Ranger Pat Higgins has never seen the beast, mind you, but if you want his honest opinion, there is a creature 7 1/2-feet tall, hairy as a shag rug and smelling like a sewer that comes out of Dismal Swamp periodically to stomp through his park at night.

Skunkfoot, Higgins calls it.

"There is something out there we can't explain," says Higgins, who has combined a half-dozen sketchy reports with one eyewitness account to come up with a profile of his hirsute visitor. "Personally, I think it's a vegetarian."

The reported sighting of the creature this week in Northwest River Park, which adds Virginia to a list of a dozen states where Bigfoot encounters have been claimed, has provoked a rash of jokes, a heavy dose of skepticism and a small shiver of fear in the Tidewater towns of southeast Virginia.

"We get two kinds of calls," said Lorene Day, one of four rangers assigned to the 760-acre park. "We get thrill seekers as well as the ones who say can we still bring the Boy Scouts there to camp."

The sighting was reported by Sherry Davis, a Chesapeake housewife and avid camper. She told rangers that one recent morning at 2 a.m. she was awakened at her campsite by a crashing noise and a sharp, acrid smell. When she turned on her car headlights, she spotlighted the beast for a full 15 seconds before it disappeared into thick woods.

"The smell . . . is the worst thing about it," Davis told the Chesapeake Post, a small weekly newspaper that broke the story this week with the kind of front page play usually reserved for county board scandals.

The story was given credence by Higgins, who was careful to say he could not and would not confirm the beast's existence, but then speculated that Skunkfoot was probably a male and possibly lonely.

"There's been a lot of kidding," says higgins, 52, a transplanted New Englander who has been a park ranger for the last 30 years. "Most of the other rangers take this with a grain of salt. They say the next thing you're going to report is a UFO." Here Higgins pauses to brush a strand of white hair from his sky-blue eyes before confessing: "I haven't had a drop of liquor in 20 years."

Higgins says his superiors in the Chesapeake parks and recreation department have not been overwhelmingly enthusiastic over his role as Bigfoot champion. Publicizing the presence of a foul-smelling beast in one's campground, he concedes, is a bit like the mayor of a seaside town bragging about the wondrous sharks in his beach water.

"Nobody has told me to shut up yet," says Higgins, whose natural curiosity has overcome his official reserve.

The Chesapeake Chamber of Commerce has not yet decided how Bigfoot might affect tourism. "We haven't really taken a position on Bigfoots," says Belton E. Jennings, executive vice president of the chamber. "We just have not done an economic impact study on it yet."

At least one local merchant is offering three bananas to the beast. Elton Ward, owner of a fruit and vegetable market near the park, first tells visitors he suspects the creature may in fact be one of his daughter's current suitors. Upon reflection, Ward decides that the beast was responsible for damage done to a half-acre of his sweet corn and not raccoons as he had earlier suspected.

"I'm thinking seriously of filing for Bigfoot insurance," says Ward.

The Chesapeake Post is organizing an expedition next week of rangers, reporters and local anthropologists to capture Bigfoot on film. Ward, for one, hopes they are successful.

"We need a Bigfoot around here to attract more visitors," deadpans Ward. "Heck, everywhere needs a Bigfoot."