(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — Northwest Pennsylvania and Northeast Ohio are no strangers to folk tales, conspiracy theories, and the downright abnormal — UFO sightings at Presque Isle in 1966, the Waterford Sheepman that reportedly terrorized Baghdad Road in the 1970s, and the Conneaut Giants whose remains allegedly were uncovered buried in mounds of earth in the late 1800s. And while the area holds unique tales, it has bigfoot sightings in common with the rest of North America.
Bigfoot (also known as a sasquatch) allegedly is a creature that resembles an ape rumored to be roaming the forests of North America. Tales of bigfoot reach deep into Native American lore and span the North American continent. Some people claim to have seen a bigfoot, while others claim to have photographic and physical evidence of the alleged animal. At times, that evidence has been debunked, while other evidence (such as footprints, scat, audio recordings of strange sounds, and downright weird damage to sticks and branches) remains questioned by skeptics and fully supported by believers.
Whether bigfoot exists is beyond the scope of a brief news article, but certainly it has captured the public’s attention. A bigfoot character is the co-star of the 1980s comedy movie, “Harry and the Hendersons.” The search for bigfoot has been the theme of more than one reality TV show.
Recently, a data scientist said most bigfoot sightings in the United States and Canada are probably black bears, “walking” upright on their hind legs. That isn’t a new revelation, and it certainly has been theorized in the past. It’s also not unheard of for black bears to walk on their hind legs — a New Jersey bear became an internet sensation when it was caught on camera walking upright. But for some, that’s simply not enough to dispel their belief in bigfoot.
Some people outright claim to have seen a bigfoot, not a black bear on its hind legs. Again, these claims span the continent of North America. Ask them and they know for sure it was a bigfoot. The “Patterson-Gimlin Film,” the famous 16mm film from Washington State that shows an ape-like creature walking along a creek bed and into the tree-line has been debunked by skeptics, touted as evidence by believers, and paraded through and to every corner of North America. Bob Gimlin makes the rounds at bigfoot/sasquatch conventions throughout the country (yes, those conventions happen and are well-attended).
In January 2020, the Washington State Department of Transportation shared a video from its camera network of a figure walking across a wildlife overcrossing in a mountain pass. While that video wasn’t definitively debunked, the camera network has been pranked with bigfoot hoaxes in the past when a bigfoot-shaped cutout was put up in the tree-line within the camera’s view. Still, people believe they have seen a bigfoot, and those reported sightings are tracked.
The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization ranks Pennsylvania 12th in number of bigfoot sightings, with 126 sightings. Ohio ranks fourth with 318 sightings. Washington (708 sightings) and California (461 sightings) rank first and second respectively.
In Pennsylvania, the most recent report to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization was on Dec. 20, 2022 in Indiana County. Tracks were found in the snow that “were similar to human tracks, but different,” and the gait had a distance of about 4 feet between steps. An investigator from the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization found the report to be “both sincere and very credible,” according to the website.
Both Allegheny and Cambria counties have the most reports (nine each). Erie County has five reported sightings, Crawford County has two reported sightings and Warren County has one sighting.
The organization notes that it only includes first-hand witness accounts in its database (so if a witness told a friend and that friend reported it to the organization, that sighting would not be included).
An online map of PA Bigfoot Encounters shows hundreds of alleged bigfoot sightings dating back to 1885. That map is not clearly associated with the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. In Crawford County, near Cambridge Springs, a bigfoot sighting led to a $1 million bounty on the creature (if it exists) in 2017, according to a story published by the Meadville Tribune. (There currently is no published bounty for the Waterford Sheepman from the 1970s, in case you’re curious.)
Seth Rummel is of Cambria County and is a researcher for the Pennsylvania Squatch Society. The society was formed eight years ago by Rummel and his friends. About five times per year, the society receives a report from someone who spotted a possible bigfoot. Last year, a pair of cyclists saw what they thought was a sasquatch along the edge of the Ghost Town Trail in Cambria County, and the Pennsylvania Squatch Society went out to investigate. They didn’t find any tracks.
“I’m 100% a believer. There’s so much evidence out there, and all of these people are definitely seeing something strange and unusual,” Rummel said. “There are too many sightings and too much evidence for me to believe that it’s just one big hoax.
“The evidence is all believable enough, and there are so many new animals discovered all of the time out there, so why not a sasquatch?”
Bigfoot researchers have thought about the skeptical questions more than most people. Rummel, like other believers, has compelling explanations to answer the skeptical questions. For example, why are there are so few photos, or if there are photos, they are out of focus?
“If you saw that and you were walking alone in the woods, would you pull out your camera right away or would you freeze up?” Rummel said.
How about the often-repeated theory that bigfoot sightings are nothing but black bears walking on their hind legs?
“I’m sure some of the sightings are cases of mistaken identity, like if it was dark out and they looked quickly and they weren’t sure,” Rummel said. “But there are so many sightings, and so many footprints that definitely are not black bears. And sightings from people who are outside in the woods all the time — they know the difference.”
Though he’s a researcher and a full-on believer (he has a bigfoot tattoo on his arm), Rummel said he has not seen a sasquatch for himself. He’s seen footprints. He’s been in the field and heard strange noises and turned to see something move in the distance. But he’s never seen a bigfoot in the flesh. But he knows what he would do if he saw one, and it’s advice he passes on to the general public.
“They’re out there, and they’re probably like any other animal in that they want to be left alone to roam around in the woods and not be bothered,” Rummel said. “If I ever see one, I’ll just let them go on their way. Our motto is we just want to collect evidence and observe one, and then let them do their thing.”