The Hairy Truth
Mike Quast passes a slender hand over a map of Minnesota hung on his wall, his fingers brushing across a red pin just outside of Rochester, a white pin near Windom, and a green pin on Highway 52 very close to the Iowa border. Each of the pushpins marks a spot where someone has reported seeing Bigfoot, finding a footprint, or hearing unidentifiable sounds in the woods.
The northern half of the state is a virtual forest of multicolored dots. A thick swath stretches northeast from the White Earth Indian Reservation, through the Chippewa National Forest, up to Pine Island State Forest, a largely unpopulated bog in Koochiching County near the Canadian border.
The pins are further apart in the Superior National Forest to the east. After more than a decade of cataloging people's claims of Bigfoot encounters, Quast is convinced that there are fewer sightings here because there are fewer people tromping through those woods. "It may sound like a broad statement, but if the Sasquatch does not exist in the Superior National Forest, then it does not exist at all," Quast wrote in his most recent work on the topic, The Sasquatch in Minnesota (revised edition).
The map hangs on the wall of a small office just off Quast's living room. Inside is a library of Bigfoot lore. Shelves sag with more than 50 different volumes, many of them self-published like Quast's: Bigfoot in Ohio; Bigfoot on the East Coast; The Sasquatch in Alberta. A "Big Foot Country" magnet hangs on the shelf. Copies of newspaper articles--"Clearwater County man says tracks made by Bigfoot"--and photos cover the walls. Two Bigfoot footprint throw pillows, one light brown, the other a bluish-gray, rest on his couch.
At 32, Quast seems like one of those quiet, smart, slightly eccentric kids who never said much in high school. He lives on a tidy residential street in a two-story brick apartment building in Moorhead, more than 230 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. He pulls his long brown hair back into a ponytail, and wears a goatee and round glasses.
Quast's own work is represented on the shelves, but he concedes his is not a big name in the world of Bigfoot research. "I'm pretty well known as just a supporting player, I think," he allows. "I've never been really famous or anything." So far, he's sold around 50 copies of his last book; when an order comes in, he goes down to the local Kinko's and runs off a new copy. For years he published a monthly newsletter, The Sasquatch Report, with a circulation of roughly 50 at its peak, but he got burned out on that and quit. He passed the operation off to a friend, but the newsletter ceased publication in 1996.
Today Quast's work is hampered by his lack of a car and a working computer; he pays the bills by cleaning offices and isn't able to get out into the field much. But he has ideas for more books--and more ways to advance his thesis that Bigfoot can be found in Minnesota, not just the Pacific Northwest, as many followers of the hairy hulk believe.
Quast says that the bulk of the pins in his map represent incidents or sightings that he believes to be credible. But he logs the probable hoaxes anyhow. In fact, a close look at the map reveals a green pin smack dab in the middle of the Twin Cities metro area. Quast doesn't believe there was any such sighting. "There was a story in a book here, like an urban legend-type thing about a creature that was found digging through garbage bins and was supposedly captured and kept at a lab somewhere," he says dismissively. "It didn't happen. But I just marked it to establish that it was told."
To make the best case for Bigfoot, Quast figures, you need to establish yourself as someone who doesn't just believe any wild story.
Claims of hairy, manlike creatures wandering the woods date back hundreds of years, but the moniker Bigfoot was coined in 1958 when a northern California road crew gave the nickname to an unknown night visitor to its work site. The notion of Bigfoot didn't become part of the popular lexicon, though, until October 1967, when a Bigfoot-seeker named Roger Patterson filmed a hulking, dusky ape-man striding away from a shaking, handheld 16mm Kodak camera in northern California.
A month later Mike Quast was born in northwestern Minnesota. As he grew up, a debate over the authenticity of the Patterson footage raged, and Bigfoot seeped into the public's consciousness. The Legend of Boggy Creek and other movies introduced Bigfoot to millions of people. Leonard Nimoy's In Search Of... and other documentaries made the name a household word with adults; Sid and Marty Kroftt's Bigfoot and Wild Boy held kids in thrall on Saturday mornings. Bigfoot even battled the Six Million Dollar Man. Not surprisingly, reported sightings were widespread, and they came from all over the country, no longer only the Pacific Northwest.
As a child, Quast was well aware of the Bigfoot controversy. He lived on a dairy farm about ten miles north of Detroit Lakes, near the North Dakota border. He'd even seen a couple of books on the subject in the school library. Then in 1976 Quast had his own Bigfoot sighting. "I can remember talking about it in school," he recalls. "I don't think a whole lot of people believed it." The disbelief only served to deepen Quast's commitment to prove that Bigfoot was real.
In 1986 Quast graduated from Audubon High School. He'd been a member of the Future Farmers of America, but says he never really planned to get into the family business. After high school he took a job in a plant in Detroit Lakes that made parts for sugar-beet processing machines. He earned a degree in commercial art from a technical college, but he never landed a job in that field.
Forging a career was a secondary concern for Quast. His Bigfoot sighting had cemented his avocation, and he began doing serious research not long after he got out of high school. His first quest was for the truth behind a local legend, "The Hairy Man of Vergas Trails." Back in the Fifties or Sixties, many people said, a crazy man had killed some teenagers at the site, a wooded teen hangout near the town of Vergas, and retreated into the woods, where he became a hermit and let his hair grow.
It was Quast's brother-in-law who first told him the story. "He told me the name of a guy who had told him about it, and he thought he remembered that that guy had actually seen it," recalls Quast, who questioned the purported witness. "He said, 'No, I didn't see it, but I heard the stories about it and I can tell you who says he did see it,' and gave me the name of this guy named Ziggy."
Quast met with Ziggy, a mechanic, on a cold January night in Ziggy's garage. "That was my first real witness interview," says Quast. "He told me this story about how this creature had jumped out in front of his car and dented the trunk and everything. I remember driving home afterwards in the dark in the woods looking around after hearing that story. He was animated in the telling of it, too. He got really excited."
Quast could find no evidence that the homicides ever took place. "I checked with the sheriffs' departments around and they said they didn't know anything about that story, so that part I'm pretty sure is just some embellishment that somebody put on it at some point." But Quast believed the bulk of the tale, and began making regular surveys of the area. Later that year he found some 16-inch-long tracks in the area--proof, as far as he was concerned, that there was something to Ziggy's story. Quast redoubled his efforts to hunt down reports of Bigfoot sightings.
By now Quast was beginning to envision himself as a professional Bigfoot researcher, the kind of person whose archives are consulted by Unsolved Mysteries. He made a pilgrimage to visit Peter Byrne, one of the more celebrated and controversial Bigfoot hunters of the 1970s.
As a kid, Quast had written away to Byrne for a packet of information. "He got most of the publicity," Quast says of Byrne. "He was on TV and in the press a lot, and a lot of other people in the field resented him for that, and they called him the made-for-TV Bigfoot hunter. I tried not to get involved in what everybody else thought." More recently, Quast had been corresponding with the then-retired Bigfootologist.
In October of 1989, Quast rode a Greyhound bus to Hood River, Oregon, where he spent the night at Byrne's house. The younger man was starstruck. "Peter and I sat by his fireplace listening to opera, sipping hot rum, and talking about the Sasquatch," he wrote later. "The surroundings, plus his suave Irish accent, seemed to lend a distinct air of class to the whole business."
The following morning, Byrne showed Quast one of the few remaining complete sets of Bigfoot News, which Byrne had published during the Seventies. Quast told the former investigator that he had been thinking of starting his own newsletter, and Byrne bestowed the full set upon him, along with permission to use any material he wished. The following spring, Quast had launched his own newsletter, The Sasquatch Report.
Some time afterward, Byrne came out of retirement and returned to Bigfoot work. He and another researcher got into a bitter argument about the origins of an alleged Bigfoot footprint. In his newsletter, which had received some funding from Byrne's new Bigfoot Research Project, Quast made a point of trying to cover both sides of the issue objectively, angering his old mentor. "Peter Byrne kind of got upset that I wouldn't exclusively take his side on it," says Quast.
But if there's one thing Quast had already learned about the political and emotional subculture of Bigfoot followers, it was that even researchers as far outside the mainstream as himself needed to know the value of scientific objectivity. If researchers don't flush out the hoaxes faster than anyone else, then no one will ever take them seriously.
One of the first cases Quast investigated-- that of the Minnesota Iceman--was fairly well-known among Bigfoot hunters, if not widely agreed upon. During the late Sixties, a southern Minnesota showman named Frank Hansen was making the rounds of carnivals with an attraction he sometimes billed as the "Siberskoye Creature," a hairy, humanlike thing frozen in a block of ice. Hansen said he wasn't the oddity's owner, but was serving as an agent for an unnamed person in the entertainment industry. According to one version of events, the block of ice had been found floating in the sea by either Russian or Japanese sailors. Some who examined Hansen's frozen find were convinced that it was a real primate of some sort.
Confusion deepened when Hansen began touring with a different creature, which he claimed was a reproduction of the original. The first corpse had allegedly been returned to its owner following some inquiries from the FBI. (Contacted by City Pages, Hansen said he no longer cares to discuss the matter.)
Quast talked to Hansen in 1989. "A couple of the cover stories that he came up with said that it was shot in Minnesota," Quast relates. "He told me that he actually had a sighting of something up by Duluth, but he didn't really go into detail about it. He said, 'Maybe it was Bigfoot, maybe it was from outer space. I don't know what it was.' He said that was in 1963, I think. And so he used that later on when he was going around with the Iceman, he kind of expanded on that and said that he'd shot what he'd saw."
Quast's fundamental faith was unshaken. The myriad different stories Hansen spun around the ice-block creature, he concedes, are "just an embellishment. I think the original was real."
Even hoaxes aren't that detrimental to the cause of Bigfoot research, Quast figures, because they don't really change anybody's opinion on the issue. "People either believe in it or they don't, and I think it's going to take a major discovery to really convince people on a big scale," he says. "But there's a certain percentage of the population that does believe it, a more open-minded percentage."
Still, Quast is frustrated by local accounts that don't pan out as advertised. Accordingly, his book contains a chapter called "Hoaxes," which includes what he dubs "the granddaddy of all newspaper hoaxes in Minnesota." "Man-Beast Sighted, Tracked Above Hovland," the Cook County News-Herald reported on April Fools' Day in 1991. Quast initially believed the report, and wrote to a number of different people trying to get more detail. They all wrote back that he must have gotten a version of the story that had been stripped of its final paragraph, which indicated that it was an April Fools' Day story.
One of the correspondents, a wildlife manager with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), felt compelled to add his two cents on the matter. "I must admit that I feel there could well be such beasts in the western U.S.," he wrote, "but am skeptical of reports in the Midwest."
Quast is much more irritated by the most recent Minnesota Bigfoot headline. Five years ago the city of Crookston attempted to proclaim itself "the Bigfoot capital of the world." Don Holbrook, then executive director of the Crookston Economic Development Authority, told the Star Tribune that the small town wanted to drum up "alternative" tourism by opening a Bigfoot museum. To that end, Holbrook had told the Strib that the town would be doing more research into Minnesota sightings. Quast wrote to Holbrook, offering his services. When he never got a reply, it began to dawn on him that it might all be just a stunt.
"I contacted them and I said, 'I have all these files, with all these reports, and you want to open an information center. I'd like to cooperate with you,'" says Quast, disgusted. "And I never heard back from them, so I could only assume they weren't really interested into going into much depth about it." (The exhibit never came to pass, but a local beanery, RBJ's Family Restaurant, commissioned an ex-taxidermist to build and display a 9-foot, 300-pound Bigfoot statute.)
Quast's book addresses both the Minnesota Iceman and the Crookston affair, but it recounts many less-celebrated cases. For example, a Minnesota DNR official named Harvey Cole had heard enough reports in the Koochiching County bog area near the Canadian border that he started keeping a file on Bigfoot at the Northome DNR station. Cole put Quast in touch with a hunter and trapper named Ed Trimble, who then lived near Itasca State Park. Trimble had begun finding large, unexplained tracks on his property and had become something of an evangelical on the topic; he and Quast became fast allies.
"A lot of reports I was getting in the Nineties came from [Trimble]," says Quast. "He was a really good source of information. After he found those tracks, he started talking about it to everyone he met, and that's how he started getting reports from other people."
Among the stories that Trimble brought to Quast was an odd tale from August 1974, when a pig farmer near Bagley came home to find that 78 of his hogs had inexplicably huddled into a storage room and suffocated. What does this have to do with Bigfoot? "Would livestock react in such an extreme way to the approach of a Sasquatch when other animals do not have nearly as much effect on them?" Quast wrote. "It is possible."
But of course, Quast doesn't know--and for him, it's the unknown that holds such boundless allure. Many of the stories in The Sasquatch in Minnesota are presented as unresolved mysteries. Quast briefly recounts reports of a "large, white-haired Sasquatch" near the town of Windom. Quast tried to run down the source of this sighting, too. He wrote to the Windom Chamber of Commerce. "We have no information on Bigfoot sightings in the Windom area," someone there politely wrote back.
The point, from Quast's perspective, is cataloging the possibility of Bigfoot in Minnesota. "Through what feels to me to have been minimal effort on my part, I have somehow become the chief investigator for the state of Minnesota," he wrote. When he published The Sasquatch in Minnesota (revised edition) in 1996, Quast's files documented more than 130 Minnesota encounters. Today he puts the number at 159. And those are "just the ones that have a chance of being credible, which most of them do, really."
But despite Quast's continued efforts to make a case for Bigfoot, Minnesota resident, official state records are fairly mum on the whole topic. Quast says he once wrote to the Minnesota Historical Society to find out what, if anything, the state's archivists might have on file. He found the answer disappointing.
"The State Historical Society has some copies of this little newsletter that was put out by a couple of kids from, I think it was Edina, back in the Seventies," he complains. "It actually had almost nothing from Minnesota in it; it was a really juvenile thing. Somehow it made it into the Historical Society archives."
Naturally, the easiest place to find Bigfoot is on the Internet, which has offered a new way for disparate and previously isolated enthusiasts to network, trade ideas, and swap sighting reports. This is not great news to Quast, who doesn't own a computer, much less a domain name. His work is getting around, though: Quast's titles crop up in several online bibliographies of Bigfoot-related work.
One of the places Quast's work is touted is on a "Minnesota Bigfoot" Web page (www.angelfire.com/mn2/mnbf/) belonging to another Moorhead resident, Joe Heinan. Bizarrely enough, the two have never met: The 24-year-old Duluth native, who works as a counselor at the Clay County Juvenile Detention Center, learned of Quast's efforts from yet another Web site and has since become a fan. "That's a hell of a book," Heinan says of Quast's The Sasquatch in Minnesota. "It's kind of coincidental that we live in the same town. I've actually never even met the guy. I've talked to him on the phone and through e-mail."
Nor is Quast among the investigators who collaborate with Matt Moneymaker, an Orange County, California, attorney and Internet consultant who, in terms of notoriety, is turning out to be the Peter Byrne of this generation of Bigfoot chasers. In 1995 Moneymaker, a 17-year veteran of the search for Sasquatch, launched what has become one of the subculture's most popular Internet resources, the Bigfoot Field Researcher's Organization (www.bfro.net). The site lists sightings in almost every state in the union; currently just six of the reports are from Minnesota, most of them perfunctorily brief.
Moneymaker says that only about ten percent of the cases that are reported to him ever make it to the Web site. "We only post firsthand information that the investigators strongly feel is credible," he says. "We've gotten a lot more raw information from Minnesota than is posted." He also says that he has detected a conservationist bent from Minnesotans on the issue. "In Minnesota it seems that a lot of people are concerned that other people are going to go out and hurt these things," he notes.
A number of different factors can affect sightings that get reported to the BFRO, Moneymaker says. If a Bigfoot witness doesn't have access to a computer, Moneymaker and the investigators may never hear about the sighting. And even those people who do offer reports are often cautious, he says. They frequently ask for anonymity so that they won't be subjected to ridicule, or to prevent their hometowns from being overrun with Bigfoot hunters.
Although he expresses surprise at Moneymaker's claim to have five investigators here, Quast says the California man is doing good work. "I looked at what he had in Minnesota, and he has a couple of things I hadn't heard of before, but nothing really recent."
Since Quast stopped doing the newsletter, he hasn't been in close contact with other Bigfoot enthusiasts. For a while, back when he was still publishing, Quast had a partner, Bloomington native Tim Olson. Olson took over the newsletter in 1995 after Quast burned out on the endeavor. Almost a decade ago, however, Olson moved to Arcata, California, to live in an area known for Bigfoot sightings. (Arcata is located about two hours from the site where Roger Patterson shot his 1967 film.)
Today Quast is at work on a project that will necessarily take him beyond the borders of Minnesota. He hopes to publish a book analyzing purported films and photographs of the creature, Big Footage: A History of Claims for the Sasquatch on Film, by the end of the year. But the process has been slow. "Things keep coming up," says Quast. "I had everything on a disc that got damaged and then I kind of had to start over."
When the new book is eventually published, Quast doesn't expect much media attention. Today, he figures, the mainstream press has other preoccupations. "I guess they just moved on to other things," he says. "It does still get reported once in a while. It bothers me that when it does get reported now it's usually from a humorous angle, like a tongue-in-cheek sort of thing.
"I've always been drawn to things that are out there in the world, that are unexplained," he says. "Even with all the technology that we have today there are still things that people don't know anything about, but that are real and that other people make fun of."
Quast pauses for a moment. "And I saw one myself," he adds, angrily. "And then I hear the subject being made fun of, and I guess I want to do something about that."
In many ways Mike Quast is still eight years old. He believes what people say. He has faith that he saw something that scientists say simply does not exist. And he doesn't really understand why so few people believe him, or listen to him. The 24 years that have passed since Quast's own sighting have only served to deepen his belief.
Quast's family was out for a Sunday drive. "We were just driving in the Strawberry Lake area," he recalls. "I was in the back seat just looking out the window at the scenery. All of a sudden, up the road, between 50 and 100 yards or so, there was this black object next to the road. I don't know why nobody else in the car saw it, I guess nobody was looking at that exact spot at that second.
"It was between six and seven feet high and it was just solid black, and the first thing I thought was that it looked like a burned tree trunk or something," he continues. "But then as I was looking at it, it stepped away from the road, and walked into the woods and disappeared. I only had it in sight for maybe five seconds, but it was totally upright, totally vertical, walking on two legs."
Quast says his mother, who was in the car at the time but didn't see anything, is willing to believe what her son saw. "She doesn't think I'm lying about it," he says. "She doesn't think too much about it, but she's always said that she thinks those things probably exist."
In its scant details, the story is similar to many other reported Bigfoot sightings: the initial thought that it must be something else, the flash of recognition, and then, just like that, the creature is gone into the woods. Quast is matter-of-fact when he tells the story, almost clinical. For him, it's simply what happened.
But he does want listeners to be convinced that he has ruled out other explanations. "It was not a bear, and I don't know why somebody in a gorilla suit would be standing there, you know, hoping for somebody to come along," he says. "It's not an area known for Bigfoot, so you wouldn't expect somebody to pull a hoax like that."
Whether or not the cultural pendulum ever swings back to a broader interest in Bigfoot doesn't seem to concern Quast. In a way, he would just as soon that it didn't, so that he could be spared the cartoon and tabloid images of the creature that were so common in the 1970s. For Quast, for whom the memory of the scene at Strawberry Lake is powerful and enduring, this is important work. The image of what he saw when he was eight has never left him, and has given him a cause.
And even if nobody listens, Quast has left a record of what he saw--in the pages of his book, and symbolized by a red pin stuck into his map, just past the western shores of Strawberry Lake.
ALIGN> Meet three of Bigfoot's other Minnesota followers
Mark A. Hall
Bloomington resident Mark Hall has self-published a host of "cryptozoology" books on a range of topics, including Thunderbirds (birds with a reputed wingspan of more than 20 feet), giant owls (Bighoot), and lake monsters. "I actually have to tell you," he confides, "that I think there are surviving Neanderthals." Hall studied physical anthropology at the University of Minnesota, but left without taking a degree. During his studies, Hall came to believe that there was a scientific basis for the existence of Bigfoot. But he doesn't believe there's a single kind of creature wandering the woods of North America. Rather, he suspects there are roughly a half-dozen different species.
While Hall's true passion may remain unknown to many of his everyday co-workers, he does have some profile nationally. The recently published Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide by Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe referred to Hall's work. And in 1994 he traveled to California for an appearance on Unsolved Mysteries to discuss his impressions of the Minnesota Iceman case.
In his own book, The Yeti, Bigfoot & True Giants, originally published in 1994, Hall laments humanity's lack of interest in Sasquatch. "Human beings are entirely too self-absorbed at this time to give serious attention to the existence and well-being of their close primate relatives," he writes. Eventually, he says, he'll be proved right. "I have confidence that time is on my side." Assessing Quast's work, Hall wrote in his book that he believed Quast had made a good case for the presence of what Hall calls the American Yeti. "He has gathered accounts and track observations that suggest the presence of a small group of them--possibly a family unit."
"This is a real departure for me," says Kris Johnson. Now in her mid-50s, Johnson is the mother of two college-aged daughters and does part-time clerical work. As one of Matt Moneymaker's Twin Cities-area contacts, she's also a part-time Bigfoot investigator. "I'm probably one of their least likely volunteers," she says with a laugh.
Until last year, she professes, she would never have imagined herself looking for Bigfoot. "I was hiking in northern Minnesota up along the North Shore, and I found a footprint and what I believe to be a scat," she says. "I wasn't out looking for Bigfoot by any means."
"It stays with you for a long time," she says, recalling her own discovery of the footprint. "There still is not a day that goes by that I don't see my hand in that footprint." She says she has been open with her family about her new passion. Her daughters, she says, are "quite entertained--in a positive way."
She started reading and found a reference to Moneymaker's site. Next thing Johnson knew, she had become a volunteer investigator, following up on reports of sightings in Minnesota. "I don't know if I'd call it work," she says. "I'd call it an interest or a passion. I'm a middle-aged woman with no real scientific background for this."
Business hasn't been brisk during the year since Johnson became an investigator. "I've probably made about a half-dozen phone calls and been on site twice." She traveled to northwestern Minnesota in March, and the north-central part of the state in August, she says without offering more specifics. "Quite often the report will say that they don't want it to be made public," Johnson explains. "They just seem so relieved that someone is going to listen. People tend to not talk about it because society in general tells you that you're crazy."
Last year Minneapolis-based independent filmmaker Jimmy Wilson made a documentary under the title of "Jimmy Wilson's Snowman," billed, like all of his other films (available via www.jimmyfilms.com), as "entertainment for the whole family." Wilson's 23-minute film features interviews voiced over an array of nature scenes against a backdrop of vaguely dreamy new-age music. The film includes Wilson's dramatizations of the occasional shadowy creature moving among the woods. By the end of the film, narrator Wilson has reached no definitive conclusion, but says, "Let's keep on learning. And let's keep on looking." Ron Schara's Minnesota Bound television program did a short feature on Wilson's film last year.
Why Bigfoot in 1999? Why not, replies Wilson, who quickly concedes he's no Bigfoot hunter. "I try to do very interesting subject matter. I did one of the wolf prior to this," he explains. "It seems the subject is quite magnetic and polarizing all at the same time."
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