Chris Bateman, January 26, 2007, Union Democrat
BY DAY SHE'S the Stanislaus National Forest's archaeologist. With a master's degree in anthropology, she makes sure prehistoric Native American sites in the woods are protected. She's also the forest's liaison with the Me-Wuk tribe.
But it's what Kathy Strain does in her spare time that separates her from Forest Service colleagues.
She's a Bigfooter. A student of Sasquatch. A yearner for Yeti. A true believer.
"A strong case can be made that Bigfoot exists," said Strain, whose Jamestown-area home includes a room full of books, videos, cast footprints, notes and reports on the creature. "I've seen things I have no other explanation for."
Not only that, but she says Tuolumne County and the forest she works on are among the huge creature's favorite haunts. She has catalogued scores of eyewitness accounts, has discovered a Sasquatch "nest" near Twain Harte and swears she was once close enough to the creature that dirt was still falling from the sides of deep,14-inch footprints it left behind.
AND GET THIS: Strain is not crazy.
In fact, her scientific credentials and employment by a huge, dead-serious and not terribly imaginative federal agency boost her stock as a guest speaker at Bigfoot conferences.
But when she walks into the forest's Greenley Road headquarters, Strain leaves Sasquatch at the door.
She doesn't demand that wide swaths of timberland be set aside as Bigfoot habitat. Nor does she hector forest wildlife biologists with evidence or accounts she has collected.
"Kathy has been an excellent archaeologist and employee," confirmed her boss, Forest Supervisor Tom Quinn. "And, at least in my four and a half years here, I have had no reports of Yeti conversations in the workplace."
For the record, Quinn added, the forest has "no position" on Bigfoot.
Which, less restrained Bigfooters might say, is like Australia having no position on kangaroos.
NEXT TO THE deep woods near the Oregon border, Strain says, the Stanislaus Forest area is the nation's hottest Bigfoot spot. In the past six years she has documented more than 200 sightings and witness accounts.
A few have come from co-workers looking to unburden themselves — after quitting time, of course — of long-held Bigfoot tales. Take the wildlife biologist who never forgot his 1993 trip to Bloomer Lake, above Pinecrest.
"An animal-creature mythological being," is how this field worker described the gaping, hairy 6-foot creature he glimpsed. Even after it had disappeared, leaving a dismembered deer behind, he felt "that sixth sense of a presence" nearby.
"Pretty cool and funky," was his distinctly unscientific summation.
But this is only a cube in a Bigfoot iceberg, Strain said.
Local sightings range from below Knights Ferry (a "hairy giant" seen by horsemen in the late 1890s) to the Emigrant Wilderness, apparently popular summer range for Sasquatch. And, according to Me-Wuk lore collected by Strain, a hulking creature called "Yayali" has roamed these mountains for hundreds of years.
WANT TO see one?
"I'd try the Pinecrest-Strawberry area," Strain suggested, adding that it has been an epicenter for sightings over the years.
But it's not like she's seen any there.
In more than 20 years of looking, in fact, Strain hasn't seen Bigfoot anywhere. She's like an ornithologist who has never seen a bird or an entomologist still looking for her first bug.
"Anyone who sees one is incredibly lucky," she admitted, describing an elusive animal with a remarkable ability to blend in with its surroundings.
That said, the Pinecrest area — at least in contrast with other places — fairly teems with Sasquatch. At least it did in January of 1963, when The Union Democrat carried this headline:
Report: 10 Ft. Shrieking Monster.
"There was definitely some creature in the woods," said Tuolumne County Sheriff's Deputy Bill Huntley, who had responded with partner Elbert Miller to reports of "a 10-foot tall man — the most awful thing I have ever seen" at a gravel pit near the high-country subdivision of Peter Pam.
The two officers went to the pit, heard eerie shrieking, saw trees shaking violently, and at one point radioed that "It's heading right toward the car. Here it comes."
ALAS, IT NEVER came. A few days later, it was dismissed as a bear.
And the guy who reported the monster? "You'll think I'm crazy," he told deputies, refusing to identify himself. "You'll put me in a straitjacket."
Which begs a question: Why is Strain, a 38-year-old establishment scientist whose life is otherwise devoid of fringe trappings, willing to take a chance on that Bigfoot straitjacket?
Blame "The Legend of Boggy Creek," a low-budget 1973 documentary on a hairy creature roaming the Arkansas backwoods.
"I was about 7 years old," said Strain, who grew up in the Porterville area. "I was fascinated."
By high school, completely hooked, she asked a stunned guidance counselor what college major might qualify her for a career in Bigfoot research. "Anthropology" was the answer.
Two Cal State Bakersfield degrees later, Strain found that paying jobs in Sasquatch science were as scarce as the creature itself and went to work for the Forest Service.
IN THE 16 YEARS since, she's invested thousands of off-work hours in Bigfoot. She has collected hundreds of stories from tribal elders and has researched 1,000-year-old pictographs of what the Yokuts Indians called "Hairy Man."
Strain is now in demand as a guest speaker, is writing a Bigfoot book, chairs the Alliance of Independent Bigfoot Researchers and in March will appear on a TV show called "Science Meets Legend." Her license plate reads GOTYETI, a sculpted Bigfoot stands at her front door and a good number of her weekends are spent in the woods, waiting with her husband and teenage sons for the elusive Sasquatch.
"I'd say my chances are good," she said. "After all, Bob saw one."
Sure enough, retired Folsom firefighter Bob Strain says he saw a 10-foot, 800-pound upright creature while hunting in Idaho's Salmon Wilderness in 1975. "I was watching him through my rifle scope from 400 yards," said Strain, who met Kathy at a 2003 Bigfoot conference. "But, no, I didn't pull the trigger."
Had he done so, Bob might have changed history: A continuing mystery is why, if Bigfoot really does exist, a carcass has never been found.
"THAT WILL HAPPEN," assured Kathy. "Sooner or later one will be hit by a car or truck, or someone will discover a body."
Now, however, she wants to see a live Sasquatch. And if one comes her way, she'll be ready: Camping with the Strains includes not only tents, barbecue grills and s'mores, but thousands of dollars' worth of night-vision, audio, video and photographic equipment.
So don't look for any repeat of those hazy, grainy 1960s creature-feature shots from Bob and Kathy. If they film Bigfoot, you'll see traces of breakfast in his teeth.
Their odds? An anthropologist and Sasquatch researcher once estimated that about 2,000 live in the Washington, Oregon and California woods. Prorate that and it's, what, a dozen, maybe 20 on the Stanislaus Forest?
"I'm not going there," said Strain. "Populations change too much to be tied to a number."
But in May of 2001, at least one Bigfoot was in the Twain Harte area: Strain and another researcher were driving on a road in the area when they noticed a just-snapped, still-moving 3-inch-thick tree.
She and her friend followed fresh, crumbling 14-inch prints to a "nest" of bent trees and snapped limbs. Inside, she said, was a 7-foot "body imprint" in the leaves and moss.
"IT APPEARS a lone Sasquatch was occupying the area," concluded Strain's four-page, all-business report on the nest, apparently abandoned after the May foray.
Then there was her August 2004 expedition on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. "We were walking along a road with night-vision goggles," she remembers. "We heard noises from both sides and, as we got closer, an 8-foot-tall, upright creature came from behind a tree to look at us. We just froze."
A Bigfoot sighting? Not for this scientist.
"By the time we moved closer, it was gone," Strain said. "Unless I see the whites of its eyes, I'm not going to count it."
And if she ever does look into the whites of those mysterious eyes — and gets it all in high-def?
Well, then maybe we can talk about setting aside some habitat.
(Seen any strange eyes in the dark lately? Or any other evidence of Bigfoot? Call the Alliance of Independent Bigfoot Researchers at (866) 415-2427. And right after that, contact Chris Bateman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4528).