Mike Hexum says he first saw Bigfoot from a homemade deer stand on Minnesota's Iron Range. He was 14 years old then, old enough for his father to send him alone into the woods with a sandwich and a rifle.
"He walked into a shooting lane 30 feet in front of me," Hexum recalls. "I thought it was a guy. A big dark guy with a prehistoric face on it. Of course I freaked out. I couldn't get out of the woods fast enough."
He told his father what he saw, and his father told him never to talk about it.
"He said it would embarrass the family," Hexum says.
So Hexum went on with his life. He got out of high school, moved away and got married. He had three kids, and he didn't talk about Bigfoot. For a long time, he says, he forgot what he'd seen.
But the marriage didn't work out, and a few years ago he was laid off from his welding job.
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He moved back to a small cabin in the woods, near his childhood home and started watching TV shows about Bigfoot. Then one morning, he says, he saw Bigfoot again.
"The place I live, I didn't have any running water," he says. "So I had a ritual every morning of going down on the lake. I had a hole in the ice for getting water for dishes and washing and I'd bring some coffee and watch the sun come up."
He says a tall hairy creature was walking on the ice that winter morning, far out across the lake. That's when he started to remember his childhood experience — when he started to believe.
Now Hexum is one of Minnesota's most dedicated Bigfoot researchers. He spends his evenings in the woods, or behind a keyboard, chatting with other enthusiasts online.
And he's found a new purpose for returning to the very woods of his first sighting: He's scouting locations for the Animal Planet's "Finding Bigfoot," which will film an episode in Minnesota later this summer.
MPR News video: Hunting for Bigfoot in northern Minnesota
Twenty miles north of Nashwauk, Hexum turns his truck down an old logging trail and switches on the four-wheel drive. He brought Abe Del Rio along too, a Bigfoot enthusiast from St. Paul. Del Rio stands in the bed of the truck to keep an eye out for Sasquatch.
The trail is rock and mud, hemmed in by trees and partially flooded. The air hums with mosquitoes. It's not an inviting part of northern Minnesota but that's where you have to go, Hexum says, if you want to see a Bigfoot.
"I mean what a paradise for Bigfoot," he says. "There's no human traffic. You've got food, you've got shelter. It's just like a grocery store and nobody's there."
Four miles into a former game reserve, the trail runs out in a small clearing. Hexum gets some camp chairs from his truck and Del Rio breaks out the bug repellent. With an hour of daylight left, Del Rio cups his hands and lets out a long high-pitched whoop. Then he lifts a short baseball bat from his belt and swings it into a white pine.
"If there's a sasquatch around he knows we're here," he says. Now it's a waiting game."
He lights a cigarette, and listens to the mosquitoes, and the wind in the trees.
When searching for Bigfoot, whoops and wood knocks are pretty common techniques. Hexum believes roaming Bigfoot communicate over long distances with ape-like calls, or by hitting trees with fallen limbs. Imitating those sounds, he says can sometimes get a reply, or draw one into camp.
"Abe uses that special bat," Hexum says. "I'd rather use a stick — the same tools Sasquatch has. I think they can hear the difference."
A good decade for Bigfoot
The legend of Bigfoot has its roots in stories of wildmen and Yeti, told by the native tribes of Asia, and the Pacific northwest. Debate over the creature's existence first broke into the mainstream culture in 1967, when Roger Patterson captured 59 seconds of video that appeared to show a tall hairy animal walking upright on two legs by a creek in northern California. Some said it was a man in a gorilla suit. Some believe it's Bigfoot.
Bigfoot hunters are undeterred by the lack of scientific proof to back up the legends.
And the past decade has been a boom time for Bigfoot enthusiasts, according to Bob Barhite, who volunteers for the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, a national group dedicated to proving the existence of Bigfoot.
When a sighting is reported in Minnesota or Wisconsin, Barhite is called in to investigate. He said just one in five calls are believable enough to try to confirm.
In Minnesota, what Barhite considers to be legitimate sightings are on the rise. Twice as many Minnesotans have reported seeing Bigfoot in the last 10 years as in the previous 20. Barhite said there's one good reason for that — television.
In 2007, an episode of the History Channel's paranormal reality television series "Monster Quest" focused on the Bigfoot legend. That show spawned a handful of other bigfoot related TV shows, he said, and many thousands of people claimed sightings all over the country, including in Minnesota.
"People don't feel embarrassed about reporting things," he said. "They don't feel crazy anymore. They feel accepted."
Waiting for Bigfoot
A half hour passes in silence, and the two researchers give up on the waiting-for-bigfoot strategy — setting off instead through the dense woods toward a tamarack swamp.
"Through years of thinking about it, I've determined, they primarily live in that swamp," Hexum says. "I'd bet my year's pay on it."
When the ground turns squishy and wet under foot, Del Rio makes a few more tree knocks with his baseball bat and waits in silence for a reply. There's no sound but the mosquitoes.
"It's really quiet here," he says.
"It's almost too quiet," Hexum replies. "There's a good possibility we're not alone."
The young frogs usually making their spring-time chirps might have been silenced by a passing Bigfoot, Hexum says.
As the sun sinks beyond the trees, they head back to camp to light a fire and apply more bug spray. On the way back Del Rio spots what looks like a footprint. He drops to one knee and pulls out a camcorder and a tape measure.
"It's Saturday, June 11th," he says into the camera. "I think we've got something here. This could be a right foot impression. We measured it at 13.5 inches long. About six inches wide. A possible midtarsal break."
Del Rio is highly prepared for a sighting. He had the camcorder and tape measure on his utility belt, along with the short tree knocking baseball bat and twin cans of pepper spray, in case a Bigfoot sighting turns violent. All the items are painted with green Bigfoot silhouettes. These things, he hopes will help him prove the existence of Bigfoot. He's wearing a T-shirt with the phrase "Squatch on!" printed on it.
But after a short investigation, he's not sure about the footprint.
"I'd call it an impression," he says. "I hesitate to call it a footprint."
Hexum doesn't carry a camera. He doesn't have pepper spray, or a custom shirt. All he has is camouflage shirt and a cigarette lighter to illuminate his old wrist watch at night. For Hexum, it's not about the proof.
"To me they're a mystery of the woods," he says. "I have nothing to prove to anybody."
It's dark by the time they reach the clearing so Del Rio sparks up a fire. They tell Bigfoot stories by its flickering light — like the time Del Rio believes he was chased by a mother sasquatch, 16 years ago. He ran for the car, and didn't get a good look.
Hexum tries a few wolf howls out into the dark woods, saying Sasquatch is known to hunt with wolf packs, and might respond to their calls. There's no response, and talk turns to the various other skills Bigfoot might possess — including skinning and wearing deer hides, and making a noise called "infrasound."
"It's a frequency that's below the human hearing range," Del Rio says. "It has effects on the body. It get's you scared, and clammy. It can make you feel like you're having a heart attack."
The cool air of night sends the mosquitoes back to their swamp, and the fire burns low.
Del Rio has to head home by midnight. He's an air conditioner installer in St. Paul, and has to work in the morning. His girlfriend calls his cell phone to remind him. Hexum has to work too. He's a welder in the mines.
The night winds down with little more than a possible foot impression, but no one is too concerned.
"It's not a wasted night," Hexum says. "It's like deer hunting. The whole day I'm thinking about this. Will we hear something? Will we hear something? It's the adventure, and the night's beautiful. Now if we could just get a really loud knock about 20 yards that way."