South of Port Kirwan, on Newfoundland’s Irish Shore, along the dirt road east of Renews, is the former lighthouse at Bear Cove Point. My friend Ray grew up here. His father ran the lighthouse, as did his grandfather a generation before. The coast is treacherous, but then so are the woods inland. There are rumours. When Ray and I hiked the cove twenty-five years ago, I heard things, but I kept it all to myself: that occasional moaning was probably just the wind. We met up with a cousin of Ray’s, driving the same road, a dog in the back seat, a rifle on the driver’s side. “When springtime comes to Renews,” the cousin told us, patting the gun, then the dog, “something’s got to die.”
Things live in the forest near Renews, possibly fairies, they say. The delighted tourists are told to carry bread in their pockets, to help negotiate in the event of capture. The locals roll their eyes but, at the same time, pay due regard to the mystery of the place. Another friend, a writer, says that he too has seen and heard strange things in the wilds of Newfoundland and Labrador. “It is the Woods,” he says, capital letter implied.
On all three coasts of Canada, and places in between, there are sites of mystery, where things live but are not seen, where things exist as rumour. This just adds to their power: the fairies of Newfoundland, the Manipogo of Lake Manitoba, the sasquatch of the West Coast. In Toronto, the only comparable myth is the 29 Dufferin bus, whispered about but never seen. Mostly, though, the tales of cryptids belong to the deep wilds and waters, and they are persistent.
Sasquatch has been a star since 1967, when the famous Patterson-Gimlin film purportedly captured what came to be known as Bigfoot, in Northern California. The creature looks at the camera. Is it real? Or a man in an ape suit? The grainy footage is a moving Rorschach test: the figure is what you want it to be. Scientists and pseudo-scientists have studied Patterson-Gimlin like Abraham Zapruder’s JFK film: they’ve measured the intermembral index to check proportions of the limbs, the colour of the soles of the feet, looking for clues. In any case, the fifty-nine-second clip launched an industry, with such B movies as The Capture of Bigfoot, Return to Boggy Creek, Sasquatch Mountain, and the John Lithgow comedy Harry and the Hendersons, later turned into a television series. Just last year, we saw The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot. There are spinoffs like Mel, the spokesquatch who hawked Kokanee beer in the 1980s (there’s even a statue of Mel, carrying a two-four, in Creston, British Columbia). It’s all funny because it might, if you let your guard down, all be true.
Of course, this is the sasquatch of Hollywood. In fact, the creature’s roots run deeper than Patterson-Gimlin. As John Zada writes in In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond, it is an ancient presence. John Burns, a writer for Maclean’s, coined the word “sasquatch” in 1929. Reporting on a creature terrorizing locals near Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia, he borrowed from the Coast Salish word Sasq’ets, meaning “wild man.” Burns claims to have met eyewitnesses. “He was in a rage,” one of them recalled. “I fled, but not before I felt his breath upon my cheek.”
Ninety years later, we’re still looking for eyewitnesses. Zada is a writer, photographer, and former foreign correspondent in the Middle East. With In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond, he is interested less in pop culture Bigfoot than in the deeper story of Sasq’ets, the science of cryptozoology, and his own encounters — with the mysteries of the West Coast and the Indigenous peoples who’ve always lived there. In fact, the latter journey is the real engine of the book: as a city kid, born in Toronto, exploring the ravines behind high-rises, Zada fairly willed himself to discover that which is wild, undocumented, and a path away from urban boredom. “As a child I had been obsessed by stories about Bigfoot,” he writes. “I mostly grew out of this obsession, but part of it remained with me . . .like an amnesiac’s memory returning.” Then, while hiking near Nelson, in 1998, he has an uncanny experience. Deep in the Woods again, he feels as if he’s being followed. He hears footsteps in the snow. The memory stays with him. Years later, on a magazine assignment, he travels to Bella Bella, on British Columbia’s central coast, for a story on adventure tourism. Soon enough, he hears the rumours.
On that unceded land of the Heiltsuk, Zada meets a local woman. She’s never seen the so-called sasquatch, but she’s seen the footprints (spoiler: the feet are big). She says that, while living on Hunter Island, she and her husband even heard one whistling. “If you want the truth,” she tells Zada, cutting through the nonsense, “just ask us.”
So begins a series of trips back and forth to the land now called the Great Bear Rainforest, chasing the whispers. Here and throughout, the strength of Zada’s story is the writer’s own humility. He is alert to the possibility (or likelihood) that as a Torontonian tramping through what most of us would call wild country — though it is, in fact, home to many people — he is capable of missing the point: that the search for the sasquatch is a settler’s fever dream. The local First Nations people, mostly helpful and hospitable, are at once amused by and fed up with the ongoing romanticization of their myths. He meets an elder who’s had enough of city-fed Bigfoot-mania and white strangers dropping in to stir up monster stories: “You have absolutely no idea. Zero clue,” she says. “Just because you have the best intentions, and you think you know what you’re doing, doesn’t mean you’re going about things in the right way.” Gaining trust, she tells him, takes time. “So, you’re here to find out about the Sasquatch?” another local asks. “I hope you’re not here to make fun of us.” Others wonder why it is that white writers are obsessed with movie monsters and have no time for what’s really happening on the West Coast: poverty, resource extraction, pollution. The attempt not to tell a story but to listen to one is the greater theme of the book.
The truth, in the end, remains deeply hidden. As always. What passes for truth is informed by biases. Zada’s childhood fascination with strange creatures, like my own, is a product of the 1970s. These were the days of Watergate. Even as kids, we learned that what passed as truth and authority was poisoned by greed, power hunger, and sheer institutional stupidity, and that it took digging and initiative and cooperation to reveal the real truth (the very idea that Woodward and Bernstein alone broke Watergate is another enduring myth).
That grainy Patterson-Gimlin footage became a symbol of the truth that “they” didn’t want us to know. Some of us grew out of our childhood obsessions, others found new conspiracies: deep state, UFOs, chemtrails, and black helicopters. Yet Bigfoot won’t go away. In November 2019, a hunter in northern Ontario captured audio of a strange howling that went viral on YouTube, with over 300,000 hits. Some even called it a new Patterson-Gimlin tape, another piece of the sasquatch puzzle. Or maybe it was just a wolf. Your interpretation is sui generis, and it depends on your taste for conspiracy, your own experience with the Woods, and, most importantly, your willingness to admit that there are some things you’re not meant to know.