Best AP Enterprise Writing 2006
John’s award was for a story about a three-day search in the wilds of Oregon for the legendary Sasquatch. His win was the first for asap, The Associated Press’ multimedia service for readers in their 20s and 30s. It was also a first-time entry for an asap writer.
Hunt for Bigfoot
TILLAMOOK, Ore. – The hike started with cracks about how the thick vegetation looked like something out of “Jurassic Park.” We quoted “Blair Witch Project” when every turn of the river started to look the same and even made a few Headless Horseman references because of moss-draped trees.
But as the sun inched closer to the horizon the end of our expedition still seemed so far away, no one was laughing anymore – we were too concerned about whether we’d make it out alive.
That’s no joke.
What started off as a Bigfoot expedition turned into a march of attrition, a group of eight hikers wading through waist-deep water, hacking through claustrophobically thick foliage and over slimy, I-bet-you-can’t-keep-your-balance rocks. Nearly nine hours, roughly 15 miles and dozens of plunges into the creek later, we finally made it to our destination, trudging in water-logged boots.
Somewhere, someone had made a huge miscalculation.
The plan, according the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, was to send two teams from opposite ends of the creek to flush out sasquatches. The night before, we’d heard sounds that expedition leader Matt Moneymaker said were Bigfoots – my buddy and I were convinced they were coyotes.
We had a great time at first, working our way single-file down a narrow ridgeline to the bottom of the canyon, where we found enormous, moss-caked trees and vegetation so lush it didn’t look real. We joked that hikers at the back of the line were going to start getting picked off by raptors.
Initially, we tried to get across the creek without getting our shoes wet – especially those of us without waders – but that proved to be useless after about the third attempt.
The problem wasn’t that the creek was too wide or deep to cross – at least not yet. What slipped us up were the rocks under the water and the ones peeking just above the surface, covered in what appeared to be clear slug juice. We quickly learned that shiny means bad when it comes to rocks.
The first plunges came about a quarter of the way through the trip, mostly guys getting an arm wet as they tried to catch themselves. But as the water became deeper and the current faster, the splashes started getting louder. Several members did sit-downs, while others went for the inadvertent belly flop.
Moneymaker seemed to get the worst of it.
Welcome to the jungleEarly on, he slipped on some loose gravel, slid into water up to his armpits and wedged underneath a fallen log in perhaps the scariest moment of the trip. He later emerged from the back of the line with water dripping from his hair.
Negotiating the woods wasn’t any easier.
It was like every movie jungle scene you’ve ever seen, only this was real and we didn’t have a machete. Thorn-covered berry vines, ferns blanketing the ground like carpet and an amazing variety of small trees and bushes lined just about every inch of the creek, all drenched from intermittent rain that fell throughout the day.
We climbed over and ducked under fallen trees, leaned under hundreds of water-logged branches, tightroped logs, hopped up and down boulders, shimmied down gravel embankments and even crawled on our knees and bellies just to get through. Follow the person in front too close, you risked getting a Three Stooges whack in the face from a swinging branch.
After the group split in two, me, my buddy Eric Gruber and a guy named Craig tried to find our way along a game trail that seemed to go away from the water. We hacked through only to find ourselves on a cliff 75 feet above the creek. Not wanting to double back for the 20th time, we decided to go up toward some larger trees up the slope to see if there was a trail.
Not a chance. The vegetation got thicker the higher we climbed, squeezing in around us as we contorted our bodies in every possible way. Picture the thickest hedge you can think of and you’ll know what we went through. We made it about 100 yards in 15 minutes before turning back.
No one was even thinking about Bigfoot at this point.
“I just want to get the hell out of here,” Craig said just before we turned around.
No Bigfoot, no escape
We knew it was starting to get late, but it wasn’t until we reached the creek that we realized our predicament: It was 7:30 and we still had no idea how far we had left.
That’s when we started worrying about our safety.
The rays of the sun all but gone, we realized that there was a distinct possibility that we might have to sleep down in the canyon – not exactly appealing considering the large pile of mountain lion droppings we saw earlier.
“I DON’T want to sleep in this canyon,” Gruber said.
Neither did I, so the pace picked up considerably despite water-logged boots weighing about 10 pounds each and legs we could barely lift over the smallest of rocks and branches.
Then it came: a call on the radio from the second team. They gave up on trying to make it through the thick underbrush several hours before and were standing on a ridge about 500 feet above us, waving and telling us that the end was just around the next bend.
We finally made it to a trail, only to find out we still had at least another mile to go.
Didn’t matter. We knew the end was near and speed-walked – well, at least for someone who had just walked eight hours through a jungle – until we could see lights through the trees and hear cars on the highway.
We hummed the theme song from “Chariots of Fire” as we walked up the final hill, then crossed a bridge to a roadside store where a cold beer and ride back to the camp were waiting.
Bigfoot? Pfffft. He was the furthest thing from our minds.