The utility vehicle judders to a halt, and the soft sounds of the forest emerge in the sudden hush. My sister and I clamber out of the vehicle, brushing tent caterpillars out of our hair. The view from this ridge is a stunner. Harrison Lake spreads out below us, bright blue and glittering in the sunshine. Beyond the lake are the snowcapped peaks of Mount Breakenridge.
Our guide, Thomas Steenburg, is rummaging in the back of the vehicle. Suddenly, we hear rustling in the trees behind us. Steenburg whips around to look up at the hillside.
“What’s that up there?” he asks. “Did you see movement?”
The sun blazes and the air is thick as we stare up at the cluster of trees. I glance sideways at my sister. Our eyes meet, and we exchange tiny smiles.
Then the spell is broken. Steenburg shrugs, sticks the stem of his pipe between his teeth, and starts hauling enormous footprint castings out of a rubber bin in the back of the ATV. But of course: what would an adventure in Sasquatch country be without plaster paw prints?
There’s surely no better place in the world for us to be running our fingers over these giant plaster toe casts than in the park named for the legendary cryptid. Sasquatch Provincial Park lies a couple of hours northeast of Vancouver, just past Harrison Hot Springs. The park is home to a number of pocket lakes and a few basic campgrounds—and possibly something more unusual. For 150 years there have been reports of a huge, hairy, bipedal creature roaming the woods here.
The word Sasquatch, in fact, was coined here. As he unpacks notes and a book of photographs from the ATV, Steenburg tells us about J. W. Burns, a teacher and government Indian agent who wrote an article for Maclean’s in 1929 about a strange creature said by the people of the Sts’ailes Band (formerly the Chehalis Indian Band) to wander the woods near Harrison Lake. Burns’s mispronunciation of the Sts’ailes word Sa:sq’ets, meaning “wild man”, stuck. The park, originally called Green Point, was renamed Sasquatch in 1968. The Americans came up with their own name, Bigfoot, in the 1950s, after numerous sightings of a similar creature south of the border.
Searching for the Sasquatch has been Steenburg’s lifelong passion. He’s written three books on the subject and coauthored two more. He relocated to the Harrison area from Ontario to pursue his research into the creature.
“There’s two things I always loved growing up: one was the outdoors and one was a mystery, so the two just went together hand in hand,” he tells us.
Steenburg wasn’t the only one drawn to the area by Sasquatch rumours. Tourists used to seek out Bill Miller—the resident Sasquatch expert and Steenburg’s research partner—asking for stories and wanting to tag along on his research trips into the bush. The steady flow of Sasquatch-related tourism prompted Miller to open this tour company, Sasquatch Country Adventures, in 2011.
Both Miller and Steenburg consider themselves researchers, not advocates. They stick to the facts and have a keen eye for hoaxes. Steenburg tells us he’s seen footprints five times and taken castings on three of those occasions. And he’s interviewed dozens of people about possible sightings.
“But to tell you the honest truth, for everyone who reports a sighting, I have a feeling eight don’t,” he says. “They’re told they’re crazy, so they shut up about it.”
He’s had one possible sighting himself, back in 2004. But it was only a glimpse, and he can’t be sure it wasn’t a human. We leaf through the book of old photos as he tells us about the Ruby Creek Incident, a well-known sighting near Agassiz in 1941 during which a family of five reported an extensive encounter with a large, hairy beast.
The sun is hot on my neck as I confront Steenburg with the ultimate skeptic’s argument: if there were a large enough population of these creatures to continue breeding, wouldn’t there have been a definitive sighting by now? Steenburg sweeps his arm toward the mountains, the trees, the jewel-bright lake below.
“Look around here. You come out here at night, you won’t see one porch light, one traffic light,” he says. “You could hide a herd of woolly mammoth out here and no one would ever see them unless they crossed your path.”
Still, he acknowledges that without physical evidence, the mystery won’t be solved.
“I’ve talked to the Smithsonian and the National Geographic Society, and whenever I ask ‘What do you need to confirm that this species exists?’ they’re unanimous: they need a body or piece of a body. Or substantial skeletal remains. And that’s not easy.”
In all the years Steenburg has been prowling the wilderness, he says, he’s never come across a dead bear that wasn’t killed by humans. He’s only seen a mountain lion twice. And he’s never seen a wolverine.
“If I saw the Sasquatch in 2004, the Sasquatch is one up on the wolverine,” he says with a laugh.
We climb into the ATV and head back down the mountain. I scan the trees as we rumble past but see nothing unusual. As we approach the park entrance, Steenburg offers some advice: always carry a camera when you leave the city. Most sightings don’t happen in the wilderness, he explains, but along roads or in campgrounds—when the Sasquatch comes into human territory.
“People just see the unbelievable for a few moments before it slips back into the shadows and disappears.”