At least one person from the village of Angoon had seen tracks in the mossy forest near town, enormous tracks, two feet long. "Bigfoot" tracks! Evidence of the legendary Sasquatch prowling the wilderness around the village of Angoon. He had called the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reporting his discovery and, in doing so, more or less raised the topic, once again, for public debate. The claim might have been dismissed, but coming from Angoon, where people have a long history and are well acquainted with the fauna surrounding them, a response from the Department was appropriate. If they were "Sasquatch" tracks, the range of this still-mythical creature would have had its mythical range extended hundreds of miles to the north. So the claim needed investigation. I, the newest and lowest-ranking wildlife biologist in the Juneau office and therefore, as usual, most expendable for such missions, got delegated.
Angoon, a Tlingit village on the west side of 100 mile long Admiralty Island, is not far, as the raven flies, from Fish & Game headquarters in Juneau on the mainland. In fact, the north end of the island is visible from places along the local Juneau road system. (Juneau is one of two state capitals that can’t be reached by road, the other being Honolulu.) When a person needs to get around in the wilderness of Southeast Alaska, with no roads or bridges connecting islands and communities, one does not jump in a car. One jumps in a boat or an airplane. In this case, using a boat and outboard engine would mean circumnavigating almost halfway around the island, too long and time-consuming a trip to get to Angoon, find and investigate the tracks, and get back the same day. No matter how low on the biologist totem pole, I too, had other duties and commitments. So, after first inviting my good friend Karl Lane to accompany me, we both jumped in a floatplane. Karl had years of experience on Admiralty Island, whereas, in the mid 1960s, I was almost a newcomer, a Cheechako.
A few words about Karl Lane: Much of his youth was spent in the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia where he knew alligators and water moccasins and knew about carefully secreted moonshine stills hidden on hammocks deep in the swamp. He shared a swimming hole with an unusually large gator which he and his friends called Uncle Tom and on whom they kept a watchful eye. Karl was a woodsman, an outdoorsman, and had ventured north, eventually setting himself up guiding bear hunts and becoming a much respected and sought after master guide. When I knew him, he was growing tired of the business of taking people out to kill bears and was encouraging his many prospective clients to hunt with camera rather than rifle. A budding environmentalist! Later, his critical testimony in court helped avert the clear cut logging of his beloved island. After many challenges by the Sierra Club and the Village of Angoon, in which Karl took part, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Champion Plywood cancelled the 8.4 billion board feet logging sale centered on the island. Today Admiralty Island is protected as a National Monument, its forests standing un-felled as they have for centuries.
I count myself lucky and privileged to have made trips to Admiralty Island with Karl, winter and summer trips, usually aboard his vessel the Heron. On one particular trip we took a small floatplane, landing on Jim’s Lake in the center of the island. From the lake we made the steep climb up the forested slope of Yellow Bear Mountain, and on top, above timberline, we camped for several days. Over the years Karl had made equipment stashes here and there around SE Alaska. One of them, hidden in the alpine meadow on Yellow Bear Mountain, containing ground sheets, visqueen, axe, rope, lantern, bug repellant and so on, meant that we were less burdened with gear for the climb.
It’s difficult to share the experience of the unique beauty of the high country meadows of Admiralty Island with those who have not been there. One breathes the perfume of the heather-carpeted world, a world interrupted here and there by copses of small, snow-tortured mountain hemlock, their tangled trunks all bent downslope. Robins nest in these hemlocks, seemingly as much at home in this unpeopled wilderness as they are in a city park. Their sweet songs floats down the mountainsides, mostly unheard by human ears. One looks down on the mighty forests and on eagles soaring below. Sitka deer graze and browse the meadows. From our simple campsite we could see Angoon and Mitchell Bay to the west, the high country spine of the island to the north and south, and the snow-covered mainland mountains to the east. Our thin, translucent plastic shelter, supported by a ridge rope and a couple tent poles offered some protection against rain, but not from anything else. Mosquitoes and "Sasquatches", had easy access though the two open ends.
Several well-traveled brown bear routes passed over Yellow Bear Mountain and in them lay the secret of "Sasquatch" tracks. Here’s how the giant tracks form. Bears, for some reason, like to place their feet where other bears have placed their feet. Over time this enlarges tracks. Add to it the fact that a bear going at its usual pace places its hind foot on, or somewhat overlapping, the same track that the forefoot has just vacated. In mud or snow, where clear impressions of the bears’ footpads and claws have been imprinted, this pattern is easily discerned. However, in heath and moss, only depressions, are formed. These facts alone account for the generations of giant impressions in some situations. But there’s still another factor. Such impressions can fill with water that freezes and thaws through the seasons, enlarging the long-lasting impressions.
Now, as mentioned, Angoon people are very familiar with the bears of their island. They know bear tracks. But somehow the fellow who called Fish and Game had missed out on a bit of Admiralty Island natural history. Anyway, there were the tracks threading their way through the tall timber, giant impressions, leading now under the thorny Devil’s club, now around and across moss-covered roots and over enormous moss-covered Sitka spruce logs. This evidence, not far from the village, showed where the "Sasquatch" had moved through the understory. Where had it come from? Where was it going? Confronting such tracks without knowing the identity of the track-maker could raise the hair on the nape of one’s neck as one imagined an ape-thing hulking through the shadowy forest.
We tried to let the disappointed Fish and Game caller down easy, but I think he was reluctant to believe us And he was a bit irritated. He insisted these tracks were different from bear tracks. He had seen bear tracks, but nothing this BIG. And they were big and different—but only in form, not in maker. It was hard for him to accept that such huge impressions had been made by such a familiar creature. In any case, he did not get the imprimatur of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on his discovery. Perhaps, as far as he is concerned, hairy ape-things still prowl the island. Nobody likes to have a good ghost story--or "Sasquatch" story--spoiled.
R T WALLEN