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Sasquatch – The History of Canada’s Bigfoot

On Memorial Day 2015, tens of thousands of music lovers packed on the grassy slopes of the Main Stage of The Gorge Amphitheater near George, Washington. It was the fourth and last day of the Sasquatch Music Festival. With a spectacular view of the Columbia River below, fans cheered as various hip-hop, rock, EDM, and indie bands performed their sets throughout the day. Behind them in the grounds, artists could be found painting cartoon-like interpretations of the Festival’s eponymous Sasquatch – images evocative of a video taken on a Memorial Day weekend nineteen years earlier, at a site 200 kilometres to the north.

In the early evening of May 26, 1996, seven campers lounged on the western shore of Lake Chopaka, WA, about 9 kilometres south of the Canadian border. They had just come in after a long day’s fishing. One of the party was playing catch with her son and dog. Another, Owen Pate, was building a fire.

Suddenly, one of the campers cried out. She had spotted something strange nearby on the slopes of Chopaka Mountain. One by one, her six companions, beers in hand, joined her in peering up at the hillside.

No sooner had the camper begun to explain to her fellow outdoorsmen what she had seen than a dark, hairy, human-like figure stood up, emerging from concealment behind a bush no more than 70 metres away. The figure watched the campers for a moment before dashing into the nearby woods.

Owen Pate’s wife Lori, one of the seven, had brought a camcorder with her to the scene. At the insistence of her husband, she turned the device on and began to scan the hillside. Several minutes later, the Pates’ foresight was rewarded; the figure emerged from the woods about 160 metres up the mountain. Lori filmed the creature as it loped across the rugged slope on two legs. Another camper, Tom Lines, watched the scene unfold through a pair of binoculars. “It’s a Bigfoot,” he suggested, as the figure disappeared into the trees.

Over the years, the Pates’ ‘Memorial Day’ footage has been analyzed and interpreted by experts from a number of fields. Some dismiss the video as a hoax, and maintain that the mysterious subject is nothing more than a human in a costume. Others claim that the video is evidence supporting the existence of a creature long relegated to the realm of myth and legend. Fake or not, the controversial video and the hype that it has engendered give rise to the question: what is the Sasquatch?

The Legends

From the Yowie of Australia, to the Yeren of China, to the Yeti of the Himalayas, hairy wildmen feature in folklore around the world. Some, like the Mapinguari of the Amazonian rainforest, are said to be huge and powerful. Others, like the Ebu Gogo of the Floresian jungle, are purported to be small and wiry. Some are held to be friendly, while others are considered aggressive and dangerous. Some are flesh-and-blood animals, while others are creatures of the supernatural.

For centuries, the First Nations of Canada’s Pacific Northwest have told their own stories of wildmen inhabiting the coastal rainforests of British Columbia and Yukon. Although the names for these wildmen are many and varied, most of them fall into one of four categories: Bukwus; Dzunukwa; Kushtaka; and Sasquatch.

Bukwus

Source:

  • Kwakwaka-wakw (Kwakiutl) of northern Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Sound.

The Bukwus is a savage, human-like spirit which lived on the edge of the rainforest and near rivers and streams. Emaciated and long haired, he is also known as ‘The Wild Man of the Woods’ and ‘The Chief of the Ghosts’. The Bukwus is associated with drowning victims, and is said to persuade human travelers to eat ghost food, which will turn them into spirits.

Dzunukwa

Sources:

  • Kwakwaka-wakw (Kwakiutl) of northern Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Sound.
  • Nootka of the west coast of Vancouver Island

Dzunukwa is a huge, old, black ogress who lives deep in the woods. She seeks to snatch up bad children and carry them to her lair in a basket, where she eats them. Slow, dim-witted, and nearly blind, Dzunukwa rarely succeeds in her endeavors. It is said that the call of Dzunukwa resembles the sound of the wind blowing through cedars. Accordingly, she is often depicted in masks and carvings with pursed red lips.

Kushtaka

Sources:

  • Tlingit of northwest BC, southern Yukon, and southeast Alaska
  • Tsimshian of the Pacific Coast near Prince Rupert and Terrace, BC
  • Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands
  • Nootka of the west coast of Vancouver Island

According to Indian tradition, Kushtaka, or ‘Land Otter Men’, are small shape-shifters which can take the forms of otters, humans, and human-sized otter men. Considered to be evil tricksters, the Kushtaka are said to prey on those who have drowned or become lost in the woods. They ‘save’ their victims before stealing their souls. Other times, the Kushtaka attack their victims with sharp claws. The Kushtaka is said to emit a high-pitched whistle alternating from low to high.

Sasquatch

Sources:

  • Coast Salish peoples of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon
  • Tsimshian of the Pacific Coast near Prince Rupert and Terrace, BC
  • Nuxalt of the Bella Coola Valley, BC

The Sasquatch are hairy, human-like giants who live deep within the forests. They are very tall, extremely powerful, and have a terrible smell. They communicate with each other through grunts and whistles, and can sometimes be heard howling in the night. Some legends maintain that Sasquatches are friendly. Shy and reclusive, they tend to avoid human settlements. Although they may abduct humans from time to time, they rarely harm them. Other legends suggest that the Sasquatch is a vicious creature prone to attack humans and kidnap children. In some tales, the Sasquatch feeds on human flesh.

Note: Stories of Sasquatch-like creatures are not only common on the Pacific Northwest, but also among the Athabascan tribes of the Canadian north.

History

For centuries, the First Nations of Canada’s Northwest Coast have told tales of encounters with the Sasquatch. However, it would not be until the 19th century when white men reported sightings of their own Big Foot.

In the winter of 1811, North West Company surveyor David Thompson and his crew searched for a passage west through the Rocky Mountains near present-day Jasper, Alberta. Their efforts would lead them to discover the Athabasca Pass. On January 7, while searching for the route, Thompson spotted a set of large, peculiar animal tracks in the snow. The tracks measured 14 inches long by 8 inches wide. They bore four large toes, each 3-4 inches long with small nails on the end. The ball of the foot sunk three inches lower than the toes. Thompson estimated that the creature had passed that way about six hours earlier, and was subsequently in no mood to pursue it. Today, some speculate that Thompson may have stumbled upon Sasquatch tracks.

Following the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800’s, prospectors and miners returned from the wilds of the Yukon to civilization, telling all manner of strange tales. The saloons of Skagway and Dawson City, and the bars of Seattle and San Francisco, resounded with stories of hidden valleys, lost mines, phantom lights, woolly mammoths, and, of course, wild ape-men. Decades later, many of these tales found their way into obscure northern newspapers.

Perhaps the most famous of all Canadian Sasquatch encounters of the story of Albert Ostman. Ostman was a Canadian logger and construction worker. In 1924, after a particularly long construction project, he decided to take a much needed holiday. He purchased a prospecting outfit and set out for the head of Toba Inlet near Powell River, BC, where he hoped to search for a particular lost gold mine. According to the old Indian who ferried Ostman to the inlet, a Sasquatch had killed the prospector who initially discovered the bonanza.

After several days prospecting without luck, strange things began to happen. Ostman would wake after a good night’s sleep to discover that some of his things had been disturbed in the night. Some of his provisions started to go missing. One night, Ost climbed up onto a rock overlooking his camp, boots on his feet and rifle in hand. He hoped to catch the culprit in the act. No sooner had he nodded off, however, when he was jerked awake. Disoriented, he quickly realized that he was inside his sleeping bag, being hauled away by something huge.

After a very uncomfortable three hour ride, Ostman was let down. He crawled from his sleeping bag to discover himself inside a cave, surrounded by four hairy giants. In Ostman’s words, “they look like a family, old man, old lady, and two young ones, a boy and a girl.” According to the logger, the giants spoke in a crude language, often using gestures in order to communicate with each other.

The wildmen held Ostman captive for six days, feeding him “some kind of grass with long sweet roots”. On the sixth day, Ostman enticed the eight-foot-tall ‘old man’ to eat an entire box of snuff tobacco. In the chaos that ensued, the logger gathered his belongings and escaped into the woods. After a day of fleeing and a restless night, Ostman happened upon a logging crew and found his way back to civilization. Out of fear of derision, he chose not to reveal his story until 1957.

On the surface, Ostman’s tale seems too fantastic to believe. What lends it credence, however, is the fact that Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew McCormack Naismith, a respected police magistrate from Agassiz-Harrison BC, cross-examined Ostman in 1957. After a rigorous examination, Naismith concluded that the retired logger was of sound mind, had a seamless story, and appeared to be telling the truth.

Another Canadian Sasquatch story worth recounting is the tale of ‘Muchalat Harry’. Harry was a Nootka trapper of the Muchalat tribe from the now-abandoned village of Nuchatlitz (or possibly Yuquot), on Vancouver Island, BC. Physically imposing and reputedly fearless, he  was an anomaly among his fellow Nootka. Undaunted by the prospect of running into a Sasquatch, he often went on extended trapping trips that took him deep into the woods, alone.

On one trapping venture in the fall of 1928, Harry paddled his canoe from Nuchatlitz to the mouth of the Conuma River on Tlupana Inlet. There, he cached his canoe and proceeded up the river on foot. About twenty kilometres upstream, he made camp, built a lean-to, and set out his trap line.

One night, Harry, clad only in his underwear and wrapped in his blankets, was picked up by a massive male Sasquatch. Although the Indian was strong, he was no match for the larger animal. He struggled in vain as the Sasquatch carried him deeper into the woods.

After no more than five kilometres, the Sasquatch laid Harry down. The terrified Nootka found himself in a sort of camp filled with male and female Sasquatches of all ages. A number of large bones lay scattered at his feet. The wildmen made no move to hurt Harry, but simply stared at him curiously as dawn came. Every once in a while, an enterprising Sasquatch would step forward and touch him.

Eventually, the Sasquatch lost their interest and gradually moved out of the camp. Harry took advantage of the opportunity and ran into the woods. He raced past his own camp, leaving his gun and traps behind, and headed straight for his cached canoe. In nothing but his underwear, he untied his craft and paddled out into the fog.

Late that night, Harry’s canoe slid into Nuchatlitz. Using what strength he had left, the dying Indian called for help. Lamps were lit, and Harry, exhausted and hypothermic, was rescued.

Harry was nursed back to health by Father Anthony Terhaar, a Benedictine missionary living in Nuchatlitz at the time. During the three-week-long recovery, Harry’s hair turned from black to pure white. Upon his recovery, Harry refused to go back to the Conuma River to collect his belongings. In fact, in the aftermath of his escapade, Harry never left the village nor went into the woods again for the rest of his life.

Since ‘Muchalat Harry’ and Albert Ostman’s misadventures, there have been hundreds of reported Sasquatch sightings in British Columbia and the Yukon, along with many more in Washington, Oregon, and northern California. According to the Bigfoot Field Researchers’ Organization, there have also been a fair number of Sasquatch encounters reported in Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario.

Many of the purported encounters are eerily similar. Witnesses who claim to have seen a Sasquatch typically describe it as a 6-8-foot-tall bipedal animal covered in either dark brown or reddish hair. Most eye witnesses claim that the Sasquatch has a conical head, a flat face, black skin, long arms, and no neck. According to many supposed witnesses, the Sasquatch is preceded by a terrible stench somewhat akin to the smells of burning garbage, wet dog, and rotting flesh.

Although relatively few people claim to have seen a Sasquatch, many more believe they may have heard one. Residents of remote regions of the Pacific Northwest, very much familiar with the sounds of the local fauna, sometimes report hearing strange, high-pitched screams and howls in the night. Some people report hearing a mysterious whistle that alternates from low to high.

Explanations

There have been many ideas put forth over the years as to what exactly the Sasquatch is. Many of Canada’s First Nations believed that the Sasquatch is simply another animal, lying somewhere between the realm of Man and Beast. This sentiment is echoed by a number of biologists like Canada’s Dr. John Bindernagel, who believe that the Sasquatch is a rare species of North American great ape just waiting to be discovered.

Some anthropologists believe that the legends of the Sasquatch are the products of a collective cultural memory of prehistoric times. They believe that wildmen myths around the world are the legacy of the Neanderthal, Gigantopithecus, and other extinct hominids believed to have once walked the earth alongside early humans. Others believe that the Sasquatch and other wildmen are, in fact, those same hominids themselves.

Many skeptics argue that Sasquatch ‘encounters’ are examples of the mind playing tricks. They maintain that people believe what they want to believe. To these skeptics, a Sasquatch sighting is nothing more than the product of, for example, a bear encounter and a wild imagination.

Lastly, some people believe that the Sasquatch is not an animal, nor a figment of the imagination, but rather a supernatural entity. These people typically maintain that the wildman of Northwest Coast is a bad omen.

Whatever the case, the Sasquatch certainly ads to the aura of mystery and romance that surrounds the Pacific Northwest. If nothing else, the Sasquatch is- like the Ogopogo and the Turtle Lake Monster– one of the great Mysteries of Canada.

 

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Capital of Canada

If stones could speak, the bedrock of the Ottawa River in Ottawa, Ontario, would never stop talking. Throughout the years, the river that runs through the capital of Canada has borne all manner of watercraft, from the birch-bark canoes of Algonquin hunters to the iron-hulled steamboats of the Union Forwarding & Railway Company. As the river has seen countless tons of freshwater flow from its source in the Laurentian Mountains into the great St. Lawrence, it has witnessed a scrap of land on its shores rise from an obscure stretch of forest to the capital of Canada.

Long before the first white man stepped foot in Canada, the Ottawa Valley was home to Canada’s Algonquin First Nations. Primarily hunters and fishermen, these semi-nomadic people spent their summers in small seasonal villages. They often traveled up and down the Ottawa River in slender birch-bark canoes to trade with one another. In the fall and winter, they left their wigwams and scattered into smaller groups to follow the wild game.

In 1610, a young adventurer named Etienne Brule, under the guidance of French explorer Samuel de Champlain, went to live among the Huron people of Georgian Bay. He hoped to master their language and learn about their territory. On his journey, he became the first European to travel up the Ottawa River and see the site of the present-day capital of Canada. In the years to come, many young Frenchmen followed Brule’s example and took to the woods to live with the natives. These frontiersmen independents who fomented the North American fur trade became known collectively as the coureurs des bois. From the early 1600’s to the early 1800’s, they, along with indentured voyageurs, traveled up the Ottawa River and deep into the wilderness to trade French goods for Indian furs.

In the mid 17th century, war broke out between French/Algonquin/Huron and Iroquois forces. Several skirmishes were fought along the shores of the Ottawa River. In the spring of 1649, twelve hundred Iroquois warriors armed with Dutch firearms traveled up the Ottawa River and west into Huron territory. There, they massacred the Huron (along with several Jesuit missionaries) and drove the survivors north.

In the early 1800’s, the British Empire went to war with Napoleon’s France. The British Royal Navy, short on ships, turned to the Ottawa Valley for quality timber. In no time, a small logging village called Wrightsville (named after founder Philemon Wright) sprouted on the river’s shore. Huge timber rafts were assembled and floated down the river into the St. Lawrence and to Quebec City.

In the wake of the War of 1812, the British government feared an American invasion. In the event that American forces took the southern section of the St. Lawrence River, the important route between Montreal and Kingston would be severed. As a precaution, the British planned to build a waterway linking the Ottawa River with Kingston. Lieutenant-Colonel John By, a British Royal Engineer, was tasked with the canal’s construction. He chose a place for the canal’s entrance near Wrightsville and founded a town on the spot. The town, named Bytown after its founder, would one day become Ottawa, the capital of Canada.

capital-of-canada-rideau-canal

Construction of the canal commenced in 1826. After six years, 822,000 pounds stirling, and nearly a thousand dead workers, the canal was completed. The waterway, called the Rideau Canal, was 202 km long and included sections of various rivers and lakes. Since the project was over budget, John By was retired without praise and recalled to London. According to local lore, his spirit may have returned to haunt Ottawa’s very creepy Bytown Museum.  That’s a story for another time.

On New Years Day, 1855, Bytown was incorporated as a city and renamed Ottawa. Nearly three years later, on New Years Eve, 1857, Queen Victoria was asked to select a capital for the British Province of Canada. On the advice of John A. Macdonald, she chose Ottawa as the Capital of Canada.

 

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