I have met some memorable individuals while wandering the forest of the Ozark Mountains.
There was the time I was deep in the backwoods, just below Spy Rock, far away from any road or trail, when a weary, haggard-looking man appeared out of nowhere. With a map in hand, a Garmin navigator in the pocket of his khaki shirt, and a brown Fedora on his head, he looked like a young Indiana Jones.
I attempted to make small talk with him. He was very guarded in his replies. Finally, he asked me if I was familiar with the area. I replied that I had hiked the Ozarks most of my life. He gave an exhausted sigh and then told me he was from Texas.
He had read online about gold Hernando de Soto had hidden somewhere in the area when he was running from Indians. He was certain this was the area and had even found a map of where the treasure was buried. He just needed to find a large rock with a turtle etched in it that marked the exact location.
On another outing, I was backpacking with friends on the Ozark Highlands Trail. It was late, and we were sitting around the campfire when a man emerged from the darkness. Coolly he walked to the edge of the fire and sat cross-legged on the ground. He wore sneakers with one missing sock, cutoff blue jeans and no shirt.
We asked if he was alright. He ignored us. We asked where he was from. He merely gazed into the flames in silence.
We left him alone, and had resumed our conversation when he calmly stated, "I'm not from these parts."
Then, he rose and wandered off in the direction opposite where he came in.
These and other "Close Encounters of the Ozark Kind" have provided stories to share with friends around such campfires. But the women I recently encountered in the White Rock Mountain area proved much more intriguing.
Dalene Ketcher and I had just finished a bicycle ride on gravel roads in the Shores Lake area. We were perched on a rock wall overlooking the lake, enjoying a post-ride beverage, when a truck pulled into the parking lot. Two women climbed out of the vehicle to stroll over to the wall and peer out over the lake.
We exchanged pleasantries about the weather and the beautiful view. They asked us where we had been bicycling, and we responded with a short synopsis of our ride.
"We are camping down at Campbell Cemetery campground, doing research," replied one of the women.
It was pleasant visiting with them, and they must have enjoyed our company because they stayed around for about 20 minutes. At that time, I saw one of the women glance at the other and nod.
"We are here researching Bigfoot," she announced with a smile.
Silence followed as Dalene and I waited for the "Just kidding." But it did not come.
"Having any luck?" I finally asked in an attempt to fill the awkward stillness.
"As a matter of fact, yes," one answered.
THE HUNT FOR BIGFOOT
Debi Jones lives in Longview, Texas. She grew up in Malta, Texas, just 30 miles downriver from Fouke, Ark., home of the legendary "Fouke Monster." Hearing firsthand accounts of sightings and other encounters was nothing unusual for her growing up.
She was friends with the man inside the monster costume in the 1972 movie "The Legend of Boggy Creek."
Jones' first personal exposure came at the age of 14. She and her daddy were hanging Christmas lights when they heard a series of frightening screams. They had never heard anything like it. This experience ignited a fascination about the creature that continues to this day.
Since then, she has actively investigated Bigfoot across the country. On one expedition in northeast Texas, she bonded with two other field researchers to form an all-female research team, Sisters of the Moon. Jones, Barbara Locke and Sandi Harris have spoken at Bigfoot conferences across Oklahoma and were featured on the television series "Bigfoot Odyssey."
Locke and Harris were unable to join Jones on this expedition. Her friend and fellow field researcher Patti Richardson accompanied her.
Once my initial surprise had sunk in, curiosity took over.
As they patiently answered one question after another, Jones offered, "Would you like to visit our camp?"
"Sure," I said, quickly, before she could withdraw the invitation.
MUSIC FOR BIGFOOT
At first glance the camp looked like any recreational encampment. Large tent, camp chairs around a burnt-out fire ring, and gear scattered about. But I did spot equipment strategically positioned around the area that I would not generally associate with a family outing. I asked Jones to explain what is involved in a Bigfoot research expedition.
Jones said they take a scientific approach as they collect evidence and data. When preparing for an expedition, they ensure all the equipment is fully charged, with new batteries and alternate backup power supplies. They go through a documented equipment checklist: blacklight game cams, time lapse cameras and audio recorders, Flir infrared thermal imaging cameras, night vision, EMF detectors, parabolic listening devices, etc.
When approaching their camp destination, they play loud music. They believe the creatures hear this and will come to check them out. They continue playing music while setting up camp, wanting to draw them closer.
Jones led us to their tent. She pointed to a line of black thread encircling the tent. They set these strands at different levels to help determine the subjects' height. Along with the thread, they run twinkle lights that are connected to a battery. The lights have proved extremely helpful in effectively producing shadows of upright creatures as they walk between the lights and tent.
She explained how, on an earlier trip in this same area of White Rock, the twinkle lights cast the shadow of a very large hand on the wall of their tent. It was three times larger than her own. It slowly brushed the outside tent surface as the creature walked alongside the tent.
Following this, small rocks began to pelt the tent walls, accompanied by low guttural whooping sounds, akin to chattering. Jones had heard the famous Sierra Sounds, recorded by Al Berry and Ron Morehead. They are the gold standard for Bigfoot vocalizations. It is said human vocal chords are not capable of making the sounds on the recordings. Those recorded sounds were very like the ones they had heard that night, she said.
Jones began showing us the collection of equipment they use to gather data. She handled the night vision lens, recording devices, and other equipment with experienced ease. It was impressive.
VOICE OF THE BIGFOOT
After this tour, we gathered in camp chairs around the fire ring as Jones and Richardson shared more personal adventures.
The Sisters of the Moon had recorded what Jones deems was Bigfoot gibberish at one of their main research locations in southeastern Oklahoma. They believe what they heard were three separate individuals conversing. The gibberish has been analyzed and determined to be a language of no known origin. Even with the sounds broken into five phonemes and slowed down, linguistic experts determined they were still speaking faster than is humanly possible. The Sisters have played the recording at Bigfoot conferences.
They did not have these recordings with them, so the two of them began mimicking Bigfoot calls.
"Howl," they called out in perfect harmony. They followed the howls with authentic-sounding animal guttural whooping calls. I half expected to hear an answer to their calls from the nearby woods.
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Jones next shared the experience of her own Bigfoot sighting at Sam Houston National Forest in Texas. They were heading out for a midnight hike. As she pulled into the trailhead parking lot, her headlights swept across a whitish, hairy, upright creature crossing the clearing. It continued down a slight embankment into the creek bed. At less than 40 feet away, and visible for at least 4 seconds, she was certain it was Bigfoot!
She could see the hair on its back blowing in the wind as it ran, but she could not see its face. The hair was 3 or 4 inches long and had mud/dirt on the back of its right shoulder.
They returned the following day to collect pictures of footprints measuring 16 inches long and 8 inches wide.
Once you have witnessed Bigfoot in person, you will always remember the image, she said. The sighting was a highlight of her many Bigfoot adventures.
Jones shared several more experiences encountered on Sisters of the Moon expeditions. She said their encounters were beyond anything they ever could have imagined. She believed her team has been as lucky as they have because they are females and might be considered less of a threat than male humans. That, and The Sisters are much more interesting.
I asked Jones what her goal is for continuing her Bigfoot research.
"My goal is to experience and learn every possible thing I can about these fascinating creatures," she responded. "I've seen one, so I know without a doubt they exist. I do want to see one's face, though. Everyone that has seen the face has said they are very human looking. The experiences we've been fortunate to have so far have shown us they do not want to hurt us. They've had many chances to do that and haven't.
"I believe they are just as curious about us as we are about them."
As for me, my goal now is that Bigfoot will read this article and give me a sighting during one of my future outings in the Ozark Mountains.
Bob Robinson of Fort Smith is the author of "Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail," "Bicycling Guide to Route 66" and "Bicycling Guide to the Lake Michigan Trail."