The next time you go for a hike through the woods of Cumberland, West Greenwich or Exeter, take caution: You just may run into a giant, hairy beast.
Sasquatch; Bigfoot; or, in this case, Big Rhodey. Whatever you want to call him, the legendary ape man that has been the subject of grainy photos and eyewitness accounts for decades — but has never officially been found, dead or alive — is wandering around the more remote locations of Rhode Island, according to a local paranormal research group.
"Bigfoot is a master of concealment," said Carl Johnson, founder of Beyond the Veil Paranormal Research and the Big Rhodey Research Project. "It's the same as a bear that wanders down here every now and then. People sometimes catch glimpses of it."
There have been seven such glimpses in Rhode Island over the years, Johnson said, most in rural pockets in the western part of the state. Johnson said he has gathered evidence on dozens of expeditions around the state, collecting photographs of over-sized, human-like footprints around stands of broken and twisted trees, and clumps of hair from an unidentified animal.
But the key piece of evidence came last year when Johnson's colleagues, Dina Palazini and Kris Stepney, were on an expedition in Exeter and caught what they believe to be a sasquatch on film. The blurry video shows someone or something — walking upright, if slightly hunched over — appear from behind a tree. The creature or person is on camera for just a matter of seconds as the camera is panning the woods off Ten Rod Road. While Johnson describes a brownish, hairy creature with a sloped forehead, it is difficult to determine from the video just what — or who — is walking through the woods.
But it was enough to interest the team from the Animal Planet series "Finding Bigfoot," who traveled to Rhode Island last month to film an episode about Big Rhodey. Johnson took Matt Moneymaker — founder and president of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization — and his team on a tour of the sasquatch's favorite haunts, and presented the evidence he has collected. Animal Planet has embargoed the video of Big Rhodey for the episode, Johnson said, which should air on Animal Planet early next year.
"They like to debunk, so we'll see when it's edited," Johnson said of the "Finding Bigfoot" team. "They question the validity of what we saw. They said it could have been a person hiding behind a tree. But you can tell it's not a person."
Just what Bigfoot is — an ape? A person? A Neanderthal that somehow survived through generations of evolution? — has been shrouded in mystery for many decades. Photos and video evidence of the elusive creature are often grainy and taken at a distance, making a positive identification next to impossible. Johnson has his own theory.
"I think it's a type of feral human," he said. "A divergent strain of homo sapien that adapted to its environment. It's called atavism — a reversion to a prior type; a sort of de-evolution."
Johnson — a tour guide at Slater Mill in Pawtucket by day — is adamant that sasquatches are real creatures that live in the wilderness and avoid human contact. While he has not yet seen one with the naked eye, he describes a close encounter he had in September 2010 in the woods near the Cumberland watershed area while he was performing a technique known as "tree-knocking," which some Bigfoot enthusiasts teach as a way to communicate with a sasquatch.
"We started to hear a thumping sound, and it was approaching," Johnson said. "The only thing I can liken it to is an elephant walking on its hind legs. Stomping is a way to scare people away."
Johnson said he understands the skepticism many have that Bigfoot exists at all, and he even acknowledges the humor many find in the dedication of those who comb through the woods seeking the hairy beast.
"I don't think it's always taken seriously," Johnson said of the form of cryptozoology he and his colleagues practice. "Some people are not open-minded. It's certainly not accepted in the mainstream. But we're not just crackpots. We want to help make it a legitimate study. If there wasn't any serious evidence, I wouldn't stick with it."
Johnson and his team plan to continue combing the forests of Rhode Island anywhere a potential sighting is reported. The team plans to search through the woods in Chepatchet, and will return to Cumberland and Exeter in the spring when Johnson believes Big Rhodey returns to "his summer home." Johnson said he desperately wants to see a sasquatch, particularly after his "tantalizing" encounter in Cumberland. But whether he ever sees one, or whether any proof of Bigfoot's existence is ever found, people will continue to hunt the wilderness in search of the legendary creature, he said.
"I've talked to people who have been up close and personal. I believe them," Johnson said. "It upsets people that there's a man-like creature out there. It's scary and spooky; an abomination. It's us, but it's not us. That's what's fascinating — how close to human it is."