It was a beautiful, calm evening in early summer 2001 when Doug Neasloss and four companions pulled their boat up to a sandy beach in Kitasu Bay, an ancient site where members of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation have been harvesting herring and halibut for thousands of years. The bay lay on the ocean side of Swindle Island, opposite Klemtu, a village on British Columbia’s pine-forested inside passage. They got a big driftwood bonfire going, a warm light against the blackness of the forest and sky, where the Milky Way glittered like a dusting of powdered sugar.
As they told stories and laughed around the fire, Neasloss noticed something—half of a face, partly hidden behind a large tree up the beach—illuminated by the flickering light. He stared at it, trying to understand what he was looking at. His younger brother stopped talking to him and followed Neasloss’s gaze. The others turned and looked too, toward the figure that now appeared to be crouching at the treeline, locking eyes with them. At that moment, the sasquatch stood up. “It was huge, at least 7 feet tall. The footprints were about 15 inches long,” Neasloss remembers. The creature slowly backed into the forest, out of the firelight, and disappeared.
Neasloss, who was Canada’s first licensed Indigenous bear guide and is now the Kitasoo/Xai’xais’s elected chief councilor and resource stewardship director, has had other encounters with sasquatches. The first one, though, stands out. “I’ve had humpback whales come right up under my kayak,” he tells Mental Floss. “But this was the scariest moment of my life.”
For more than half a century, Klemtu (population 350) has been known to outsiders as a reliable locale for seeing sasquatches. To the Kitasoo/Xai’xais, the hairy, human-like creatures have always been there, living in the dense forests and remote areas across the nation’s traditional territory. They’re a part of the community, and part of the stories the Kitasoo/Xai’xais elders tell to impart their traditions and history, to pass on knowledge to younger generations and to share with the larger community. Some stories are meant to teach lessons about respecting elders, ancestors, and the environment. But some recount actual events that have become ingrained in the culture over decades or centuries; most of the sasquatch encounters fall into that category. In Smalgyax, the Kitasoo language, the creatures are called puk'wis or ba'gwis—words that also describe their ape-like appearance. Elders warn against going to certain places called wilu’bu’kwis, “where there are sasquatches.” Many people know the stories, even if they don't talk about them much. "They were seen more often when people would travel and harvest food or material resources,” says Vernon Brown, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais resource stewardship manager in Klemtu.
Most Western scientists do not believe that sasquatches exist, in part because no bones, hair samples, or other conclusive biological evidence has been found. But Neasloss points out that bears are quite common, and despite his many years as a wilderness guide, he has never found a bear skeleton in the woods, either. All the evidence the Kitasoo/Xai’xais people need is in the stories; he no longer wastes time trying to prove sasquatches’ existence. "I know they're out there," he says.
“It’s a real living creature to a lot of the elders here,” Brown tells Mental Floss. “We’re an oral culture; people don't waste time creating false stories. People don’t have any reason to lie.”
Klemtu sits in the heart of British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, a 40,000-square-mile expanse of intact temperate woods, the largest left in the world. At the foot of the Coast Mountain range, ancient glaciers shredded the coastline into a jumble of rocky islands and peninsulas. Deep fjords harbor whales, Steller’s sea lions, and sea otters; bull kelp flows in the current and teems with marine life. Old-growth conifer forests, where the bare silver tips of red cedars poke up like giant toothpicks, are home to grizzly, black, and rare spirit bears. According to the Kitasoo/Xai'xais, when the Raven created the world, he made all of the black bears black. Then the Ice Age came. After the glaciers receded, the Raven decided to make one of every 10 black bears white to remind the people of the way things were in the past.
Vast sections of the Great Bear Rainforest are protected from exploitation thanks to a historic 2016 agreement between First Nations, whose traditional territories encompass the area, and British Columbia’s government. Indigenous communities continue to sustainably manage natural resources for "conservation; food, social, and ceremonial practices; and economic prosperity" as they have for millennia.
“We’re lucky to have all the clam beds left, we’re lucky to have Dungeness crab, and decent hunting,” Brown says. “I think part of the reason why sasquatches are so common here is because of the resources that are here. That’s probably the same reason that we’re here.”
Around Klemtu and in the Great Bear Rainforest, the hairy hominids have it all [PDF]: lush stands of cedar, fir, and spruce to hide in; caves for shelter; soft cedar bark for nests; pristine waters that nourish salmon and herring; and untrammeled sandy beaches flush with shellfish.
Around 1960, a journalist named John Willison Green arrived in Klemtu. He had come from Harrison Hot Springs, a small town east of Vancouver where, 40 years earlier, a local teacher had published one of the first recorded accounts of the “hairy men of British Columbia” and said the local Indigenous people called the creatures “sasquatch.” Green and fellow investigator Bob Titmus were in Klemtu to find those hairy men in the flesh.
For about a week, they stayed with Tommy Brown, then the head chief of the Kitasoo Nation. Green found that Indigenous people all along the coast were quite familiar with the sasquatch. “A few minutes of casual conversation was all it ever took to find someone with an ape story to tell,” Green wrote in his 1968 book, On the Track of the Sasquatch. But though they saw sets of large footprints and heard eyewitnesses’ stories, Green and Titmus never saw a wild man in Klemtu. “It is probably the best area in the world for a chance meeting with a sasquatch,” Green wrote, “but a hopeless place to try to track one.”
That hasn’t stopped folks from trying. Les Stroud, best known from his television series Survivorman, heard stories about a rash of sasquatch sightings in Klemtu just a few years ago. Residents had seen them prowling around some homes and heard one knocking on trees by the river. After Vernon Brown and Doug Neasloss shared the community’s oral histories, Stroud filmed an episode of Survivorman at Klemtu Lake and Kitasu Hill, both reliable sites for encounters.
“In the area, it’s not just a couple of eyewitness references," Stroud tells Mental Floss. "It’s pretty much the entire village—and it's taken in stride by everyone, as well as being tied to their ancient history.”
Vernon Brown, Tommy Brown’s grandson, was Canada’s second licensed Indigenous bear guide, after Neasloss. They co-founded the tourism outfit that grew into the Spirit Bear Lodge, now an award-winning destination for wildlife viewing and cultural experiences. As part of those duties and his responsibilities as the nation's resource stewardship manager, Brown started digging into Kitasoo/Xai’xais cultural history and noticed how often sasquatch lore turned up in the community’s stories.
The “typical” encounters in the stories, he says, involve tall, hairy creatures with black fingernails and dark eyes that walk on two feet. People often see them standing still on beaches or peeking out from the treeline. “In our database, you can hear some of the elders doing their best to describe what they’re looking at,” Brown says. One man called it puk’wis. “He said it means—you can hear him thinking about it, in English—‘it means ‘ape,’ like an ‘ape-man.’ Down south I think they call it ‘sasquatch.’”
The Kitasoo/Xai’xais's encounters with them emphasize respect. Bad luck comes to anyone who shoots or harms a sasquatch, and the various places elders call “where there are sasquatches” are off-limits. “They say ‘no, don’t go over there, because that belongs to the ba’gwis,’” Brown says.
Even if people don’t see them, they know sasquatches are around by certain signs. One is the sound of tree knocks, when sasquatches want to protect their territory. They’ll also throw rocks as a warning when people are too close to their favorite clam and cockle beds. Another clue is their repulsive smell. “I’ve smelled bears, and they stink,” Brown says. But around sasquatches, “I’ve smelled something, horrible, pungent. It’ll stop you in your tracks, and then all of the sudden”—he snaps his fingers—“it’s just gone.”
Sasquatches also scream in terrifying, high-pitched tones. Neasloss remembers going on a clam-harvesting trip with a group of other young people and a highly respected and knowledgeable elder. The low tide, the best time to gather clams, occurred in the middle of the night, so the elder pulled his boat up on the sand and the people fanned out across the beach. As they filled their buckets, those on the edge of the group heard a piercing scream in the distance—then another. But the elder, who was rather hard of hearing, seemed unfazed. Everyone in the community looked to him for guidance; when he seemed unconcerned, there was nothing to worry about. They kept gathering clams.
But the screams grew louder, and eventually the entire group was huddled around the boat. The elder asked why they weren’t harvesting, and they told him about the shrieking. “I don’t hear anything,” he said. But then one wail, very close, punctured the stillness.
Neasloss recalls, “He picked up a 5-pound lead cannonball [the boat’s anchor] and starting banging it on the side of the punt, to scare it off." When he and the others saw their leader lose his cool, they immediately jumped in the boat and sped away.
Despite the fright they can cause, ba’gwis appear curious and shy. Brown mentions a man and two of his friends who went hunting for mountain goats in the mid-1990s, in an area laced with massive fjords about two hours by boat north of Klemtu. This location, with its sheer rock faces and sparse trees, was known as a good spot to find the animals. While his two friends stayed in the boat, the man killed four goats—enough to feed his family for a while. He piled the animals on a narrow beach and then packed his gear into his boat for the trip home. He turned around to retrieve the goats, but stopped dead in his tracks. Standing next to the animals was a child sasquatch, umajay in the Kitasoo language, just staring at the hunter with its black eyes.
“He jumped back in his boat really quick, and he said that whatever it was didn’t run off. This thing was just looking, not running, just motionless. You could see it blinking every now and then,” Brown says. “It scared the s*** out of him.”
Quickly, the hunter backed his boat off the sand. He and the two stunned passengers turned their gaze back to the beach, and the umajay was gone. The man left all of his goats—after spending money and time to hunt them—on the beach where they lay. The man later told Brown that “he’s never gone back since.”
This story was made possible in part by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.