Nearest Town: Fillmore, California
Time: Spring, 2004
Event: Bigfoot Encounter
The Sespe is the longest remaining undammed river in California. It’s also home to the endangered California Condor. The condor’s Sanctuary lies within the Sespe Wilderness Area, which lies within Los Padres National Forest.
Although the Wilderness lies at the edge of modern civilization – the coastal mountains it protects stretch from Los Angeles to Monterey – it is the fourth largest acreage of roadless Wilderness Area in the lower 48 states. Within the Wilderness Area, no roads, or vehicles are allowed. Within the Sanctuary, additional protections apply for the condors. It’s one of the most protected pieces of land on the planet.
Fillmore sits at the edge of the National Forest, at the mouth of Sespe Canyon. East of town, a rugged forest road leads 20 miles to a place called Doughnut Flat. At Doughnut Flat, the road ends on the edge of the Wilderness Area, and it’s the beginning of the Alder Trail. There were no other cars at the trail-head when I arrived.
At the time, I lived in Fillmore. This is an area I’d been to before, since it’s almost my old backyard. From Doughnut Flat, Alder trail follows a meandering creek at an elevation of about 4,000 feet, before it drops down a steep canyon to join with a longer trail that follows the upper reaches of the river.
A mile in, the trail passes a cluster of trees. A big oak in the center has a campsite beneath. I hiked alone this day, and didn’t intend to go far, carrying only water and a walking stick. I stopped to survey the campsite thinking I might one day bring the kids, since it’s such an easy hike from the car.
I was disappointed to find the site trashy with beer cans and broken glass – being a mile from the trail-head, it evidently got heavy use.
As I poked around beneath the oaks, I heard heavy steps, and glimpsed the knee and lower leg of a man bolting from a brush-filled ravine not twenty yards away.
The knee and leg thrust forward in a run. The foot was obscured by grass, and the body was obscured by the branches of the tree I stood beneath. The leg was a uniform, dark grey color. I saw no cuff, or sock, or other feature, and he was gone up the canyon before I could think to move.
This disturbed me. He apparently bolted because I was there. Why was he hiding? I concluded the man must have an illegal camp, or pot growing back in the canyon – up to something he didn’t want known. I immediately gathered my things and left, hiking to my truck.
I returned a week later. Again, by myself, thinking whoever lurked in that canyon ought to be gone. I wanted to survey the situation – like I said, this is a trail I used a lot, a place I wanted to bring the kids. I might add, I am always very aware in the wild, especially by myself. But on this occasion, I half expected to run into someone, so was particularly aware. That’s one reason my memory is clear.
I walked beyond the trees to where I saw the man run and found a path. The path led up the shallow canyon towards an unusual blue-gray cut in the mountain that looked like a small mining operation from a time in the past. I found an old fallen windmill near the cut, and some rusted sections of a water tank confirming my suspicion.
I found no campsite, or trash, or other evidence of recent activity. I explored the artifacts and then continued up the draw, which led to a shallow saddle on a ridge. I had to scrabble up a rocky cleft to gain the ridge.
When I topped the ridge, I looked down into a lush green pocket valley, enclosed by cliffs on the opposite side; and on my side, a sandy slope covered in Manzanita. This verdant valley looked untouched and inviting – I could see no roads, or trails. The slope into it was bowl-like and negotiable, so I continued on, skirting the hillside looking for the best way down.
The path ended at the ridge, so I continued on game trails that wove through the chaparral. The Manzanita grew five feet tall, spaced such that I could wend my way through it, but not in a straight line. I could see over the top, but I couldn’t see through. The day was calm, clear, sunny and warm. I’d worked-up a good sweat climbing the ridge, hearing nothing but the sound of my own heavy breathing.
“EEAAAAAAHHHH” – a shriek filled the valley – I stopped in my tracks. The sound came from below, and was directed right at me. So sudden, so loud, and so…unknown was this sound that it startled me witless.
It’s perplexing to hear something you can’t identify – especially in the wild, without warning, where there shouldn’t be such a sound.
No living thing I know in those woods could make that ripping scream; no lion, bobcat, or condor could have carried that volume, or pitch. What entered my mind was T-Rex … from “Jurassic Park.”
The shriek gave me chills, but I knew there had to be a rational answer. My mind ticked through possibilities and came up with the best similarity – there must be heavy equipment in the canyon. Only the screech of metal-on-metal made any sense. I imagined a giant, rusty gate hinge. Only it wasn’t quite like that.
I listened for other sounds. I looked. Nothing moved. There was no sound, or sight of anything – nothing but a pristine valley overgrown with oak and pine along the narrow stream below. There were not supposed to be machines in the Wilderness Area.
The sound didn’t waft up to me, bouncing and distorting off the canyon walls. It hit my face, so to speak, like standing in front of a loudspeaker. Nevertheless, I rationalized the sound must have come from somewhere around a dog-leg in the canyon where I could not see. If I could see down there, I was sure there would be a backhoe, or bulldozer doing heavy work.
I continued across the slope to a rise that promised a view past the dog-leg. As I topped the rise the ground became steep and sandy and I had to dig in my boots to get a stance, which occupied my attention. When I looked – I had a perfect view. I saw the entire length past the dog-leg and the slopes all around. There was nothing there.
I stood for only a moment surveying the scene. Not a fly buzzed it was so still. And then a feeling came over me – I did not belong there.
This was far more than a feeling of being watched, or a case of heebie-jeebies – I’ve had those before. Some thing didn’t want me there. I struggled with this feeling – trying to swallow it. It made no sense, but it kept building almost to a feeling of panic. I turned and retraced my steps towards the ridge.
As I neared the ridge, I heard what sounded like footfalls behind me, in time with my own. I told myself it was my imagination, until I stopped at the ridge top, where I had to climb down the cleft, and I heard one more footfall that wasn’t mine.
I hurtled down the cleft in two bounds, and ran a good fifty yards. Then I heard another sound. It came from the ridge. I turned, thinking I would see whatever was coming down the cleft. There was nothing, except one branch swaying among some brush below the cleft. Just one branch.
I turned and made double time all the way to the Land Rover, roughly three miles, got in and locked the doors. Even inside, with the doors locked, I had the willies driving down the long road.
About five miles from Doughnut Flat, outside the wilderness area at a considerably lower elevation, there is an oilfield with active drilling and production work. As I passed through this area, I thought, what I heard was oil-field equipment. They must be drilling near the Wilderness close to where I was. Convinced I’d found the answer, I forgot about the incident … for ten years.
I am not prone to apprehension in the wilderness. I generally feel quite safe and competent on my own. I’ve spent many days and nights backpacking alone in remote areas, including several trips in this Wilderness. I have experienced weird feelings, like being watched, or that a place feels spooky on occasion. It isn’t unusual in lonely, remote places where creatures roam. But I have never been scared, even confronted by bears, and I’ve never felt compelled to leave a place before, or since this experience.
I never connected the sound with Bigfoot. In my mind Bigfoot – well, if he even exists – lives in rainforests far north, not down in the coastal mountains fifty miles from LA. It wasn’t until my interest in Bigfoot got sparked by someone I admire that the connection finally came.
I’m a fan of Survivorman, and think Les Stroud is an honest, sober guy with a whole lot of back country experience. So when he started looking for Bigfoot, I took it seriously.
Intrigued by his show, I looked through You-Tube for other info, where I ran across various alleged recordings of Bigfoot vocals. That’s when I recognized the sound.
I heard the same blood curdling screech of a rusty hinge, chorused with a resonant, guttural growl. It’s been described as many voices screaming, or many dogs barking in unison. Bigfoot researchers speculate it is a warning.
I found the place on Google Earth. I found views from the same time frame. There is no road, no nearby oil field. Not even a trail in that canyon, or anywhere for miles around. I looked up sightings for the area on the BFRO web-site. There have been several in the Sespe, going back decades.
I also discovered a wealth of information about that one credible Patterson-Gimlin film that has been enhanced and analyzed with digital technology not available at the time it was filmed. There is incredible detail of body proportion and movement that cannot be human.
Whatever drove me out of that canyon made a hell of a noise I cannot associate with anything but a Bigfoot vocalization. Now that I’ve heard it, I can’t ignore it. I’m going back to that canyon, once I find somebody who’ll go with me..