet tall) (Bord and Bord 2006, 283; Green 1978, 242).

Curiously, however, its fur was “bluish” and it had a gray face—odd coloring for Bigfoot. However, it happens that rare “blue” or “bluish-tinged” or “blue-gray” black bears, known as “glacier” bears, are found in the Southwest Yukon, as well as nearby coastal areas of Alaska and British Columbia (Gloia 2011; Whitaker 1996, 703; Herrero 2002, 132; Van Wormer 1966, 20). This is rather unique evidence in favor of identifying the mystery creature as a regional black bear.

Encounters at Teslin

Another somewhat similar case occurred in June 2004 near Teslin (a village just north of the border with British Columbia). Two men driving a truck on the Alaska Highway after one o’clock in the morning passed a figure standing by the road. Going back to see if it was someone who needed a lift, they saw a hunched-over creature approximately seven-feet-tall, covered with dark hair. In their headlights, however, they thought they saw “flesh tones” beneath the hair. Driving away, they looked back and observed it cross the road “in two or three steps,” according to a source, apparently at third hand or worse (Bord and Bord 2006, 209).

Crossing a highway in just three steps from a standing position seems remarkable even for a seven-foot man-beast. Given that the observation was made under poor conditions (behind them, without benefit of headlights, and having to use mirrors or turn awkwardly), I suspect the witnesses were mistaken. A bear seems the most likely culprit.

Some additional sightings were reported in 2005 in Teslin, culminating in the discovery of some “sasquatch hair.” This was sent to a conservation office in Whitehorse, the Yukon capital (“Sasquatch” 2005). The results were good news and bad news for Bigfooters: The hair was not from a bear! Alas, it was also not from a Bigfoot—no authentic trace of which has ever been found—but from a “buffalo,” that is, an American bison (Kirk 2006).

Conclusions

As the foregoing cases show, much of the evidence for Bigfoot depends on selective reporting of eyewitnesses’ descriptions, the weakest kind of evidence. They may easily be mistaken due to poor viewing conditions, excitement, and even what cryptozoologist Rupert Gould (1976, 112–113) termed “expectant attention.” That is the tendency to see what one expects to see—itself due, in the case of Bigfoot, either to wishful thinking or to what I call “Bigfoot programming.” This refers to the fact that people are often assailed with images of Bigfoot—on TV shows, for instance, far more than they are with, say, those of bears.


Acknowledgments

I was assisted with online research by Lisa Nolan of CFI Libraries.

References

Bord, Janet, and Colin Bord. 2006. Bigfoot Casebook Updated. N.p.: Pine Winds Press.

Brown, Dolores Cline. 1971. Yukon Trophy Trails. Sidney, B.C.: Gray’s Publishing Ltd.

Coleman, Loren. 2011. Wood knocking: More histor­ical background. Online at http://www.cryptomundo.com/cryptozoo-news/woodknock-2; accessed De­­cem­­ber 10, 2013.

Gloia, Carol. 2011. Facts about the American Black Bear. Online at http://www.critters360.com/index.php/facts-about-the-american-black-bear-4012/; accessed December 18, 2013.

Gould, Rupert T. 1976. The Loch Ness Monster and Others. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press.

Green, John. 1973. The Sasquatch File. Agassiz, BC: Cheam Publishing Ltd.

———. 1978. Sasquatch: The Apes Among Us. Saanich­ton, B.C.: Hancock House.

Herrero, Stephen. 2002. Bear Attacks, rev. ed. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.

Kirk, John. 2006. Sasquatch in the Yukon. Online at http://www.cryptomundo.com/bigfoot/sasquatch-yukon; accessed December 9, 2013.

Kristian, Ken. 2013. Notes from my database on the Bushmen. Online at http://www.bigfootencounters.com/sbs/blackgiants.htm; accessed December 9, 2013.

Native American Bigfoot figures of myth and legend. 2013. Online at http://www.native-languages.org/legends-bigfoot.htm; accessed December 11, 2013.

Nickell, Joe. 1976. A “grin and bear it” story. White­horse Star (Yukon), June 21.

———. 1988. Secrets of the Supernatural. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

———. 2008. Autobiographical Essay. Contemporary Authors 269: 278–297.

———. 2012. The Science of Ghosts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

———. 2013. Bigfoot lookalikes, Skeptical Inquirer 37(4) (September/October): 12–15.

Patrick, Tom. 2009. Slow year for sasquatch sightings. Online at http://www.yukon-news.com/sports/slow-year-for-sasquatch-sightings; accessed Decem­ber 10, 2013.

Sasquatch sightings reported in Yukon. 2005. CBC News (July 13). Online at http://www.freedomcrowsnest.org/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=14641; ac­cessed December 11, 2013.

Van Wormer, Joe. 1966. The World of the Black Bear. New York: Lippincott.

Whitaker, John O., Jr. 1996. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals, rev. ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.