It began, as it so often does, with a glimpse. Something tall. Something hairy. Something that left footprints too big to be human.
This was what he called “a credible sighting.”
Two men, both biologists and both employees of the U.S. Forest Service, spotted an unidentified walking creature in a forest somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Last seen: lumbering between a pair of trees. Cue Byrne, who at the time was director of the Bigfoot Information Center and Exhibition in The Dalles, Ore.
When Byrne arrived, he noticed the trees stood close together — far too narrow a space for something with broad shoulders and big feet to make a clean egress. And there, between three and five feet off the ground, snagged in the bark, he spotted the tuft of hair and piece of skin he hoped would bring him one step closer to his idée fixe, the sasquatch itself, a towering hominid of North American lore.
Byrne bagged the sample and had it delivered to the FBI. In one letter to the bureau, he asked if an agent could “arrange for a comparative analysis of some hairs that we have here which we are unable to identify.” In another, he stressed the urgency of the inquiry: “Please understand that our research here is serious. That this is a serious question that needs answering.”
He never heard back. Until Wednesday, when the bureau released its four-decade-old Bigfoot files.
Byrne didn’t know it then, but the FBI took his request seriously. A man named Jay Cochran Jr., the assistant director of the FBI’s scientific and technical services division, agreed to test the hair and skin, granting Byrne’s request a special exception to department policy.
“Occasionally, on a case-by-case basis, in the interest of research and scientific inquiry, we make exceptions to this general policy,” Cochran wrote in a Dec. 15, 1976, letter that was addressed to Byrne, but apparently never reached him. “With this understanding, we will examine the hairs and tissue mentioned in your letter.”
Just a few months later, Cochran sent another letter. He had the results.
On Feb. 24, 1977, he wrote that the FBI had examined the sample “by transmitted and incident light microscopy,” which included “a study of morphological characteristics such as root structure, medullary structure and cuticle thickness in addition to scale casts.”
And, after all that: “It was concluded as a result of these examinations that the hairs are of deer family origin.” Deer family origin.
With those three words, delivered 40 years late, Cochran tied a few hopeful loose ends into a disheartening bow.
“We’re just finding this out,” Byrne, who is now 93 years old, said. “It’s disappointing.”
Born in Ireland, Byrne was weaned on stories of another legendary two-legged creature. At first, the yeti was but a bedtime fantasy, tales his father told him as he drifted off. But in the 1940s and ’50s, after a stint in the British Royal Air Force took him to India, he met other foreigners interested in real-life yeti expeditions. He wound up taking five trips to the Himalayas, casing the treacherous mountain terrain for a sign.
It was those excursions that connected him with Americans who were fascinated by rumors of mysterious and giant primate-like animals on their own continent.
“Quite honestly, I laughed,” Byrne said. He had never heard of Bigfoot. But he learned fast. “I got into it, and I’ve been into it ever since.”
That’s probably an understatement. In the Bigfoot research community, Byrne is a living legend, a pioneer of the field, what fellow travelers call one of the Four Horsemen of Sasquatchery. He has traveled the world, written books and led research projects devoted to finding out more about Bigfoot, the Anglicized term for sasquatch, a centuries-old indigenous legend.
He’s never seen it for himself, but he believes.
“I’ve interviewed too many down-to-earth, sane, sensible people,” he said. “Too many people for them to be making up stories. The description is always the same.”
Laura Krantz has heard these descriptions, too — reports of footprints and sightings — over the course of two years reporting Wild Thing, a podcast about Bigfoot. She set out to understand how one of her relatives, the renowned anthropologist Grover Krantz, had become obsessed by the search for sasquatch.
“I went into this expecting everyone to be crazy and a little like the tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory types,” Krantz said in an interview. “I ended up being quite a bit more sympathetic than I imagined.”
Most of the people she ran into had a conservation ethic, and they came by their Bigfoot fixation honestly, by having an encounter with nature they just couldn’t explain.
“They’re asking a question they’re curious about,” she said. “They had some sort of experience and they were trying to use science and logic to figure out what this thing was and, to me, that’s just being human.”
So it’s not that surprising that the FBI didn’t sneer at Byrne’s request and toss his letter into the trash, Krantz said.
“There very well may have been curiosity within the FBI,” she said. “There does not seem to be many people immune to the idea of Bigfoot.”
But there may have been a practical purpose behind the bureau’s agreeable reply. In the mid-1970s, an erroneous entry in an Army Corps of Engineers atlas sparked rumors that the FBI had previously analyzed “alleged sasquatch hair samples” and found that “no such hair exists on any human or presently-known animal for which such data are available.”
In his letters, Byrne asked the FBI to set the record straight. “Once and for all, inform us if the FBI has examined hair which might be that of a Bigfoot,” he wrote.
Cochran responded that, no, FBI records do not show evidence of any such examination. But Krantz said it’s possible the FBI had received so many questions about the Army Corps atlas entry that they acquiesced to Byrne’s request for testing to put an end to the theorizing.
But it didn’t stop Byrne — and even if he had received Cochran’s replies, he probably would not have been deterred. Even now, in his tenth decade, Byrne is still searching. He has a half-dozen motion-sensor cameras set up near his Oregon home and he checks them weekly, hoping for a sighting of his own.
So what if that was hair of a deer, he said, the real stuff is out there, somewhere.
“That’s kind of a dead end,” he said of his 1970s-era finding. “If the FBI says it’s deer hair, I guess that’s it. For now.”
At least until the next glimpse.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified The Dalles, Ore. as Dallas, Ore.