Bigfoot (?) rides on a truck during Bigfoot Days in Willow Creek. (Courtesy Melissa Whitney)
A wild, hairy, primate-like creature living in the forests of Northern California has long been part of the lore of a small mining community known as Willow Creek. Everything changed in 1967, when the creature was supposedly captured on film. Yes, we're talking about Bigfoot.
The iconic Bigfoot video shot just 29 miles north of Willow Creek made national news. Nearly 50 years later, people are still flocking to the Humboldt County town, which celebrates the creature every year during its Bigfoot Days Festival. We stopped by this year's event, held on Sept. 5.
There are plenty of believers within the festival. For Anita Bussle, a member of the Hupa tribe, Bigfoot is more than just a mascot for Willow Creek. She says the creature is a spiritual being that should be protected.
"Most of the people I know don't wanna tell you where they saw it or how they saw it," she said. "They wanna keep him as safe as he can be. It's like telling you I saw an eagle that flies over there, and then having someone that comes in and shoots the bird."
However, Willow Creek does have a lot of Bigfoot memorabilia and quite a few businesses named after the forest primate. Driving through town, it’s hard to miss the Bigfoot statues and signs lining the streets.
Steve Streufert, owner of Bigfoot Books and local expert in all things Bigfoot, would argue that the creature has become more than a mascot. To him, Bigfoot brings the community together, and its impact has been growing since 1967.
"This is sort of the mecca of Bigfoot," Streufert said. "I get tourists from Europe and all across the country. Bigfoot was how this town became bigger than just a tiny little hole in the wall along the intersection there."
It's also notable that major networks and hundreds of scientific studies have kept the legend alive by finding new evidence. Animal Planet, National Geographic and the History Channel continue to produce Bigfoot documentaries showcasing new facts and new evidence, as well as analyzing and deconstructing the 1967 film by Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin to prove that Bigfoot could be real.
"Everyone enjoys Bigfoot just for the fun of it,” said Streufert. "Because even if you do believe, it's not like it's easy to go find the thing."
With almost 10,000 miles of wildlife spanning the entire Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest surrounding Willow Creek, finding Bigfoot is not a walk in the park.
Enter Jaime Wayne, a researcher with the Bluff Creek Project. Among the many vendors at the Bigfoot Days Festival, his table was the only one with giant cement foot casts made from Bigfoot prints. He held up one of the prints and explained that some are not always accurate.
"We’ve amassed a collection of reported Bigfoot prints," he said. "Some of them are quite interesting, but other prints are attributable to normal animals."
In addition to finding various Bigfoot tracks, the Bluff Creek Project leads outdoor adventure trips, including regular visits to the place where Bigfoot was supposedly filmed. Wayne said sometimes the Bigfoot hype gets the best of the campers.
"You get 'em outside in a tent, and they’re absolutely terrified," he said. "They don’t get any sleep at all, and every single sound is a Bigfoot when you’re hearing it from the inside of your tent."