BIG CYPRESS BAYOU — The motor sputtered, then died, and as the canoe drifted deeper into the swamp, gray tangles of Spanish moss gave way to murky water and black cypress.
Knuckles whitened as Charlie DeVore ripped the pull cord. His two-man canoe, three decades old and uneasy under the weight of three men, teetered dangerously with every tug.
DeVore yanked the cord once more, then gave up.
“We’ll just have to paddle,” he said.
There wasn’t time to fix the propeller, and there wasn’t time for precaution. The party pressed farther into the swamp, because that’s where Bigfoot was.
Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, that elusive creature more often associated with the Pacific Northwest, lives among these knobby trees of the Big Cypress Bayou, DeVore will tell you.
While other people have seen the creature, DeVore, well, he has smelled it. And it’s the most indescribably putrid, gosh-awful stench you could imagine.
“It’s overpowering,” DeVore said.
DeVore, a 64-year-old redhead who wears a straw hat and eyeglasses, has compared notes on that stench with dozens of East Texans who have also reported brushes with the hairy hominoid. He investigates sightings for the Texas Bigfoot Research Center, a Dallas-based group that documents close encounters throughout the state, most of them in the Piney Woods and Big Thicket. Although DeVore professes to be an amateur, he knows enough to understand the creature’s ways.
“Bigfoot no longer scares me,” he said. “It might if one was standing right over me, but they’ve never hurt anybody. I have a fear of wild dogs and wild hogs and anything else out there that might bite my butt, but I really have no fear of Bigfoot.”
So DeVore paddles the bayou in the middle of the night, a coon-hunting spotlight and night vision camera at his side. He also wanders the forest trails he’s brush-hogged near his trailer house. He sniffs the night air and listens for snapped twigs.
“It’s a hobby,” he said, “a passionate interest.”
DeVore has lived on the Big Cypress Bayou, the slow-moving body of water that slinks between Lake O’ the Pines and Caddo Lake, since 1990. A heart attack had forced him into early retirement. He told himself, “I’m going to sit up here beside this water until the day I die, and enjoy it.”
That’s just what he did, puttering around in his canoe with a small outboard motor rigged to the back, or gliding across the deep green water in his kayak, exploring inlets and taking photographs.
“It’s so beautiful out here,” he said. “Normally I’m not talking, and I sneak up on all kinds of wildlife.”
As he paddled deeper into the forest of submerged cypress trees, stained black by years of fluctuating water levels, thoughts drifted from the rickety canoe, to the cold, black water, to the possibility of sneaking up on the most elusive creature of them all.
THE WAYS OF BIGFOOT
Although Bigfoot is reportedly huge — 7 or 8 feet tall, and more than 500 pounds — he’s awfully hard to find.
That’s because he hates being around humans, according to believers. When people such as DeVore go tromping into the woods, Bigfoot runs the other way. He lives in uninhabitable areas, especially around the Sabine and Sulphur rivers, the Big and Little Cypress bayous, and Caddo Lake, where he is affectionately known as the Caddo Critter.
“We have more swampy areas in East Texas where humans do not live,” DeVore said. “There’s more sightings during deer season than any other time because people are in the woods.”
With the advent of ATVs, outdoor enthusiasts can venture farther into Bigfoot territory than ever before. In the past decade alone, the Texas Bigfoot Research Center has investigated five sightings in Harrison County, four in Panola County and three in Rusk County. Many of them involved hunters. One man from Longview said he tried to shoot the creature with his .22. It let out a terrifying scream-roar, and the squirrel hunter was so frightened he nearly wet himself, he reported.
The Longview man’s description of Bigfoot reflects many others in East Texas: Long brownish or black hair, the deathly scream-roar, or scream-growl, and that stench, which DeVore believes Bigfoot excretes, possibly from his armpits, when he feels threatened.
Crystal Steiniger of Harleton says she has experienced the smell and heard the screams.
Steiniger and her colleagues with the East Texas Bigfoot Independent Study get together once a month to look for tracks and hair samples and record Bigfoot’s noises on all-night camping trips. They used to attract the creature with Bigfoot calls, but they soon abandoned the calling devices because the creature responded too aggressively.
“If they’re walking by us, we want to hear their normal, nonthreatening type of vocalizations,” she said. “I’ve heard solid screams. I’ve heard grunts, kind of a grunt-growl when you get a little too close. That was one of the best recordings. Of course, we got in our vehicle real quick. We didn’t leave, but we got in our vehicle.”
With so many reported encounters, skeptics are quick to ask for conclusive proof — hair samples or bones, for example.
“It’s well known and not disputed that we have black bears in East Texas,” DeVore counters. “Nobody’s ever seen a body or a skeleton of those. Predators in East Texas, which are numerous, take care of a body almost overnight. There are many theories — one, that they may carry their bodies off. After all, these are groups of them, it’s not one lone animal.”
People have taken pictures of black bears, the skeptics note.
One of those skeptics is Charlie Mueller, a Longview-based wildlife biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He managed the Caddo Lake state wildlife area for eight years and never saw evidence for Bigfoot’s existence.
“If there’s a bear out there, I’m going to find bear tracks. If there’s a human out there, I’m going to find footprints,” he said. “But there’s no Bigfoot tracks that I’ve seen.”
Mueller said he’s studied supposed Bigfoot nests, but to him, they just looked like a pile of branches that had fallen from a tree during an ice storm.
“People let their imaginations take control a lot of times, and it’s easy for someone to point out things that seem to be out of the ordinary that actually are not,” he said. “But to layman folks, people that don’t know a lot about wildlife and the happenings of wildlife in their habitats, a lot of times they don’t understand the normal things that go on.”
Fear of that kind of rebuttal, DeVore and Steiniger say, deters many witnesses from coming forward.
“A lot of people will think they’re nuts, or if they do mention it to somebody they’ll say, ‘Oh, it was just a bear, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ” Steiniger said. “They’ll kind of blow it off and not take it seriously because there’s been a lot of people who have spent a lot of time out in the woods who’ve never seen a thing. They’re happily trotting along without a clue.”
Says DeVore, “You’re going to be ridiculed. You’re thinking your nuts, so most people are real reluctant to talk.” As an investigator, DeVore has learned to be discreet. “If they are going to speak to you, you’ve got to be real quiet about it. Of course, being in the club gives me credibility.”
ON THE BAYOU
On a perfect October afternoon on the bayou, Charlie DeVore sliced his canoe through red and green water rippling under a light breeze.
He had agreed to guide a reporter and photographer to the site of two Bigfoot encounters that he had investigated only half a mile from his house. Because the land had changed hands, the only legal access was via boat, or, in this case, an old canoe.
Better to stick to the water this time of year anyway, he said, because it’s not smart to traipse through the woods in the middle of deer season.
As he guided the canoe, he recalled his first encounter. He hadn’t even realized how close he’d come to meeting Bigfoot on that night as he walked the trails near his home. “I had always gone with four dogs, sometimes five, a couple of my own plus the neighbors’. These dogs generally were not afraid of anything,” he said. “When I hit that stench, I looked around for the dogs and realized, hey, I was alone.”
He whistled and snapped his fingers, but the dogs wouldn’t come. They just sat there squirming. “I decided the dogs were smarter than me, so I went away,” he said.
The next night, the same thing.
“It went on occasionally for six weeks,” he said. “I wouldn’t run into it every night, but it got to be old hat that when I ran into the stink, I’d turn around.”
He questioned hunters and outdoors enthusiasts who suggested that it might have been a wild hog, but DeVore knew better. He’d smelled hogs, and it wasn’t the same. In 2002, DeVore heard about the annual Texas Bigfoot Conference in Jefferson. DeVore attended the event, and he returned to the bayou with a few answers and several new questions.
“After going to that conference and finding out, hey, these things have a stink, I started talking to people who had the stink on them before,” he said, “and the stink described was just too close to what I had experienced. At that point I had already gotten curious about them. I talked to dozens of people who had experienced it.”
But stinking isn’t believing, and DeVore still hadn’t seen conclusive evidence. He gunned the boat into the swamp, past hulking, primeval trees and low-lying branches, toward Bigfoot.
A CLOSE ENCOUNTER
When the cypress became so thick they crowded out the sun, their reflections vanished from the bayou’s surface. The water went black. The canoe, farther now from the channel’s current, cut through a sheet of swamp scum.
DeVore talked above the hum of the outboard motor. Suddenly it cut out, and he couldn’t get it going again. Unseen crows shrieked in the silence.
DeVore took the paddle and rowed through Benton Lake, a small, stagnant body of water that adjoins the bayou, until the forest became too thick for him to go any farther.
“Over there,” he said, pointing to a spot on the lake’s southwestern edge. The witness had been hunting deer as he crouched behind dense brush at mid-afternoon. He noticed movement in the corner of his eye. Fifty yards away, the hunter told DeVore that Bigfoot emerged from the water, stood up, looked from side to side, then walked into the woods and disappeared.
The hunter watched him for about two minutes. The creature was six feet tall and covered in hair from head to toe. In the absence of direct sunlight he appeared to be completely black.
DeVore, having interviewed the hunter several times, deemed him “a very credible witness.”
Finished with his story, DeVore docked the canoe on a muddy bank that had built up around a massive cypress tree, and he fiddled with the motor. A piece of twine had wrapped itself in the propeller, and after he unwound it, the motor cranked on the first pull.
He ordered one of his passengers into the bottom of the canoe, stabilizing it, and he took off for home. Though he did not see Bigfoot today, he knew it was only a matter of time.
“It exists,” he said. “Too many people have seen it. It exists.”