Big Foot, Bigger Hoax

Daniel Loxton
PUBDATE: 20030515

Hollywood's amiable version of Bigfoot from the film Harry and the Hendersons

AFTER A FEW QUIET YEARS, 2003 APPEARS TO BE the year of the Return of Bigfoot—or, the Death of Bigfoot, depending on who is doing the talking. Our old friend Sasquatch, the toast of Hollywood in the heady days of Harry and the Hendersons, seemed almost to have retired early in the 1990s; however, like his Harry costar John Lithgow (who was funny long before Third Rock), Bigfoot is getting another turn in the spotlight.

Admittedly, things were grim there for a while. In ’97, old fans of the mystery were saddened to watch René Dahinden, once the biggest name in Bigfoot research, shilling for Kokanee Beer on TV. A few years before, he too was a kind of star—a major Harry and the Hendersons character was based on Dahinden—so it wasn’t much fun to hear him ask the audience, “Do you think I’m crazy or something?” while he failed to catch even a beer mascot Sasquatch.

Rene Dahinden in his heyday

From the beginning of the Bigfoot hunt in the 1950s, it was René Dahinden’s thickly accented voice that rang out the loudest: irascible, hot tempered, and brutally forthright, he was the foremost spokesman for a search that consumed decades. His death in 2001, empty handed, bitter, and broke after almost 50 years on the hunt, was a poignant reminder of the human costs of mysteries of this kind. René never saw a Sasquatch, but he spent a lifetime out in the bush, looking.

Now another, more recent death in the Bigfoot family has returned the shaggy giant to front-page news: on Nov. 26, 2002, the passing of Ray Wallace was mourned by his family near Seattle, Washington. With his death, his relatives announced that they are free to reveal his greatest secret: Ray, a successful construction contractor, friend to children, and yarn-spinner cut from the old cloth, may well have been the first man ever to strap on the Big Feet.

Rene Dahinden near the end of his life

Ray’s son Michael put it this way in an interview for The Seattle Times: “Ray L. Wallace was Bigfoot. The reality is, Bigfoot just died.” Not surprisingly, this claim caught fire as it went out over the AP wire: in the days following Ray’s death it made headlines nationwide; was mentioned in The New York Times; and was even the subject of a joke by Jay Leno.

According to his family, Ray Wallace, stomping around on carved wooden feet in 1958, personally produced the 16-inch footprints that led to the invention and celebrity of Bigfoot. If so, it would mean that the entire Bigfoot quest was founded on a gag.

Although there were numerous legendary wildmen and monsters in the tales of Native Americans (“Sasquatch” was one such), and though other strange creatures were later reported by Europeans, 1958 was the first year on record that Bigfoot left its distinctive tracks on American soil—starting at a Wallace Construction worksite in Humbolt County, CA. Following in the big footsteps of the Himalayan Yeti (who was, at the time, garnering massive international publicity), Bigfoot hit the American scene with considerable fanfare. These first enormous, humanlike tracks, weaving around bulldozers, led quickly to the coining of the word “Bigfoot” in national headlines, and initiated a cryptozoological quest that continues to this day—Dahinden’s quest.

Wallaces Family produced the original strap-on feet for the press
Prankster Ray Wallace

Was it a hoax? Was Wallace the hoaxer? Certainly, it is true that Wallace was a lifelong gag-puller who specialized in Bigfoot tales, footprints, and photos, but the claim that he created this particular set of footprints has generated a firestorm of controversy within the cryptozoological world. Since the Wallace family’s story poses a major challenge to the credibility of serious Sasquatch research (partly just by publicizing the widely known but little discussed fact that the seminal case occurred on a worksite managed by a career Bigfoot hoaxer), monster buffs have quickly circled the wagons. Despite the headlines, they say, the real hoax is the yarn the Wallace family is perpetrating about Ray’s alleged prank. Though one last whopper might be a somehow fitting tribute to a man who claimed to have “seen Bigfoot several hundred times,” readers may be forgiven if they find this counterclaim far fetched.

Several lines of argument are being advanced against the idea that Ray Wallace created the early tracks. Many cryptozoologists point out that Ray was, by the end of his life, well known within the Bigfoot world as a hoaxer, and that his gags were too juvenile or poorly crafted to be as convincing to researchers as the Humbolt tracks were. Leaving aside the fact that some of Ray’s other tricks were really pretty good, this argument is a non sequitur; just because he was sometimes caught does not mean he never got away with anything. Other researchers, with some exasperation, point to the mountains of cases from across the continent that have accumulated over the last half-century, and reasonably insist that Ray Wallace can’t have faked them all. This, of course, is true, but the issue right now is simply whether he created the first case or two in the pile—showing other hoaxers how much fun you could have with such a simple trick.

A still from the famed Patterson Bigfoot film

For skeptics, this is all slippery material—after all, hoaxes cut both ways, and the Wallace family’s story is deliciously appealing. Though the trail is five decades old, we’ll just have to see where the evidence leads.

In the meantime, while the Wallace family mourns the death of a lovable prankster, reports of Bigfoot’s demise have been greatly exaggerated; indeed, Bigfoot is bigger now than he’s been in years, precisely because of those reports. It’s likely that nothing will ever really kill Bigfoot, and all the less so now––2002 was a big year for sightings of our old friend (making the national press in Canada), and it’s a very safe bet that 2003 will be bigger. By all accounts, Ray Wallace was a likable guy, and it’s hard not to grin when reading his tall tales:

"Big Foot used to be very tame, as I have seen him almost every morning on the way to work… I would sit in my pickup and toss apples out of the window to him. He never did catch an apple but he sure tried."

Truth be told, though, he caused all kinds of trouble for skeptics and cryptozoologists alike, and the publicity created in the wake of the old scoundrel’s passing may well lead a new generation of René Dahindens way, way down the primrose path. All the same, Bigfoot is making a comeback…and, with some guilty pleasure, many skeptical Sasquatch fans will secretly love seeing the Big Guy back on top.


Regular Skeptic contributor Daniel Loxton has been a part-time illustrator and professional shepherd for nine years. In this later position he learned that one may often move large numbers of flocking mammals from harms way by persuading just a few to behave rationally. He sees this as reason for some optimism.