DEWITTVILLE – Mary Ann Roller is unabashed in describing the 7-foot creature she saw one morning in the woods behind her Chautauqua County home.
“I know what I saw,” said Roller, a nurse who lives not far from the Pennsylvania border in Ashville. “I never believed in Bigfoot, either, until I saw one.”
A conference that’s expected to attract as many as 500 people on Chautauqua Lake has given Roller and others a place to share, without fear of ridicule, sightings of shadowy figures and shiny eyes peering from the woods. Some have come from as far as California and Washington to tell their tales and swap techniques for collecting evidence during the second Chautauqua Lake Bigfoot Weekend & Expo.
There’s 82-year-old Bob Gimlin, a horse trainer from Yakima Valley, Wash., who was in a remote California canyon in 1967 when his friend captured one of the most famous and controversial images on 16mm film.
There’s Melissa Hovey, president of the American Bigfoot Society, who has made it a mission to teach people how to accurately collect evidence.
And there’s Larry Battson, 35, a wildlife educator, who has heard so many eyewitness stories in his travels that he has come to believe.
With the debut of Animal Planet’s “Finding Bigfoot,” many at this weekend’s conference say more stories will surface. For three days, they have gathered to talk about the history of Bigfoot sightings, to discuss the best techniques for making plaster castings of footprints and to explain how to incorporate technology such as GPS and heat sensors into their sasquatch searches.
The conference, which will also be available online, has attracted a wide range of Bigfoot enthusiasts. Some, like Gimlin, have developed a following because of their encounters. Others, like Roller, have had odd experiences and want to learn more. And while there are plenty of skeptics who doubt stories of strange biped creatures wandering in the woods, those who have gathered at the Bigfoot Expo take their research very seriously.
“Without a doubt, they do exist,” said Battson, of Clinton Falls, Ind., who will be one of the speakers during six hours of lectures starting at noon today at Chautauqua Suites in Mayville. “I’m not saying every sighting is legitimate, but there’s definitely an unknown human primate that is yet to be truly classified.”
There have been stories of local sightings, too. Seven years ago, a Clarence man said he photographed an apelike creature while on his farm. The story drew Bigfoot hunters from across the country, as well as denunciations that it was a man dressed in an ape suit. Roller has spoken to others from Chautauqua County who have seen something they couldn’t quite explain. Marc Daul, a Niagara Falls resident who counts himself among the skeptics, recalled hearing stories years ago of an encounter in Lewiston.
Tom Yamarone, who traveled from Pleasanton, Calif., to Chautauqua County for the expo, said the show “Finding Bigfoot” has helped bring the discussion into the mainstream.
“This is really almost the heyday, where you have the popularity of the subject and a really intelligent, logical approach, as well,” Yamarone said.
Gimlin, who has been on the Animal Planet series, said he didn’t talk about his experience for years because of the negative backlash his friend, Roger Patterson, encountered after promoting the film they took in 1967. The two had been traveling by horseback in a California creek bed for weeks looking for footprints when they came across what Gimlin describes as a massive creature that startled the horses. The footage, he said, couldn’t quite capture what he saw with his own blue eyes.
“I’ve been asked, ‘How many do you think exist?’ ” Gimlin said. “And I say, ‘At least one, because I saw one.’ ”
The conference has also attracted curious skeptics who are drawn to Bigfoot stories but are looking for hard evidence of Bigfoot’s existence. Bruce Harrington, an IT consultant from Boston, Mass., has traveled all over the East Cost with a group known as Sasquatch Watch of Virginia, and he describes himself as the most skeptical of the bunch.
“I always look for an answer of why it’s not Bigfoot,” Harrington said. “It’s sort of been that quest to disprove sasquatch that’s enabled me to find a lot of evidence.”
For Harrington, it’s a chance to get outdoors. For others, like Battson, the wildlife educator, it’s become a lifelong quest to explain mysterious encounters in nature.
“When I really started researching it and talking to eyewitnesses, I thought, ‘Man, there’s something to this,’ ” Battson said. “It’s either the greatest hoax that’s ever been put on, or it’s the most incredible animal we might have on this planet.”