This article originally appeared in slightly different form in the April 2021 issue of the zine Claims Department.
The conversation should have happened while hiking through the woods, or at least around a firepit in somebody’s backyard. But it’s early 2021, and though Pacific Northwest resident and poet Chris Buckley is definitely in tune with nature, he agreed to talk about Bigfoot through Streamyard, not his back yard. The reason? This soft-spoken co-worker of mine let slip one day that his great-uncle Archie was one of the first major figures in Bigfoot studies, a founding member of what was called “the Bay Area group.”
That’s not the sort of thing you let pass by; we had to have a follow up, and that was before the opportunity came up to write this article. At the end of March, Buckley met up with me virtually, and we dug into this intriguing piece of his family history. I was there to talk about Bigfoot hunting and had given the meeting that title, but he corrected me.
“…In fact, (Archie Buckley) would be the first to point out, I don’t like your title, we’re not hunting Bigfoot. And he was a very big advocate… For him, it’s protecting,” the younger Buckley said.
“Archie Buckley was my great uncle, he was my dad’s uncle, my younger brother of my grandfather. So, he was part of all our family occasions. Growing up, he lived in the Bay Area where we did and so, he was just part of our family. And that meant that our family lore got deeply wrapped up in his lifelong passion of being in the outdoors and specifically looking for and gathering evidence around this mythical hominid that lived in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, Bigfoot, Sasquatch.”
It was my turn to push back. “Mythical?”
“Well, mythical, I’m going to say, in the sense of not everybody knew about it, believed in it, thought of it as anything other than folklore. And I’m also taking myth in much more of a Joseph Campbell sense, in the sense that, by that I will say, archetypal. Because whether you believe in it or not, it is a primal force in people’s psychology, people experience it. Whether you think there is an ‘it’ there, you never argue with the actual experience when somebody conveys it to you.
And unless that sounded like I’m one of those bigfoot deniers, I’m not. I completely, absolutely, believe that we have missed an undiscovered primate. But like Archie, I also believe it is probably a very threatened species and one that is being severely encroached upon through habitat destruction. Because that was really his driving force in his practice of Bigfootery, for lack of a better term.”
I chuckled. That was a term that would stick in my head. We both agreed it was the first time we’d ever heard anybody reference it that way.
“Archie was a really interesting guy. He worked his life as a rehabilitation officer. He was, essentially, a physical therapist with the VA, for many, many years. And so, when he began acting as an adult, searching for this creature that he was introduced to through family lore as a child, what set him apart and what gave him a footing, as it were in the field, was that he was one of the first people to approach it to something other than, hey, there’s big footprints in the woods.
He was looking at it as, okay. I do physical therapy and I specialize in ambulation and helping amputees regain full range of mobility. He was one of the first people to take a look at footprint evidence and try to apply kinesiology and anatomy to it and to try to understand. He was one of the first people who analyzed track patterns from an anatomical point of view. And, in fact, he even wrote papers on it and was published in that area between fanzine realm and what is now, the bottom edge of pseudoscience.”
I’ll assume the fanzine realm has closed the gap.
“And he was forerunning. He was there with some of the original people, like Grover Krantz, who was a physical anthropologist, who put together theories about evolutionary possibilities and how a creature like this could exist. Archie would come in with counter theories about, no, that’s the wrong lineage and your footprint evidence is wrong and here’s why.
What gave him his edge is, he approached it, in many ways, the same way that he approached his patients. He wanted to establish a rapport…”
We discussed how Archie and his work had received some media attention – somewhat for laughs in the Animal Planet series Finding Bigfoot, but Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of… had interviewed Archie and his fellow protectors with respect.
“They recreate his Bigfoot encounter there. And he’s acting out the way that he would try to build rapport with a creature using soft voice, using nonsense vocalizations. He would lay trails to his campground, scenting it with fish and do what he could, to just establish a presence, let an animal know he was on the edge of his territory and then just wait and do what he could to draw something in.”
“And he would always say that, he had spent decades of his life working a particular territory in Northern California, where he knew, because he had seen family groups of these creatures living, migrating seasonally, inhabiting the space, multi-generationally, he felt like he had a strong sense of their seasonality, how the migration patterns work and he would return time and again. And in this way that I could only describe as being, someone trying to pattern themselves after a Jane Goodall or a Diane Fosse, who’s trying to co-exist and draw in and establish a rapport with a creature like that.”
At that point in the conversation, I had to back up. Chris had implied that Archie had been inspired by family folklore. Did that mean Great-uncle Archie wasn’t the first Buckley to see Bigfoot?
“I don’t know if he was the first to have seen it,” Chris said after a pause. “I know that in his tales, his introduction to the subject came from his dad, Thomas Buckley, who went to the Yukon territories in the 1898 rush. And during that time, at least, what was passed on to Archie and was passed onto me was that he had then spent time with Athabaskan peoples in Alaska and Yukon, in the Yukon territory. And it was there that he had been introduced to the cultural traditions about what we call, down here, Sasquatch. I’m not sure what the Athabaskan phrase would be. But the idea of a big man of the wilderness or a wild man of the forest, that was where he first got introduced to that. And that became something that he brought back and shared out of his tales of the Yukon.”
“When Archie was a young boy, about age 6, he and my grandfather, his older brother and their older brother and their dad, went and made a really important trip for them. They piled into the 1912 Buick and took the four-day drive, the four of them, up to the Tahoe Basin and camped in desolation wilderness. They would spend the summer there and that was Archie’s first introduction to being out in the wild and it made a huge impression for him.”
“In the following year, they recreated the experience but they went up to Yosemite and up to Tuolumne Meadows. Now, this is in the early 1920s, so this is right in that premier time of the national park system, where all of the lore is coming out of it.”
“Archie and my grandfather would spend every summer up there, with their dad, with their older brother. And specifically, he said, that at that time they would just go up and …set up a base camp and stay there for months. And if they ever got too many people in the valley floor, they would just move higher and higher up. He said that he would actually, at that point, there was still, the Ahwahnee Band of Milwaukee Indians was still living in the valley floor. And as kids, they shared a campground and stayed there. He told stories about playing with kids in the village.”
“And apparently, he and my grandfather, they made extra money running tripods and supplies for Ansel Adams, as he was working Glacier Point, they would go running up and down. They, as kids, would help set up the bonfires for the fire falls. In fact, there’s a story that he would tell about setting up their own competing fire falls, if you know that about the Yosemite lore, they set up their own competing fire falls once off the face of Halfdome, and at the same time that everybody was watching the main fire falls and created a bit of a stir. And it was a lot of fun.”
“Anyways, it was that experience that got him really steeped in being outdoors, being in the woods but specifically giving credence to me and I’m sensitive, as I grew up on Yokut land, I live in Duwamish land now, I’m very sensitive to the issue of cultural appropriation. I’m not trying to claim some special privileged knowledge about native traditions here. I am just saying these are stories that my uncle was told.”
“I think he gave credence to this because of the trusted experience he had with the native peoples that he had met. When he was in college, in Chico State, it never really became anything more than that until when he was in college in Chico State. A friend of his there, a veterinarian by the name of Bill Hampton, the two of them, I guess, used to go hiking up there and he introduced him to the Trinity Range. And that was Archie’s first experience with a different mountain set than the Sierras.”
“It was there that he first saw a set of large footprints. And when he talked to his friend Bill about it, Bill explained about, oh yes, my people know about the big man of the forest. And that’s what got Archie really curious. So much so that, it percolated for many years, it became an interest when he was out in the woods but it didn’t really hit a creative fusion until the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film came out.”
I placed Archie Buckley’s Chico days as being in the 1930s, questioning whether anybody would have been contributing to Bigfoot hoaxes way back then, long before the famous film footage, and before it had become a great American myth. Chris pushed back gently.
“Well, there has been a solid tradition, all throughout Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, going back through the 1890s, up in the 1920s, up through the 1950s, I think it was 1958 when the term Bigfoot was first applied.”
“Typically, when these would appear outside of indigenous settings, this story would be in the form of a logger or a miner coming back and telling some sort of horrific account, like the famous ape Canyon attack and that sort of thing or there’s a famous abduction narrative. Even Teddy Roosevelt has a secondhand account in his autobiography. And so, it appears in this vein and there were certainly hoaxers then, who would try to go and stamp footprints out there.”
“But the point is, there was an existing tradition in the press, the 19th century sensationalistic newspaper. It sold papers whenever you could get someone who would poke around the woods and tell the story. But in the 50s, there was a famous one, I think it was out of the Trinity area, I’m just blanking on the man’s name, but it was a famous experience in the modern era. I believe it was connected with a logging camp and when the newspaper reported on it, they talked about it as Big Foot. And that’s how the name Bigfoot got applied to it and that was really the first time that people started looking at it as, oh, there might be an animal that we don’t know about, that lives out there. And because now we’re in the 1950s and we’re taking this silver age scientific re-invention of the original mystical tradition that existed during the golden age.”
I gave Chris points for using comic book terminology. And now you know why he and I are friends. He was even patient when I asked when Barry Allen first investigated this. So I had to ask, as a kid definitely steeped in what we’ll call nerd culture, what was it like having a relative appear on a national television show to talk about this cryptid?
“It was a big deal to me personally because Leonard Nimoy was attached to it, so it was automatically credible. The very fact that Uncle Archie suddenly was walking in the same circles as Mr. Spock, that was huge to me, as a small Trekkie child. Now, what was interesting is, in terms of inside the family… It was the fact that he was on TV, not the fact that he was on TV talking about Bigfoot. Why? Because Grandpa and Archie talked Bigfoot all the time, this was the sort of thing that happened. And I remember being at some parties at Archie’s place, birthday parties and stuff, where some of the circle of that first generation of Bigfooters would be there and they would be talking notes and that sort of thing. So, it wasn’t that big of a deal.”
“I’m trying to remember if I could, how much of an impact it made around me. Did I get teased about it at school or anything? I don’t think so. I don’t think anybody knew and to be honest, I don’t know if I, to the extent that I shared it… The point is, at that time, it wouldn’t have been mainstream. The fact that In Search Of was on, that would have appealed to geeks like me but other people would not necessarily have known about it. It wasn’t like you had an entire cable network dedicated to this. I like to mark America’s tolerance for the paranormal as, there’s before X-Files and there’s after X-Files. And everything before X-Files that was that weird esoteric stuff that, maybe you had a Reader’s Digest volume floating around the house.”
I suggested the Scholastic Book Club often had books on the subject. Chris laughed.
“And there was you and that one other kid in class who got it and you were really into it and you loved hearing that. And then, there was everybody else. And then, after X-Files, then it was just cool to believe that there might be more truth out there than what you had brought up.”
“Well, the point is, by the time The X-Files came along, I knew there was more truth out there and we just didn’t quite have the vocabulary for it yet. So, I think it gave credibility. And, to me, what is ultimately valuable about the In Search Of piece is that it is a rare piece of docutainment that does capture an era, in this bit of American folklore, that is, during a period where we stamped down on that, where it was kept from the mainstream. Where, through socialization, social pressure, that was not the sort of thing that you talked about as a serious person.”
“Certainly not a serious scientist, that’s why people like Grover Krantz, then Dr. Grover Krantz and now, Dr. Jeff Meldrum, who are actual disciplined, practicing academics in the scientific fields, who were looking at this as, yeah, it’s cryptozoology, not in the sense of imaginary creatures, in the sense of undiscovered creatures.”
I admitted I didn’t think I’d even heard the word “cryptozoology” before the ‘90s, and I would have been looking for it. But then I asked if Archie thought all the attention had really helped his cause.
“I went back and relistened to an old interview I did with him, back in the late ‘90s, where I just wanted to get him talking on tape. And from his point of view, he wanted to build a rapport with …researchers like him, it was his goal. After his experiences, his direct experience seeing one in 1970. June 18th, 1970. And I know that (date) because amazingly he died on the exact same day in 2007, (the anniversary of) when he actually saw one.”
I got chills at the strange perfection of that.
“It is astounding to me. I couldn’t believe it when we got the news that Archie died and I was like, June 18th. Oh man.”
“And by the time that he saw one, he had spent several years, from 1967 on, going up into the Trinity National Forest and specifically around the Yolla-Bolly wilderness area. And it was there that he set up a camp, did his usual shtick of establishing a presence, scent, attracting something with salmon and fish that was hung around the camp. Of course, that could bring bears too. So, I wasn’t quite sure the thinking, but he went with it.”
“And his efforts, over many years of that, were rewarded. Until that point, he had always said that he would always get evidence around the camp, of footprint evidence the next day. And that within 24 hours after setting up, he could always get footprint evidence.”
“Then this trip, he actually had one come into the camp. It came into the camp, was retrieving the fish. He was sleeping in his vehicle and it actually came right up and was looking in the window at him. And he just used this very soft vocalization that he practices and that we all laugh about on the In Search Of piece and uses that to try to be calming and not challenge an alpha presence. Once that happened, he went into full Scooby gang mode and he and other people in the Bay Area, that came from different backgrounds and different skillsets, put together, what I call, the original first-gen Scooby gang of Bigfoot researchers. Which went by the rather in inauspicious name of The Bay Area Group.”
“And these included people like George Haas, former partial owner of the Oakland A’s, I believe. A photographer out of a (local) school district named Warren Thompson, who passed away a few years ago. There was a journalist from Sacramento, occasionally a zoologist, a veterinarian, named Steve Sanders. Jim MacLaren. They put together a team of multifunctional volunteers, whose calling was to go and do expeditions of their own up into Northern California, the woods up in the Trinity Area and try to gather physical evidence. And they never did get a photograph. Poor Warren Thompson never got that photograph but they got a lot of footprint cast evidence and a lot of second, what do we call? Second order encounters. Auditory, audio and several visual sightings as well.”
“And it’s interesting. From a citizen science point of view, it’s lacking in a certain degree because (Archie) was very clear he did not want to disclose where they were because he was afraid that, the more that he actually drew attention to precisely the habitat, given that they were migratory, he was afraid it would draw so much attention, it would just threaten them into extinction. And his point of view was protecting Bigfoot and he was just dead set against being out there with guns. He did not want anybody shooting at them.”
“There’s still, even today, this vital debate over whether or not is it responsible? Do we need to kill one in order to show? And what’s interesting is that, his take on a gun, again, coming from that rapport, from the place of a clinician, this perspective of creating a rapport with another person, was it led him to very different conclusions than a lot of what is now accepted as the baseline understanding of this as a hypothetical different species.”
“Today, the lore is ‘10-foot hairy giants out in the woods.’ Possibly a parallel hominid evolution to the human tree. Something that has a different way of ambulation with a different kind of gait, as you see modeled very strangely in the Patterson-Gimlin film. It doesn’t walk the way a human does and it led people to believe that it’s got a different kind of foot structure. Grover Krantz suggested that this is something that doesn’t have an arch but that has a midtarsal flexion in a way that is different than human feet.”
“Archie said, ‘no, no, no, no, no, no, no. None of this is true. He says, from my experience, the biggest ones, the males, are maybe about seven feet tall, the females are about six feet tall. The reason that we inflate them in our minds is because of the footprint evidence. And the footprint evidence is being misinterpreted because it’s being interpreted by anthropologists, rather than people with a kinesiology background like me.’”
“His perspective was that, what you are seeing as these giant footprints are things that are often being exaggerated by soil conditions. And once you know how a foot flexes and how it pushes off, he says, these are not creatures without an arch; these are creatures with an arch. Yes, they have large feet, they are superb walkers, they walk much better than humans do because they’re adapted to go up and down mountains, terrains, to go in and out of high and low elevation seasonally. They’re the mountain goat equivalent of a hominid.”
“And he said, if you ever saw one down the sight of a rifle, you would drop your rifle because you would see a human being, this is not an animal. When you make eye contact with it, it’s a person and that’s why it’s frightening and that’s why you come away with an awe and a respect for it.”
“He reported vocalizations, he reported vocabulary. He reported hearing them converse vocally with one another in the family groups. According to his stories in 1972, he and his son, in fact, were on one of their summertime expeditions going back up to this same area. And I think it was in… Oh, I want to say, it was in the Yalla-Bolly Forest, in the Trinity National Forest, with his son, they were crossing a place …on the North face. And as they were approaching the ridge line and were cresting the ridge, there was a stand of fir trees. And they said they were a little ways out from their base camp. And they came across …a family grouping of these animals that were nesting down in that first stand during daylight hours.”
“As soon as they were spotted, the entire band of them immediately took off, started moving up hill, away and over the ridge line and were tossing small rocks and doing intimidation displays at them to get them to go down. Now, I think his son was disturbed enough by this that he doesn’t like talking about it but for Archie, it was very interesting because he said, they went back, after they had cleared out, they went and investigated the bedding area. And he says, there, we saw that the branches were cleared off these fir trees to a height of about 11 feet, that they had been pulled down, inverted, woven into bedding. Some of them had back rests up against trees and that there was dung and spore around the edge, that was scent marking the area.”
“What’s telling to me about this is that’s the sort of encounter when I heard that, I was like, really? Groups? This is not just, yeah. I was out hiking and then I saw this thing off in the woods. This is group primate behavior. And it is consistent with what we see other primates do.”
“And what’s really exciting to me is, it was because of this story that when the findings started coming, the last couple of years, out of the Olympic National Rainforest, up here over on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, there’s a research group called, The Olympic Project.” And they are in the enviable position of having been contacted by Weyerhaeuser, the logging company, which opens vast tracts of lands and has logging rights within national forests and that sort of thing.”
“There is an undisclosed site in Weyerhaeuser property that they found some very unusual structures in. Large, I believe, willow, nests that look essentially like giant woven bird nests, that are eight to 10 feet across. And that are these big structures that need fingers to weave them, that are broken off cleanly and stripped of leaves, out in the middle of the forest where nobody but a logging crew was going to find them. And Weyerhauser has very responsibly said, okay, you know what? We’re just going to go hands off this site for five years, Bigfooters, come on in, you’re the research group, you take a look at this.”
“ Now, as they’re gathering evidence, looking for hair samples, trying to do genetic testing, trying to just gather all the data that they can about this, in case it turns out to be something. What’s interesting to me is that it’s very consistent with what Archie said he saw in California in the 1970s. A large family group that’s nocturnal, nesting together, that moves up into higher elevations and down at seasonal, for their safety and for sustenance, as the seasons change. And that too is consistent with many of the different native lores about such creatures, which always place them as being the people of the mountains that come down or the people that raid our clam beds, that come in and dig up our clams from the clam beds. Very often, many native lores talk about them in a bit of a boogeyman since, these are the things that take children that wander too far from camp. Now, how much of that that’s just what parents do to scare kids?”
“You’ve just got to do that. So, from his perspective, yes, he had done what he had set out to do but from a citizen science point of view, it’s very frustrating because you’re like, well, capture the maps. Show where. Where is the territory? How do we gather that? And he was dead set against that because he just knew, the more interest, this was the species on the brink anyway. And you have to look no further than mountain gorillas, to see what he means by that.”
I could only agree, and hope that others do, too, so that Bigfoot can be protected if and when it’s proven they exist.