Sasquatch researcher calls Whidbey home

Who do you call if you see a Whidbey Island Sasquatch?

October 2002, ten miles south of Oak Harbor, 4:30 a.m. A couple exits their home to the smell of decay followed by a yell they describe as part human and part animal. Later, a second distinct call. The two calls repeat back and forth for minutes before the sources vanish, taking the odor with them.

October 2006, two miles south of Deception Pass, a driver spots a large primate sitting on the branch of an evergreen.

August 2008, Camano Island, 2 a.m. Someone records a whooping growl. Seven months later, at 3 a.m., they hear the same growl.

These are possible Sasquatch encounters as recorded on, a Sasquatch research network.

In Island County, who do you call if you come across something like this? For many, it’s Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization investigator David Ellis.

Ellis moved to Whidbey in 1975 after attending the University of Washington. He then went on expeditions with the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization and joined the Olympic Project, a collective of Sasquatch researchers in Western Washington. Today, he records and analyzes audio in the woods, looking for fingerprint-like patterns, and is working on a book about his research.

He grew up in Battle Ground, Washington, where his experiences with Sasquatch started young. His grandfather told him a story of cutting hay on his 80-acre farm, when he saw a “5-foot-tall monkey” jump up, cut across the field on two legs and dip into the woods.

“Since I’m 5 or 6 years old, I’ve got this notion that there’s monkeys in the woods,” he said.

Outside Battle Ground, loggers cut 12-foot-tall notches out of the trunks and placed springboards there to chop the tree down. At 11 years old, Ellis and his friends would play on this field of hundreds of stumps.

One day, his friend picked up a stick and smacked a maple tree. Down the hill, a large crack rang out, and all the trees shook, he said. Next came a yell: the mix of lion roar, deep bass and elephant trumpet. All the kids ran off without the slightest clue what they had witnessed.

Later, Ellis told the story to his librarian, who recommended he read a book called “Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life” by Ivan T. Sanderson, and his journey of Sasquatch research began.

Ellis hasn’t found much evidence for Sasquatch on Whidbey, though he has investigated others’ stories, he said. Being an island, it would be difficult for such an animal to stay hidden as opposed to the deep woods of the Olympic Mountains.

“How many edges are there to hide in?” he asked. “I would expect limited viewings or sightings, which is what we get.”

That’s not to say it’s impossible. Black bears swim to Whidbey from time to time. Whidbey also has a model for a large, elusive mammal living in the woods — Bruiser the elk. Bruiser isn’t hiding from people, and most Whidbey Islanders have never seen him.

He keeps quiet too, according to those who live near him. Sometimes eerily so.

“You could be ten feet from a deer and not know it’s there,” Ellis said.

A primate would be more strategic, he said. It’s not out of the question for something that is halfway aware and trying to hide to stay in the shadows.

Ellis doesn’t question the legitimacy of Whidbey Sasquatch sightings.

“I don’t judge whether it’s real or not,” he said. “I feel my job is to expose as much information possible to let other people decide.”

That’s not to say Sasquatch hasn’t created very real legislation. In 1969, the Skamania County council passed an ordinance forbidding any harming of a Sasquatch. Penalties include a thousand-dollar fine and up to a year in jail.

The ordinance came in response to a Sasquatch researcher collecting stories in the area. Locals started taking their guns into the woods and searching. According to Ellis, the ordinance was meant to wrangle these hunters in and protect hoaxers, not to acknowledge the existence of Big Foot.

“It wasn’t this magnanimous thing that ‘we know they’re out there and we’re going to protect them,’” he said.

That said, Whatcom County followed suit in 1992, officially designating the area as a Sasquatch protection and refuge zone.

Such legislation isn’t feasible nor sought after for Island County, as there aren’t enough consistent sightings, Ellis said.

The Bigfoot Mapping Project, compiled by Scott Tompkins, organizes sightings from all over the country and assesses patterns. Data shows that, assuming the sightings are credible, Sasquatches tend to stick to high elevation and deep woods.

Most people are skeptical of these sightings, but according to Louis Labombard, Whidbey Islander, former Skagit Valley College professor and indigenous storyteller, stories of the Sasquatch along the Salish Sea stretch back hundreds of years. He even heard of a sighting just a couple years ago on Camano Island.

“Most, if not all, of the Coast Salish of this area seem to agree that there are large, man-like beings in the woods and mountains who differ from human beings in various ways,” writes Seattle anthropologist Wayne Suttles, the leading authority on the ethnology and linguistics of Coast Salish people, in his 1972 paper “On the Cultural Track of the Sasquatch.”

In his research, Suttles does not argue whether this belief is of a physical being or a mythical one, as native people did not hold such a dichotomy. In the same reports of elk, bears and beavers, are reports of two-headed serpents, thunderbirds and Sasquatches.

Because the spiritual and the physical worlds are equally real to Coast Salish tribes, Suttles writes, what is seen in a “vision” experience and what is seen in an “ordinary” experience are not differentiated in native stories.

“I personally know Bigfoot is real,” writes the late Steve Pavlik, a professor at Northwest Indian College, in a blog post. “I believe it to be a spiritual being, an entity that has powers beyond our imagination.”

Ellis respects everyone’s perspectives, but he tends to go where the physical evidence takes him.

“There is a lot of knowledge that we don’t get because we view the world in a certain way,” he said, “and when you have a culture that views it in another way, who am I to say that’s wrong?”

Ellis’s personal belief is that Sasquatch lies somewhere on the evolutionary chain between ape and human.

“We’re finding more and more about our lineage,” he said. “It’s not linear, more branched out in the bush kind of a thing, and somewhere in those bushes is this creature.”

He chalks up a lot of the spiritual attributes put on Sasquatch to its savviness in the woods, abilities to stay hidden that humans are not as adept to. There are a lot of times when exploring in the woods that people might see things they cannot explain, so he doesn’t knock anyone attempting to come up with an explanation.

The best piece of evidence for Sasquatch today is probably Idaho State University Professor Jeffrey Meldrum’s collection of over 200 track castings of footprints, Ellis said, but it will take a body before the public believes.

Studying Sasquatch is not economically viable, Ellis said. There have been plenty of instances where people will turn over DNA samples and they go into a “black hole,” because scientists are unwilling to seriously consider it, he claims.

Ellis is writing a book on bioacoustics, he said, a methodology of recording sounds in the field and comparing them to the sounds of other animals visually, like a fingerprint. Even within the same species, researchers can see visual differences to determine individuals. It’s a more intricate way of understanding noise than simply listening.

Ellis has many recordings of wood knocks, he said, a phenomenon believed to be Sasquatches hitting trunks to communicate. Skeptics claim it’s woodpeckers, but the knocks Ellis has recorded respond to his own, he said.

“Woodpeckers don’t go back and forth with you,” he said.

Studying bioacoustics, he will eventually be able to know for sure.

To this day, Ellis refers to the book he was handed at 11 years old on the abominable snowman. Sanderson, considered a father of cryptozoology, claims Bigfoot has been around since the dawn of every society everywhere. Most continents have wild man stories, such as the Nepalese yeti, Australian yowie and South African waterbobbejaan.

“(There are) many different stories on different continents where people aren’t talking to one another, don’t know one another, but we’re describing the same thing,” Ellis said. “There’s something to this.”

Whidbey bigfoot researcher David Ellis poses outside Langley (photo by Sam Fletcher)

Whidbey bigfoot researcher David Ellis poses outside Langley (photo by Sam Fletcher)

Whidbey bigfoot researcher David Ellis explores the woods outside Langley (photo by Sam Fletcher)

Whidbey bigfoot researcher David Ellis explores the woods outside Langley (photo by Sam Fletcher)

A track casting, taken in McCleary, WA, is positioned next to a marker for scale. (Photo by Sam Fletcher)

A track casting, taken in McCleary, WA, is positioned next to a marker for scale. (Photo by Sam Fletcher)

Photo by Sam Fletcher

A track casting, taken in McCleary, WA, is positioned next to a marker for scale. (Photo by Sam Fletcher)