Inside the world's premier Sasquatch calling contest (yes, that's a thing)

Sherry Peters for ESPN

BRIAN GOSSELIN STILL holds his cigarette like a cop, with four fingers on top. And so, at dusk, after stepping out of his creaky, old, green pickup truck and striding across Abair Road, the gray-haired, leathery ex-police officer pauses at the tree line to calm himself with one more Fortuna Blue. This road is infamous in these parts, and you can see that his hands are trembling ever so slightly. "This place still gives me the heebie-jeebies," he grumbles while reluctantly pushing his way through the branches.

As the main judge in the third annual Sasquatch Calling Festival in Whitehall, New York, Gosselin is here on the eve of the event, wandering through a rolling, grassy knoll just outside of town to recreate the origin story behind the festival and Whitehall's growing niche as the Big Foot capital of the East Coast. For Gosselin, 66, and all the other Big Foot linguistic buffs who make the pilgrimage to Whitehall for the calling contest each summer, it all begins with the eerie soundtrack from the evening of Aug. 25, 1976.

There had been multiple reports from other police officers of strange sightings and what cryptozoologists refer to as "vocalizations" in this area long before Gosselin arrived. For centuries, local folklore had claimed that this region, between the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain, was some kind of paranormal portal or interdimensional migratory route for Sasquatch. So when Gosselin climbed out of his '71 Monte Carlo that night, the noise level sent a chill down his spine. There wasn't any. The usual country cacophony of crickets, birds and bullfrogs had all been scared still.

"Dead silence," Gosselin says.

A second later, the eerie calm was broken by the distinct sound of snapping cattails, as if someone -- or something -- was charging at him through the brush.

Gosselin swung his police spotlight into the darkness.

Frozen in the beam of light, less than 30 feet away, the beast appeared to be almost 8 feet tall, with long, hairy limbs like an orangutan, black lips, a muscular buttocks (something Gosselin feels compelled to mention several times) and glowing, electromagnetic red eyes the size of mayonnaise jar covers.

"Something that does not exist in the world is standing right there in front of me," Gosselin says. "It's etched into my mind forever, that feeling, like a hive of honey bees dumped into your brain. I thought I was going to spontaneously combust."

Big Foot wasn't in the mood to socialize. Spooked by the spotlight, he locked mayo-jar eyes with Gosselin and released a deep, 20-second, Godzilla-like roar of such thunderous power and intensity that Gosselin swears he could feel the volume in his chest and the hot air on his cheeks like "someone blowing a tuba in your face."

A folktale -- and a contest -- had been born.

A gobsmacked Gosselin slumped against his cruiser and watched as Big Foot turned and leapt back into the forest using 7-foot strides to cross the 1,500-foot field in a matter of seconds. Before disappearing, the creature let out three more of what Gosselin describes as impossibly long, guttural, humongous bellows. "I was overcome with emotion, experiencing every human emotion you can think of -- and all at once. Even death was on my mind," he says, chain-smoking his way back to his truck. "At first, you know what it's not, but you sure as hell don't know what it is. But trust me, if you heard it, you would definitely know you were hearing a Sasquatch."

The growing chorus of believers gathering back in Whitehall for tomorrow's Sasquatch Calling Festival is counting on it.

IF BIG FOOT REALLY did migrate to Whitehall and chose to settle down here, his genus classification would have to include an excellent sense of real estate. Set in a picturesque valley south of Lake Champlain near Vermont's western border, Whitehall was founded in the mid-1700s by British Army captain Philip Skene, whose ornate, Scooby-Doo-villain-style mansion still overlooks the town from high on the riverbank. Because of its early history of shipbuilding and munitions, Whitehall is the self-proclaimed birthplace of the U.S. Navy, a dubious honor shared by at least four other East Coast towns.

Whitehall's other claim to fame dates back further, originating with the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who, in his logs from 1604, noted tales from the native Iroquois about a giant, hairy man-beast they called the Gougou that roamed the woods and might have, from time to time, dined on human flesh. (Gosselin's sense, for the record, was that the creature he saw was benevolent and not the least bit hungry. "That's probably why I didn't shoot it," he says.) "Big Foot is part of our culture, tradition and heritage in this area," says Whitehall's top Big Foot authority, Paul Bartholomew, whose handmade business cards describe him as an "Investigative researcher of unexplained phenomena, aerial anomalies, cryptozoology, parapsychology, ghosts and hauntings."

While showing off his collection of Big Foot castings, Bartholomew explains that starting in the late 1970s, Gosselin's encounter was part of dozens of documented sightings in the area. Many of them were by law enforcement, including yet another incident near Abair Road in which shots were fired. (Gosselin says he filled out an official police report but claims the log books have since gone missing.) In early 1982, while on patrol just before dawn near the base of Lake Champlain, two Whitehall officers watched a tall, hairy beast bound up a steep embankment in a matter of seconds. Although they did not converse with the creature, officer Danny Gordon would later take -- and pass -- a lie-detector test about the sighting. His encounter was one of the many incidents that were logged, investigated and authenticated by Warren Cook, an anthropologist at nearby Castleton College.

While the missing police log books stoked the conspiracy theorists, it was Cook's academic credentials that lent an air of credibility to the Whitehall folklore. When added to Champlain's historic record, the preponderance of sightings by law enforcement and an abundance of media coverage -- newspaper stories, books, TV shows and the Outdoor Life Network documentary "The Creature of Whitehall" -- a perfect storm of modern myth-making formed in Whitehall, bringing the legend of Big Foot roaring back to life just 200 miles from Manhattan.

When you go hunting for Big Foot in Whitehall, though, you end up discovering far more about human nature than you do about the creature. At times, the phenomena here feel like an emotional pyramid scheme, with the way each new sighting validates all of the past encounters while bonding the townsfolk together and giving them something to talk, gossip and complain about, like the weather. There's also a fascinating class element running just under the surface of this local legend. Gosselin's sighting, in fact, helped authenticate what his father, who was also a cop, claims to have seen the night before his encounter. During his retelling, Gosselin mentions several times that, because he came from a poor family, he was terrified that people would make fun of him and his dad or, worse, question their sanity. In the next breath, though, he roars with laughter while accusing all the jumpy yuppies who moved here post-911 of thinking "every bump in the night is a Big Foot."

Nowadays, though, everyone in town seems to have their own Sasquatch story. The manager at the golf course has a buddy who saw him on the first tee, albeit after enjoying several of the local cream ales. A lady walking her Shih Tzus by the river in town says she has baby Big Foot tracks in her yard. A waitress downtown whispers that they gather to eat apples at an orchard near the lake. As a result, the Big Foot believers here are inoculated from skeptics because, in Whitehall, the weirdos are the ones who haven't bumped into Sasquatch on the way to the grocery. "In my book," Gosselin says, "they're the crazy ones."

When Cook died in 1989, he willed his research materials to Bartholomew, who made national headlines in 2005 when he successfully lobbied to turn Whitehall into a protective habitat for Sasquatch. More importantly, Bartholomew came up with an even smarter plan to keep the legend itself alive. With the advancement of DNA testing, motion-activated trail cameras and drones, just when it seemed like technology and science were poised to debunk Big Foot once and for all, Bartholomew and his cryptozoologist crew did an end-around on the doubters by adding a dash of the paranormal to the folklore. It's genius. It really is. And it speaks to the deep need we have, and the mental somersaults we will perform, to preserve the things we believe in, no matter what they are. Turns out, Bartholomew & Co. argue, Big Foot might be extraterrestrial. Or, at the very least, he's interdimensional. So now, the reason no physical evidence or video proof has ever been (or ever will be) discovered is simple: The big guy is just not of this world.

Just to be safe, though, Whitehall recently declared Big Foot its official animal. Other towns in the area have apple picking, fall foliage, antiquing or outdoor sports as their economic draws. Whitehall's business is Big Foot. And business is pretty darn good. In addition to a Sasquatch Saloon, a Sasquatch golf course and a Sasquatch Half Marathon, there are at least four Big Foot statues in town, including one outside the liquor store. The sculpture on Route 4, the one that makes him look like The Dude from "The Big Lebowski," was erected by Paul Thompson, a toothbrush inventor, a professional clarinetist and a stone works proprietor who plans to open a Big Foot Museum right next to the H&R Block office. "He's been spotted so many times over the years that he's become a real friend to the town," Thompson says. "In the evenings, sometimes you can hear people practicing their Big Foot calls."

Three years ago, inspired by Gosselin's now famous verbal encounter, the town finally added its own niche -- vocalization -- to the Big Foot phenomena with the Sasquatch Calling Contest. The festival's brainchild and director, Dave Molenaar, 66, is straight out of Tim Burton casting. Lovely, eccentric and painfully shy, Molenaar is a former newspaper reporter, part-time fundamentalist minister and full-time caretaker of an elderly pet opossum named Princess Penelope, who has fallen gravely ill in the days leading up to the festival.

It was Molenaar's idea, by the way, to conduct the calling contest at the end of the festival, closer to dusk. "Sounds carry as it gets closer to nighttime, and you do wonder if they don't hear the sounds and wonder 'What the heck's going on down in Whitehall?'" Bartholomew says while wrapping his plaster foot moldings in hand-stitched quilts for safekeeping. "It would be interesting to see if one would be lured in. Of course, in the horror movies when the creature comes to the festival, it usually kills everybody."

After a much-too-long pause, he finally adds, "Let's hope that doesn't happen."

THE FIRST SASQUATCH ENTHUSIAST to arrive at the festival is sporting a large, gray T-shirt emblazoned with the message: "Big Foot doesn't believe in you, either." For the big event, Whitehall's quaint, riverfront town green has been decorated with not one but two Big Foot sculptures. There's also a bouncy house and face-painting booth for kids, local yams and fried dough for sale, a band in the amphitheater with a pink-haired lead singer crooning Neil Diamond tunes and a member of the local chamber of commerce dressed up as Big Foot dancing nearby.

Love the costume, someone says.

"What costume?" the creature replies.

Between the green and the stone-and-grass waterfront amphitheater, where the calling contest will be held in a few hours, the lobby of the town's boathouse has been converted into an auditorium and movie screening room currently showing, of course, "Harry and the Hendersons." Afterward, Bartholomew will give a lecture on "Big Foot encounters in New York and New England" in front of a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100. Continuing to push his interdimensional theories on Big Foot, Bartholomew opens by asking his audience, "How many people are aware of the Pascagoula Close Encounter?" To an interloper, it might sound like the name of a proctology procedure, but nearly everyone in the audience shoots their hands in the air. (It's a much-debated 1973 alien abduction in Mississippi, for the record.)

Outside, where the river banks are awash in brilliant fall colors and every so often an Amish horse-drawn buggy clops by, dozens of merchandise booths frame the green. For a creature with such a low profile, Sasquatch sure has his merch game on point. He's on golf balls, golf polos, book covers, bumper stickers, mouse pads, posters, paintings, shot glasses, coffee mugs, drink coasters and lawn ornaments they're calling Big Foot Poop. The big guy is also on T-shirts in every imaginable pose: dabbing, walking a poodle, wielding a lightsaber, asking "WWSD: What Would Sasquatch Do?" and warning "Sasquatch Breeding Area -- NO EYE CONTACT."

Later in the day, less than an hour before the calling contest is set to begin, word comes that Molenaar has gone home to be with Penelope, who has entered opossum hospice. Gosselin, former mayor Ken Bartholomew and fellow Sasquatch detective Steve Kulls step up and agree to fill in for Molenaar. The task is not overly complicated: Line the contestants up, assign them numbers, have them bellow into the mic, record their scores, declare a winner, and hand out the cash prizes. In the youth competition, everyone's early favorite, the pudgy, practically square, red-headed kid chugging Mountain Dew, ends up crippled by a glucose deficit and a wicked case of stage fright and is eliminated in the first round. Instead, Julia, who leaves food out for Big Foot on camping trips to Great Sacandaga Lake, steps to the microphone and roars her way to second place. A 10-year-old child actor from Amsterdam, New York, draws on her stage skills and preternatural lung capacity to capture the top prize: 50 bucks.

Emboldened by the kids, the line for the adult competition grows to more than 20 contestants and winds all the way up the steps to the top of the amphitheater. The next 45 minutes are a nonstop, ear-drum-shredding mixtape of Megadeath, Mariah Carey, cop car sirens, cats in blenders, assorted growls and groans, and a bearded guy wearing a GoPro who tries to lure the beast out of the Whitehall woods by tapping two sticks together, hoping, apparently, that Big Foot will not be able to resist a combination of interpretive dance and Jethro Tull.

"Sweetjesuschrist," a wincing Gosselin mutters backstage.

In the end, only four contestants manage to separate themselves from the pack after round one. It starts with a guy from Yonkers, New York, sporting wild, Kramer-like hair and gray sweatpants, who joined the competition because he "saw a sign for fried dough, and they told me to line up if I wanted to make noises." His unique Big Foot scream sounds a bit like Scooby-Doo on Quaaludes. There's also a guy in flannel who says he drove 650 miles from Detroit to compete. He set the bar early with a throaty, Bon Scott-inspired verbal Molotov cocktail. "I hope he heard me," he says afterward in an earnest whisper.

Flannel guy is followed by Fred, a finalist from down the road in Delmar, New York. Fred's initial thought on stage was to make a cellphone "call" to Sasquatch. Worried that his ironic twist might insult the traditionalists in town, he went with his second option, a bear growl. "I think he heard me ... in here," Fred says, pointing to his heart without the slightest trace of sarcasm. "I think he can sense the spiritual power of everybody believing in him." Fred then begins speaking directly to Big Foot with the kind of disarming sincerity that is common among Whitehall's Big Foot believers. "Come out of hiding," he pleads. "It's time, time for us to know what's really going on. Whitehall would be absolutely perfect for him. He'd have a crowd of people who would embrace him and love him and cheer his presence. This is the perfect crowd for Big Foot to come out to."

After a second round of shout-offs, flannel guy is awarded third place, and Fred, the big sweetheart, is declared the runner-up. But, really, the contest is over the moment defending champ Lisa Loeber stomps to the mic. The platinum-blonde biker from Hampton, New York, rocking black boots and a highly offensive T-shirt that she somehow manages to make work, lets loose with a gravelly but piercing operatic wail. Her call sends flocks of birds flapping out of trees halfway across the valley and has Gosselin nervously padding around his pockets for a smoke. His body language when Loeber leaves the stage is like someone once abducted and probed by aliens getting jumpy around an airport. "I was shocked, blown away," he admits. "She came as close as I've ever heard to what I heard that night. If she could have went down three or four more octaves, it would have been perfect all the way around."

Right on cue, after all the local chatter about the paranormal connection to Big Foot, just after Loeber finishes summoning Sasquatch, there's a crackle of static energy in the air, and about 200 yards up the river, across from the Sasquatch Saloon, a barge mysteriously veers off course and strikes the Saunders Street Bridge, filling the air with the sound of screeching metal.

As emergency boats skim past the amphitheater, an unfazed Loeber fans herself with her cash winnings before announcing, to no one in particular, that the two-time Sasquatch hollering champ is about to make the biggest and most important call of the day.

Last call.